The Clintons' Terror Pardons


Debra Burlingame

Updated Feb. 12, 2008 12:01 a.m. ET

It was nearly 10 p.m. on New Year's Eve, 1982. Two officers on New York
Police Department's elite bomb squad rushed to headquarters at One Police
Plaza, where minutes earlier an explosion had destroyed the entrance to the
building. Lying amid the carnage was Police Officer Rocco Pascarella, his
lower leg blasted off.

"He was ripped up like someone took a box cutter and shredded his face,"
remembered Detective Anthony Senft, one of the bomb-squad officers who
answered the call 25 years ago. "We really didn't even know that he was a
uniformed man until we found his weapon, that's how badly he was injured."

About 20 minutes later, Mr. Senft and his partner, Richard Pastorella, were
blown 15 feet in the air as they knelt in protective gear to defuse another
bomb. Detective Senft was blinded in one eye, his facial bones shattered,
his hip severely fractured. Mr. Pastorella was blinded in both eyes and
lost all the fingers of his right hand. A total of four bombs exploded in a
single hour on that night, including at FBI headquarters in Manhattan and
the federal courthouse in Brooklyn.

The perpetrators were members of Armed Forces of National Liberation, FALN
(the Spanish acronym), a clandestine terrorist group devoted to bringing
about independence for Puerto Rico through violent means. Its members waged
war on America with bombings, arson, kidnappings, prison escapes, threats
and intimidation. The most gruesome attack was the 1975 Fraunces Tavern
bombing in Lower Manhattan. Timed to go off during the lunch-hour rush, the
explosion decapitated one of the four people killed and injured another 60.

FALN bragged about the bloodbath, calling the victims "reactionary
corporate executives" and threatening: "You have unleashed a storm from
which you comfortable Yankees can't escape." By 1996, the FBI had linked
FALN to 146 bombings and a string of armed robberies -- a reign of terror
that resulted in nine deaths and hundreds of injured victims.

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

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.

"I know the chilling evidence that convicted the petitioners," wrote
Deborah Devaney, one of the federal prosecutors who spent years on the
cases. "The conspirators made every effort to murder and maim. . . . A few
dedicated federal agents are the only people who stood in their way."

Observed Judge George Layton, who sentenced four FALN defendants for their
conspiracy to use military-grade explosives to break an FALN leader from
Ft. Leavenworth Penitentiary and detonate bombs at other public buildings,
"[T]his case . . . represents one of the finest examples of preventive law
enforcement that has ever come to this court's attention in the 20-odd
years it has been a judge and in the 20 years before that as a practicing
lawyer in criminal cases."

The FBI cracked the cases with the discovery of an FALN safe house and bomb
factory. Video surveillance showed two of those on the clemency list firing
weapons and building bombs intended for an imminent attack at a U.S.
military installation. FBI agents obtained a warrant and entered the
premises, surreptitiously disarming the bombs whose components bore the
unmistakable FALN signature. They found 24 pounds of dynamite, 24 blasting
caps, weapons, disguises, false IDs and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

A total of six safe houses were ultimately uncovered. Seven hundred hours
of surveillance video were recorded, resulting in a mountain of evidence
connecting the 16 prisoners to multiple FALN operations past and present.

Federal law enforcement agencies considered these individuals so dangerous,
extraordinary security precautions were taken at their numerous trials.
Courthouse elevators were restricted and no one, including the court
officers, was permitted to carry a firearm in the courtroom.

Given all this, why would Bill Clinton, who had ignored the 3,226 clemency
petitions that had piled up on his desk over the years, suddenly reach into
the stack and pluck out these 16 meritless cases? (The New York Times ran a
column with the headline, "Bill's Little Gift.")

