News Chief Washington Correspondent: Today on Face The Nation, Elian Gonzalez is reunited with his father, but did the INS do the right thing? We`ll ask the commissioner of the INS, Doris Meissner, in her first Sunday interview. It took three minutes for INS agents to seize Elian Gonzalez at the house of his Miami relatives, and only a few hours later the boy was reunited with his father.
But was force necessary? Why did the negotiations break down? And what was the reunion like between father and son - all questions for the INS commissioner, Doris Meissner.
We`ll also talk with one of the lawyers for the Miami relatives, Jose Garcia-Pedrosa, on what their next step is.
And we`ll talk with two members of Congress with two very different views on the issue: Democrat Charles Rangel of New York and Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Florida.
Gloria Borger will be here, and I`ll have a final word on the story that brought out the worst on everyone.
But first the INS commissioner on Face The Nation.
Announcer: Face The Nation, with Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer. And now from CBS News in Washington, Bob Schieffer.
Schieffer: And we begin this morning by reporting that all was calm overnight as we understand it in Miami. No trouble down there. Joining us here in Washington, the commissioner of the INS, Doris
Commissioner Meissner, let me start off by saying that the relatives, the Miami relatives of little Elian, have made a new series of charges this morning, talking about the brutality of the agents that went into the house last night. Here is Marisleysis Gonzalez and what she said this morning. She said among other things that the agents pointed guns at at least three children who were in the house. Let`s listen to part of it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
Marisleysis Gonzalez, cousin of Elian Gonzalez: All they say is, "Give me the damn boy, give me the damn boy."
And all I said was, "Please, I`ll give you the boy, please," I begged them. I stood in front of all those machine guns and I begged. "I beg you," I said, "please don`t do this to this boy. There`s kids in this house. Don`t do this. I`ll give you the boy, but please don`t let him see this."
They didn`t care. They put guns on my cousin`s head right there. "You move and I`m going to blow your brains out."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
Schieffer: So, Commissioner, those were your agents. You`ve had a chance to talk to them since this happened. What`s your version of the events?
Doris Meissner, Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner: Well, an enforcement action like this is a frightening event. There is no question about it. It`s the reason that we didn`t want to take an enforcement action and that we tried through all of the months of this effort to reach a cooperative rsolution. And the attorney general herself worked very, very hard up until the last moments.
But once an enforcement action takes place, it has to take place very quickly, which this one did. And the agents need to be in charge. That is what they did. They announced themselves when they came. When they went into the house, they told people to stand aside. They asked for cooperation. They did not receive cooperation.
Schieffer: What was your legal authority to go into that house, because some people are saying you didn`t have any authority.
Meissner: We had a search warrant, which we got from a federal judge around 6 o' clock that evening. It was a perfectly legal, properly carried out operation.
Schieffer: A search warrant for what?
Meissner: A search warrant to bring the child out of this house.
Gloria Borger, U.S. News & World Report: So can you say definitively that they did not say, "I`m going to blow your brains out?"
Meissner: They would not have said anything like that. Their use of force - their use of firearms is only allowed in self-defense or to protect the lives of others. They don`t use that kind of language. They are to speak very crisply. They have a very short period of time. They were in and out in three minutes. And their commands are: We are here, stand aside, don`t interfere, we will not hurt you, we will not harm you.
In this particular case, the whole point was to pave the way for the female agent, who was not armed, to get the child and bring the child out.
Schieffer: Senator Bob Smith raised a new issue this morning. He said that the agent hooded the child as it was brought out. Is that true?
Meissner: That is absolutely false. You saw the pictures. The child came out in the arms of a female agent. The effort was to encase the child in a blanket. That is done for the purpose of protecting the child so that an arm or leg doesn`t get caught on a doorjamb, something like that.
This was done very carefully from the standpoint of the conversation with the child. The female agent had a particular set of things that she talked to the child about. It was done properly and safely.
Borger: Why did automatic weapons have to be used? This morning, Marisleysis said, you know, "we told them there were no guns in the house."
Meissner: You never know when you have - when you need to enter a dwelling what you`re going to find. It`s extremely important to be prepared.
We had information, a great deal of information. Some of the information included the possibility that there might be guns. We didn`t know. But the paramount objective and concern in a law enforcement situation like that is safety. It`s particularly important in this instance because of the child and the safety of the child.
