TOPICS > Politics

The Elian Debate

April 24, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner runs the Congress discussion.

MARGARET WARNER: And for that, we turn to two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who’ve followed the case closely: Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, a former district attorney in Philadelphia; and Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, a former attorney general of Vermont. Senator Specter, did the attorney general do the right thing going in and seizing this boy?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER, R-Pennsylvania: Well, let me say at the outset that I think Elian should have been reunited with his father at the earliest possible time and that there was no basis for asylum, which can be granted only if there is a fear of persecution. If and when Elian goes back the Cuba, he’ll be adulated, not persecuted. I believe that there should have been a different course of action, which would have run — which would have avoided the risk of a potential powder keg. I’m pleased, as is everyone, to see that the operation went off without anybody being injured, but it seemed to me that where the INS goes in, as they traditionally do for aliens, where there are suspected terrorists or violent criminals, it’s a little different situation.

They went in at 5 a.m. because they wanted to avoid having the crowds on the street. And I think they could have avoided the crowds on the street if they had moved the crowds back, as is frequently done, and then obtained a court order from a district court. The uncle’s lawyer said that they would turn the boy over with a court order, and I think that would have avoided a very substantial trauma to young Elian on all that he went through. I think it would have been helpful to have had the father present, and it would have diffused the situation on what could have been very, very really disastrous. Fortunately it was not. So I think that the Congress, in our responsibility and authority to regulate INS, ought to take a look here and see if there’s not something to be learned for the future. Let Elian be reunited with his father, but let’s not see if we haven’t learned something.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Senator Leahy, how do you feel about the way this was carried out?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, D-Vermont: Well, it’s an extremely easy after the fact to say everything one might do. I don’t recall an awful lot of people stepping up and saying how else they would handle it. It would have been much, much easier, of course, had the relatives in Miami done what they were supposed to do under the law, and give the child back to the INS well over a week ago. Had they done that, then none of this would have happened. This was a case actually where I think the family or the relatives down there probably felt they were doing the best or doing the best thing possible for the little boy, and the worst thing possible for Fidel Castro. Ironically, they did the best thing possible for Fidel Castro and the worst thing possible for the little boy.

The attorney general did what she had to do. I look at the professionals, those that went in there, they protected the scene, they protected themselves, and most importantly, they protected everybody else. The young woman who went in to take Elian out went in unarmed without any of the body armor that would be standard procedure in a case like that, just so it would be the least traumatic possible for the little boy. It is too bad that the family, one with political forces of Castro and anti-Castroism and all, did not look first that this is a family matter. The little boy should have been back with his father long, long ago.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Specter, you called this a potential powder keg. Are you saying the use of armed force made the situation more dangerous?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, once the decision was made to send in the INS agents, they had to be in a position to protect themselves. But the law is clear that you cannot use deadly force except to save a life or prevent grievous bodily harm. And there is a case out of Tennessee, the Supreme Court of the United States says that a Tennessee law was unconstitutional, which authorized law enforcement to use deadly force against a felon who was fleeing.

MARGARET WARNER: Excuse me, Senator. Let me interrupt because I think you missed the beginning of Jim’s interview with Attorney General Reno. But she cited that very same test, and she said these agents were under that stricture, that they could only use the force to protect their own lives or someone else’s, and she called it a show of force, not the use of force.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, I understand that position, which she has articulated. But what concerns me, and let’s just think this through for a minute, here you have a situation where INS is initiating an action, and I use the powder keg really deliberately, which may result in a shootout. And if you are dealing with a felon who is fleeing or a terrorist or a felon who presents a risk of bodily injury or death to someone, then you do that. But to take the initiation of an action which may result in that kind of violence and counter violence I think is very troublesome I would hope that what we would learn here are quite a number of things, and one of them is not to set up a circumstance which may result in the INS being required to use force to defend their own lives.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. What about that point, Senator Leahy, that in a way this situation created the possibility of the use of force?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: No. I think the situation, the potential violence was actually created no matter what they might have intended by the family in Miami in not following the law, in constantly changing their position, in constantly agreeing to something and then changing their mind at the last minute and saying that we’ll have this mob of people outside here, however well intentioned, and you better come in. You’re going to have to force your way through. They created the situation. I would hope that we do not see some kind of congressional meddling now that tells law enforcement, we’re going to second guess you if you go to protect yourself and people around you when you have to go in a situation like this. Just think about this. This is in the middle of the night. There have been intelligence reports, according to the press, that some people in the crowd before were suspected of carrying weapons and a highly volatile situation. You’re not going to send these people in without some kind of a show of force, very carefully, very professionally done, three minutes in and out.

MARGARET WARNER: But Senator Specter is saying, why not go and get an additional court order, go and say, “okay. We’ve got the court order. You have to turn over the boy.”

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: How many court orders do you need? You have the law cited already. They had gotten a search warrant, contrary to what senator specter and others were saying on the talk show yesterday, they had a search warrant. How many times do you go to court? This is a country of the law. Now, we all have to obey the laws. You and I would have been subjected to the same laws, and yet we have –there’s not an exception for Irish Americans or Cuban Americans or anybody else.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Senator Specter, you spoke about the importance of Congress looking into this. You’re both on the Senate Judiciary Committee. What are your plans? Are you going to have a full-fledged investigation?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I think there ought to be a congressional hearing. I do not think it is meddling for the Congress in a thoughtful way, and we’re not looking to blame anybody, but in a thoughtful way the try to improve procedures in the future. I chaired a subcommittee on Ruby Ridge which found an excessive use of force by the FBI. We made them change their rules for rules of engagement, rules for deadly force. And it was improved markedly. Now, a statement was made about it’s easy to make comments after the fact. Well, I read in the Morton Press on Friday that they intended to go in to take Elian, I wrote to the attorney general and to the president. And made suggestions as to what they could do. It is not a meddling Congress. We weren’t meddling in Ruby Ridge when we changed the rules of deadly force. I want to see if we can’t establish a procedure so that we don’t start a chain reaction, so that we don’t create the necessity for the INS people to defend themselves. And that could have happened. Now, when the comment is made about the crowd was there and there were risks from the crowd, they went in at 5 a.m. to avoid the crowd, but they could have avoided the crowd if they had moved the crowd back three or four blocks. That could have been done.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Senator Leahy, do you think there’s a congressional role here, the sort that Senator Specter’s outlined, for your committee?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: The Congress always has a role if they want. And we are now in the Congress that tends to investigate more than legislate. So if the Congress wants, they have an absolute right to look into this. I hope, however, Senator Specter, a man who is a great talent. I’ve worked with him for many years. He talked about Ruby Ridge. I was the Democratic leader if that investigation. We worked together in a bipartisan way. And together we want those changes in the rules of engagement. And they are good changes. If we’re going to have something — I would hope it would be this way, but not the way it’s been so far — with fundraising letters going out from people saying, this is what I say about Elian, and all of this. Let’s get it out of that kind of a partisan way. Let’s spend a quiet time with the father and the son, his brother, his stepmother — can spend time together. Let the politicians, let the cameras, everybody else step back. Let this be a family matter for a while.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you Senator Leahy and Senator Specter. Thanks both very much.