Accuracy in Media

CBS’s 60 Minutes has run a segment on Elian Gonzalez, five years after the Clinton administration sent him back to the communist prison island. He had come to America as a refugee, without his father, who was back in Cuba and under pressure from the communist regime to demand him back. The Clinton administration complied, seizing the little boy at the point of a gun. It made a mockery of America’s reputation as a free society open to refugees fleeing persecution.

Continuing to play Castro’s game, 60 Minutes gave the impression that Elian was doing fine under the Castro dictatorship, and that all the time he was in Florida, he really wanted to return to Cuba to be with his father. While the segment offered a couple of sound bites from people with opposing views, the real failure of the story was in not putting the events of five years ago into proper context.

On Thanksgiving Day, 1999, Elian Gonzalez was found clinging to part of a capsized boat two miles off the coast of Florida. His mother and 10 others died when the boat overturned after having nearly completed the 90- mile journey of escape from Castro’s communist dictatorship. Three, including Elian, survived and were brought ashore in Florida. Elian had numerous relatives in Miami, including aunts, uncles and cousins. Elian’s father was pressured by the Castro government to ask to be reunited with his son and to have his son sent back to Cuba. 

After much legal and diplomatic wrangling, Elian was seized in a raid code-named Operation Reunion on Easter weekend, 2000. In the pre-dawn hours, 151 officers were involved in the raid on the home of his great-uncle where he had been staying. They broke down the front door of the house with a battering ram. They kicked and pepper-sprayed many of the people protesting and standing vigil outside the home. They had guns and pointed them at Elian and his Miami family.

The Justice Department had initially insisted that custody of Elian was a matter best dealt with in the Florida state courts, as a family matter. But soon the Clinton administration, through the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and Justice Department, reversed itself and went to court seeking to remove Elian from his Miami relatives and give custody to his father, who came to the U.S. for that purpose.

That was despite the fact that the State Department, in February of 2000, had declared Cuba to be “a totalitarian state controlled by President Fidel Castro?Castro exercises control over all aspects of Cuban life through the communist party?”

The force and brutality of the Easter raid raised many questions about the use of force and the rule of law. In light of the overzealous and bloody attack on Waco under Attorney General Janet Reno’s watch, this raid was all the more shocking. And it wasn’t just conservatives and the Cuban-American population that were outraged.

Liberal Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz said, “I think it was a direct violation of the constitutional rights of the family whose home was invaded and of the child who was forcibly taken.” Dershowitz also said that “By enforcing its own order, without the judicial imprimatur of a court mandate, the Justice Department has reinforced a precedent that endangers the rights of all American citizens.”

Another Harvard law professor, Laurence Tribe, concurred: “Ms. Reno’s decision to take the law as well as the child into her own hands seems worse than a political blunder. Even if well-intended, her decision strikes at the heart of constitutional government and shakes the safeguards of liberty.” Tribe also said, “I think it was a direct violation of the constitutional rights of the family whose home was invaded and of the child who was forcibly taken.”

What was their legal justification?

The morning after Elian was seized, Doris Meissner, commissioner of INS, told CBS’s Face the Nation that her legal authority was a search warrant from a federal judge at 6 o’clock that evening. But just two days earlier they had gone into federal court for an order to remove Elian, and the court refused. So they turned instead to a federal magistrate, seeking search and arrest warrants on the grounds that Elian was in the country illegally, a legal argument that the 11th circuit court and civil libertarians had rejected. Many argued that the warrant was obtained illegally because it was based on false information provided to the magistrate judge. It said he was here illegally, though the law of the land was that if someone escaping Cuba made it to U.S. soil, they were automatically granted asylum.

Why was the Justice Department so determined to use a massive show of force?

Then-Sen. Bob Smith (R-NH) said it was about Clinton’s legacy?that Clinton wanted to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and that Elian’s life in the U.S. as a free person stood in the way. But Clinton’s dream of establishing relations with Castro never came true.

A.M. Rosenthal, former editor of the New York Times, declared the “shocking abduction of the boy” to be “so unconstitutional and cruel that [it keeps] the hope alive that this time the courts and Congress will not allow the White House to get away with it.”

But the Clinton White House did.

In the 60 Minutes segment, reporter Bob Simon asked Elian how he felt about his Florida relatives. Elian said, “They were telling me bad things about [my father]?they were also telling me to tell [my father] that I did not want to go back to Cuba? and I always told them I wanted to.”  The family denied that Elian ever said that. Elian also said that he wanted to see his Florida family again, but that the way they had handled the situation “was wrong.”

The low point of the segment was when they showed Castro honoring Elian, and Bob Simon said, “That’s quite something for the president of a country to say he’s proud to have a kid as a friend.” Elian responded, “Not only [do I think of Castro] as a friend, but also as a father.”

It’s obvious that Elian had been rehearsed, brainwashed or pressured in some other way to make these kinds of statements that provide a propaganda victory for Castro, who has executed thousands, and who demonstrated absolute loyalty and served as a base of operations in this hemisphere for the Soviet Union.

CBS, to its shame, certainly knew what it was doing in providing this opportunity for Castro. We won’t know what Elian, or his father, was really thinking, then or now, until they are free from the hold of Castro’s brutal regime. Exploiting this poor boy, who was denied the opportunity to grow up in freedom, was a low point for 60 Minutes.

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