WASHINGTON — Nearly 500 current and retired FBI agents marched to the White House Friday in an unprecedented protest, opposing any presidential clemency for an American Indian activist convicted of killing two FBI men.
Carrying a “Never Forget” banner lettered in red, a line of women stood two-by-two for the march to the White House gate with a petition to President Clinton signed by 8,000 current and former agents.
Secret Service agents at the White House gate rejected the envelope, however, telling their fellow federal officers that no packages or documents can be accepted for security reasons. The FBI agents planned to mail the petition.
Susan Lloyd, an FBI field office spokeswoman who joined the protesters, said the vast majority of those in the demonstration were active agents who applied for the day off.
“None of this is on government time,” she said. The officers were escorted by about 30 District of Columbia police on motorcycles.
The protest supported FBI Director Louis Freeh's recommendation against clemency for Leonard Peltier, who is serving two consecutive life sentences in the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kan.
Freeh told Clinton such an act would “signal disrespect” for law enforcement.
“There are situations in which mercy is warranted, but clearly what this man has done puts him outside of the reach of any presidential pardon,” said John Sennett, president of the FBI Agents Association, which has about 9,000 active and 1,000 retired members. Sennett, interviewed at the scene, is an FBI agent based in New York.
Agents said they knew of no similar public display by active agents in the past.
“FBI employees, like other federal workers and citizens, have the right to express their views on issues they feel passionately about,” said bureau spokesman Mike Kortan at FBI headquarters, noting that the demonstrators were on their own time. “While today’s event is unusual, it underscores the passion and depth of feeling of FBI employees across the country and around the world on this issue.” A handful of Peltier supporters shouted at the orderly line of officers as they passed. ``Peltier is a political prisoner,” said a man who identified himself as P.J. Smith of Washington.
The White House has refused comment on all questions about possible pardons. A White House spokesman said Clinton would review pending requests for executive clemency before he leaves office in January, including that of Peltier.
“There are strong passions on all sides of the issue,'' White House spokesman Elliot Diringer said Friday. “The president's decision will be based on the facts.”
Attorney General Janet Reno, asked about the prospect of an FBI demonstration on Thursday, said, “I think we just have to see how it unfolds,” adding, “Everybody ought to be able to speak out about something that they care about deeply in a thoughtful, professional, dignified manner.”
Peltier’s story has become well-known on Indian reservations across the country. FBI agents Ron Williams and Jack Koler were fired upon and killed while searching for robbery suspects on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota in June 1975.
Peltier, after fleeing to Canada and being extradited to the United States, was convicted and sentenced in 1977 for the killings, despite defense claims that evidence against him had been falsified.
Peltier’s supporters argue that there is little evidence that Peltier fired the shots that killed the agents. They allege Peltier was targeted by the FBI because of his vocal support of reservation autonomy and have opposed the demonstration by FBI agents.
“We are very disappointed with the FBI response,'' Jennifer Harbury, an attorney for Peltier, said at a news conference Friday. “We think it’s inappropriate, and we think it's a sad day for democracy when our armed forces march through the streets to influence a decision for mercy and justice by a civilian president.” Peltier, 56, is serving his terms at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan.
He has suffered from health problems in recent years.