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Attorney General Reno Comments on Elian Gonzalez's Return to Cuba

Aired June 29, 2000 - 9:35 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: One person's opinion we are looking forward to hearing: Attorney General Janet Reno. She is having her weekly media briefing, and we just received the one-minute warning. It looks like the reporters in the room at the Justice Department are getting ready. The attorney general is sitting down.

We will go ahead and listen in to Mr. Reno has to say.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, you've had a pretty spectacular week...

(LAUGHTER)

... to say the least. Victories on all fronts in the courts, Capitol Hill, the Elian matter. What happens now?

JANET RENO, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I don't know that I would describe them as victories. But there's a lot more to do, and I want to focus on issues that are of concern to everybody, and at the same time, I want to go to see the tall ships in New York harbor.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, what are your thoughts on the Gonzalez matter, now that it's finally dissolved?

RENO: You think back over -- I was in Miami and I looked at a copy of The Herald the day he -- reporting on how he was pulled from the water. And I thought, what a remarkable little boy and what a sad situation, a tragedy. And it's a mixture of so many different things: a little boy who lost his mother, a country that is not free. It is one of the few countries that is not a democratic nation in this hemisphere. It's a story of families that have disagreements. It is a story of so much of human life. And yet, in the end, he is with his father, and I am glad of that. I just wish he were with his father in a democratic, free country.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, the Cuban government has made clear that Elian is not going straight back to Cardenas and his school, but is going to go to some special school for a couple of months where he will be seen by different psychiatrists and other mental health workers. Doesn't this sort of smack of a re-education or re- indoctrination camp?

RENO: I don't know what will be involved. But again I say, it's -- I think, as you look at him with his father, it is wonderful that they can now move on with their life. And his father has made the decision, as I think he must have, under the law.

QUESTION: Did you hold out some faint hope up until the end that Juan Miguel might decide to stay here?

RENO: One can always hope.

QUESTION: Do you think that Juan Miguel really had an opportunity to opt for coming to this country, coming to this democracy?

RENO: Yes, he did.

QUESTION: He did.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, did you see the departure? And what was your reaction as you watched?

RENO: Just what I reflected on now.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, in hindsight is there anything you might have done differently to have ended this earlier than seven months in the way of negotiations, diplomacy, et cetera?

RENO: I don't know what else could have been done. I go over it regularly.

QUESTION: What particular lessons did you get from this ordeal?

RENO: I don't think that there is any lesson, because I don't think we'll ever see anything quite like this again.

QUESTION: Were you surprised, Ms. Reno -- you've been around a long, long time. Were you surprised at the tenacity -- the tenaciousness with which the Miami relatives pursued this in court?

RENO: No.

QUESTION: Why not?

RENO: They believe strongly in their cause, and they wanted to pursue it till the end and they had the opportunity to do so.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, how do you go about "healing the wounds," I think is the way you described it earlier, with the Miami-Cuban exile community and can you?

RENO: I don't know whether I can. I would like to think that I can. Some of the messages that I get from them indicate maybe I can't, but I am devoted to that community. I believe in it. I believe in its caring nature, and I'm going to do everything I can to heal it. I don't know whether it will be possible, but I say to all of those that are speaking sharply and are feeling hurt, I would like to talk to you. I would like to let you know just how much I care about you and care about the community and what it has done for a city I love. QUESTION: Ms. Reno, were there any discussions about Juan Miguel or anything that he initiated or the government initiated to try to get him to stay while he was waiting here in D.C., anything that you can share with us?

RENO: What was your question again, that Juan Miguel...

QUESTION: Did he initiate any conversation, express any interest at all in learning more about what he would have to do in order to...

RENO: No, he didn't.

QUESTION: He did not, not at all?

RENO: Not to my knowledge.

QUESTION: But isn't it correct that in his meeting with you, someone brought up the subject? It was made clear to him at the time that he was sitting in front of the attorney general that he had this opportunity, wasn't it?

RENO: I think the question was: Did he raise anything?

QUESTION: Right. And I'm asking the opposite question: Was it ever presented to him that he had this option?

RENO: The subject came up. He was sitting right there, and he said he wanted to go home.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... about the future of Cuba and what would happen. I think at one point you made a 20-year time reference. Now that Elian is back on the ground in Cuba, what role will he play in determining the course of Cuba's events over the next decade or so? Do you think he'll play a personal role in what happens?

RENO: Do you think he will what?

QUESTION: Play a personal role, as a symbol, as somebody who's been to the United States, as somebody who's been year for a year, somebody who's been brought over?

RENO: I don't know what role he will play, but the role I wish for him is an opportunity to grow up in a strong and healthy and free fashion, able to speak and think what he believes to be true, able to thrive.

