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Clinton Addresses Elian Gonzalez Situation

Aired April 22, 2000 - 10:25 a.m. ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: And welcome back to CNN Center in Atlanta, I'm Kyra Phillips along with Miles O'Brien. You've been watching breaking news coverage since about 5:00 a.m. Eastern time this morning. It's now 10:25 on the east, three hours -- 9:25 -- or sorry, 7:25 in the west.

We're looking at live pictures now out of Miami. Since this happened, since the federal agents came in and retrieved Elian from the home of his Miami relatives, after Janet Reno initiated the operation, she said talks had failed. Therefore, federal agents came in, retrieved Elian from the home of the relatives.

As you can see, a number of people are still out on the street protesting, gathering in fronts of the home. They are in front of the home, they are on the outskirts of the home. There were some tire fires and some protests, some throwing of debris. Police did have to come in and calm the crowds with pepper spray.

Right now, it's remaining pretty calm. People have been praying, singing, and just sort of gathering and talking about everything that's happened this morning. Definitely an operation that was unexpected for the folks you're seeing out here. Elian was taken away from -- or taken from the home by federal agents to a safe location, put into a helicopter, taken to a hospital, checked for injuries, then put on a plane to Maryland where he's now been reunited with the his father.

We heard from Janet Reno, Attorney General Janet Reno, earlier today, and this is what she had to say about the operation.


JANET RENO, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Unfortunately, the Miami relatives rejected our efforts, leaving us no other option but the enforcement action.

Elian Gonzalez is a child who needs to be cherished, who needs to have quiet time and private time and to be with his father. And that is what this case is still all about, the bond between a father and son. Juan Gonzalez wants to be with his son. And that will happen now.


PHILLIPS: And like we said, Elian...

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: As we've been telling you all morning, the president is about to address the nation on this matter. As you see, he's at the podium in the Rose Garden.


Maybe I should wait for the plane.

As all of you know, this morning 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez was reunited with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. The Department of Justice, under the leadership of Attorney General Reno, went to great lengths to negotiate a voluntary transfer. Even yesterday the attorney general worked very hard on this late into the night, showing great restraint, patience and compassion.

When all efforts failed, there was no alternative but to enforce the decision of the INS and the federal court, that Juan Miguel Gonzalez should have custody of his son. The law has been upheld, and that was the right thing to do.

I am well-aware that this has been a difficult time for all the parties involved. But let's remember, as I said from the outset, the most important thing was to treat this in a lawful manner, according to the established process. This was in the end about a little boy who lost mother and has not seen his father in more than five months.

I hope with time and support, Elian and his father will have the opportunity to be a strong family again.

Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Mr. President, what was your role? And did you give the go-ahead for the operation?

CLINTON: Well, I talked to the attorney general extensively, especially in the last several days. And I supported the decisions that were made. I think, you know, we talked last evening last, and then I talked to Mr. Podesta two or three times through the night. And I believe that it was the right thing to do.

She made the decision, she managed this, but I fully support what she did. And it was clear to me from our long conversations that we were in agreement about this.

She had a special feeling. Because she was from Miami, she wanted to resolve this in the most patient way possible, to minimize the damage to the people in the community that she loves so much. But she felt strongly, and I felt strongly, that the law had to be upheld and that Elian had to be reunited with his father. And every conceivable alternative was tried for quite a long time.

And so I think she did the right thing, and I'm very pleased with the way she handled it.


QUESTION: What can you say to those Americans who might be disturbed about the very heavy show of force, sir?

QUESTION: Will you be seeing the father and son?

O'BRIEN: President Clinton with a rather brief address indicating that Attorney General Janet Reno had gone to great lengths to negotiate, had worked late into the night and had shown -- his words now -- "great restraint and compassion," and that in the end, the law is upheld and that this, referring to this INS raid which seized Elian Gonzalez from the Little Havana home of his relatives, this according to the president, was the right thing to do.

He also indicated that while he didn't specifically give an order of go-ahead, he had been in agreement with Janet Reno all throughout this process, had been consulted throughout the night by his chief of staff, John Podesta, and had thus assented to the operation, not necessarily giving a specific order or command to do so.

As he put it, she felt strongly that the law had to be upheld, and she did every conceivable thing, every effort to try to come to a negotiated settlement -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: We're now going to turn to our Justice correspondent Pierre Thomas.

