February 12, 2008

A Walk Down Terrorist Memory Lane

Debra Burlingame invites Wall Street Journal readers to take a stroll down Memory Lane, to a time when murderous terrorists gained presidential pardons instead of relentless pursuit. This didn't happen a long, long time ago in an administration far, far away, but actually less than ten years ago. In 1999, with Hillary Clinton pursuing a seat in the Senate, Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of 16 Puerto Rican separatists whose organization had committed a whopping 146 bombings and more armed robberies:

On Aug. 7, 1999, the one-year anniversary of the U.S. African embassy bombings that killed 257 people and injured 5,000, President Bill Clinton reaffirmed his commitment to the victims of terrorism, vowing that he "will not rest until justice is done." Four days later, while Congress was on summer recess, the White House quietly issued a press release announcing that the president was granting clemency to 16 imprisoned members of FALN. What began as a simple paragraph on the AP wire exploded into a major controversy.

Mr. Clinton justified the clemencies by asserting that the sentences were disproportionate to the crimes. None of the petitioners, he stated, had been directly involved in crimes that caused bodily harm to anyone. "For me," the president concluded, "the question, therefore, was whether their continuing incarceration served any meaningful purpose."

His comments, including the astonishing claim that the FALN prisoners were being unfairly punished because of "guilt by association," were widely condemned as a concession to terrorists. Further, they were seen as an outrageous slap in the face of the victims and a bitter betrayal of the cops and federal law enforcement officers who had put their lives on the line to protect the public and who had invested years of their careers to put these people behind bars. The U.S. Sentencing Commission affirmed a pre-existing Justice Department assessment that the sentences, ranging from 30 to 90 years, were "in line with sentences imposed in other cases for similar terrorist activity."

The prisoners were convicted on a variety of charges that included conspiracy, sedition, violation of the Hobbes Act (extortion by force, violence or fear), armed robbery and illegal possession of weapons and explosives -- including large quantities of C-4 plastic explosive, dynamite and huge caches of ammunition. Mr. Clinton's action was opposed by the FBI, the Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. attorney offices that prosecuted the cases and the victims whose lives had been shattered. In contravention of standard procedures, none of these agencies, victims or families of victims were consulted or notified prior to the president's announcement.

Who did want these prisoners released? Three members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, all from New York, had demanded action to release the FALN terrorists. Hillary needed their support in her upcoming Senate bid, and that of other Hispanic leaders. At the time, Hillary expected to run against Rudy Giuliani, who would have been a formidable candidate even before 9/11, and she needed every endorsement she could find.

Bill Clinton gave it to her, but then discovered a problem: the prisoners had never actually asked for clemency. They had refused to renounce violence or express remorse for their actions In fact, they insisted that the US had no jurisdiction over them at all, and that clemency was unwanted. Hillary then flip-flopped, opposing her husband's release of the prisoners -- which records later showed his administration pursued, and not the criminals.

Congress tried to get to the bottom of the issue, but the Clinton administration stonewalled it through claims of executive privilege. The case got so twisted that, as Burlingame notes, the Justice Department had to testify that they had supplied the White House with a recommendation on the clemencies -- but couldn't reveal what they recommended. In the end, presidential pardon power is absolute under the Constitution, and Congress could do little but issue stinging, bipartisan condemnations.

This is the Clinton history on terrorism. If Hillary wants to run on her "experience" from the Clinton administration, then this should be first on the list in determining her fitness to wage war on terrorists -- or even to wage law enforcement on them.


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