But the overall objective is that it is done quickly, safely for the agents for the bystanders, anybody involved, and that they get in and out and it`s over with. And that`s what was accomplished. The bottom line here is that it was successful.
Schieffer: Just walk us through this picture here, because the picture we`re putting up here is the one that everybody remembers. What was happening here? Now you`ve talked to these agents, have you not?
Meissner: These agents are all being debriefed, the after-action effort is not...
Schieffer: Was this agent pointing the gun at the child?
Meissner: This agent was not pointing the gun at the child. If you look at that picture, the plain - the agent is standing here, the child and the fisherman are standing along the same line as the agent. The firearm is parallel and it is pointed down. That is particular position. It`s called the search position for a weapon. And the trigger finger is straight ahead. It is not in the trigger chamber so that there is no possibility that with a jarring there could be a firing of the gun. It is standard law enforcement procedure for a search.
Schieffer: Commissioner, in these things where what is seen on television turns out to be so important, just the images that are burned into people`s minds. In retrospect, would it have been better to have those agents in civilian clothing because secret service agents wear bulletproof vests. And they wear them under a suit and tie. These people looked very scary as they approached that house?
Meissner: There are all kinds of different ways in which law enforcement agents dress for particular operations. This one was a search of a house where we did not know they were not able to know how many people would be there and what the circumstances would be inside.
There were demonstrators outside. There was a great deal of aggressive behavior on people surrounding the house. It was a situation in which a great deal of inflammatory language had been used over the weeks about what would be done. There always had been talk of standing aside and turning the child over. That has not been the behavior here and that was not what actually happened on the scene.
Borger: Can you tell us a bit about the boy`s reunion with his father? You were there.
Meissner: I was in the airplane hangar when the airplane came to Andrews Air Force base. And the father was in a vehicle ahead of the vehicle I was in. I saw him walk to the airplane and he had been very, very determined that this would be a private reunion, that there would not be press, there would not be cameras. He went on to the airplane. Our female agent, the one that you saw in that operation, accompanied the child up until he was handed over.
Borger: Did you see them together?
Meissner: I did not see them actually have the reunion, but then I saw them emerge from the airplane and the child was nestled in the father`s shoulder, ear hug around his neck and with his father. It was a wonderful thing.
Schieffer: Let me ask you about this picture because there are charges in Miami that this photo has been doctored or that`s not actually little Elian. In fact, Marisleysis said this morning that the hair was too long in the photo. That she had cut the child`s hair and that that`s not him. Do you have anything to rebut that?
Meissner: Well, his hair looks pretty short to me. However, I did not see that photo taken. I was standing outside of the house. And I was with people who had the camera that took that photo. I cannot imagine that thatÂ…I`m sure it`s an authentic photo but I can`t tell you that I saw it taken.
Borger: Very quickly can we play this out? Does this six-year-old now have a right to apply for asylum in this country?
Meissner: We do not believe he has a right to apply for asylum. That is, of course, now the issue that is before the federal appeals court. He will remain here during the pendency of that hearing. And we believe that the government`s position on this will be upheld.
Borger: Now the family says you`re going to work to get him to repudiate his position, little Elian, that he wants asylum. Can you tell them you won`t?
Meissner: His father speaks for him. He is with his father. The reports that have from the people that were in and out of the house yesterday are that he has been playing happily, that he isÂ…I`ve seen the setting. They can be together, walk around pathways, reconnect as a family. And we believe they will do that. The father speaks for this child and we`ve created the reunification now that we`ve been seeking to create.
Schieffer: The relatives from Miami want to meet with the child. They went out to Andrews Air Force Base yesterday. Will that be allowed?
Meissner: That would be a decision on the part of the family.
Schieffer: Let me ask you quickly. Why did the negotiations break down between the family and the Justice Department yesterday before this raid? What was the sticking point?
Meissner: The sticking points, and there are several, have been at issue all along. This did not just begin two days ago. The issues that have to do with when the custody would be transferred from the Miami relatives to the father, where a family meeting might be able to take place, whether a family meeting might be able to take place, have been under discussion for months. And we have been trying to create the conditions for cooperation, for this being settled as a family matter. Finally, one more effort was made on Friday evening and they simply have been unable to agree.
