Reading Elian

The camera doesn't lie. But it will confess to just about anything.


On the morning of April 22, Attorney General Janet Reno and other Justice Department officials woke to a very big problem: a series of seven pictures, snapped by Associated Press photographer Alan Diaz, of federal agents seizing the country's most celebrated 6-year-old, Elian Gonzalez. Television and the Internet displayed images of a terrified child confronted by a heavily armed, helmeted, goggled, body-armored commando whose weapon was clearly pointed in the boy's direction.

Behind this figure was a second commando, implying visually that a significant armed force had entered the home. (According to the home's residents, this second raider is aiming his weapon at a group of persons that includes a 5-year-old boy.) In two of the AP photos, the armed figure in the foreground is reaching for Elian as the boy recoils in horror. If that didn't look very good Saturday morning, it looked no better by Easter Sunday, when one or the other of the "reaching" images was on the world's front pages.

A plain reading of these images is that they reveal an extraordinary exertion of armed federal force in an otherwise peaceful domestic setting in which no one is offering resistance. Chris Matthews, the newspaper columnist and host of CNBC's political talk show, Hardball, suggested in an interview that the images lent credibility to those "black helicopter" conspiracists who are always warning of an imminent military crackdown. Early polls taken that weekend indicated that a plurality of Americans were troubled by the raid's brutality, as implied by the AP stills (and as fully illustrated by video footage taken outside the Miami site of the invasion).

Many people, in other words, understood the images as illustrating a disturbing level of federal force. Department of Justice officials immediately embarked on a remarkable campaign intended to change the meaning of those pictures. Rather than having the images perceived in political terms, a succession of federal spokespersons–foremost among them Reno herself–worked assiduously to turn the pictures into moral images. That is, they sought to have the photos illustrate not an invasion, but a rescue; not an attack on the Miami family with whom Gonzalez was living, but an effort to reunite the boy with his Cuban father; not brute federal force at all, but federal compassion.

How can anyone change the meaning of a picture? The camera may not lie, but it will confess to just about anything. That is, the meaning of photographic images is remarkably elastic. Changing–even reversing–their apparent meaning by recontextualizing them has become a familiar process. It happens repeatedly in court; the Rodney King tape, in which a man being beaten by police was redefined as cops defending themselves from attack, is the most publicized such example. It happens often in news footage; "packed train" images from Kosovo last year were presented as pictures of genocide rather than of brutal expulsion. Indeed, some of the best-known pictures ever taken have been quietly recategorized as doubts about their content have grown: A world-famous Robert Capa image from the Spanish Civil War, known for decades as "Moment of Death," is now called simply "Man Falling." For all their apparent concreteness, photographs have a remarkable capacity to change before our eyes.

Janet Reno and her allies used a variety of approaches in their attempt to change the meaning of the raid imagery and mitigate its impact. In fact, they may have broken new strategic ground in this field. Here's a quick rundown of their major efforts.

"Imminent Danger"

The administration repeatedly justified the armed seizure of the boy on the grounds that he was in grave danger. Indeed, if one believed the government's claims, not a moment could be spared. Thus, the armed commando seen reaching for Elian was engaged in a courageous rescue of the boy from harm.

Was there evidence for this dramatic claim of danger? That depends on what the meaning of "evidence" is. What the government had was a letter to the Immigration and Naturalization Service written on April 18 by a New York pediatrician named Irwin Redlener. Dr. Redlener had watched a homemade video of Elian released by the Miami family earlier that week, and had concluded that the boy was "in a state of imminent danger to his physical and emotional well-being in a home that I consider to be psychologically abusive."

Redlener had never visited the home, had never spoken to the boy, and knew nothing firsthand of Elian's physical or emotional well being. It is unlikely that any pediatrician who habitually relied on videotape alone for the purposes of diagnosis would be able to maintain his license to practice. In fact, doctors who had spent time with the boy in Miami had come to quite different conclusions; that the boy would suffer psychologically if he were returned to Cuba. But Redlener had one credential that the Miami doctors lacked: He had served on Hillary Clinton's task force during her ill-fated efforts to reform the nation's health care system. Noting the connection, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, an Arizona-based professional group, termed Redlener an "administration operative." (Another government doctor was later to suggest that the Miami relatives should receive counseling.)

