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Attorney General Janet Reno Hold News Briefing on Removal of Protesters From Vieques Island

Aired May 4, 2000 - 9:30 a.m. ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: We're staying in touch right now and standing by for the attorney general, Janet Reno, and her weekly briefing with reporters. She's expected this morning to talk about the operation that took place earlier, before dawn today, on the small Puerto Rican island of Vieques. Federal agents removed dozens of protesters who had been camped out at a Navy bombing range for -- some of them for more than a year.

As we wait for the attorney general, let's go to the Pentagon and pick things up there with Jamie McIntyre for more on this.

Jamie, what are they saying about things thus far today?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN MILITARY AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Bill, the Pentagon and Navy officials are pleased and somewhat relieved that the law enforcement operation to clear the Navy bombing range in Vieques has apparently come off without any violent confrontations or any real problems. Already, several hundred marines have deployed to the island to fill in behind those marshals and begin setting up a security perimeter around the bombing range on the east end of the island -- Bill.

HEMMER: All right, Jamie, thank you.

Now, want to take you to that briefing. Attorney General Janet Reno has entered the building, and we shall listen.

JANET RENO, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Just over four hours ago, federal agents began removing a group of trespassers who have been unlawfully camped out on the U.S. naval base on the island of Vieques, just off the island of Puerto Rico.

The Navy and the Marines have used the base to conduct training and bombing exercises. According to the Department of the Navy, the training exercises it conducts on the range are critical to ensuring the readiness of our armed services. But for the past year, the presence of the trespassers have prevented use of the range. That is why the president and the Navy asked that federal law enforcement take steps to remove the trespassers from the military installation.

Today's action was conducted to fulfill an agreement reached last January between President Clinton and Puerto Rico's Governor Pedro Rossello. Under the agreement, the Navy can resume its training at the Vieques training range as long as it only uses inert bombs. In turn, the residents of Puerto Rico will be able to decide through a referendum whether all training must end in three years or whether it can continue indefinitely.

Throughout the morning, I have followed the developments on the island. I'm pleased that so far the operation has gone very, very smoothly.

Upon arriving on the island, federal agents advised trespassers that they must leave the naval installation. Those individuals who were detained are being transported to a detention center on the main island.

As of just a few moments ago, federal agents evicted approximately 140 trespassers, including more than 30 at the gate. All indications are that the protesters have handled themselves in a peaceful and dignified manner.

Once federal agents clear the trespassers at each of the sites, the Navy and the Marines will begin to secure the range and the adjoining coastline. Of the 12 camp sites, federal agents have secured eight. We estimate that there are only about 20 trespassers in the other four sites.

Additionally, the U.S. Coast Guard has in place a security zone to prevent additional boats from reaching the coastline. Today's action was taken with the full support of the government of Puerto Rico and the assistance of the police of Puerto Rico. It is the result of joint efforts of the FBI, U.S. Marshal Service, U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Custom Service.

I want to thank the federal agents who have participated in this operation. They have, so far as we have seen to date, handled themselves in the professional manner Americans have come to expect of our federal law enforcement.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, you mentioned that they were -- the protesters were there illegally. What law have they violated and will they all be charged?

RENO: The trespassers are in violation of federal trespass statute applicable to the military, Navy and Coast Guard properties. It's 18 U.S.C. Section 1382, and it provides whoever goes upon any military, naval or Coast Guard reservation, station or installation for any purpose prohibited by law or whoever reenters or is found within such installation, after having been removed or ordered not to reenter by any officer, shall be fined or imprisoned not more than six months or both.

In this instance, they will be taken to Puerto Rico, as I indicated, and unless they attempt to reenter or unless there is violence against a federal officer or some other charge, they will not be charged.

QUESTION: In other words, the 140 people taken into custody this morning, or at least removed from the island, will not be charged? RENO: Unless they attempt to reenter, or unless there are additional crimes involved in the trespass.

QUESTION: Why would you decide that?

RENO: Because we're trying to make sure that people understand that we intend to enforce the laws, but that we want to do so in a fair and measured way.

QUESTION: The FBI has made it known that they weren't overly enthusiastic about this mission. Did the military not have the authority to take this action on its own?

RENO: The military has the authority, but in this instance it was felt that law enforcement had more experience in a situation such as this, that it should be handled from a law enforcement perspective as opposed to a military perspective, and that it was part of the agreement that law enforcement handle it.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, several months ago, you argued pretty strenuously against having to deal with this, with the marshals, with the FBI. What is it that persuaded you in the intervening months to go ahead?

RENO: I think people have had an opportunity -- and what we had encouraged then, is that people sit down and talk, that we talk with the government of Puerto Rico. And I think we have seen the results in terms of a peaceful, orderly process.

QUESTION: Can you explain a little bit why, because I think some people had the impression that the military couldn't have done this operation because of posse comitatus rules. But legally, they could have, this was just a -- this was a matter of discretion?

RENO: As I understand it, the Navy, the Marines -- and I will ask Myron to correct me later if I'm wrong -- that they have the responsibility for securing a base.

If you go on to Andrews Air Force Base or some other base, there will be a guard posted, and they have the responsibility. For violation of the law, they take custody of the person and detain the person, and then turn them over to federal law enforcement authorities, either the marshal or some other federal agent.

And in this instance -- so they have the authority to secure the base, and they will in this instance secure this installation. But the actual processing is done by federal law enforcement authorities.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, everybody will be making the inevitable conclusions -- or the inevitable comparisons between this action and the enforcement action several weeks ago in Little Havana to remove Elian Gonzalez. What was the difference between the two? In one, there was a considerable show of force. In this one, there was a very minimal show of force. Were emotions just lower? Did you have any reports of weapons among the demonstrators? RENO: Each case has to be taken on a case-by-case basis. Again, as was indicated previously, we had worked on this. The Navy had been working with local authorities. We had been working with people trying to understand the situation. And we were met with receptivity to the fact that, look, we want to express our feelings about this.

From the information we had developed -- and, again, I want to stress that it's not all done yet -- but the information we were able to develop indicated that people wanted to peacefully, react and yet they wanted to indicate their opposition by being taken into custody.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, I understand that Director Freeh had argued that the U.S. attorney's office should obtain a court order, just to order the protesters to cease and desist. Why did you not go through that way?

RENO: What Director Freeh indicated to me that he wanted was a court order and, as I pointed out to him, and I think as he agreed, the law is very clear that you cannot trespass on federal military installations. And I think the conclusion was that this could be -- a court order would not be necessary.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, why not just wait for the -- was there any consideration given to waiting on law enforcement action until the voters on the island of Vieques had the chance to decide through referendum what the status would be? Why now?

RENO: That was an issue that I inquired about, and the response that I understand the Navy has made is that they need the facility during these next three years.

HEMMER: Janet Reno describing what she considers a smooth operation. This, the removal of several protesters on the small Puerto Rican island of Vieques earlier this morning. The raid took place about 5:15 a.m. Eastern time today right before the sun came up on that small island. Janet Reno now saying 143 trespassers have been picked up. In her words, they have been "detained" at this time, will be transported to a detention center on the main island of Puerto Rico.

In all, 12 campsites were believed to be set up throughout the island. Eight of them have been secured, which, according to Janet Reno, who says 20 protesters still thought to be in the remaining four campsites. Interestingly enough, those detained will not be arrested and charged. Instead, they will only be charged if they attempt to reenter the island.

Again, Vieques said to be a smooth operation that took place just about four hours ago.



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