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Sen. Lott Expects Hearings to Be Held Next Week Over Justice Department and INS Actions in Gonzalez Case

Aired April 25, 2000 - 3:37 p.m. ET


BOBBIE BATTISTA, CNN ANCHOR: Let me interrupt for just a second here, I'm sorry Melanie, but Senator Trent Lott, the majority leader, is speaking to the press.

SEN. TRENT LOTT (R-MS), MAJORITY LEADER: Do I need to wait a couple of minutes? OK, well, thank you.

As you know, a bipartisan group of senators met this morning with Attorney General Janet Reno, with the assistant attorney general or deputy attorney general, Eric Holder, and Ms. Meissner, head of INS. I emphasize that it was a bipartisan group with the chairman and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, the chairman and ranking member of the subcommittee with appropriations jurisdiction in this area, as well as other interested senators like Senator Mack and Senator Graham of Florida, Senator Torricelli of New Jersey, Senator Smith of New Hampshire. So there was a broad cross- section from the Senate.

The purpose of our meeting was to try to get some quick answers to exactly what occurred last week. There was a lot of question and questioning of the attorney general about the state of the negotiations that had been going on right up until the actual hour that the force went in to seize Elian Gonzalez. And we wanted to know more about, you know, how those negotiations were proceeding. We had also some information about earlier negotiations and what had been happening there.

And we felt like that it needed to be clarified, because if negotiations were going on and they were very close to some sort of agreement, then why was force used? And so there were a number of questions in that general area.

There were also questions about why the decision was made that force had to be used at this particular point and on this particular day. I asked the attorney general, you had indicated -- or she had indicated that they might go in either on Saturday or on Monday or some later date.

Also, the question was, why didn't we at least wait until the appellate court had heard the case and perhaps had some ruling? My major concern at this point, and even on Saturday, was why was force like this used? Wasn't there some way that this could be avoided? Wasn't there a more peaceful way that this could be handled? When you're dealing with families and children, it seems to me as long as there is any hope that a reconciliation can be worked out, an agreement can be worked out that you should pursue that before you use force like we saw on Saturday morning.

We also wanted to ask the fundamental question, well, what now? What is the condition of young Elian. You know, who is there with him? Are the Cuban operatives in the area? Are they allowed to come and go? I asked specifically, Is there a plan afoot to -- for the father and young Elian to go back to Cuba in the near future or will you at least wait until the court proceedings have been completed? And we did get an indication that they would wait for the courts to act.

Everybody I know would like to see this matter resolved as peacefully now and amicably for all concerned as possible. I know the American people worry about this young boy and what is his condition. I know most Americans feel like he should be with his father, but they are worried about, you know, what will be his condition and will he be taken back to Cuba and what will happen to him when he gets there.

But I thought it was important that we ask the attorney general to come up and give us some answers to these questions preliminarily. And she did that.

I felt like a number of the questions were not adequately answered, particularly: Why did you use this amount of force at this particular time? Why did it have to be done that day?

When negotiations are going on, and there is even an indication by some of the independent negotiators that they were making some progress, why would you say, all right, it's over, on a particular day? On the Saturday of Easter weekend?

Usually, if you're negotiating and making progress, you keep working at it, and that is a critical question for me.

I have talked to Senator Hatch and to other senators about the need for some hearings to get more information about legal questions that were raised during this meeting, and also to get more information about the negotiations and the use of force and exactly what was the -- you know, why was that done? Were there laws being broken? Apparently not, so why was the decision made to go forward?

This is just a part of a process for Congress to make sure that it fulfills its role to ask questions about how the laws are being used or in this case, many of us feel, abused, and to make sure that there's not going to be a rush to judgment or a rash act before the courts have had an opportunity to rule in this matter.

And so that's the present status. I don't expect anything more to occur relating to the Justice Department or INS this week, but I do expect hearings to occur, probably in the first part of the next week.

I'll be glad to respond to your questions.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) appearance before the Judiciary Committee? LOTT: Yes, before the Judiciary Committee.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Reno and her deputies who will be appearing?

LOTT: I -- they do not have a witness list yet, but in order for those hearings to take place Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, they had to get started this week. It could involve, and I assume it would involve, a number of other witnesses like perhaps the negotiators, the attorney Podhurst and the Miami University president, Foote (ph), and perhaps others.

I didn't want to suggest a list, but I would assume it would involve the attorney general and perhaps the head of INS, Ms. Meissner, and the people that were involved -- I think there was a third person involved in the independent negotiations. Perhaps some of the family members, perhaps some of their attorneys. I think some of it will go to legal questions about who now is the attorney for young Elian in the proceedings before the appellate court, for instance?

So that will be up, though, to Chairman Hatch and the key members of the Judiciary Committee, including Senator Specter, and I believe those were the two that were there this morning.

QUESTION: Senator, given the poll showing support for the attorney general's actions on Saturday, you run the risk that the Republicans are (OFF-MIKE)

LOTT: I don't believe that the American people approved of the kind of action they saw Saturday morning. I think that they feel that that was excessive in the way it was handled.

I think that that is the main point that really disturbed them and they might feel like, Well, you know, we'd like to see the young boy with his father. We'd like to see this come to a reasonable conclusion. But then you get into a lot of questions. I mean, how -- what is a reasonable conclusion?

But the thing that bothers me the most is under what law were they proceeding? What laws were being broken? And why did they go in with that show of force, as they call it -- I call it user force, when you bring in 130 Border Patrol and I guess marshals and eight go into that house and storm in the way they did -- I just keep asking the question, was that necessary? And I think most Americans would ask that same question

BATTISTA: Senator Trent Lott reiterating some of the questions that were posed to Attorney General Janet Reno this morning when she met with a group of bipartisan senators: questions like what laws, you heard him just ask a few moments ago, were being broken; the state of the negotiations when the operation went down; why did force need to be used, and why on that particular day; and who -- why not wait until the court had ruled on the matter of Elian Gonzalez.

He said that he personally did not feel that a number of those questions were adequately answered and he expected hearings to begin next week in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.



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