Reason Magazine, January 2024
A new biography by Judith Hicks Stiehm ignores Janet Reno’s many failures as attorney general.
Janet Reno: A Life, by Judith Hicks Stiehm, University Press of Florida, 224 pages, $35\
In April 24, 2000, a day after Easter and two days after she sent 130 federal agents to storm Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, Attorney General Janet Reno received reverential treatment on NBC’s Today show. “One of the things that is so very important,” Reno declared, “is that the force was not used. It was a show of force that prevented people from getting hurt.”
This was news to the people who had been brutalized by federal agents, including two NBC cameramen left writhing in pain from a stomach kick or a rifle butt to the head. Reno had authorized a massive no-knock raid to seize 6-year-old Elián González and send him back to Cuba, even though the court battles regarding his fate were ongoing. Her attempt to portray the federal assault as the equivalent of a Girl Scout cookie delivery was debunked by an Associated Press photo of a Border Patrol agent pointing his submachine gun toward the terrified boy being held by the fisherman who had rescued him from the Atlantic Ocean.
Reno counted on maximum media deference for her “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” shtick. She brushed off the photo: “If you look at it carefully, it shows that the gun was pointed to the side and that the finger was not on the trigger.” Admittedly, the muzzle of the gun was not in the boy’s mouth. But that Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun sprays 800 rounds a minute, and the agent didn’t even have both hands on the weapon.
The aftermath of the González raid epitomized Janet Reno’s career. The Washington Post praised her for ensuring that not all journalists would be beaten during the raid, and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in a piece headlined “Reno for President,” declared that the machine-gun photo “warmed my heart.” But Cuban Americans never forgot Reno’s lies, and their fierce opposition torpedoed her 2002 Florida gubernatorial campaign.
You’ll find almost nothing about Reno’s failures and frauds in Judith Hicks Stiehm’s new biography, Janet Reno: A Life. What is the point of sending a 200-page love letter to a dead politician? That is just one of many questions that Stiehm, a retired professor of political science, fails to answer in a book whose style sometimes resembles Fun with Dick and Jane. Her biography is the last place to seek the truth on one of America’s most blood-stained attorneys general.
For Stiehm and much of the media, the fact that Janet Reno was a progressive and the first female attorney general absolved all her failures and abuses of power. Such pandering will be the death of civil liberties.
Stiehm endlessly reminds readers that “Reno’s first commitment was to truth” (italics in original). This is a Mount Sinai biography, treating whatever Janet Reno said as the word of God.
For Reno, government was always the avenging savior. She saw public employees as a Brahmin class: In 1995, she told federal law enforcement officers, “You are part of a government that has given its people more freedom…than any other government in the history of the world.” Thank you, Masters! In a 1996 speech to government prosecutors, she declared, “All of you public lawyers are but little lower than the angels, and I salute you.”
Since government officials were practically angels, there was no need to hinder their public service by compelling them to obey the law.
Reno’s most vivid abuse of power occurred 36 days into her reign as U.S. attorney general, after she approved an FBI tanks-and-toxic-gas assault on the Branch Davidians besieged near Waco, Texas.
On February 28, 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms launched an unprovoked attack on the Davidians’ sprawling wooden home. Four agents and seven Davidians were killed in the gunfire. The FBI was then sent in to bring the Davidians and their leader, David Koresh, to heel.
Stiehm’s discussion of Waco could have been written by the FBI press office. But her perspective was widely shared inside the Beltway, where almost no one gave a damn at the time about the innocent civilians killed on April 19, 1993. That contempt was epitomized by the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia creating a Janet Reno Torchbearer Award.
Reno approved the bureau’s final assault after she was told that Koresh was abusing babies. She later claimed that she could not remember which FBI official suckered her with that false claim. Reno portrayed the assault as nonviolent, but the official plan called for collapsing the entire building atop the Davidians if they refused to come out. Tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles had collapsed more than 20 percent of the building before a fire broke out, likely killing many people inside.
Reno approved pumping the Davidians’ home full of toxic CS gas—gas the U.S. government had just pledged, in the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty, never to use against enemy soldiers. (The treaty still allowed governments to use it on their own people.) Prior to approving the attack, the FBI notified Reno that the impact of the CS gas on “infants and children cannot be ignored because gas masks are not available for infants and younger children.” Chemist George Uhlig later testified to Congress that the FBI gas attack probably “suffocated the children early on.”
Before the fire, the FBI had thrown flash-bang explosives—which have started many fires during police raids—at Davidians attempting to exit the building. The FBI also fired pyrotechnic devices at the Davidians before the fire erupted. Once the fire started, FBI agents blocked local fire trucks from dousing the flames. The assault ended with 80 dead men, women, and children.
In the aftermath of the fire, the Los Angeles Times hailed Reno as a “folk hero” and The Washington Post said she had “superstar status.” She achieved this by pretending to take responsibility for the outcome as she vehemently blamed it all on David Koresh. Reno exploited her newfound popularity to orchestrate a cover-up so sweeping that even the press started to object: A New York Times editorial denounced the “Waco whitewash.”
Reno faced few questions on Waco until House Republicans held hearings in mid-1995. When Rep. John Mica (R–Fla.) presented Reno with a gas mask to illustrate that it could not have fit children, Reno casually tossed the mask on the floor and announced that “it’s not very helpful, in terms of trying to understand what happened there, to just show gas masks.”
Reno previously described the CS gas as a mere “irritant.” When asked why she approved the use of 54-ton combat vehicles to assail the Davidians, Reno replied that these were “not military weapons….I mean, it was like a good rent-a-car.” The media mostly ignored that howler, instead heaping praise on Reno’s demeanor for standing up to Republicans that day.
The charred corpses of April 1993 didn’t matter to such people because Reno’s devotion to children was beyond dispute—at least according to official scorekeepers. She had risen to national prominence as a crusader against child abuse, thus securing her selection as attorney general.
Yet it was one of those child abuse cases that provoked what is practically Stiehm’s only critical comment on Reno. In the Country Walk case, Stiehm writes, “there was a possibility that she had been part of an unjust conclusion.”
A “possibility”? Starting in 1984, Reno—at that point the state attorney in Dade County—prosecuted a husband and wife who ran a preschool, relying on ludicrous testimony about chants to Satan and about snakes and guns put into vaginas. Reno relied on the novel “Miami Method,” in which therapists endlessly interviewed kids to gin up evidence for prosecution. PBS’ Frontline slammed Reno in 2002 for mercilessly coercing a false confession, withholding exculpatory evidence, and exploiting children in a charade that boosted her reelection.
In fact, Reno’s child abuse frauds had been exposed even before she became attorney general. On March 3, 1993, Debbie Nathan, writing in the Miami New Times, revealed how the Country Walk prosecution was “fueled by opportunism, zealotry, and highly unusual behavior” by Reno. Here’s how Nathan summarized the case: “An election was near. Janet Reno was going to send someone to jail. No matter what.”
Stiehm writes that Reno’s “consistent, ethical conduct reinforce[s] what a good civics class teaches students: that one can successfully engage in the political while remaining both human and honest.” Actually, Reno’s greatest achievement was to teach Americans that there isn’t much justice in the Justice Department. But never trust the professors, pundits, and other official scorekeepers to admit that truth.