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Clinton Asserts Executive Privilege in Clemency Case

By Eric Lichtblau

In his latest tussle with Republicans in Congress, President Clinton asserted executive privilege Thursday and refused to turn over documents that might shed light on his much-maligned decision to offer clemency to 16 radical Puerto Rican nationalists.

The move triggered an immediate firestorm from Clinton’s Republican critics, who accused the president of coddling terrorists and trying to boost the anticipated New York senatorial campaign of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton -- who has publicly criticized her husband’s Aug. 11 clemency decision.

“The president has a moral obligation to the American people to explain why he let terrorists out of prison,” said Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) chairman of a House committee that has subpoenaed White House records. “By claiming executive privilege, he is, in essence, telling the American people that it’s none of their business.”

Republicans vowed not to let the matter drop. Burton will be issuing new subpoenas to the White House Friday demanding access to the Puerto Ricans’ prison records, FBI threat assessments and tape-recordings of prison phone calls, which reportedly included discussions about future terrorist activities, an aide to the congressman said. Burton asserted that these types of records cannot be withheld under executive privilege.

Those offered clemency were affiliated with a militant Puerto Rican independence group known as FALN, the Spanish acronym for Armed Forces of National Liberation, which was blamed for 130 bombings in the late 1970s and early 1980s that left six dead and scores wounded.

Of the 14 Puerto Ricans who accepted Clinton’s clemency offer, 11 have been released from prison, while two others had their fines reduced and one must serve five more years. Most were convicted on firearms violations. Under terms of the clemency, they agreed to renounce violence and abide by restrictions on their activities.

In recent years, the Puerto Rican prisoners’ cause attracted high-profile support from South African cleric Desmond Tutu, civil rights activist Coretta Scott King and others who argued that their sentences -- more than 50 years each in prison -- were excessive. But when Clinton agreed to offer clemency last month -- despite opposition from numerous law-enforcement officials in his own administration -- the criticism was swift. Some political opponents suggested that Clinton was merely trying to curry favor with Latino voters in New York to aid his wife’s still-unofficial campaign.

Both houses of Congress have voted to denounce Clinton for “deplorable” concessions to terrorists. Hearings began this week. But under Clinton’s assertion of executive privilege, Burton’s committee will have to proceed without access to documents or testimony from White House aides on the advice Clinton received on the issue.

The White House defended its decision not to give Congress access to the material.

“It is the president’s right to get confidential advice,” said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. “There is a clear separation of powers. And I think anyone who looks at the Constitution and understands what it means knows that Congress doesn’t have an oversight role in this case.”