Schieffer: Was this simply the last resort?
Meissner: This was the last resort. We have been committed to reunifying the child with the father. That is our legal position. That is also the right thing to do. The ttorney general and I and particularly the attorney general have made heroic efforts, way above and beyond the call of duty, to work out circumstances where this could occur.
But in the final analysis, when it wouldn`t and couldn`t, we took the action that was required and it was successful. Everybody is safe. It was done properly.
Schieffer: Commissioner, thank you so much for coming by this
morning. When we come back, we`re going to hear from one of the attorneys for Elian Gonzalez`s Miami relatives, and from two members of Congress. In a minute.
Schieffer: With us now from Miami, the attorney for the Miami relatives, Jose Garcia-Pedrosa, and Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Joining us from New York City, Congressman Charles Rangel.
I want to talk first to Mr. Garcia-Pedrosa. Well, you heard the commissioner there, Mr. Garcia-Pedrosa. She says that the six-year-old does not have a right to apply for asylum.
Jose Garcia-Pedrosa, lawyer for Elian's Miami relatives: That`s an astounding statement, Mr. Schieffer. Let`s think about what that means. The government is involved as we are in an appellate process in which the court has already acted and laid out a briefing schedule and an order and so forth. Now comes the government with this commando raid and takes action which, according to the INS commissioner, moots the appeal, renders it moot. It is, I think, astonishing close to contempt of court.
Schieffer: Well, let me also ask you about something else, and that is that this picture that we saw of the young man. I`m told there are reports down in Miami today that people are saying the picture`s a phony. Do you know anything about that?
Garcia-Pedrosa: I heard the same reports, but you know, my point on that is this. Rather than ask people to become photo experts or child psychologists, amateur psychologists, what the government should have done before and what it should do now is instead of permitting the Cuban government to start to brainwash this boy, to reprogram him they say, but it`s a euphemism for brainwashing. What they ought to do, the decent thing to do is to do what we`ve asked and that is to have this boy`s fears evaluated by a professional psychologist or psychiatrist. This boy has said things about his father beating him and so on this photo opportunity is not the way to handle that. The way to handle that is professionally.
Borger: Well, Mr. Garcia-Pedrosa, the family is now in Washington. What happens next? What are they going to ask for?
Garcia-Pedrosa: Well, in contrast to the father who did not come for four months to see his child and said to the media that he had lost nothing in the United States, except, I guess his child, the family as you know flew immediately to Washington. Anybody who heard more of that press conference that Mr. Schieffer was commenting on earlir about Marisleysis knows that she is determined to stay there until she has an opportunity to see Elian for two reasons. First to make sure that he knows he has not been abandoned and never will be by Marisleysis or the family, and second to do everything they can as we will do legally to avoid the reprogramming process that Castro has already announced in Cuba to begin in Washington.
Schieffer: Let me just ask you quickly, a follow-up I should have asked you after your first response. Are you going to ask the commissioner be held in contempt of court because of what she just said?
Garcia-Pedrosa: No, I think that the notion that what the government did, if Commissioner Meissner is to stand by her statement is so fundamentally unfair, that you could in essence wipe out somebody`s right to an appeal by taking action like this, that I have to believe that that`s going to be taken note of by the court without our having to say anything. And what I said and I`ll repeat that, that comes very close to being in contempt of court because it is an effort, in essence, to eliminate somebody`s right to an appeal by a commando raid like this one. That`s so wrong.
Borger: Mr. Garcia-Pedrosa, very quickly, if the court rules against you, will you abide by the court ruling, yes or no?
Garcia-Pedrosa: We always have said we would and we always have.
Schieffer: OK, thank you so much, Mr. Garcia-Pedrosa. I want to go now to Charlie Rangel, Congressman Rangel up in New York. Do you think that the INS and the attorney general did the right thing with this raid? It`s being heavily criticized today, Mr. Rangel.
Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY): I think the attorney general`s conduct was commendable. I think she showed a lot of restraint.
She had the legal authority and the thoroughly obligation to reunite this boy with his dad. As a former law enforcement official, I can tell you that enforcing a search warrant is never, never, never a pleasant thing. But as bad as that image was of seeing these armed military-type people going in, the picture of the smiling son reunited with his loving father, to me, is that we ought to take a deep breath and get on with it. This is what we all should really want, the boy and his dad together. And the family in Miami should want that, too.
