- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2000

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott demanded a meeting today with Attorney General Janet Reno to explain the armed seizure of Elian Gonzalez as House and Senate leaders moved swiftly toward hearings into the pre-dawn raid.
The Mississippi Republican and 10 senators five Republicans and five Democrats will meet with Miss Reno at the Capitol to ask for a full account of why she authorized an assault by heavily armed officers on the eve of Easter, the holiest day of the year for the heavily Catholic Cuban community.
"We don't want to politicize this… . We don't want to make public speeches," Mr. Lott's spokesman John Czwartacki told reporters. "We are there to ask tough bipartisan questions that reflect the bipartisan concerns."
Meanwhile, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican, announced his panel's staff would begin "a preliminary inquiry" into the tactics used to seize the 6-year-old boy from the home of his Miami relatives.
"The inquiry will focus on whether the use of such force was necessary or appropriate under all of the circumstances," Mr. Hyde said in a statement, adding that he hoped the inquiry could be bipartisan.
He said he was undertaking the effort at the request of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, who said he was "appalled" by the seizure.
While few Democrats publicly criticized the Clinton administration's action, Rep. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and a longtime Clinton defender, said the raid could "lead him to the conclusion" that Miss Reno should resign.
"I think that the use of armed agents with automatic weapons, in the pre-dawn hours on the morning of the holiest weekend of the year, is, in my mind, something we would see in [Fidel] Castro's Cuba, not in the democracy of the United States," he said.
In the Senate, Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, indicated he is considering holding hearings. He asked Miss Reno in a letter to provide his panel with "all documents" related to the raid.
"There is a lot of emotion on both sides of this issue, and I want to make sure that the Senate Judiciary Committee and the American people have all the facts," he said in a statement accompanying his letter.
Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican and a member of the Judiciary Committee, yesterday endorsed calls for a hearing and said that Miss Reno was "very fortunate she did not ignite a powder keg" when she ordered Elian's seizure.
"When I saw the picture of that young boy facing an automatic weapon, I said to myself, 'Is this America?' " Mr. Specter told editors and reporters during a meeting at The Washington Times. "The attorney general was lucky as hell."
Mr. Specter said he believes hearings should begin "immediately" and indicated that if Mr. Hatch does not act, he would take the matter before his subcommittee as early as Thursday.
He said he contacted Miss Reno on Friday, when he first learned the department was considering taking the boy by force, and advised them to get a court order to test a claim by Elian's great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez that he would produce the child if ordered to do so by a court.
Mr. Specter said he also told President Clinton to intervene personally in the case because of the Justice Department's failed record at Waco and Ruby Ridge, where a boy and mother died after a government standoff. He said he received no response from either.
Mr. Hatch and Mr. Specter will be among the senators meeting with Miss Reno today. Others include Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat; Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat; Sen. Connie Mack, Florida Republican; Sen. Robert C. Smith, New Hampshire Republican; Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, New Jersey Democrat; Sen. Spencer Abraham, Michigan Republican; Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat; and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat.
Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart yesterday lashed out at lawmakers who wanted to know details of what led up to the raid.
"I think that the American public should not be surprised that, you know, the first reaction from Capitol Hill at least from, you know, many of the leaders is personal attacks on the attorney general, personal attacks on the president, and then an announcement of extensive investigative hearings," he said.
Mr. Clinton is convinced the raid was "the right thing to do" and was "the only alternative" to reunite the boy with his father, said Mr. Lockhart, who blamed the boy's Miami relatives for the raid.
"This happened because the family did not respect the legal process here that dictated the father should be reunited with the young boy."
Mr. Clinton expressed no second thoughts about the raid after newspapers published a photo of a federal agent holding an automatic rifle wresting the boy from a fisherman who rescued him in November.
"It was done in an appropriate way," Mr. Lockhart said. "It was done safely. There was no one hurt. The boy has been reunited with the father."
Mr. Lockhart said the federal officers did obtain a search warrant.
"There are a number of prominent Republicans who have come out and have just made what I have to view as wild statements wildly inaccurate. This is factually not true and easily knowable if you're not trying to play politics," Mr. Lockhart said.
But Mr. Lockhart added that Miss Reno would cooperate with any congressional inquiry.
Meanwhile, Miss Reno strongly defended Saturday's raid, saying she and other Justice Department officials had sought to ensure that the transfer of young Elian to his father would be peaceful.
"We worked so hard to make sure that this was done in a peaceful and a voluntary way. We tried and tried," she said during an interview on the NBC "Today" show. "We were told we would have a deal if we did certain things, and we did it, and it evaporated.
"We worked as hard as we could, because I was concerned about the effect on the little boy. I wanted to make sure we got him to his father, but that we did it in a way that was thoughtful and least disruptive," she said.
The Justice Department said yesterday that the armed federal agents were necessary because Marisleysis Gonzalez, who acted as the boy's surrogate mother in Miami, made a "threatening" statement two days before agents stormed into a Miami home.
Justice Department spokeswoman Carole Florman said Miss Gonzalez told a department official that if law enforcement officers were thinking about entering the house, they should know "there are more than just cameras in the house."
"The person who heard it was very alarmed and took that as being a reference as a possibility of guns and as a threatening statement," Miss Florman said. "Her remarks certainly added to the concerns that we were sending law enforcement personnel into a possibly volatile situation."
But the head of the Cuban-American National Foundation said that was untrue.
"It's one more piece of disinformation that this administration has put out to demonize this Miami family," Jose Cardenas said. "It's very easy to concoct this to explain their actions."
"The only weapons in that house were statues virgins and crucifixes," said Mario Blas Miranda the self-styled security chief for the Miami relatives.
Elian remained yesterday with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, but officials said he is expected to be moved later this week to the Wye Plantation on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
The boy's Miami relatives planned to seek a court order enabling them to visit him. They are expected to try to visit the military base today, according to Prince George's County Police spokesman Royce Holloway.
Miss Gonzalez yesterday urged Gregory Craig, Juan Miguel Gonzalez's attorney, to let Elian's Miami relatives see the boy.
"We're in his territory now," she said outside a hotel in Washington. The boy's father "shouldn't be frightened to meet with the family."
Mr. Craig still is exploring the possibility of bringing some of Elian's classmates and their parents to this country to wait with the boy and his family. Mr. Craig said the request is still before the State Department, which he said has been a bit more receptive to the idea.
Jerry Seper and Ellen Sorokin contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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