WASHINGTON -- The FBI "unequivocally opposed" President Clinton's offer of clemency to 16 Puerto Rican nationalists, asserting that the release of most of the prisoners would reinvigorate their terrorist movement, according to a letter prepared by the law enforcement agency.
The letter, prepared by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, said the clemency "would likely return committed, experienced, sophisticated and hardened terrorists to the clandestine movement" for Puerto Rican independence.
The letter also said the clemency would "psychologically and operationally enhance" allies in the militant organization FALN who had killed five people and maimed 83 in terrorist activities in the 1970s and 1980s.
Freeh did not sign the letter, which was addressed but never sent to Republican Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. But senior law enforcement officials said last night that the letter accurately reflected Freeh's opposition to leniency for the Puerto Rican militants.
A draft of the letter was sent from the FBI to the Justice Department for review before Freeh's signature. Ultimately, the letter without his signature was sent to Democrats on Capitol Hill, where it was released yesterday.
The letter said that the issue of clemency had been raised since 1994 and that Freeh had objected to it as recently as June 28. Even so, the letter said, Freeh was unaware that the president was actually contemplating any commutation when the White House announced its offer Aug. 11.
While some officials have privately acknowledged disapproval of the president's decision, Freeh's letter is the first official indication from within the administration of the fierce disagreement that raged within the law enforcement community over Clinton's offer of clemency to the 16 terrorists, 14 of whom are now out of prison. The letter did not say what evidence had led to the opposition to clemency.
At the same time yesterday, Clinton provided his first full explanation of his decision in a letter to Congress.
Casting himself in the tradition of previous presidents who have granted clemency in cases that were unpopular, Clinton portrayed his release of the prisoners as an act of courage.
He cited Theodore Roosevelt's grant of amnesty to Filipino nationals who fought U.S. control of the Philippines and Jimmy Carter's commutation of sentences of Puerto Rican nationalists who had opened fire on the House of Representatives.
"They exercised the power vested in them by the Constitution to do what they believed was right, even in the face of great controversy," Clinton wrote of his predecessors.
"I have done the same."
The president did not deal with the question of whether the release of the prisoners might reignite the dormant terrorist movement. But Republican Rep. Vito J. Fossella of New York asserted that recent statements by a known Puerto Rican militant and ally of the prisoners indicated that the release was stirring old passions.
He quoted Filiberto Ojeda Rios, the leader of Los Macheteros, a terrorist organization allied with the ex-prisoners, as telling a Puerto Rican radio station that if the United States committed aggressive acts against Puerto Rico, his group would "not remain with their arms crossed, you can be sure of that."
Freeh's letter came to light at a congressional hearing designed by Republicans to portray the president's act as reckless.
Republicans coaxed out of other law enforcement officials a concern that the ex-prisoners constitute a threat to American security.
While the officials were bound under the president's claim of executive privilege not to disclose internal deliberations over the matter, they cataloged the violent actions of the FALN, the terrorist organization to which the prisoners belong.
Neil Gallagher, assistant director of national security for the FBI, told the panel, "These are criminals, and they are terrorists and they represent a threat to the United States."
Congress has acknowledged that it has no control over clemency matters, which are the sole prerogative of the president.
But Clinton's explanation yesterday appeared to make little difference to those in the hearing room, who see the move as a political disaster for the president and for his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is likely to seek the Senate seat from New York. She has run into political trouble for at first supporting, then denouncing, her husband's decision.
Republicans have wanted to draw out the drama. The panel, chaired by Republican Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, chairman of the Government Reform Committee, called several victims of FALN attacks, bringing them to testify for the third time in less than two weeks.
They included Richard Pastorella, a retired New York City detective, who was severely injured in a 1982 attack. He lost his sight in both eyes, and his face is held together by 20 titanium screws.
"Who thinks of us?" Pastorella asked in a bitter voice. "Certainly not Mr. Clinton."
The victims, and relatives of those who had been killed in terrorist attacks, said that contrary to federal requirements, they had not been notified of the prisoners' pending release.
Pub Date: 9/22/99