Pierre, it was just mentioned towards the end of the press conference there with the president, a reporter had yelled out quickly, Mr. President, what do you say about the show of force? Let's talk about the operation. The Justice Department has come out and said this was a successful operation, that everything was done in a nonviolent manner, it was standard operating procedure the way they made entry into the home, they had identified themselves. When they didn't come to the door, they made entry and did what they had to do within three minutes and they did it safely. They protected Elian and the officers involved.

Talk a little about the success of the operation for us, would you?

PIERRE THOMAS, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Justice Department, again, views this is as a success primarily because no one was seriously injured and also that the boy was able to be taken from the home very quickly, three minutes, they said, without any injuries to him.

Having said that, they know these images are difficult images for the public. I just had a sit-down interview with the deputy attorney general, Eric Holder, and he talked about the pained expression on the attorney general's face as she made this decision. He talked about watching this on television as it transpired, talking about a deep feeling of sadness, but they felt in the end that they had no other choice but to do what they did and that they had intelligence, somewhat generic intelligence about the possibility of weapons. We'll have to see what evidence they actually had. But they said given that, they did not want to put their law enforcement officials in a position of going into a home without their weapons.

They say, again, that is standard operating procedure. But again, those images they know are difficult ones for people to take a hold of.

PHILLIPS: That's true, Pierre. A lot of people who do see those images don't know a lot about police work, about situations like this where they have to make entries into the home. The way they were dressed, completely normal. The operation, as it appears, was handled exactly how they would handle a situation like this.

You've been on a number of scenes like this. I mean to you everything did look normal to you, correct?

THOMAS: Well, again, I don't want to really necessarily comment on whether the action was justified. But I will say that law enforcement officials made a decision that they were going to go in and do this. The question again, though, that people are going to ask is that you're not talking about a situation in which you had a hostage situation necessarily. You're not talking about a situation where they were going in to take down a ring of drug dealers. Again, you're talking about a home in a suburban community and a family.

So, again, those are questions that will be asked over the next couple of days. The government's position is that they took appropriate force, that they can't have their law enforcement officials going into an unknown situation without a show of force, again, to put the situation in control. That is how they are saying that they wanted to do this, that they had to be in control, the guns were necessary to have the control. Again, we'll have to see over the coming days when Congress weighs in on this, when the various factions weigh in on this how ultimately this will be seen.

PHILLIPS: All right, Pierre. And Janet Reno definitely made the point that you always have to be prepared for the unexpected. Pierre Thomas live from the Justice Department, thank you -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Of course, oftentimes it is the images that remain seared in our memories as we consider events such as these. Those pictures taken by an Associated Press photographer who managed to essentially sneak in with the INS agents during that raid, one in particular showing a helmeted INS agent in full riot gear with a semi- automatic weapon pointed at least in the general direction of young Elian Gonzalez and the fisherman who plucked him from the sea on Thanksgiving Day, November 25th.

That is an image which will be hard to overcome. Now, just to point out a couple of things. First of all, if you look closely, the finger is not on the trigger. And also, this is a two-dimensional photo of a three-dimensional event. We don't know if that weapon is really aimed directly at them, as it appears to be in this particular picture. Nevertheless, this is an image which will endure in our memories as we consider back on this and an image which the administration will have to answer to.

Kelly Wallace is at the White House and was listening to the president. The president did not respond to that particular question, did he?

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, that's exactly right, Miles. A reporter asked what about the show of force? Other reporters here, including myself, we had other questions but the president took just that one question about what role he played in this decision-making, if he gave the green light, if you will, to, for the attorney general to take this enforcement action. He made it clear that he was constantly being briefed by the attorney general, but in the end it was her decision.

He did make clear very much so here that he believes the Department of Justice and the attorney general went to great lengths to try and negotiate a voluntary settlement, a negotiated settlement, that the attorney general and Justice Department officials showed great patience, compassion, but then when all efforts failed, there was no other option to take, that the rule of law must be upheld and that the president believed this was the right thing to do, to go into the boy's house, his Miami relatives' home, to take him out and reunite him with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez.

The president acknowledged in his short statement that this is a difficult situation for many people but he hopes that with time people will see this case for what he believes it is, a boy who lost his mother on this journey from Cuba to Florida and a boy that should be reunited with his father.

Kelly Wallace, CNN, reporting live from the White House.

PHILLIPS: And that has been the issue at hand, upholding the law. And our legal analysts Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren have been following this for weeks with us. Thanks again for being with us you two.

