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Janet Reno Holds Weekly News Conference, Addresses Raid to Recover Elian Gonzalez

Aired April 27, 2000 - 9:30 a.m. ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, though, we are going to take you to Washington, Justice Department, Attorney General Janet Reno right now about to meet with reporters. We expect more on the Elian Gonzalez matter as the legal chess game continues.

Here is Ms. Reno.

QUESTION: May I ask you about the -- some scholars -- I guess notably Lawrence Tribe from Harvard -- and there's a boom shadow in the picture, thank you very much -- has written that the department's justification for obtaining the warrant was insufficient, not that the agents acted improperly but that the legal underpinnings of getting the warrant were insufficient because there was no crime. And he said there should have been probable cause of a crime to get a warrant. What is your view on that?

JANET RENO, ATTORNEY GENERAL: We disagree with him.

QUESTION: For what reason?

RENO: All of these issues are -- we presented this to the magistrate, and I think the best way to do that is in response -- in careful response, and I will ask Myron to give you the details.

QUESTION: But is it fair to say that the way the department obtained the warrant here is not unusual?

RENO: This was a most unusual situation.

QUESTION: Attorney General Reno, several members of Congress have indicated that they want to hold hearings on this matter. You've been focused throughout in your comments and statements on what you feel is in the best interest of the child. Do you feel it would be in the best interest of the child for Congress to hold hearings on this matter as early as next week?

RENO: That would be up to Congress.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, Greg Craig, on behalf of Juan Miguel, filed a brief yesterday asking that Juan Miguel should be the legal representation of Elian Gonzalez in place of Lazaro. Has the Justice taken a formal position on that? Do you support that? And will you be filing anything with the court? RENO: Anything we say with respect to the court should be said to the court.

QUESTION: Have you had discussions with Greg Craig about whether or not...

RENO: Again, this is a matter that is before the court and should be litigated there.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, what is the department's role now in controlling or deciding or having any influence whatsoever in terms of the people who visit with the father and the son, that kind of thing? Do you play any role there?

RENO: Again, these are issues that are before the court, and I think should be properly discussed there.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, how difficult will it be for you to return home?

RENO: It won't be difficult at all.

QUESTION: Can you talk a little bit more about that in light of the recent weeks, in light of protests on your lawn and the like?

RENO: What is there to talk about? It's my home.

QUESTION: It is your home.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, what -- the Miami mayor is complaining that you should give them a little bit more time. Is there any particular reason you felt you needed to go Saturday morning rather than Monday or Tuesday? And do you think that you all were so far apart at that point Saturday, it was just you -- you were still talking to them at 4:00, so what happened?

RENO: At 4:00 they indicated that the requirement that he go to Washington or some place outside the state of Florida would be a deal breaker. And I said -- I had made the point that within that same week, at least two lawyers had, for the Miami family, had indicated that they would go anywhere except to the Cuban Interests Section and to the Bethesda home, one said.

RENO: And I said, they've indicated that they're willing to. And he said, no, this would be a deal breaker. And then he came back to me indicating that one said he hadn't said it and the other wasn't authorized to say it. And I had the feeling that we were in the same position that we had been in with the goal post changing. And that it was at this point, if it were a deal breaker, we should bring the negotiations to an end.

QUESTION: And was Mr. Podhurst who told you it was a deal breaker?

RENO: Yes.

QUESTION: Were there specific safety issues? Or was it just a matter of this isn't going anywhere so we need to take action?

RENO: This was the most appropriate time to take action with the least crowd. And what influenced us, because people have talked about it and they've said, well, why move now. They had always -- we had started out early on when the matters were first developing to say, look, we will agree to the appeals process if you will agree to peacefully turn the child over at the conclusion of the process, if we prevail. They refused to do that.

It wasn't going to get any better. They had at one point said we won't -- if you come, we will just stand aside and let you take the child. That was easier said than done because you would had the situation where a crowd was gathered regularly that would be very difficult for people to move through, even if the family had stood aside and said you can take the child.

RENO: But the family then started talking in the last days about you're going to have to use force to take the child. Thus we were faced with the situation where they had refused even when -- if the court had ruled for us, or ultimately ruled for us, where they were still refusing to peacefully transfer the child.

We had a situation where there were very few people outside the house that morning. We had the situation where if we did not go, people were sure to find out that we were prepared to go and the crowd would gather and keep a vigil and make it more difficult for the future. And this seemed to be the safest time possible to effect the transfer.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, I'm going to move a little ahead on the chronology. What do you know -- what has been reported to you about Elian's willingness to be with his father, to go to Cuba with his father, is any of this being reported to you?

RENO: I think it's important, again, that any of these matters be set forth in pleadings before the court. These are matters that are before the court now, and I think that's where some appropriate statements should be made.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, has Juan Miguel contacted you since the raid to...


QUESTION: Ms. Reno, on the topic of any weapons in the house, Fidel Castro in the speech last Saturday said that he informed the U.S. government that Lazaro Gonzalez had a pistol. Did you use this information as part of your intelligence?

RENO: I'm sorry I did not under...

