A presidential pardon for the wrong man

by Jerry Fuchs

Bill Clinton had a chance to do the right thing by freeing imprisoned Indian leader Leonard Peltier. Instead, he pardoned Marc Rich.

Leave it to Bill and Hillary. They couldn't even get their pardons straight when the president left the office he had kept in controversy for eight long years. With his pardon of Marc Rich, a man worth hundreds of millions of dollars who contributed to Hillary's campaign and Bill's museum, once again Clinton brought talk of impeachment down upon his head.

Of course, Clinton never expected the public and Congress to be up in arms over this pardon. He avoided pardoning American spy Jonathan Pollard because he thought that would send everyone through the rafters. He also was wary of pardoning Leonard Peltier, leader of the American Indian Movement, because he thought that would provoke public disfavor.

But between Rich and Peltier there is no comparison. The pardon of Peltier would have sent law enforcement groups into orbit, but it would have won Clinton the respect of human rights organizations around the world. Peltier didn't have a penny to contribute to Hillary's campaign or Bill's museum, so he got short shrift on the pardon list.

Louis Freeh, the FBI chief who has tangled with Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno on more than one occasion, organized his agents to march in front of the White House with signs saying "Don't pardon Peltier." That was more than enough to make Bill run for cover.

But the FBI will not face the facts, that during the 1970s, when Freeh was too young to know, the agency persecuted American Indians who stood up against the federal government, some for all the right reasons. Twenty-five years ago, FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams were killed in a shoot-out on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

The government has never produced an eyewitness in the deaths of the agents and admits that it doesn't know who actually killed them, but Peltier admits that he participated in the fire fight.

Amnesty International maintains that Peltier, 56, did not get a fair trial. He was given two life sentences for the murders. Amnesty International petitioned the president to commute Peltier's sentence after serving 25 years.

Two other AIM members, tried separately, were acquitted in the case on grounds of self-defense. The jury heard evidence of COINTELPRO, the FBI's infamous counterinsurgency program used against AIM. A representative from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission testified to the climate of terror on the reservation prior to the 1975 shootout.

Testimony challenged FBI assertions that it was neutral in the tribal war that followed AIM's takeover of Wounded Knee two years earlier. AIM was up in arms over the government's refusal to honor tribal lands, and the FBI was using renegade Indians to fight a civil war on their behalf.

A U.S. Appellate court chastised the FBI for its use of fabricated evidence in obtaining Peltier's extradition from Canada. It condemned the FBI for withholding from the jury exculpatory ballistics tests conducted on a rifle attributed to Peltier during his trial.

Former U.S. Senator James Abourezek said the near-lawless atmosphere on the reservation approached "total anarchy." District Judge Fred Nichol declared the FBI and the renegade Indians were in conspiracy to undermine the AIM.

All this information was available to Clinton before he decided to ignore Amnesty International's petition. But the reason he should have stood up to Freeh is because Gerald W. Heaney, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals that upheld Peltier's conviction, petitioned the White House to commute Peltier's sentence. The Judge said that the FBI shared the blame for the deaths of the two agents. He said the FBI overreacted to the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee. Instead of carefully considering the legitimate grievances of Native Americans, he said, the response was essentially a military one that culminated in the deadly firefight on June 26, 1975.

That's exactly what happened years later at Ruby Ridge when the FBI went onto private property with guns blazing, and again at Waco, Texas, when they used military tactics on civilians and children. Perhaps if the courts had come down hard on the FBI back in 1975, there would have been no Ruby Ridge and Waco.

Meantime, Clinton had an opportunity to take on police terror and place himself on the side of justice and human rights. It would have taken some courage on his part as law enforcement vigilantes crucified him. But it would have been worth the effort, instead of this useless debate over the pardon of some creep with a billion dollars.

Examiner contributor Jerry Fuchs is the publisher of the San Mateo Independent Newspaper Group and has been in the newspapaer industry for 42 years. He can be reached by fax at (650) 692-7587 or by calling (650) 692-9406, extension 6751.

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