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The controversy that erupted following President Clinton's offer to pardon 16 jailed Puerto Rican terrorists if they promised not to do it again misses something. President Clinton may have discovered a brilliant way to reduce the surplus prison population that is costing the taxpayers billions of dollars and warehousing people, many of whom would go back to prison for other crimes should they be released.

Imagine the conversations now taking place in jails throughout the country. Inmates may think that if they promise never again to murder, rape, rob, forge checks, burglarize, embezzle, perjure, drive while drunk, sell or do drugs, kidnap or commit other crimes, they, too, could win commutations.

Respect for the law has declined so rapidly under the Clinton administration that the jailed Puerto Ricans were allowed to conduct a conference telephone call to decide whether to accept the president's offer of clemency, which was originally designed to boost Mrs. Clinton's popularity with New York's Puerto Rican constituency, but has since backfired and come back to haunt both her undeclared candidacy and the president.

(As of Friday, 14 of the prisoners had accepted the clemency offer and were being freed from prison).

Intermediate string overflow Cannot justify line The Clintons have paid no price for their disrespect for the law. They have borne no burden, except what may be scratching their consciences. In so many instances, they have blamed others or denied wrongdoing. They have rarely been held accountable for their actions. So why shouldn't a group of Puerto Rican terrorists be able to win an early release from their sentences?

The Clintons came of political age when the Weathermen were blowing up buildings to protest the Vietnam War; when protesters tried to shut down the Pentagon; when it was "fashionable" among the tie-dyed set to "hate the military" and call police officers "pigs." Illegal acts, even ones that caused harm to property and people, were to be tolerated because they were designed to rid us of a greater evil -- the war. These noble savages thought themselves worthy of the Nobel Peace prize.

Deborah Devaney, a former assistant U.S. attorney who was one of the federal prosecutors involved in prosecuting the FALN terrorists, opposes clemency for the convicted Puerto Ricans. In a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, Devaney said: "I know the chilling evidence that convicted the petitioners -- the violence and the vehemence with which they conspired to wage war on all of us. I know, too, the commitment and sacrifice that it took the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office to convict these terrorists in three separate prosecutions."

Devaney's letter details what the convicted terrorists were doing and plotting when they were captured. They had weapons to commit armed robberies. Some were videotaped making bombs they planned to use at military installations. That those now incarcerated didn't actually kill anyone is not a reason to release them from prison (others among the FALN killed six and wounded dozens in a series of 139 bombings that ended in 1983). If they had not been caught, surely more people would have been killed.

But what do the Clintons know about accountability? They've made a career out of avoiding it. Maybe the president is trying to establish a precedent in case he is finally brought to justice for his myriad misdeeds in hopes that a future Democrat president will pardon him (and Hillary).

Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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