Bill Clinton’s questionable clemencies

The former president's decision to release Puerto Rican terrorists in 1999 prompted outrage from Congress and his wife. Now it also bolsters claims that he was "soft on terrorism."

Topics: Bill Clinton,

On Dec. 13, the New York Times metro section printed the bleak story of Patricia Flounders, whose husband Joseph died at the World Trade Center, and who herself committed suicide three months later in the couple’s “just-finished dream house.” It’s hard to think of a single personal narrative that better captures the devastation wrought by al-Qaida on Sept. 11. Near its end, however, the article contained a curious anecdote:

“At her husband’s memorial service, Mrs. Flounders stood in black at the head of the receiving line … and asked people to attend a reception at Fraunces Tavern, in the financial district.

“Mrs. Flounders explained that she had selected the landmark tavern as the site for the reception ‘because they, too, were once bombed,’ she said, referring to the 1975 bombing by a Puerto Rican nationalist group in which four died and more than 60 were injured.”

This, as it happens, was one of the few post-Sept. 11 media references to the United States’ long history of grappling with Puerto Rican terrorism. That’s baffling, considering that as recently as August 1999, President Clinton offered to commute the sentences of 16 members of the Puerto Rican terrorist group FALN (a Spanish acronym for the Armed Forces of National Liberation). It was FALN that was responsible for the Fraunces Tavern attack, as well as over 100 bombings during the 1970s and 1980s, largely in New York and Chicago.

Clinton’s move set off a firestorm at the time, leading the first lady, then running for the Senate in New York, to distance herself from her husband. It also ultimately resulted in a 95-2 Senate measure that condemned the clemencies and called them “deplorable.” Nevertheless, 11 former FALN members were freed soon afterward, and they returned to their homes in Chicago and Puerto Rico.

For once and future Clinton bashers, the subject of the FALN clemencies could hardly be more fruitful. Indeed, even as evidence mounts with each successive New York Times or Washington Post installment of what went wrong in fighting terrorism during the Clinton administration, Clinton’s detractors have overlooked a key piece of evidence. The former president’s behavior on the FALN issue almost certainly adds evidence that he was “soft on terrorism,” as well as revealing a breed of pre-Sept. 11 liberal-left politics that demanded the exculpation of former terrorists who were labeled “political prisoners.”

Those who lobbied for the clemencies have little interest in defending them today. Clemency supporters who did not return calls for this article include the Democratic Puerto Rican representatives Nydia Velázquez and José Serrano of New York and Luis Gutierrez of Chicago, who both acted as Washington proxies for nationalist-leaning Puerto Rican activists in the FALN furor and even pushed for unconditional pardons. (Clinton at least required that the prisoners renounce violence — and some would not, and were therefore denied clemency.) Collectively, Velázquez, Serrano and Gutierrez bowled over Puerto Rico’s single nonvoting representative to the U.S. Congress, the pro-statehood resident commissioner Carlos Romero-Barceló, who repudiated talk of the FALN members as “political prisoners” and opposed pardons outright, though he later accepted conditional clemency.

Ethnic one-upmanship appears to to be a factor in support for the FALN among Puerto Ricans. As one influential Puerto Rican, who asked not to be named, puts it, “Within the Puerto Rican or Hispanic context in the continental United States, to be in favor of independence and these people who were incarcerated is to place oneself on the most authentic left in your community. Which means you are the loudest mouth on ethnic matters. No one can accuse you of being insufficiently Puerto Rican.”

The ties between Puerto Rican identity politicking and the island’s often militant independentista movement dates back to the 1920s and 1930s, several decades after Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States at the close of the Spanish-American War. Those years saw the founding of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party under the leadership of the fiery, Harvard-educated orator Pedro Albizu Campos, an FALN role model who ultimately advocated Puerto Rico’s liberation from the United States by violent means.

In the 1960s, Puerto Rican nationalists forged enduring ties with the anti-Vietnam War left in the continental United States, and the cause of Puerto Rican independence became wedded to feminism, socialism and the sexual revolution. Today the Puerto Rican Independence Party wins just 4 percent of the vote in Puerto Rico, but independentistas are disproportionately represented among the island’s intelligentsia and cultural elite. And many of those leftists had no qualms about dubbing the FALN members “political prisoners” because in doing so, they were allying themselves with individuals who had been jailed for taking on that imperialist oppressor, the United States, and thereby dedicating their lives to Puerto Rican autonomy, cultural homogeneity and independence. Never mind the terrorism.