Hillary Rodham Clinton was in the midst of her state-wide "listening tour"
in anticipation of her run for the U.S. Senate in New York, a state which
included 1.3 million Hispanics. Three members of the Congressional Hispanic
Caucus -- Luis V. Gutierrez (D., Ill.), Jose E. Serrano, (D., N.Y.) and
Nydia M. Velazquez, (D., N.Y.) -- along with local Hispanic politicians and
leftist human-rights advocates, had been agitating for years on behalf of
the FALN cases directly to the White House and first lady.

Initial reports stated that Mrs. Clinton supported the clemencies, but when
public reaction went negative she changed course, issuing a short statement
three weeks after the clemencies were announced. The prisoners' delay in
refusing to renounce violence "speaks volumes," she said.

The Clintons were caught in an awkward predicament of their own making. The
president had ignored federal guidelines for commutation of sentences,
including the most fundamental: The prisoners hadn't actually asked for

To push the deal through, signed statements renouncing violence and
expressing remorse were required by the Justice Department. The FALN
prisoners, surely relishing the embarrassment and discomfiture they were
causing the president and his wife, had previously declined to accept these
conditions. Committed and unrepentant militants who did not accept the
authority of the United States, they refused to apologize for activities
they were proud of in order to obtain a clemency they never requested.

So desperate was the White House to get the deal finalized and out of the
news, an unprecedented 16-way conference call was set up for the
"petitioners" who were locked up in 11 different federal facilities so that
they could strategize a response to the president's offer. Two eventually
refused to renounce their cause, preferring to serve out their lengthy
sentences rather than follow the White House script.

Mr. Clinton's fecklessness in the handling of these cases was demonstrated
by the fact that none of the prisoners were required, as a standard
condition of release, to cooperate in ongoing investigations of countless
unsolved FALN bombing cases and other crimes. Mrs. Clinton's so-called
disagreement with her husband on the matter made no mention of that fact.
The risk of demanding such a requirement, of course, was that the prisoners
might have proudly implicated themselves, causing the entire enterprise to
implode, with maximum damage to the president and potentially sinking
Hillary Clinton's Senate chances.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rican politicians in New York who'd been crowing to their
constituents about the impending release of these "freedom fighters" were
enraged and insulted at Hillary Clinton's withdrawal of support. "It was a
horrible blunder," said State Sen. Olga A. Mendez. "She needs to learn the

The first lady called her failure to consult the Puerto Rican political
establishment before assessing the entire issue a mistake "that will never
happen again" -- even as the cops who had been maimed and disfigured by
FALN operations continued to be ignored. Tom and Joe Connor, two brothers
who were little boys when their 33-year-old father, Frank, was killed in
the Fraunces Tavern attack, were dumbstruck to learn that White House
staffers referred to the FALN militants as "political prisoners" and were
planning a meeting with their children to humanize their plight.

Members of Congress viewed the clemencies as a dangerous abuse of
presidential power that could not go unchallenged. Resolutions condemning
the president's action were passed with a vote of 95-2 in the Senate,
311-41 in the House. It was the most they could do; the president's pardon
power, conferred by the Constitution, is absolute. The House launched an
investigation, subpoenaing records from the White House and Justice in an
effort to determine whether proper procedure had been followed. President
Clinton promptly invoked executive privilege, putting Justice Department
lawyers in the impossible position of admitting that they had sent the
White House a recommendation on the issue, but barred from disclosing what
it was.

Twenty-four hours before a scheduled Senate committee hearing, the DOJ
withheld the FBI's written statement about the history of the FALN and an
assessment of its current terrorist capability. "They pulled the plug on
us," said an unnamed FBI official in a news report, referring to the
Justice Department decision to prevent FBI testimony.

The investigation revealed that the White House was driving the effort to
release the prisoners, rather than the other way around. White House aides
created talking points and strategies for a public campaign on the
prisoners' behalf included asking prominent individuals for letters
supporting clemency.