Let's talk about that, let's talk about the custody battle and the law and what your perceptions are right now at the time.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know what I think is particularly interesting is that as far as I can make out is that the Justice Department, Janet Reno has yet to issue what's called a departure control order, which would give her the authority to take lawful action should the father and the son attempt to leave the country. Right now there is the United States Court of Appeal order which says they can't, but the practical fact is that if they could get out of the country, that they would then be in Cuba and wouldn't particularly care if they were in contempt of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Now, the father has said, the lawyer for the father has said, Bill Press, who had dinner with the father last night said he will not leave the country while the Court of Appeals is making the decision on the case. But what would really hold that child in the country would be if Janet Reno issued what's called a departure control order, something she said she was going to do last week in a court pleading, but as far as I can make out has not yet been issued.

PHILLIPS: So Greta, if this is issued, this departure control order, does that mean the U.S. Marshals who have been taking care or guarding Juan Miguel could step in and say you can't go anywhere? If he does try to go back to Cuba, can they step in and tell him, and force him not to go?

VAN SUSTEREN: It would give them a lot more muscle than it does simply an agreement from the father and the father's lawyer. It would certainly give them more ability to do that. So I think that the answer, the short answer is yes. But, you know, this is a unique situation. We have not confronted this particular problem that these facts present. But I would suspect that it would certainly give the attorney general more lawful authority to take steps to actually block a departure.

What the court order says is that he can't leave and it says the United States can't help him or aid him leave. But it doesn't say that the United States can actually step in and take affirmative action. I think that a departure control order would give the attorney general that lawful authority.

ROGER COSSACK, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Kelly, I think this is sort of like asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I mean this is an issue that really is not substantive. I don't think this father is going anywhere. There's really very little practical way that he is. He's at the air force base. He's given his word. You know, all these technical things that we talk about of whether or not he can leave, whether or not he can't leave, the problem is or the bottom line is is that where he is now, Andrews Air Force Base, with his child, very little chance that he's going to be able to physically leave this country with the child. So I...

VAN SUSTEREN: But here's...

COSSACK: I just think that...

PHILLIPS: But Roger, you...

VAN SUSTEREN: Here's an interesting twist, though.

COSSACK: Yeah, go ahead.

PHILLIPS: So you...

VAN SUSTEREN: Can I just add one little thing, though?

PHILLIPS: Go ahead, Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: He's at Andrews Air Force Base now. He's going to be there, as far as we know, for a few days. But at some point he's going to go back to that Bethesda home. Now, the top diplomat for the Cuban government has said that they have waived diplomatic immunity. That is...

COSSACK: But we don't know he's going back to that Bethesda home.

VAN SUSTEREN: Roger, just wait a second. Well, if he does, if he goes back they have said that they waived diplomatic immunity and so it wouldn't be necessarily a completely safe haven. However, from what I've been able to determine so far is that there has never been a formal written declaration given to the State Department waiving diplomatic immunity.

So at this point I think it's safe to say there are a lot of unanswered questions. We have a lot of good faith agreements made out there and the question is whether those good faith agreements will hold up and we certainly don't know at this point.

PHILLIPS: And Roger, you're saying a formal order doesn't matter, it wouldn't make a difference?

COSSACK: No, I'm saying that a formal order is something that will be easily forthcoming and if necessary could happen. All I'm saying is is that, you know, you can argue about the notion of what's holding him and what isn't holding him, but the practical effect is that it's not so easy to just get on a plane and go to Cuba, number one. Number two, this is a highly, this is a man that's at an air force base now. We don't know where he's going to go. We don't even know if he's going back to that house in Bethesda. And the notion that somehow he's going to pick up his child in the middle of the night and sneak off and go back to Cuba, you know, I just think is something that I, you know, perhaps could happen but I think it's in some ways to imply that that's going to happen is perhaps, I think, missing the point.

PHILLIPS: All right, Roger Cossack, Greta Van Susteren, our legal analysts, thank you -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Let's take a look briefly at some live pictures from a helicopter hovering over the Little Havana section of Miami about five blocks from the home of Lazaro Gonzalez, indicating crowds in the street, fire department in evidence and riot clad policemen in evidence. There you see the blue and white tents occupied by members of the media through this five month ordeal directly in front of the home of Lazaro Gonzalez, the scene familiar to you now, the flags, the placards, the chanting.

The question is will emotions bubble over today? We are watching that very closely, of course, and we'll have more on that in just a moment. Stay with us.



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