President Clinton, facing mounting criticism for granting clemency to members of a Puerto Rican terrorist group, yesterday gave his fullest explanation yet for the decision, saying he was swayed by his lawyer's recommendation, the lengthy sentences already served by the members, and the lobbying of former president Jimmy Carter, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others.
Clinton told reporters at the White House that he did not discuss the clemency offer with his wife, whose Senate aspirations in New York helped stir the issue into a serious controversy. Hillary Rodham Clinton said Saturday the offer should be withdrawn because the Puerto Ricans had not renounced violence. Republicans had accused Clinton of offering clemency in hopes of boosting the first lady's popularity among New York's Puerto Rican voters.
"She didn't know anything about it until -- as far as I know -- until someone from her office called and asked her for a comment, because I did not discuss it with her," said Clinton. "I haven't discussed other clemency issues with her and I didn't think I should discuss this one. So it was up to her, and entirely appropriate for her to say whatever she wanted to about it."
The clemency offer, made Aug. 11, has mushroomed into a roiling debate, especially in New York. It is extremely unusual for the president to agree to a clemency request -- during his tenure Clinton has granted only three of 3,000 requests. Though Hispanic groups and human rights activists said the 16 Puerto Rican nationalists had been punished enough, several administration law enforcement agencies opposed clemency, saying it would undermine the nation's campaign against terrorism worldwide.
Yesterday, the House voted 311 to 41 for a resolution criticizing the clemency offer, with 93 Democrats opposing the president. The Senate will vote on a similar resolution Monday. A draft text condemns Clinton for a "deplorable concession to terrorists" that has "undermined national security."
"There is a feeling of outrage in this country against this action," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
Clinton portrayed the decision as routine, saying politics played "absolutely" no role in it. He said it began with a detailed memo making a case for clemency from Charles F.C. Ruff, then the White House counsel. "I didn't know it was coming," Clinton said. "It came with all the other papers I get every day and every week, and I dealt with it the way I deal with everything."
The 16 Puerto Ricans in question were members of the nationalist group known by its Spanish initials, FALN. The 16 were not directly linked to violent acts, but the FALN was responsible for bombings in the 1970s and 1980s that killed six people and injured many others.
On Tuesday, 12 of the 16 accepted the president's clemency offer, which requires them to renounce violence. Eleven are to be freed in the next few days after serving 16 to 19 years in prison.
After yesterday's House vote, Clinton recounted the process for reporters. "I was requested by hundreds of people, including President Carter, Bishop Tutu and many other religious leaders and members of Congress, to look at this and act favorably on it," he said. "And then, obviously, there were those who disagreed.
"My judgment was that these people should be offered a conditional clemency for two reasons. One, none of them, even though they belonged to an organization which had espoused violent means, none of them were convicted of doing any bodily harm to anyone. And two, they had all served sentences that were considerably longer than they would serve under the . . . guidelines which control federal sentencing now."
As Clinton walked away from the lectern, a reporter noted that Hillary Clinton has said she was not aware -- when she made her comments Saturday -- that her husband had set today as a deadline for the Puerto Ricans to accept or reject his offer.
"That's also true," the president said. He kept walking back to his office, and ignored the reporter's shouted request for an explanation of why he had not told her.