Jeffrey Farrow, a key adviser on the White House Interagency Working Group
for Puerto Rico recommended meetings with the president and the three
leading members of Congressional Hispanic Caucus who were pushing the
effort, stating in a March 6, 1999 email, "This is Gutierrez's [sic] top
priority as well as of high constituent importance to Serrano and
Velazquez." The next day, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Maria Echaveste
sent an email to White House Counsel Charles Ruff, who was handling the
clemency issue, supporting Mr. Farrow's view, saying, "Chuck -- Jeff's
right about this -- very hot issue." Another adviser in the Working Group,
Mayra Martinez-Fernandez, noted that releasing the prisoners would be
"fairly easy to accomplish and will have a positive impact among strategic
communities in the U.S. (read, voters)."

And there you have it. Votes.

While the pardon scandals that marked Bill and Hillary Clinton's final days
in office are remembered as transactions involving cronies, criminals and
campaign contributors, the FALN clemencies of 1999 should be remembered in
the context of the increasing threat of domestic and transnational
terrorism that was ramping up during the Clinton years of alleged peace and
prosperity. To wit, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1995 Tokyo
subway Sarin attack, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the 1995 "Bojinka"
conspiracy to hijack airplanes and crash them into buildings, the 1996
Khobar Towers bombing, the 1996 Summer Olympics bombing, Osama bin Laden's
1996 and 1998 "Declarations of War" on America, the 1998 East African
embassy bombings, the 2000 USS Sullivans bombing attempt, the 2000 USS Cole
bombing, and the 2000 Millennium bombing plot.

It was within that context that the FBI gave its position on the FALN
clemencies -- which the White House succeeded in keeping out of news
coverage but ultimately failed to suppress -- stating that "the release of
these individuals will psychologically and operationally enhance the
ongoing violent and criminal activities of terrorist groups, not only in
Puerto Rico, but throughout the world." The White House spun the clemencies
as a sign of the president's universal commitment to "peace and
reconciliation" just one year after Osama bin Laden told his followers that
the United States is a "paper tiger" that can be attacked with impunity.

It would be a mistake to dismiss as "old news" the story of how and why
these terrorists were released in light of the fact that it took place
during the precise period when Bill Clinton now claims he was avidly
engaged, even "obsessed," with efforts to protect the public from
clandestine terrorist attacks. If Bill and Hillary Clinton were willing to
pander to the demands of local Hispanic politicians and leftist
human-rights activists defending bomb-makers convicted of seditious
conspiracy, how might they stand up to pressure from other interest groups
working in less obvious ways against U.S. interests in a post-9/11 world?

Radical Islamists are a sophisticated and determined enemy who understand
that violence alone will not achieve their goals. Islamist front groups,
representing themselves as rights organizations, are attempting to get a
foothold here as they have already in parts of Western Europe by deftly
exploiting ethnic and racial politics, agitating under the banner of civil
liberties even as they are clamoring for the imposition of special Shariah
law privileges in the public domain. They believe that the road to
America's ultimate defeat is through the back door of policy and law and
they are aggressively using money, influence and retail politics to achieve
their goal.

On the campaign trail, the Clintons like to say that Bill is merely
supportive and enthusiastic, "just like all the other candidates' spouses."
Nothing could be further from the truth. Returning Bill and Hillary Clinton
to the White House would present the country with the unprecedented
situation of a former and current president simultaneously occupying the
White House, the practical implications of which have yet to be fully

The FALN clemencies provide a disturbing example of how the abuse or misuse
of presidential prerogative, under the guise of policy, can be put in
service of the personal and private activities of the president's spouse --
and beyond the reach of meaningful congressional oversight.

*Ms. Burlingame, a former attorney and a director of the World Trade Center
Memorial Foundation, is the sister of Charles F. "Chic" Burlingame III, the
pilot of American Airlines flight 77, which was crashed into the Pentagon
on Sept. 11, 2001.*

*See all of today's editorials and op-eds, plus video commentary, on* Opinion
Journal <>.

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