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Reno Takes Credit, Scorn for INS Raid

Aired April 22, 2000 - 11:00 a.m. ET



GREGORY CRAIG, ATTORNEY FOR JUAN MIGUEL GONZALEZ: The attorney general was tireless. She was insistent that we continue our effort to achieve a peaceful and voluntary transfer of custody. The attorney general walked the extra mile and then walked yet another mile. She never gave up until the very final moment in her effort to achieve that objective.

MARISLEYSIS GONZALEZ, ELIAN'S COUSIN: This is exactly what she wanted to show, that she doesn't have a heart. That lady to me doesn't have a heart.

BRIAN CABELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They've got the boy. They've got the boy. They took the boy. They're getting the boy.


JUDY WOODRUFF, CO-HOST: Both high praise and bitter scorn for the attorney general of the United States after she orders Elian Gonzalez snatched from his bed in a predawn raid.

Welcome back to our continuing coverage of this story. Welcome in particular to our international viewers. I'm Judy Woodruff.

GENE RANDALL, CO-HOST: And I'm Gene Randall.

WOODRUFF: Events unfolded with lightening speed just after 5:00 a.m. this morning at the Little Havana home where Elian Gonzalez has been living. Eight federal agents stormed into the home of Elian's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, where they located the boy in a bedroom closet. A female agent spoke briefly with the boy then wrapped him in a blanket and raced him outside to a waiting van. Onlookers were kept back with pepper spray.

Within moments, the boy was on a small jet headed to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland outside Washington, where it arrived just about 9:20 a.m. Eastern Time, about four hours after the raid. There, Elian was reunited with his father. Father and son are expected to stay at the base for at least a few days.

RANDALL: Our coverage here in Washington begins at the Justice Department. Pierre Thomas has been at his beat all morning long and has the latest from there -- Pierre. PIERRE THOMAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Gene, the events unfolded very quickly. They were in and out of the house in about three minutes. A few moments ago we interviewed the deputy attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder. He said that Reno was agonized over this decision, that she went around the room, she asked all of her top aides what she should do. All of them said she should go forward. The decision was made to go in. They are, they knew that this image of law enforcement officials going in with weapons would be a searing image, a difficult image. But they also said that they were very concerned about the possibility of weapons. They didn't know for certain. They had intelligence. They made the decision that they could not send law enforcement into a situation where, into the unknown, as one source put it.

So again, they know that this will be dissected over the coming days and clearly it was a very difficult morning for the attorney general, Gene.

RANDALL: Pierre, exactly when was this decision made and how was the president involved?

THOMAS: Well, the president was briefed throughout the evening. There were negotiations on going. Shortly after midnight things started to go downhill, as one source put it. And at roughly about 4:00 a.m. in the morning, Reno made the decision that the negotiations were going nowhere, they were trying to get the family to agree to voluntarily turn over the boy. When that did not happen, the attorney general said it's time to go in, my patience is up.

RANDALL: Pierre, I am told by a source close to the administration that the breaking point here in the negotiations was the refusal of the Miami family members to agree to a government deal in which the family members would be flown to Washington on a government plane and stay at a compound jointly with Elian Gonzalez's father but that the father would take custody of the son.

I'm told that once the Miami relatives refused that offer, the decision was made they had their own interests at heart and not those of the boy. Can you shed any light on that?

THOMAS: Yeah, we're told that about midnight the government, after a proposal presented by civic leaders from Miami, had gone nowhere. The government told both sides, both sides being the family in Miami and Juan Miguel, that they had a plan. And in the government plan, they would stay at a residence perhaps as long as a week or so for a transitional period. But Juan Gonzalez would clearly be in control of the boy and that also that they, the government asked that the family in Miami would agree not to sue Juan Miguel for custody of the boy after the transfer took place.

Apparently Juan Miguel was fairly comfortable with this agreement, with the exception of staying with the family for about a week or so. They also said that with the family pretty much the entire thing was a non-starter and that broke down some time after midnight, but the negotiations continued. Reno continued to negotiate with the family through intermediaries. But again, around 4:00 a.m. or so, the attorney general made the decision that the negotiations were going nowhere.

RANDALL: Pierre Thomas at the Justice Department. Thanks very much, Pierre -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Well, if that's the story in Washington, you can imagine in Miami emotions are running very high, a lot of anger being expressed. This is the scene right now in Miami in the Little Havana area close to the home of Lazaro Gonzalez, where Elian Gonzalez has been staying. Earlier this morning there have been expressions, there have been outbursts, some small isolated episodes of violence, but by and large police have been able to keep these crowds under control.

But clearly a lot of anger, frustration and worse on the part of these people who had hoped this little boy would stay with his family members there in Miami.

Let's go now directly to our Mark Potter, who's been following this story practically on an hourly basis since it first broke -- Mark.

MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Judy, you're right, the passions are running very high and periodically this morning they have spilled out into the street. You're looking at the intersection at West 27th Avenue and Flagler Street about five blocks west of the house where Elian Gonzalez has been staying with his relatives.

The police have been beefing up their forces at this intersection. There have been a number of problems here this morning. The crowds have grown and then ebbed away, flowed away for a while. For a while the crowd was actually blocking the street and there were some confrontations with the police and a number of arrests were made. Right now it is pretty quiet. Much of the crowd actually went in the opposite direction. They went west toward another intersection.

There have been a number of incidents today, mostly at intersections mostly in Little Havana and largely non-violent. The only physical activity that we have seen usually involves scuffling at the time of an arrest.

