Hillary Rodham Clinton, distancing herself from a politically controversial action by her husband, said yesterday that she opposes the release from prison or other forms of clemency for 16 members of a Puerto Rican terrorist group that was involved in more than 100 bombings in this country at least 15 years ago.
When President Clinton announced a clemency offer on Aug. 11, it had strong support from human rights leaders and was widely seen as boosting Hillary Clinton's standing among New York's Hispanic voters in her expected campaign for the Senate next year. But a backlash quickly developed against the offer from senior law enforcement officials and leading New York politicians.
In a statement yesterday explaining her position, Hillary Clinton said the prisoners had not renounced further acts of violence, a key condition of the president's offer. "It's been three weeks and their silence speaks volumes," she said.
The back-and-forth underscored the complex -- and deepening -- interconnection between the presidency and Hillary Clinton's unfolding Senate campaign.
One well-placed Democratic observer suggested that as Hillary Clinton's campaign gears up, many of the president's actions are likely to be interpreted through the prism of the Senate race, even when the White House is acting for other reasons.
At the same time, the issue of clemency for the Puerto Rican terrorists may have served as an early warning of the potential perils of using presidential authority to advance Hillary Clinton's political fortunes.
Yesterday, she stressed that she had "no involvement in or prior knowledge of the decision, as is entirely appropriate."
The White House has denied that the decision to offer clemency to the 16 Puerto Ricans was based on calculations about the benefits to Hillary Clinton. Human rights leaders, such as former President Jimmy Carter and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, along with U.S. Hispanic leaders, strongly urged the release of the prisoners, all of whom have been incarcerated for 14 years or longer. Clinton offered to release 11 members of FALN, reduce the amount of time three others must serve and eliminate fines against two others, one of whom already is out of prison.
The backlash against the offer is reported to have caught the White House by surprise and forced a reassessment.
On Friday, White House lawyers advised attorneys for the prisoners that if they did not respond in writing to the president's offer by 5 p.m. next Friday, "we would consider that a rejection of the offer and they would continue serving their sentences," White House spokesman Jim Kennedy said yesterday.
"We have always believed that renunciation of violence was a critical condition of this clemency offer," he said. Kennedy said that Hillary Clinton was not informed about the letter.
Yesterday morning, according to Hillary Clinton's spokesman, she informed the president that she had decided to issue a statement calling for the withdrawal of the offer.
It was unclear yesterday what the impact would be in New York's large Hispanic and Puerto Rican communities. Hispanic leaders in Congress could not be reached for comment.
New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Hillary Clinton's likely Republican opponent in next year's race for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has called the president's clemency offer "a mistake," and there has also been opposition from high-ranking congressional Republicans. A Giuliani spokesman said yesterday the mayor would have no comment on Hillary Clinton's statement.
Moynihan himself, the state's senior Democrat, has also indicated that he opposes the offer, which received massive news coverage across the state. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), has reserved judgment pending further study of an internal Justice Department report laying out the options on the matter for the president.
"Mrs. Clinton is a person in her own right and I assume after reviewing material she made a decision," said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.). Lowey said she was still gathering information on which to form her own opinion.
In reaching its recommendations for President Clinton, the White House counsel's office noted that most of the prisoners have already served at least 19 years, and one has served nearly 25 years. The bombings, by the pro-independence Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN by its Spanish initials, took place between 1974 and 1983. They killed at least six persons and injured scores more. But none of those whose sentences the president proposes to commute were directly involved in the deaths and injuries, officials said.
On Friday, attorneys for 15 of the jailed Puerto Rican nationalists said the clemency offer is unfair because it would impose too many restrictions on the FALN members once they are freed from prison. "It's conditioned upon them complying with terms that would limit their ability to integrate themselves into the political process to shape the future of their country, because it restricts their travel and association," one of the attorneys, Jan Susler, told the Associated Press Television News (APTN).
Susler and lawyer Michael Deutsch said the FALN members all have renounced violence -- a condition of the clemency offer -- but had problems with other parts of the deal.
Deutsch said Friday that if FALN members accepted the offer they would be barred from participating in political movements advocating independence for Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States. Their travel also would be severely restricted, he said.
Carter previously pardoned several Puerto Rican nationalists who were convicted of storming the U.S. House of Representatives in 1954 and wounding five members.
Several observers said yesterday that the attention given to Hillary Clinton's statement yesterday is part of her transition from supportive first lady to candidate in her own right. As the months pass, some suggested, it will be commonplace for her to be taking stands that are at odds from those of the president -- such as her demands for increased Medicare funding of New York's teaching hospitals.
But at this point, the sources suggested, the transition is still awkward for both the White House and the first lady.