Schieffer: Congresswoman, let me ask you there are some Republicans on Capitol Hill this morning who are saying that the INS did not do the right thing and they are calling for congressional hearings into this matter.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL): I sit on the Congressional Reform Committee and we investigated the Waco raid and the Department of Justice and all federal agents made changes because of that bungled raid. I think we`ll look at this commando raid on this home because it was uncalled for. It was too much pressure. Using arms in a home where there were no indications that his house was armed.
Janet Reno said that they had some reports that there could have been arms there. It was armed with love. It was armed with religious objects. I had been to that home many times and I think this was unwarranted. And to put this child in this position was totally uncalled for and also unwarranted was teasing the family and playing them along and negotiating in ill faith.
In fact, Marisleysis was on the phone with the INS officials. Federal officials until they told her to hold on a second. In that second, they raided the home. It is way a to render the court action that we have pending May 11 in the District Court of Appeals moot. It was taking the law into their own hands, so that when we go into court May 11, the District Court of Appeals will say, well, he is in the custody of the father - the father should speak for him. The Department of Justice said that is their only standard. We believe that the correct standard is what is in the best interest of the child. And that can really only be done in a family state court. And we hope to get to that point.
Schieffer: Let me ask Congressman Rangel. What do you think the political fallout will be of the vice president breaking with the administration on this and say they did not support this yesterday. He said he thought it ought to be handled in a family court. Will that hurt or help him?
Rangel: I don`t know because all presidential candidates, Republican and Democrats, seem to have a double standard as it relates to the people in Little Havana and the fight against Fidel Castro. What is very interesting politically speaking is that while the Republican leadership seem so concerned about violations of human rights in Cuba, these are the same ones that seem to disregard violations of human rights in China as they advocate expanding out trade relationship. Communists in Cuba should not be treated any differently than Communists in China. The truth of the matter is that it`s a very emotional thing for the people in Little Havana, but it is a very political thing for the Republican leadership.
Schieffer: Well, let me ask the congresswoman, do you think that helped - do you think the vice president helped himself in Florida?
Ros-Lehtinen: Well, let me just speak to what Charlie said. He may have a double standard when it comes to dictatorships but I do not. I supported embargoes on South Africa when they had that very hateful apartheid government. I supported an embargo on Haiti when they had a military dictatorship. I support not dealing with Communist China. It`s a shame that people like Charlie Rangel have a double standard when it comes to communism in Cuba. That`s what exists there.
In Geneva just a few days ago, we condemned Fidel Castro`s Cuba for the multiple violations of human rights. But I commend Vice President Gore for the principle stand that he took on behalf of Elian`s due proces, which is really what this case is all about, a child allowed to have due process that other people are allowed to have? I say yes. I think people like Charlie Rangel have committed a grave mistake when they said a child like Elian should not have the right to apply for political asylum. I think that`s a stand that`s going to hurt them when we have other dictatorships around the world.
Schieffer: We have to end it you right there. I`m terribly sorry. We have to end it there. I`ll be back with a final word in just a minute.
Schieffer: Finally today, somehow news always seems more jarring when it happens on a holiday. The Elian Gonzalez story would have been tragic any time, but playing out as it did between Passover and Easter made it all the more bizarre.
In a story of so many low points, it was hard to find the lowest. Was it early on when local officials in Miami seemed to invite violence saying that if it happened, it wouldn`t be their fault? We haven`t heard that kind of rabble rousing since the civil rights struggle.
Was it the blatant election year pandering by the vice president? Or the inflammatory language used by Republican Senator Bob Smith, who claimed this morning that agents hooded the child Saturday in what he called an armed assault on an innocent family?
Was it the TV interview with little Elian or the home video of the child released by the very relatives who claim to be so concerned about the child`s psychological state? Or was it just the character assassination of first the father, then the uncle on the other side, and finally the dead mother.
In a week that celebrates hope and renewal, we saw human nature at its worst, as many everyone connected to this story seemed bent on using it to advance an individual agenda be it political, emotional or just a burning desire to get on television.
Only the child, remember him, can be held blameless in all of this. The adults should be ashamed of themselves. That`s our report.