Former attorney general says civil liberties eroded
Winning the war on terrorism will take strengthening international ties and better intelligence-gathering — not measures imposed by the Bush administration that restrict civil liberties, former U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno told Lawrence audiences on Tuesday.
• The California recall election: “If I were in California, I would be voting against the recall.”
• The Ten Commandments: Reno defended the display’s removal at the Alabama Supreme Court building.
• Elian Gonzalez: “The little boy belonged with his daddy.”
• Deaths of Branch Davidians in Waco: “Waco is the bitterest disappointment I had.”
Reno, at Kansas University to speak to law students, meet with faculty and speak at the Lied Center, warned that fear of terrorism was no excuse for several of the measures taken by the Bush administration, including the detention of U.S. citizens after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the East Coast.
She said Americans had a right to know more about those who were detained.
“For citizens in the United States to be held in those circumstances, it represents to me an erosion of the civil liberties we hold dear,” Reno said.
Reno said she also was concerned about a provision that allowed federal agents to review library check-out records.
She said she especially took issue with current Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft’s comments on the Patriot Act, saying anyone who questioned the anti-terror legislation was not patriotic.
“I think that flies in the face of the good discussion and the thoughtful deliberation that is necessary in a democratic society, and I’d hope we could have more complete discussions,” she said. “I’m not encouraged when he takes his defense of the Patriot Act and does it without responding in terms of questions and answers in a thoughtful way.”
A controversial era
Reno, 65, served as attorney general for eight years under President Bill Clinton. She lost the Democratic primary in the Florida governor’s race last year.
While attorney general, Reno was a lightning rod for controversial issues in the Clinton administration, including Waco, Oklahoma City, Elian Gonzalez, Whitewater and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
She said she only had regrets about the way she handled Waco in 1993. If she had known David Koresh would have ordered fires set that killed many of the Branch Davidian followers, she wouldn’t have ordered federal agents to invade the cult‘s compound.
“Waco is the bitterest disappointment I had,” she said. “I went through every possible alternative. I read all that Koresh had written, what he threatened to do. We’ll never know what the right answer was, because if I had not done what I did, he might well have two weeks after that with no provocation whatsoever done practically the same thing, and we would have been blamed for not taking action.”
The former attorney general sounded off on many topics during her lecture, press conference and discussions with law students. Among her comments:
• On Ashcroft’s memo, released Monday, urging federal prosecutors to use plea bargains only in limited cases: “I think it’s of concern. I think to see that justice is done, there has to be the ability to focus on what’s the right thing to do in a particular case. What’s the right thing to do may not be the ultimate charge; it may be a charge that contributes to a solution to what causes the crime, rather than simply a punishment.”
• On the display of the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Supreme Court building: “I don’t think they had a right to have it there as it was displayed.” However, she said in a different context — such as one explaining the historical evolution of laws — the commandments might have been permissible.
• On the recall election of California Gov. Gray Davis: “If I were in California, I would be voting against the recall and speaking against the recall.” She said turning frequently to recall elections would be “upsetting the principles of democracy.”
• On returning Elian Gonzalez to his native Cuba: “I made a judgment based on the information. (Elian’s father) was a fit father; he could contribute to a little boy’s upbringing, and the little boy belonged with his daddy. … We used a show of force rather than actual force, and I think it worked out.”
The School of Law and Student Union Activities paid Reno $20,000 for her visit. Part of the money came from the Stephenson Lecture in Law and Government fund. About 1,700 people attended the evening lecture.
Her own agenda
Reno said she came to KU, in part, to promote two of the issues of concern to her — the importance of developing early childhood programs to curb spending on remedial education and prisons, and the importance of using DNA and other methods to clear the wrongfully convicted.
Reno said she also came to encourage prospective lawyers to consider a life in public service.
“I always find students ask better questions than anyone, including congressmen and newspaper reporters,” she said.