April 19, 2000

For Reno, Elian Case Is Extremely Personal

By David A. Vise. Washington Post Staff Writer. Wednesday, April 19, 2000; Page A04

She is the first to arrive and the last to leave, routinely putting in 14-hour days at the Justice Department, much of it on the Elian Gonzalez matter, leaving her colleagues to wonder whether Attorney General Janet Reno has lost her way.

Reno is spending so much of her time these days focused on the plight of 6-year-old Elian--and the best way to transfer control of the child from his Miami relatives to his Cuban father--that she has lost perspective on the matter, people familiar with her handling of the case said.

Reno is, according to high-ranking officials who are working closely with her, so deeply and personally involved in every decision, and so preoccupied by the case, that even they do not know what her next move will be.

According to people who have spoken to Reno, the attorney general's deliberate and intense focus on the Gonzalez matter stems directly from the influence of the Waco debacle seven years ago today, and from her close ties to Miami. She served as that city's chief prosecutor for many years, and has relationships that have left her convinced that she is personally better qualified than anyone else to break the impasse over the child, they said.

While Reno has briefed President Clinton on the Gonzalez matter in a phone call, Clinton has told the attorney general she is in charge of the case and has left decision-making up to her, sources familiar with their discussion said.

Reno's Justice Department colleagues are questioning the attorney general for repeatedly saying she will invoke the rule of law by taking Elian from his Miami relatives but failing to follow through.

"Those are the kinds of conversations taking place in the hallways of the Department of Justice," a source familiar with the attorney general's handling of the matter said. "Is Reno naive? Is she too close to the situation? Is she letting Waco dictate her reaction to this situation? Is her internal desire for consensus and conciliation causing inaction here?" Reno makes no excuses for her deep personal involvement.

"This attorney general is determined to see Elian returned to his father. But if she is the one responsible for the outcome, she is going to do everything she can to accomplish that in a way that is least disruptive to the child," said Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin. "If the law enforcement option is the only viable course of action, she is prepared to take it."

Reno has acknowledged she was out of the loop on the confrontation with the Branch Davidian sect near Waco, Tex., in 1993, relying heavily on the FBI, when 75 people died at the conclusion of the siege while Reno delivered a speech in Baltimore. She has vowed never to allow another important decision involving life and death matters to be made without her personal involvement.

Inside her fifth-floor office suite at the Justice Department, Reno is playing her cards close to the vest. Those working alongside the attorney general are not certain what she will do after the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules on the question of whether Elian must remain in the United States or can return to Cuba pending a final ruling on a federal order to turn over custody to his father.

"This is not an institutional Department of Justice process. This is a Janet Reno decision," a source familiar with the attorney general's handling of the matter said. "People are trying to get into Janet Reno's mind to decide what she is going to do and when. People who know Janet Reno well know that is impossible because she holds her own counsel, and she bases a lot of her decisions of this nature on gut instinct. A big part of that is who Janet Reno is, and a big part is her experience with Waco."

Jamie Gorelick, who served as Reno's deputy and respects Reno's abilities, said the attorney general is doing her best to handle a delicate matter without inflaming the situation. Reno will answer questions about her handling of the Gonzalez matter at her weekly news briefing today, which also is the fifth anniversary of the deadly bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.

"April is the cruelest month for Janet Reno," Gorelick said. "She deferred [to the FBI] in Waco and that was a powerful lesson. She is going to make sure she goes the extra mile to ensure a peaceful and sensible resolution."

Inside Justice and around the country, many people say Reno blundered by flying to Miami last week to negotiate a resolution without also being prepared to send in federal marshals to seize the child. By trusting the Miami relatives who have cared for the boy for months, Reno damaged her credibility, current and former Justice Department officials said.

"She is a reasonable person and thinks the people she deals with in virtually all circumstances are reasonable," said Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department inspector general. "She stresses communication and cooperation and has this idealistic view that if she can get people with different points of view in a room, they can come to an agreement or accord.

"I feel bad for her because her heart is in the right place, but so far tolerance and believing the best of people has not achieved the result that she or anybody else would have liked."

Philip Brenner, a professor of international relations at American University, said Reno erred by failing to act sooner, when she had the chance to treat Elian Gonzalez as a "routine case."

"They allowed the political pressure to mount and made it more difficult to act," Brenner said. "They created the situation by delay."

But Robert M. Bryant, former deputy director of the FBI and a veteran of law enforcement negotiations, said Reno is in a tough position that allows for easy second-guessing of her every move. He said she knows it is critical to avoid hasty actions in Miami, where zealous anti-Castro demonstrators remain on alert for any attempt to remove Elian.

"She would look at it from a human [perspective] and what is best for the child, even though it is politically unpopular in a city she has many connections to, and she also is going to follow the law. She is very legalistic and should be as attorney general. She is doing what she believes to be right."

Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist with Carnegie-Mellon University, said Reno is wise to proceed cautiously, because sending in federal marshals to seize the child is likely to trigger violence. He said the lessons of Waco appear to be on "her mind where people kept heckling about delay and people moved more quickly and the consequences were very undesirable and led to violence that might have been averted."

But Irwin Redlener, a professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York who has been advising Reno, warned that any further delay would harm the child. "Elian Gonzalez is now in a state of imminent danger to his physical and emotional well-being in a home that I consider to be psychologically abusive," Redlener wrote to Reno. "It has gone on far too long."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company



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