There were some tires that were burned at an intersection north of us, about seven blocks north. Furniture was thrown into the street. Dumpsters, trash cans, bus benches overturned and the police brought that situation under control as they have this situation under control now.

So that's it. Police are expecting this to go on throughout the day and they are moving throughout the community to try to keep some semblance of control, again, in pockets. It's not the whole community, it's pockets of intersections, largely in Little Havana.

Mark Potter, CNN, reporting live from Miami.

WOODRUFF: All right, thank you, Mark, and I know that we'll be checking back with you frequently throughout this day -- Gene.

RANDALL: Emotions are running high in Cuba as well, but far different kinds of emotions than what we have seen in the streets of Miami. And Martin Savidge is in Havana -- Martin.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Gene, there has been no official reaction coming from the Cuban government with the exception of a statement that was released earlier this morning urging the Cuban people to remain calm. By Cuban standards this story has been transmitted very quickly to the Cuban people. Radio Rebelde, or Cuban radio, broke into their normal programming this morning at around 6:30. There was a short statement released in which it was announced that U.S. Immigration and Naturalization officers had made an entry into the home and that the boy had been retrieved.

Then about an hour later there came a second statement basically giving a little bit more detail and then saying that the boy was safe and then, of course, the statement urging that the people remain calm.

The radio report said that the reason for this was the government did not want to see any spontaneous demonstrations of joy or celebration, saying that those images, if transmitted back to the United States, could have a negative impact on the legal proceedings that are still ongoing in this case.

Now, also Cuban television has begun showing the images of the raid that was conducted on the house and the events that have taken place in the aftermath of that. That is important, you see, because most of the Cuban public does not have outside access to international media so they would not have seen those reports until they went on Cuban television. Most of those reports were coming from CNN itself.

The only way that some Cubans got to see the video early on today was in the tourist hotels where a number of them were. Those are the only places where you get this information coming in from international news media. The reactions here, most people were happy, some were sad by the way the raid was carried out -- Gene.

RANDALL: Martin, if you know, have the Cuban people been told that there apparently is an agreement that Juan Miguel Gonzalez will stay in this country while the judicial process winds its way to conclusion?

SAVIDGE: The Cuban people are aware of that. That has been reported. The government here has acknowledged that. And so they do know that there is still a long way to go in this process, another reason why you don't have celebration, because they know there is still more to come. They won't celebrate until they believe the boy is back here in Cuba -- Gene.

RANDALL: Martin Savidge in Havana. Thanks very much, Martin -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: There's probably no place in the U.S. government other than the Justice Department where this whole episode has been watched more closely than at the White House. President Clinton himself was involved, we know, in discussions with the attorney general yesterday and this morning. For the very latest from the White House and on what the president had to say a short while ago, let's go to our correspondent there, Kelly Wallace -- Kelly. KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Judy, that's exactly right. In just a few moments from now White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart is going to come to the briefing room here at the White House and take more questions from reporters. And as you mentioned, just about a half hour ago, the president came outside the White House behind the Oval Office to issue a brief statement. In that statement he said that the attorney general, Janet Reno, and the Department of Justice went to great lengths to try and negotiate a voluntary transfer. He said that Ms. Reno showed great compassion and patience, but he said that when all efforts failed, there was no other alternative but to enforce the decision of the INS and the federal courts that Elian Gonzalez belonged with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez.

We now would like to run what Mr. Clinton said just a few moments ago. Take a listen.


WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As all of you know, this morning six-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 his 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: 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. I, 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 and 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.


WALLACE: And that was the president speaking just about a half hour ago. Now, other reporters shouted out questions, one in particular. A reporter asked the president what his message to Americans might be, people concerned about the show and the use of force in this morning's enforcement action. But the president did not respond. He walked back to the Oval Office. Mr. Lockhart is likely to get some of those questions in this briefing that will begin in a short, a few moments from now.

One other thing to mention, the president said he talked to his chief of staff John Podesta a couple of times throughout the night. We understand that one call around 2:15 this morning when Mr. Podesta called the president, Mr. Podesta laid out what he heard from the attorney general, that her plan was to continue these negotiations as long as possible but when it looked like they were not going to go anywhere that she was going to take this enforcement action. The president said he supported that plan.

The next phone call that Mr. Podesta received was shortly before 5:00 a.m., when the attorney general said that the negotiations had broken down and that preparations were underway to go in and remove the boy. Mr. Podesta called the president and informed him that those preparations were underway -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Kelly, we've noticed that in the last few days, even in the last couple of weeks, the profile of Fidel Castro has been lowered in all this. Any coordination that you're aware of between the U.S. government and the Cuban government in terms of orchestrating the appearance of this whole thing?

WALLACE: Well, the White House is trying to step back as much as possible and when you ask any questions like that they basically say this is a legal matter not a foreign policy or a State Department matter. They say it's a legal matter being handled through the Justice Department and the INS. The president throughout, Judy, you're well aware that he has avoided saying anything, trying to say as little as possible, trying not to politicize this.

The White House position is this case is really a custody case and an INS case and the president said in his remarks that he believes it's a case about a boy who the law, the federal law says should be reunited with his father -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: All right, CNN's Kelly Wallace at the White House. Thank you, Kelly.

We're going to take a very short break. When we come back, we're going to go to the area just outside the home where Lazaro Gonzalez, the great-uncle of Elian Gonzalez, lives. We'll be going directly to our Susan Candiotti.

We'll be right back.



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