RENO: He's a pretty special little boy.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, in reviewing the regulations as you all had to do, to look at what happens with a 6-year-old seeking asylum, did that process of realizing that there is -- as the government said in its own legal briefs, there's a gap in the law. Did that -- is there any thought being given now to new regulations for what would guide children when they seek asylum? RENO: We're following up, we're having our regular INS biweekly. And one of the questions I want to ask is, what if anything, should be done. Not just that issue, I mean, I'm just asking the general issue. Because, it is clear that -- where do you draw the line between a 6- year-old and a 12-year-old? How do you make these judgments? And I think before this case is too far removed in terms of the details, that we look at it in that connection.

QUESTION: Do you think it might be useful to have a regulation spelling out at which ages a child could or could not make...

RENO: I think it's going to depend on the child.

QUESTION: So, in that case, you wouldn't want to spell out the age?

RENO: I don't know. All I want to do is, try to do what I've always done after something that raises issues and disagreements, just sit down and see if there is anything that we can do.

QUESTION: Who will you be asking for recommendations from your people on what might work in the way of new regulations?

RENO: I'll ask what I usually ask, what you've all asked me this morning.

QUESTION: Do you think in the future there should be some type of family court intervention or participation in such a case?

RENO: I think the court has spelled out -- the family court in Miami spelled out the fact that this is a federal issue and should be determined federally.

QUESTION: Well, do you think there should be a change in the federal law or regulations?

RENO: Again, I think it's a federal matter and should be determined federally. And what I indicated previously was that we will be looking at it to see if there is any lesson learned, anything that should be done.

QUESTION: The cost figures that were provided yesterday indicated that nearly $2 million had been spent by this department for security and other things related to Elian's stay. Was there ever discussion of any limits or at any point did you talk about the resources that were being devoted? Or was that simply never an issue?

RENO: What we were trying to do was to abide by the court order to make sure that everything was in place to ensure that he did not depart the country.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, did you receive any threats personally during the course of this matter?

RENO: I didn't receive any.

QUESTION: Was anything passed on to the Justice Department?

RENO: I don't know.

QUESTION: FBI?

RENO: I don't know.

QUESTION: There were some pretty strong feelings. Even though you can't name specifically, you don't -- you're not aware of any hard feelings expressed?

RENO: I think there were some hard feelings expressed, and I think they were expressed because of the intensity of feeling. Again, I've spent many, many years with the Cuban community in Miami. They can speak sharply. They can speak very sharply to you on the radio, and then you will see them later and they'll give you a big hug or they will bring you Cuban pastries or Cuban bread.

This hurt may go too deep, which I will regret, but I still have to do what I think is right under the law. And I think that this little boy's father should speak for him, and I think he should be with his father.

QUESTION: On the other matter that had you before the cameras this week and that was Tuesday's hearing...

QUESTION: Speaking of hard feelings.

QUESTION: At one point, Senator Specter said you should have appointed an independent counsel for Vice President Gore based on one standard of evidence. And you corrected him and said he was citing the standard to trigger a preliminary investigation, not the appointment of an independent counsel. That struck me as rather odd since Senator Specter has been at this more than three years in two different committees.

QUESTION: I was wondering, do you think he was being deceitful, or did he just make a mistake?

RENO: I don't think Senator Specter would consciously ever be deceitful.

QUESTION: Well, how do you know when a politician, or anyone for that matter, is making a false statement or a -- about an event or an interpretation of an event or a recollection?

RENO: Not in his context, but you -- if you make a false statement, you've got to do so knowingly, knowing that it was false, and by your comments and by other evidence you can prove a case.

But I first met Senator Specter long before I came to Washington. He can provoke me, he can say some harsh things. But deceitful, I don't think Senator Specter is. And even in the midst of his harshness he can be very thoughtful.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, have you initiated a leak investigation, or are you still contemplating a leak investigation on the source of the leak on the Conrad recommendation?

RENO: I have no comment on that.

QUESTION: Last week I believe you said that you were reviewing the matter.

RENO: I have no comment.

QUESTION: On Senator Torricelli's opening remarks the other day, do you resent the implication on Capitol Hill that you're playing politics and acting to protect fellow members of the administration? Do you resent that implication?

RENO: As hard as I try to keep politics out, when people insinuate that politics are involved in my decisions or that I'm trying to protect people, I get frustrated. But what I have tried to do is just keep...

KAGAN: We've been listening to Attorney General Janet Reno, apparently the attorney general right now distracted by some kind of audio problem inside the room at the Justice Department, where she is holding her weekly media briefing.

This meeting today was the first time we have heard from the attorney general since yesterday when Elian Gonzalez returned to Cuba with his father. The attorney general commenting that in the end, she is very glad that Elian Gonzalez is with his father. She does wish that the family was able to live in a free and democratic society and a country, but all along Juan Miguel Gonzalez insisted he wanted to go home to Cuba.

She also said there were no lessons learned from this because she doesn't think the U.S. will ever see another case like one faced with Elian Gonzalez.

And on the question of the call for an independent investigation of campaign finance matters of Vice President Al Gore, the attorney general once again keeping her no comment status on a matter that is still under consideration.

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