Truth, Justice and the Reno Way

Clinton's popular, straight-talking Attorney General wants to revolutionize law enforcement, but will the White House let her?

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Janet Reno does not rush to judgment. She says she is as concerned with protecting the rights of the guilty as with punishing them. This has never been an especially popular position. But Reno had never been tested quite as she was last week.

Day after day, the question flew at her: Why haven't you arrested the sheik? As federal agents continued to round up suspects in the plot to blow up New York City, spiritual leader Omar Abdel Rahman was left untouched. Senator Alfonse D'Amato, an assassination target, was holding angry press conferences. President Clinton was getting frustrated.

Still, Reno wouldn't be pushed by political considerations. She weighed the evidence against Rahman, including tapes of his followers accused in the bomb plot, and decided it wasn't enough. Besides, agents might learn more by keeping the militant cleric under surveillance. But then, on Thursday morning, Reno got a phone call.

U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, who was tracking the case in New York, told Reno that the sheik seemed to be trying to wriggle out of the net. He and his followers had left his apartment the night before and sped away in their car, nearly losing the FBI agents following behind. The effort to flee finally provided Reno with a legal justification. She gave the O.K. for immigration agents to apprehend the sheik and told her top aides Webb Hubbell and Phil Heymann to work out the legal details.

On Friday night, after 20 tense hours of negotiations, the sheik emerged from a Brooklyn mosque with his followers, chanting "God is great," and turned himself in.

The White House has its Situation Room, the Pentagon its walls full of maps, but America's command center for fighting unconventional wars these days is Janet Reno's inner office. First it was the showdown with David Koresh in Waco, Texas, a biblical battle over lost souls; two weeks ago, it was terrorism, when she laid out for President Clinton the case against Iraq for plotting to kill former President Bush and tracked the serial bomber who wounded professors in Connecticut and California. Last week it was Sheik Rahman, when once again Reno's agents from the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service were on the front lines. The Attorney General is the people's lawyer, America's Chief of Police. When she became the first woman to hold the job, Reno didn't know she was going to war.

As one 16-hour day gives way to the next, Reno can't afford to wait for the fires to die down so she can do the job she dreams of. Still fresh to her office, she is already plotting a revolution in law enforcement, in how America thinks about crime and punishment and how to have less of both. She wants the Justice Department to be clean and bold and free of expedient compromise. She wants government agencies to start talking to each other about how to address the root causes of crime. Above all, she wants to talk about children, about their pain and their needs and what makes the difference between growing up strong and growing up dangerous.

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