QUESTION: Fidel Castro in a speech last Saturday said that the Cuban government informed the U.S. government that Lazaro Gonzalez had a pistol on his back. I'm asking whether this information was considered, accepted as part of your intelligence?

RENO: I know nothing about such information.

QUESTION: Would you consider the information from Fidel Castro as an intelligence that you could use?

RENO: I don't know anything about such information.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, back on the question of the family's initial statement to the Justice Department that they would offer no resistance if you came, what actually happened when the INS agents came to the door? Was there resistance?

RENO: As I understand it, people tried to throw ropes around the agents as they went into the house and obstruct their entry into the house. A couch was pushed up against the door to limit entry into the house.

QUESTION: Is that why they used the battering?

RENO: That's correct. That's as I understand it.

QUESTION: And do you know anything about reports that Betty Mills, the female INS agent who actually picked Elian up, was at one point pushed down?

RENO: There was at first a report that she was pushed down as she was entering the house. That I am told was not true. She was grabbed as she was carrying Elian out of the house. She, I'm told, almost went down but was grabbed and was also able to pull herself up. But was grabbed by the agent who appears in the picture behind her and they then proceeded to the van.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, what else occurred inside the house?

QUESTION: Can you verify that the agent who's in that picture had the safety on his weapon?

RENO: I am told that he did.

QUESTION: Is it true...


QUESTION: ... been avoided of the armed agent confronting Elian in the closet? Do you think that there was a way to avoid that and should it have been avoided?

RENO: Of the armed agent confronting Elian in the closet?

QUESTION: The photo that now everyone is seeing around the world. Was there a possibility to avoid that situation?

RENO: To avoid the situation of the photo?

QUESTION: Of that moment. Was there another way of handling that? RENO: We looked at everything that we could do to make sure that it was done safely and yet with the least impact on Elian. Clearly, the agents had to be enforced. Elian was being held by this person and there had to be a show of force, not a use of force, to show that we were in control. I think that was done carefully and thoughtfully based on the information that has been provided to me to date.

With respect to the camera, I was told that cameras were in the house, that probably much of this would be filmed. We knew that there would be pictures that would graphically display what was happening. And we went head with it, again, based on how, when and where we could safely effect the transfer of the child.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, the family has complained that the agents went in cursing and yelling, using rough language towards the family. Have you received any report about that?

RENO: I'm told that they did not.

QUESTION: Was the bedroom door locked in the room where Elian was being held in the closet?

RENO: I don't know.

QUESTION: The American people, by about a margin of practically 2-1 have come out in support of the reuniting of Elian with his father, the action that you took last week. Why do you believe that the American people have supported you so strongly in this action? And how does that make you feel after what's been a long and difficult decision-making and negotiating process?

RENO: I don't think the American people are supporting me, per se. I think they're supporting an effort that was patient, that tried in every way -- every one involved knew how to effect a voluntary transfer, a peaceful transfer. And then I think the American people thought the law should be upheld, upheld in the safest way possible. They don't like the picture anymore than I do; they don't like the thought of having to take a little boy to his father in this fashion anymore than I do.

But it was -- I think one of the things is that they had a chance to see it and to understand that in a law enforcement situation like that, it may not be the prettiest thing in the world but it is effective and it proves to be effective here.

RENO: And I think the reason they are supporting the actions of an awful lot of people is that they have watched a father and a son come together again.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, there have been reports that the Miami relatives didn't believe your deadline because you had let previous deadlines pass. Do you think that was the case?

RENO: Based on all the information that we had, they thought that they could ignore us. And we had tried to be very patient with them to effect a voluntary transfer, and then the time comes when the law must be enforced.

QUESTION: Were you surprised with what you wee seeing from the family over time? In terms of the overtures that you felt you were making, were you surprised that they just didn't respond to it?

RENO: I don't think surprise would...

QUESTION: What would it be?

RENO: My feeling from the beginning has been that this little boy has been through so much. He lost his mother. He was found floating in the Gulf Stream. He came to live with distant relatives. He has been a center of attention, noisy attention from crowds.

RENO: My feeling is that he deserves peace and quiet, he deserves to be with his daddy and he deserves to have his life move on.

And I hope that we can all come to the point where the family can ultimately sit down, work out their differences if possible, and make it possible for people to keep in touch with the little boy in constructive, positive ways through appropriate contact, through appropriate communication.

Raising children is the single most difficult thing, I know, to do. It takes hard work, love, intelligence and an awful lot of luck. This little boy has had a lot of bad luck along the way, but he's still resilient, he's still strong, he's still a smiling little boy.

I think it's time for everybody to sit down and just take a moment to think about him.

QUESTION: As you gave the final word Saturday morning, what went through your mind?

RENO: How he would feel suddenly being put in the arms of a stranger, what would he think, how frightened would he be. And I kept thinking, I wish that I could see him when his daddy gets on the plane.

QUESTION: Marisleysis Gonzalez has said that she would like to have a meeting with you. Has anyone in the past week contacted anyone from the family, their representatives contacted you or your office, to have such a meeting? Would you entertain such an idea?

RENO: Not to my knowledge. You're the second person that has raised it, and I checked the last time it was raised and nobody has contacted the office.

