8 Nov 2016

First woman US attorney general Janet Reno dies

7:12 am on 8 November 2016

Janet Reno, the first woman US attorney general, who served eight years in President Bill Clinton's administration, has died aged 78.

Janet Reno answering questions in April 2000 on the seizure of a 6-year-old Cuban raft survivor from his Miami relatives' home.

Janet Reno answering questions in April 2000 on the seizure of a 6-year-old Cuban raft survivor from his Miami relatives' home. Photo: AFP

The blunt-spoken lawyer worked as the top US law enforcement official in the administration of President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001.

She became the longest-serving attorney general of the 20th century and was at the centre of several political crises.

Just weeks into the job, she authorised the deadly 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian cult compound at Waco, Texas.

Ms Reno later authorised federal agents to seize 6-year-old Cuban shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez from relatives in Miami in 2000, and headed the Justice Department during the government's huge antitrust case against Microsoft.

The former Miami prosecutor, picked by Mr Clinton after his first two choices for the job ran into trouble at the confirmation stage, exhibited an independent streak and a brusque manner that often upset the White House.

She weathered White House complaints that she was not a team player and that she sought too many special prosecutors to investigate cases, including the Whitewater affair involving the finances of the president and first lady Hillary Clinton.

She always said she made decisions based on evidence and the law.

Ms Reno played a role in some of the more high-profile controversies and scandals that rocked the Clinton administration, including:

*The Whitewater affair, a failed real estate project in which the Clintons had invested

*The "Travelgate" scandal, in which Hillary Clinton was allegedly involved in several controversial sackings in the White House travel office in 1993

*Flawed forensics at the FBI laboratory, in which the agency was accused of errors in evidence provided by its forensics laboratory to US courts to help secure high profile convictions

*The Monica Lewinsky case, in which Bill Clinton was impeached over his affair with a White House intern

*Accusations in the late 1990s that China had gained access to American nuclear secrets

*Irregularities in campaign financing during the 1996 Clinton-Gore re-election campaign

Her goddaughter, Gabrielle D'Alemberte, said she succumbed to complications of Parkinson's disease early on Monday in Miami.

US President Bill Clinton talks with US Attorney General Janet Reno May, 2000, in Washington, DC.

Janet Reno and President Bill Clinton, May 2000 in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP


Ms Reno was only 38 days into the attorney general's job when she approved the 19 April 1993 FBI raid that led to the deaths of about 80 people, including many children, at the Waco cult compound.

Federal agents had earlier tried to serve a warrant on the cult's leader, David Koresh, who said he was the Messiah, for stockpiling weapons. Four agents and six cult members were killed in an ensuing shootout, leading to a 51-day standoff.

With negotiations at an impasse, Reno gave the go-ahead for the raid after hearing reports of child abuse in the compound. The raid on the heavily armed cultists ended in an inferno that engulfed the site.

"I made the decision. I'm accountable. The buck stops with me," a grim-looking Reno told a later news conference.

Towards the end of her career in the spring of 2000, Ms Reno angered her hometown's Cuban-American community by authorising the armed seizure of a 6-year-old boy who was taken from his relatives' home in Miami to be returned to his father in Cuba.

The raid infuriated Miami's Cuban exile community, whose members picketed her home and denounced her as a "witch" and lackey of Cuban President Fidel Castro.


In 1998, Ms Reno's Justice Department brought a huge antitrust case against Microsoft. Two years later, a federal judge ordered the breakup of the software giant because it had ignored his ruling that it had used unlawful monopolistic practices. The case was settled in 2001 by the administration of George W. Bush, Clinton's Republican successor, in terms seen as favourable to Microsoft.

Ms Reno appeared with Mr Clinton after the 1995 truck bomb attack on the Oklahoma City federal building that killed 168 people, and vowed to seek the death penalty for the perpetrators. Convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 2001 become the first federal prisoner executed since 1963.

Some comedians made fun of Reno during her time in office, lampooning her appearance and height - around 6ft 2in (1.68m), among them Will Ferrell who impersonated her on Saturday Night Live.

Shortly after leaving office in January 2001 she appeared on the show next to Ferrell, both wearing identical outfits, in a sketch called "Janet Reno's Dance Party."

She was diagnosed in 1995 with Parkinson's disease, a progressive disorder of the central nervous system that caused trembling in her arms. "All it does is shake and you get used to it shaking after a while," she told a TV interviewer.

- Reuters / BBC