Commentary

Pity Florida, Janet Reno Wants to Govern It

Janet Reno is back. She recently announced her intention to unseat Jeb Bush and become Florida’s next governor. Like Bill and Hillary Clinton, this woman is nothing if not audacious.

To succeed in her quest for the governor’s office, Reno must spin her disastrous tenure as attorney general into something that was innocuous. But we must never forget that Reno presided over the worst disaster in the history of American law enforcement — Waco. More than 70 men, women, and children lost their lives when Reno approved an FBI assault on the Branch Davidian residence in 1993. Reno was hailed for “taking responsibility,” but she launched a cover-up, telling reporters that the FBI assault was necessary because she had received reports that “babies were being beaten.” One week later, Reno admitted in congressional testimony that she had no evidence of child abuse. She subsequently appointed her crony, Richard Scruggs, to conduct an investigation into the incident. No one was very surprised when Scruggs’s report exonerated Reno and the FBI.

When Congress held extensive hearings on the incident in 1995, Reno tried to place all of the blame on the Branch Davidian leader, David Koresh. When asked about the propriety of using tanks to smash into a building containing children, Reno managed to keep a straight face while comparing the tanks to good “rent-a-cars.” The House Committee subsequently issued a finding that Reno’s decision to approve the FBI tank assault was “premature, wrong, and highly irresponsible.” That finding was lost in the partisan din — as the Democrats shouted about the National Rifle Association, the proliferation of right-wing militias, and the Oklahoma City bombing.

Seven years later, Reno approved an outrageous paramilitary raid on the home of Lazaro Gonzales in order to snatch Elian Gonzales. Regardless of where you come down on the question of returning Elian to his father and Cuba, the manner in which this raid was conducted ought to shock the conscience. First, in the warrant application, Justice Department officials claimed that Lazaro Gonzalez was “concealing” Elian in his home. Please. Anyone with a television set knew Elian’s whereabouts; it was on the evening news night after night for weeks.

Second, government agents sprayed tear gas into the faces of the anti-Castro protesters outside the home. Attacking someone for no reason is a criminal offense — at least for those of us who do not hold posts in the government. Castro probably got a hearty laugh.

Third, the paramilitary raid made little sense from the standpoint of police tactics. As Florida Senator Connie Mack noted, if Reno truly believed there might be a violent shootout, why did she put Elian’s life in jeopardy by forcing a confrontation? What harm could possibly result from allowing Lazaro Gonzales to pursue his rights peacefully in the court system? On the other hand, if violent resistance was not expected, why send a commando team with submachine guns into a family home?

When a furor arose over the photo of the agent in military garb pointing his gun at a frightened Elian, Reno spun the photo as best she could. A careful look at the picture, she said, showed that the agent’s finger was not on the trigger. In other words, the silly boy really didn’t have a valid reason to be afraid.

To their credit, several of Harvard’s liberal legal academics condemned the raid in Little Havana. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, Alan Dershowitz wrote that the raid set a precedent that “endangered the rights of all Americans.” In a New York Times op-ed, Laurence Tribe wrote that the raid “struck at the heart of constitutional government and shook the safeguards of liberty.” In stark contrast, Reno said that she was very pleased with the operation. This is the woman who says she wants to continue her career of “public service.”

Florida Republicans should not underestimate Reno. Despite her awful record, she has managed to stay above the fray by cultivating her image as an honest, if bumbling public servant. She has cleverly used that public persona to great effect. Yes, I broke an honorable tradition in the Attorney General’s office by appearing on the campaign trail with the liberal governor of New Jersey, Jim Florio. Yes, my right hand man, Webster Hubbell turned out to be a felon. Yes, Richard Jewell’s life was ruined by government agents who told anonymous lies to the press. Yes, my subordinates misled a federal judge about Wen Ho Lee. All of that happened, Reno allows, but why dwell on it?

To deflect attention away from her record, she’s already been testing a pat soundbite: “This election is not about the past; it’s about Florida’s future!” Florida voters had better beware.

Tim Lynch is director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice.