Reno called on Senate carpet; GOP leaders insist that attorney general justify Elian raid

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- With young Elian Gonzalez and his father secluded at Andrews Air Force Base, Republican critics of the pre-dawn seizure of the boy took the first steps yesterday toward congressional hearings into Saturday's forceful raid.

As a prelude to such proceedings, Senate Republican leaders summoned Attorney General Janet Reno to Capitol Hill today to explain her decision to order heavily armed federal agents to burst into the Gonzalez home in Miami before the break of day.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, among the Republicans who have angrily criticized the operation, asked Reno to answer to a bipartisan, hand-picked group of 10 senators plus himself in a private meeting to be held today in the most secure room in the Capitol, far from the news media.

Lott "wants to know why such force was brought to bear," said the majority leader's press secretary, John Czwartacki.

Responding to a request for hearings by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde said yesterday that he would commence a "preliminary inquiry" into the operation, focusing on whether such a use of force was "necessary or appropriate."

Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin G. Hatch sent a letter to Reno requesting all documents relating to the attorney general's decision to seize the 6-year-old Cuban boy through a raid, saying there were "legitimate questions about whether all the circumstances in this case" warranted such a response.

In the face of the congressional inquiries -- and the enduring and much-discussed image of a frightened child facing a submachine gun -- the White House vigorously defended Saturday's operation, saying the intransigence of Elian's Miami relatives was to blame .

"The most important piece of information here is all this could have been avoided, none of this had to happen," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said yesterday. "This happened because the family did not respect the legal process here that dictated the father should be reunited with the young boy."

Lockhart said President Clinton was convinced that "the operation that took place Saturday morning was the right thing to do and was the only alternative remaining to us to reunite the boy with his father."

Reno said yesterday that she had no regrets about the raid she ordered after failing to work out a deal with the Miami relatives, who had refused to turn the boy over to his father, who had legal custody.

"I have no regrets whatsoever," she said on NBC's "Today" show yesterday morning. "I tried my level best to make sure that we avoided this situation. ...You see the concerns that are raised when something like this happens, but having tried as hard as I did, I'm satisfied with the results."

Reno defended the aggressive, militaristic nature of the operation -- with federal agents outfited in SWAT gear breaking down the door of the Gonzalez home in Miami, pointing automatic weapons and releasing pepper spray -- which has been deplored as an "abuse of power" by some Republicans.

"If you're undertaking an action, what the experts have told us is that the people doing it have to be in command and they have got to have the appearance and the capacity to take charge of a situation," she said. "It is not a pleasant undertaking in any sense. And I tried to avoid it with all my heart and soul."

Lockhart said there was information that guns were in the house. He said Marisleysis Gonzalez, Elian's 21-year-old cousin who considered herself the child's surrogate mother, made veiled threats to a Justice Department official suggesting the Miami family had "more than cameras" in the house.

Participating in the White House Easter Egg Roll yesterday, where she read a story to children, Reno refused reporters' questions about the Elian case but signed autographs for visitors and was congratulated by a number of guests for her courage.

Since surviving a boat wreck in which his mother and 10 others who were fleeing Cuba drowned, Elian had been staying in the home of his relatives in Miami's Little Havana.

A decision by federal immigration officials that the boy's fate should be determined by his father remains the subject of a legal challenge. Juan Miguel Gonzalez wants to live with his son in Cuba, rather than with the Miami relatives who would like the boy to stay in the United States.

Reunited after five months, Juan Miguel Gonzalez and Elian spent another quiet day out of the glare of cameras and press at Andrews Air Force Base, along with the boy's stepmother and 6-month-old half-brother.

Elian's Miami relatives flew to Washington Saturday after Elian was taken from their home and have been staying at a hotel in Georgetown.

They had been turned away twice over the weekend from the Air Force base in suburban Maryland.

The relatives said they will stay in Washington until they get to see Elian.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department asked a federal appeals court to uphold Reno's decision not to consider political asylum for the boy, arguing that there is no evidence that Elian would qualify even if that issue were faced.

The department accused the boy's Miami relatives of seeking asylum for him without having any evidence that "any specific harm might come to Elian if he returned to Cuba." It also suggested that Elian's signature on an asylum application might have been the result of "undue influence" by the relatives, and that puts its authenticity into question.

Responding to the appeals court's implied criticism of the department last week for not having interviewed Elian directly to find out what his wishes are, the department said there was no need for that -- partly because he is very young and unable to understand what asylum means or why he might want it.

At a White House briefing yesterday, Lockhart chided Republicans for politicizing the matter and making "wildly inaccurate" statements about the facts of the raid.

He pointed to GOP whip Tom DeLay, who said on a Sunday morning TV talk show that the government agents did not have a search warrant when they entered the Gonzalez home.

"It's factually not true and easily knowable if you're not trying to play politics," Lockhart said.

A search warrant had been granted by a federal magistrate Friday at 7: 20 p.m., the Justice Department said yesterday.

The congressional Republicans backed off a bit from their initial call over the weekend for immediate hearings, allowing them time to assess public opinion. They are trying to walk a fine line, using the public revulsion at the violent images of the raid to their political advantage without pushing so hard that they provoke a backlash.

"Our base is very energized right now. They just can't wait to get out and vote against Clinton-Gore," said Tony Rudy, a top aide to DeLay. "The name of the game is keeping them energized."

Lott reshuffled the invitation list for today's meeting with Reno, initially limiting the group to senators critical of the attorney general's actions but last night including three Democrats supportive of the administration: Senate Democratic Leader Thomas A. Daschle, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.

Polls released since the raid have given Republicans reason to proceed with caution. A Gallup Poll found that 57 percent of Americans approved of the government's action, while 37 disapproved. Several other polls found that, by more than a 2-to-1 margin, the public did not want congressional hearings into the matter.

The country appears divided on whether the raid was too heavy-handed. In the Gallup Poll, 40 percent said the Justice Department used too much force, 36 percent said it was the right amount of force.

By more than a 2-to-1 margin, those polled said the father should decide where the child lives rather than the Miami relatives.

In Miami, passions were running strong yesterdah, although the scattered protests were relatively peaceful. Some protesters stood in silence, holding up photos of the raid that were taken by an Associated Press photographer invited into the home by the Gonzalez family.

Cuban-Americans there planned a work stoppage today to protest the government's removal of the boy from his relatives' home. Some businesses, especially those in Little Havana, are closing for the day in hopes of turning Miami into a "dead city."

Some of those involved in the negotiations with the Miami family continued yesterday to examine what happened in the hours before the early morning raid, taking issue with Reno's assertion that the two sides were far from agreement on a deal.

Reno said the family repeatedly refused to bring Elian to Washington for the father-son reunion, insisting the father come to Miami instead, and wouldn't agree to an immediate transfer of custody.

One of those who was trying to mediate a deal, lawyer Aaron Podhurst, a longtime Reno friend, said at a news conference yesterday that he thought the Justice Department and the family "had made substantial progress" on a deal.

He said he asked Reno yesterday to come to Miami to talk to the community about what had happened. He also said he hoped Elian's father and the Justice Department would agree to the family's proposal that the father and son move to the Wye Plantation on Maryland's Eastern Shore while they await court decisions on Elian's custody, and allow the Miami relatives to visit for one week.

Sun staff writer Lyle Denniston contributed to this article.

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