QUESTION: Given how unusual this whole process has been, do you anticipate that there'll be some sort of in-house review, once the whole legal process is done, into the immigration policies, INS handling, negotiating strategy, the raid itself, et cetera? Or will you leave that to Congress if they decide to hold hearings?

RENO: We do an after-action in situations such as this, and we always, in any circumstance, try to learn what can be done for the future.

QUESTION: Mr. Craig said, in his motion filed in court yesterday, that the interests of the Justice Department do not necessarily intercept with the interests of the boy's father, and that's the reason the father is entering litigation. As the litigation continues, do you expect your lawyers to work with the lawyers for the father? Do you think that his statement is correct, that there was not an interception of interests?

RENO: There are clearly different interests involved.

QUESTION: And are your lawyers going to work with his lawyers?

RENO: It will depend...

QUESTION: Can you elaborate on what those different interests are?

RENO: I think it's better that the matter be litigated through pleadings filed with the court.

QUESTION: Did you say...

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, do you think you talked too long? Do you think you should have moved two weeks or three weeks before you did? Or do you feel that you had to let this time run, to satisfy your own desires for fairness?

RENO: It turned out just fine, and I think one never knows what the appropriate timing is. Some people say it wasn't two or three weeks; you should have moved much earlier.

RENO: In this situation, people have had the opportunity to appeal, to seek their day in court, in family court. And the family court in Florida said this matter is something that should be handled under federal law.

We can look back on it and say that the processes and the rule of law have been given an opportunity to work. One never knows when the best time was because you only choose one time.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, were you saying, back several questions ago, that it would be in Elian's best interest as far as you can see that he would be able to see his Miami relatives again before he leaves the country, something like a closure on the whole incident of his being taken from their home?

RENO: I don't think it is a closure.

QUESTION: OK, what is it?

RENO: I think it will be up to experts to tell us what is the best thing to do. But I think it's important for everybody involved to take some quiet time for us all, and to put the little boy first. And as time goes by, make arrangements -- and I don't know how this will turn out -- but try to make arrangements for the cousins to see each other, for visitation for the future.

RENO: I can't imagine that Marisleysis will be out of his life. I mean, you could look at them and see a connection.

And as the experts and others work with the family, my hope is that the pieces of Elian's life can come together in a way that will be most positive for him, most enduring, and so that he will look back on this time with as little pain as possible.

QUESTION: Will you or Justice intercede for the Miami family, the cousins, at all, to have availability to visit Elian?

RENO: I think we need to talk with the experts about how we best handle a transition.

QUESTION: Can you tell us anything more about what you were doing at the moment that this raid came down? For example, Mr. Podhurst said that he was on the phone with you. Who were you talking to? How you were getting your information? And did you have -- or did you watch any of it on television?

RENO: Mr. Podhurst and I had talked. He asked if he could put me on hold at about five minutes past 5:00. And my recollection is -- minutes, more or less -- that I was on hold till about 5:15 when he came back on the phone. Almost immediately thereafter, the INS agents entered.

QUESTION: And how did you first learn that Elian had been safely removed from the house, and what were you thinking of, how did you feel at that moment?

RENO: Doris Meissner told me, and I was greatly relieved.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, speaking of Elian's future, if -- once back in Cuba, will he have as many opportunities as a 6-year-old who grows up in the United States?

RENO: I don't know. I don't know what the future holds for Cuba.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, has the episode in any way changed your relationship with your Cuban counterparts or given you an understanding of how they work?

RENO: My Cuban counterparts?

QUESTION: Well, Cuban government officials who've been also involved, obviously, in trying to get the little boy back to his father?

RENO: I don't have a relationship really with my Cuban counterparts.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, just for a moment on Microsoft. I realize the department will be speaking in court about what the right next step is, but I have a question about the process. Department officials were discussing their proposed...

HEMMER: Janet Reno meeting with reporters on this Thursday morning, the first in-depth we have heard from the attorney general since that raid took place in Little Havana, the Miami section of the neighborhood in Southern Florida last Saturday morning. A lot of emotion in Janet Reno's voice, precious few new details. We did learn, however, about the questions about why that particular time was taken early on Saturday morning before the sun came up. Janet Reno saying, at the time, there were very few people outside the home at that time, and it seemed to be the safest time for a transfer of the boy.

Also, saying questions about whether or not there were barricades set up around that house, Janet Reno indicating, and we have heard reports about this over the past five days, that ropes were put up to block INS officials from coming into the home, also reports about a couch being stuck behind the door, Janet Reno reporting that as well this morning.

But her feeling from the beginning, according to the attorney general, was that Elian Gonzalez deserves peace and quite, in her words, deserves to be with his daddy, and deserves to have his life move on.

Also questions about whether or not Marisleysis and the other Miami relatives will see Elian Gonzalez, she says she will consult with the experts, but sees no way why in the future a reunion can't be met at some point.

While all this takes place in Washington, there are legal implications as well, a court case in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta continues, before it announces its decision on what the future may be for this boy. There are expected May 11 on that decision. We will see, though, if that date stands pat.

In the meantime, for more information you can always go on-line,, for complete information as this story continues.



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