- The Washington Times - Monday, April 24, 2000

The bitter custody battle over Elian Gonzalez shifted to Washington yesterday with Miami relatives pleading to see the boy and U.S. officials defending Saturday's pre-dawn raid against growing congressional criticism.

Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., under close questioning on ABC-TV, conceded that negotiations were still going on when the federal agents broke down the front door of the modest bungalow in Miami's Little Havana, where the boy had lived with relatives for nearly five months.

Mr. Holder said the government concluded that the Miami relatives would not agree to turn 6-year-old Elian over to his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez.

Elian and his father stayed away from cameras at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland, spending an overcast Easter Sunday together. They are expected to stay at the air base for several days and then move to the Wye Plantation on the Eastern Shore. They are under a federal court order not to leave the country until the legal appeals are concluded.

"They would agree to nothing," Mr. Holder said of the Miami relatives.

"They always had a series of conditions that were impossible to meet. They never seemed to us to be negotiating in good faith, though we tried over the course of some four or five months to find a way in which we could get through the frustration that we were feeling and come up with a solution."

Mr. Holder said that even after Attorney General Janet Reno ended negotiations at 4 a.m. Saturday an hour before the raid the relatives called back and asked to reopen negotiations and were told they had 10 minutes.

"At the conclusion of that 10 minutes, the raid began, and at that point, the attorney general was still on the phone but the negotiations had ended," he said. He said Doris M. Meissner, the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, ordered Lazaro Gonzalez to turn over the boy to his father and said a federal judge in Miami had issued a warrant. The warrant, however, was not shown to the family when the federal agents broke down the door with a battering ram.

"We were forced into the action that we took by the intransigence of that family in Miami," he said.

Mr. Holder said raiding officers said there could be "problems" if they waited any longer before entering the house and wanted to go in while it was still dark. INS and Border Patrol agents were concerned that the crowd would grow after sunrise and could present problems "that we might not be able to anticipate," and that a predawn raid was "the perfect time."

Mr. Holder said his agents were heavily armed when they entered the house because they had "intelligence that the possibility existed there were guns in the house. We had to make sure our people were protected and they were in a position to protect people within the house. I don't know if there were any guns in the house. I don't know if they found any guns. We had to deal, however, with the intelligence we had that we got from local sources and make sure everybody was adequately protected."

Apparently no guns were found. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, a Democrat, scoffed at the Holder claim. He said he knew, as a former governor of Florida, that such agents, if competent, would have made it their business to know whether there were guns in the house.

Former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger defended the swiftness and certainty of the raid, saying it allowed the agents to gain entry and make the transfer without death or injury. The photograph of an agent pointing an assault rifle at the boy, cowering in the arms of the fisherman who plucked him from the sea, "shows that the fisherman who's holding the boy is stunned by the officer and his display of a weapon, but it means that his jaw goes slack, his arm loses its grip and that avoided a physical tug of war which could have severely injured a barely 6-year-old child."

But Manny Diaz, an attorney for the relatives, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the family believed it had an agreement before the raid began. He called Mr. Holder's version, that the relatives had refused to give sole custody to the boy's father, a "total misrepresentation of the truth."

Mr. Diaz, however, was not clear about whether the family had agreed to unconditionally give up custody of the boy a condition set by the Justice Department. He said the family wanted a court of law make that determination and was concerned about the emotional and physical trauma the boy might suffer because of the transfer.

Gregory Craig, the Washington lawyer representing the boy's father, told NBC-TV that the relatives wanted a mutual cohabitation and joint custody arrangement for up to 10 weeks. He called it a "political ploy" that had "nothing to do with anything in the best interests of the boy.

"At no time was there a specific, unconditional, unambiguous commitment to transfer custody," Mr. Craig said.

At a press conference yesterday at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Lazaro Gonzalez and his daughter Marisleysis said President Clinton and Miss Reno did not tell the truth about what happened in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday when armed agents burst into their home and seized Elian.

"Don't let the president or Janet Reno lie to you," Miss Gonzalez said. "They've lied to my family. We were not armed. All we had was God on our side. They trashed my house they didn't have to do that. We aren't criminals. There was no need for my family to have guns against them … I am ashamed that the president allowed something like this."

Miss Gonzalez, who broke into tears during the 90-minute session, said federal agents demanded she surrender Elian, yelling at her: "Give me the damn boy, give me the damn boy. I stood in front of all of those machine guns and begged [them to put away their guns]. They didn't care."

Said Lazaro Gonzalez, the boy's great-uncle: "This was ordered by the president of the United State and Miss Reno. We were awaiting a response from the government and this was the response. They violated my home. It's time for everyone to be concerned."

The Miami fisherman also attended the conference, telling reporters he was "heartbroken as an American" about the raid. Donato Dalrymple was holding Elian when INS and Border Patrol agents pushed a gun toward him and the child and demanded he surrender the boy.

"The law has not worked. Our law has let them down," he said. "You've terrorized this boy. You've traumatized him."

The relatives, along with Sen. Robert C. Smith, a New Hampshire Republican who joined a call by other members of Congress for congressional hearings, were turned away yesterday for a second time when they tried to visit Elian at Andrews Air Force Base.

Mr. Dellinger said videos also show one member of the crowd did rush the agents and had to be knocked aside. He said sending unarmed agents to the scene could have caused "severe injuries."

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