Forgiving, forgetting terrorism


THE CLINTON administration has enmeshed itself in the politics of terrorism or, more precisely, the politics of forgiving and forgetting terrorism, from the 50 states to Puerto Rico to Italy.

The White House and the Justice Department have sent a clear signal: Even convicted violent terrorists who remain defiantly remorseless for their crimes can expect lenient treatment -- if they have friends in high or vote-rich places.

And so the key question isn't just what role the prospective New York Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton played in the sudden decision to appease powerful Puerto Rican-American politicians in New York by offering to release 16 Puerto Rican terrorists.

It's also whether the proposed release is linked to the actual release of an Italian national who was sent to prison in part because she refused to testify against those same Puerto Ricans.

At a time when the president is trying to rally the forces of international anti-terrorism, it seems strange that the United States is unlocking the terrorists it has managed to catch at great cost.

On Aug. 11, the Justice Department offered clemency to 16 members of the FALN, an acronym for Armed Forces of Puerto Rican National Liberation, a pro-independence group that detonated 130 bombs, killing six people, from 1974 to 1983. The 16 were not convicted for any deaths, but, revealingly, they have refused Justice's offer, since in doing so they would have to formally forswear "the use or threatened use of violence." In the meantime, a backlash has blossomed. Police organizations denounced the clemency; the entire career federal law-enforcement establishment is said to have opposed the decision.

And now three Big Apple cops, blinded or maimed in FALN attacks, have stepped forward to accuse the Clintons of "pandering" to whatever pro-terrorist Hispanic voting bloc might exist in New York. It's easy to imagine Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani running TV spots with the victims and their families asking if Hillary and her husband feel their pain.

Upping the ante

So what did the Clintonians do after being accused of playing leftist ethnic politics? They upped the ante again. On Aug. 24, the Justice Department announced the release of Silvia Baraldini, an Italian-born free-lance radical who had been sentenced in 1983 to 40 years in prison for aiding "revolutionary" armed robberies in which, as the department itself noted, "two Brinks guards and two Nyack, N.Y., police officers were killed."

Technically, Baraldini was remanded to the custody of the Italian government, which pledged to keep her incarcerated until 2008 -- in its notoriously lax and leaky prisons. But any pretense of punishment was undermined by the hero's welcome she received from the left-wing government of Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema.

Moreover, Baraldini is no more sorry than the FALN gang. "I have never repented for what I have done in the past," she told an Italian newspaper.

So what's the connection other than a shared lack of regret? The Justice Department tried to bury the link in the same Aug. 24 announcement: "In a second, subsequent trial she was convicted of serious criminal contempt and was sentenced to three additional years in prison."

Does that seem a little vague? Maybe that's because the department wants to obscure the documented relationship between Baraldini and the FALN; Baraldini and a co-defendant earned their contempt sentence for refusing to testify against the same Puerto Ricans. The FALN was vocal in its gratitude. About 40 boisterous FALN supporters turned out for Baraldini's sentencing.

The administration wants to liberate 16 Puerto Rican terrorists, but runs into trouble when the uncontrite criminals balk at the wrist-slapping terms, stretching out and boomeranging the story. Next the administration turns loose an Italian terrorist. Why?

There are two plausible explanations: First, the administration's rhetoric about fighting terror, from Afghanistan to Oklahoma City, is simply hollow. Second, the Clinton people want Baraldini out of U.S. custody, where she might yet be inveigled into telling what she knows about the FALN; any loose talk from her could turn a public-relations contretemps into a political catastrophe.

It's a good thing that Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh don't have more fans in New York.

James P. Pinkerton is a Newsday columnist.

Pub Date: 9/07/99

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