Reno called on Senate carpet

GOP leaders insist that attorney general justify Elian raid

April 25, 2000|By Susan Baer and Karen Hosler | Susan Baer and Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

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.

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