The Puerto Rican nationalist group FALN, 16 of whose members were pardoned by President Clinton in August, poses an "ongoing threat" to national security, according to a September report by Attorney General Janet Reno released yesterday during a combative Senate hearing on the clemency decision.
Only weeks after Clinton's controversial pardons, a Five-Year Interagency Counterterrorism and Technology Crime Plan released under Reno's name said that the pending release of FALN members would heighten the risk of domestic terrorism. The FALN was involved in 130 bombings in the late 1970s and early 1980s that left six dead and many injured.
"Factors which increase the present threat from these groups," the report stated, "include renewed activity by a small minority advocating Puerto Rican statehood, the 100-year anniversary of the U.S. presence in Puerto Rico, and the impending release from prison of members of these groups jailed for prior violence."
Grilled about the report at yesterday's Judiciary Committee hearing, Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said it was not referring to the impending release of the FALN members Clinton pardoned, but he declined to say to whom it specifically referred.
Asked about other aspects of the Justice Department's handling of the pardons, Holder frequently said he was prohibited from answering questions because of the president's claim of executive privilege. That stance upset Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who said it was time for the Clinton administration and the Justice Department to stop hiding behind a veil of secrecy and instead offer a more comprehensive explanation for the release of FALN members.
"The president's offer of clemency increased the current terrorist threat to the American people," Hatch said. "My goal is to ensure that the Department of Justice is not party to a travesty of this sort in the future."
At the hearing, Hatch also revealed that last summer the Justice Department avoided giving the president a specific recommendation on whether to grant the conditional clemency, despite the later characterization of the group as dangerous in Reno's terrorism report. Hatch said the department instead offered an "analysis," even though he says regulations require that it provide the president with its specific opinion regarding pardons. Hatch suggested that agency officials did not want to oppose the president's efforts but could not bring themselves to support him either.
The Justice Department has consistently declined to comment on what advice it may have given the president. Clinton's decision had been opposed by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and U.S. attorneys in Chicago and Connecticut.
Hatch also released a document showing that in 1996 the Justice Department had recommended that Clinton deny clemency for the FALN members. "What happened between the first report in December 1996 and the second one in the summer of 1999 that justified a reexamination and apparent change or softening of the department's recommendation?" Hatch asked.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said he opposed Clinton's clemency decision and remained "troubled" that victims of the FALN's criminal activities were not consulted or notified during the pardon process.
Holder said he would work with the White House to revise procedures so that the Justice Department would receive direct input from victims of terrorism in the future.
Hatch also harshly criticized Holder and Justice Pardon Attorney Roger Adams for the department's failure to question those FALN members who were released about other ongoing criminal matters and released a letter showing that the sentences they had served would have been even longer under current sentencing guidelines.
Asked outside the hearing room why he thought the president had granted the pardons, Hatch said it was to aid Hillary Rodham Clinton's New York Senate bid and to bolster the president's support among liberal Democrats. "I don't think there is any doubt the president was trying to help his wife," Hatch said.
CAPTION: Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. talks to staff members before testifying before Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill.