WASHINGTON — Attorney general nominee Eric H. Holder Jr. repeatedly pushed some of his subordinates at the Clinton Justice Department to drop their opposition to a controversial 1999 grant of clemency to 16 members of two violent Puerto Rican nationalist organizations, according to interviews and documents.
Details of the role played by Holder, who was deputy attorney general at the time, had not been publicly known until now. The new details are of particular interest because Republican senators have vowed to revisit Holder's role during his confirmation hearings next week.
Holder had no comment for this article, but a spokesman for President-elect Barack Obama's transition team said Holder's actions were appropriate.
President Clinton's decision to commute prison terms caused an uproar at the time. Holder was called before Congress to explain his role but declined to answer numerous questions from angry lawmakers demanding to know why the Justice Department had not sided with the FBI, federal prosecutors and other law enforcement officials, who were vehemently opposed to the grants.
Some religious groups and influential individuals, including President Carter, had endorsed the commutations. But Clinton's decision outraged law enforcement officials, who had tried to contain a bombing campaign in New York, Chicago and elsewhere in the 1970s and 1980s by groups seeking independence for Puerto Rico from the United States.
New interviews and an examination of previously undisclosed documents indicate that Holder played an active role in changing the position of the Justice Department on the commutations.
Holder instructed his staff at Justice's Office of the Pardon Attorney to effectively replace the department's original report recommending against any commutations, which had been sent to the White House in 1996, with one that favored clemency for at least half the prisoners, according to these interviews and documents.
And after Pardon Attorney Roger Adams resisted, Holder's chief of staff instructed him to draft a neutral "options memo" instead, Adams said.
The options memo allowed Clinton to grant the commutations without appearing to go against the Justice Department's wishes, Adams and his predecessor, Margaret Colgate Love, said in their first public comments on the case.
"I remember this well, because it was such a big deal to consider clemency for a group of people convicted of such heinous crimes," said Adams, the agency's top pardon lawyer from 1997 until 2008. He said he told Holder of his "strong opposition to any clemency in several internal memos and a draft report recommending denial" and in at least one face-to-face meeting. But each time Holder wasn't satisfied, Adams said.
The 16 members of the FALN (the Spanish acronym for Armed Forces of National Liberation) and Los Macheteros had been convicted in Chicago and Hartford variously of bank robbery, possession of explosives and participating in a seditious conspiracy. Overall, the two groups had been linked by the FBI to more than 130 bombings, several armed robberies, six slayings and hundreds of injuries.
None of the 16 whose sentences were commuted had been convicted of murder, and most had already served lengthy prison terms.
A spokesman for the Obama transition, Nick Shapiro, confirmed that Holder asked for the "options memo" that preceded the clemency:
"Eric Holder carefully reviewed the FALN clemency request, weighed the positions of both sides, including law enforcement, and concluded that the sentences of up to 90 years imposed on these prisoners was disproportionate to other federal and state sentences. After reaching that conclusion, he directed his subordinates at the department to draft a memo outlining several options, including how such a commutation could be structured to reflect the seriousness of these crimes and to take account of the lengthy time the prisoners had already served.
"President Clinton made the ultimate decision to commute these sentences, conditioned on the prisoners' agreement to renounce violence and accept restrictions on their travel."
George Terwilliger, who served as deputy attorney general under President George H. W. Bush and was asked by the Obama transition team to comment, said that although he disagreed with the FALN clemency, Holder's conduct in the case was appropriate.
"The job of the deputy attorney general is not to be a rubber stamp to the career people" in the pardon office, he said. "The deputy attorney general is supposed to exert some independent decision-making" providing guidance to the president.