The Corner

Pardon Attorney Blasts Eric Holder on Clinton’s Shameful 1999 Terrorist Pardons

From the Los Angeles Times:

Attorney general nominee Eric H. Holder Jr. repeatedly pushed some of his subordinates at the Clinton Justice Department to drop their opposition to a controversial 1999 grant of clemency to 16 members of two violent Puerto Rican nationalist organizations, according to interviews and documents….

President Clinton’s decision to commute prison terms caused an uproar at the time. Holder was called before Congress to explain his role but declined to answer numerous questions from angry lawmakers demanding to know why the Justice Department had not sided with the FBI, federal prosecutors and other law enforcement officials, who were vehemently opposed to the grants. … Clinton’s decision outraged law enforcement officials, who had tried to contain a bombing campaign in New York, Chicago and elsewhere in the 1970s and 1980s by groups seeking independence for Puerto Rico from the United States.

New interviews and an examination of previously undisclosed documents indicate that Holder played an active role in changing the position of the Justice Department on the commutations. Holder instructed his staff at Justice’s Office of the Pardon Attorney to effectively replace the department’s original report recommending against any commutations, which had been sent to the White House in 1996, with one that favored clemency for at least half the prisoners, according to these interviews and documents.  And after Pardon Attorney Roger Adams resisted, Holder’s chief of staff instructed him to draft a neutral “options memo” instead, Adams said.

The options memo allowed Clinton to grant the commutations without appearing to go against the Justice Department’s wishes, Adams and his predecessor, Margaret Colgate Love, said in their first public comments on the case….

The 16 members of the FALN (the Spanish acronym for Armed Forces of National Liberation) and Los Macheteros had been convicted in Chicago and Hartford variously of bank robbery, possession of explosives and participating in a seditious conspiracy. Overall, the two groups had been linked by the FBI to more than 130 bombings, several armed robberies, six slayings and hundreds of injuries….

After one meeting with advocates of the FALN prisoners, Holder asked Adams to try to obtain statements of repentance from the inmates to include in the revised clemency report and recommendation being prepared for the White House, according to a 1999 Senate Judiciary Committee inquiry. Clinton later justified the commutations in part by citing his consultation with the Justice Department and the statements of repentance provided by the prisoners.

“The Justice Department is supposed to say what we think on the merits,” said another Justice Department official opposed to clemency at the time, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. Instead, “we were pushed to tell [Clinton] what he wanted to hear, which was to grant it and to provide political cover.”

When Clinton issued the commutations on Aug. 11, 1999, the House and the Senate passed resolutions condemning his decision. Some lawmakers charged that Clinton approved the commutations to bolster Latino support for First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was building her campaign for senator of New York, and Vice President Al Gore, who was gearing up to run for president.  Holder was called to testify on the case by the Senate Judiciary Committee but, invoking Clinton’s claim of executive privilege, declined to say whether the Justice Department had changed its position on the commutations….  

ME:  We’ve heard a lot the last few years from Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats about how shameful it is for an Attorney General to “politicize” the Justice Department; to buck the views of professional, career prosecutors; and to engage in “secrecy” by withholding from Congress the administration’s deliberations on important policy matters.  Were they serious?

The LATimes continues:

In mid-1998, Adams said, he sent a draft report recommending against any clemency of FALN members to Holder, but he said that Holder did not send it to the White House and instructed him to revise it….

After the clemency grant was announced, 11 members of the nationalist group were released from federal prison; one served an additional five years on unrelated charges; two who had been previously released had their fines reduced; and two others remained in prison, refusing to participate in the deal that required them to renounce violence.

Some of Adams’ concerns were borne out. Before their release, the Senate Judiciary Committee concluded, none of the prisoners was pressed to provide information on the whereabouts of stolen funds or fugitive co-conspirators — one of whom was later killed in a shootout with federal agents.

“This is an outrage. There is no better word for it, in my view,” said Rick Hahn, a former FBI agent who spent more than 13 years investigating the FALN, when told of the new details about Holder’s role. The son of one bombing victim agrees.  “Eric Holder has been nominated for the top law enforcement position in the country, yet, if this is true, he supported and pushed for the release of terrorists,” said Joseph F. Connor, whose father, Frank, was killed in the FALN bombing of New York City’s Fraunces Tavern on Jan. 24, 1975. “How can he reconcile that? Why would he push for something so dangerous?”

The entire Times report is here.

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