The Puerto Rican community in the continental United States also nourishes a culturally nationalist element, so it’s little surprise that other FALN clemency supporters who did not return calls for this article include former Bronx Democratic Party chairman Roberto Ramirez, and Jose Rivera, a former New York City Council member recently elected to the state Assembly. One person I did manage to speak with was Michael Deutsch of the Chicago-based People’s Law Office, who represented and continues to represent the 11 freed FALN members. Deutsch told me his clients were living “public, peaceful, law-abiding lives” and would not wish to comment, though he did say, “I don’t see any contradiction between what happened on Sept. 11 and their release prior to that,” he explained. “In my view, it’s kind of mixing apples and oranges.”

In one sense, Deutsch has a point. None of those offered clemency by Clinton had ever been directly implicated in any FALN attacks resulting in injuries or deaths. And FALN was never even close to being in the same league as al-Qaida (the Fraunces Tavern attack was an anomaly for the group, because civilians were victims). As Juan Manuel Carrión, a professor of sociology at the University of Puerto Rico, explains, “In Puerto Rico, we don’t really have a tradition of terrorism like in the Middle East, where you place bombs with nails to have the largest number of people hurt.”

Still, the individuals Clinton released were clearly core FALN members who were guilty of serious crimes including seditious conspiracy, armed robbery, weapons violations and unlawful storage of explosives, all committed to support terrorism. So what makes them so radically different from Zacarias Moussaoui, who allegedly helped conspire to commit the Sept. 11 attacks but was not directly involved?

Deutsch counters that his clients “had renounced violence years prior to their release.” But Sen. Clinton, for one, felt otherwise, announcing that the prisoners had not renounced violence quickly enough after President Clinton offered to commute their sentences. She then left her husband standing alone to defend them. Furthermore, under sentencing guidelines concerning “relevant conduct” (i.e., membership in a terrorist organization), which went into effect after the FALN members’ convictions in the late 1980s, a judge could have given them life imprisonment.

The contemporary outrage over the Clinton clemencies was thoroughly bipartisan in nature. At the time, the majority of elected Democrats, from Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, bitterly opposed Clinton’s decision, claiming, among other things, that it ignored the perspectives of FALN attack survivors and the families of FALN victims. Clinton’s move was even challenged from within his administration by FBI and Justice Department officials. All in all, a similar granting of clemency would have prompted something on the order of impeachment today. What the FALN members did has not changed; but the seriousness of their crimes in the minds of Americans has changed immensely.

Today, perhaps Clinton’s only remaining defenders on the FALN matter are that vocal minority of culturally nationalist Puerto Ricans, particularly the island’s independentistas, who operate at a significant political and cultural remove from most U.S. citizens — including Puerto Ricans. Indeed, in Puerto Rico before Sept. 11, according to the University of Puerto Rico’s Carrión, “pro-American people were claiming that they felt threatened in any attempt to show the American flag. Now they are showing it in pride.” The Puerto Rican left is, however, disproportionately represented in elite island circles such as academia and the media.

Puerto Rican nationalists and independentistas cite the strong resentments created by the United States’ century-old territorial relationship with Puerto Rico as justification for turning the “political prisoners” loose. The logic is well limned by Angelo Falcón, a senior policy executive at the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy in New York, who argues that the FALN controversy represents “an internal problem [for the U.S.] in terms of having a colony.” Representatives Velázquez, Serrano and Gutierrez all supported a similar view, at least tacitly, in their push for clemency for the FALN members. So, for that matter, did the Washington-based National Puerto Rican Coalition.

Now, of course, the equation of “terrorist” with “freedom fighter” (and “political prisoner”) seems completely out of touch. Juan Duchesne, a formerly pro-independence professor of Spanish at the University of Puerto Rico who has since supported statehood (a traditionally conservative option), claims that Puerto Rican elites refuse to confront a tradition of sometimes virulent anti-Americanism. Duchesne and a group of supporters recently published a Spanish-language article in the December issue of the university’s monthly newspaper, Diálogo, arguing that the island’s media had presented thoroughly skewed coverage of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

“There is a very anti-American line,” he explains. “It’s not just anti-American, it’s very reductive in its arguments concerning terrorism. So we claimed in the article that nobody is really talking about the true threat of fundamentalists or Islamic terrorism.”

Clinton does have one (at least presumptive) remaining supporter besides Puerto Rican leftists: Jimmy Carter. During his presidency Carter pardoned four Puerto Rican nationalists who in 1954 shot up the U.S. Congress, injuring five lawmakers; he also pardoned a nationalist convicted of plotting to kill President Truman in 1950. Carter approved of the Clinton FALN clemencies, as did, among others, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. But so far they, like Clinton, have managed to avoid the harsh judgment of hindsight.

Chris Mooney is the author of four books, including "The Republican War on Science" (2005). His next book, "The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality," is due out in April.

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