Perhaps the government's use of Redlener's "diagnosis" should be understood as part of Elian Gonzalez's transition back to a Cuban environment (if that is what ultimately occurs); the perversion of therapeutics for political ends is, after all, a totalitarian tradition. In any event, there has been no further information about the supposed abuse of Elian by his Miami family since the raid, with a single bizarre exception. That was an early report that the boy might have developed a crush on his cousin Marisleysis, a story briefly floated as apparent evidence that the Miami environment was unhealthy. Mercifully, the government soon abandoned the absurd implication.

"The Gun Was Pointed to the Side"

It is arguable that the only time that Elian Gonzalez was ever in demonstrable danger while in the home of his Miami relatives was when that home was invaded by armed Border Control commandos. That is the source of the inherent drama in the famous pictures showing an MP-5 machine gun pointed toward him. Among Janet Reno's first comments in the wake of the raid was a denial of endangerment.

Reno insisted that the AP photos show that "the gun was pointed to the side," away from the boy, and that the commando's "finger was not on the trigger." But the terror-stricken child seems not to be aware of these details, and in fact they are entirely beside the point. In concentrating on trigger fingers, Reno is changing the focus of the images. In other words, she is engaging in misdirection.

An argument about the location of the trigger finger might be appropriate if the INS were being charged with intending to shoot the boy. But assassination is not the issue: extreme and reckless federal measures are.

A number of weapons and security experts have taken public issue with Reno's characterization of the raid imagery, and what it reveals about the handling of the gun. Among them is Stephen Hunter, a member of The Washington Post Style staff. Hunter is the author of a series of successful novels in which guns play a major role, and he is highly regarded for his technical expertise. ("Hunter must have been a gun in a former life" is a typical sample of the praise he has elicited from his gun-culture readers.) Here's what he wrote in the Post about the safety issues raised by the image.

"What struck me most about the photograph isn't the gun itself, but the way in which it's held. It's very close to being out of control. These are not one-handed weapons, and except for emergency circumstances, they are not even two-handed weapons. They recoil so persuasively they must be secured at three points: They must be moored against the shoulder or the center of the chest; the firing hand grips the pistol grip and controls the trigger; and, finally, the other hand must secure the muzzle via the foregrip or a front vertical grip. The officer doesn't even have the weapon secured against his shoulder, as police are taught to do." Although the INS claims that the gun's safety is on, Hunter states categorically, "It is also true from the photograph that the safety is off."

Hunter's reading of the dangers of the raid was supported by a number of security experts. "I think that the risk here was very, very high," Gary Stubblefield, a former Navy SEAL who is now a security consultant, told the Boston Herald on April 23. Tom Mann of Guardian International, a security firm, saw the raid the same way. "When the government is going to use that kind of force," he told the Herald, "usually it's when someone's life is in danger." According to Stubblefield, "You only use these kind of tactics to get the bad guy and save the good guy and there was no saving necessary here. The risk was almost unconscionable."

"Aggressive, Physical Resistance"

In the wake of the raid and the dissemination of the disturbing images of force, INS officials attempted to change the public perception of the pictures by shifting the point of view from which they should be seen. According to these officials, there was indeed violence at the scene of the raid, but it came from Elian's relatives and their supporters, not from the INS. Thus, though the images indicate that the gun-wielding Border Patrol commandos are in control of the situation and are terrifying the child, that is a misperception. Understood from the point of view of the commandos themselves, the images presumably reveal a group of dedicated public servants attempting to protect themselves from a level of resistance that they had never before faced.

Agents who invaded the Miami home filed post-action reports with their supervisors. These reports were described to the press a few days after the raid, and were reported in the Orlando Sentinel on April 26. According to those reports, the agents were "jostled, screamed at, and their orders disobeyed." As Maria Cardona of the INS characterized the gist of these reports to the press, "The agents met an aggressive, physical resistance." Indeed, one veteran INS agent reportedly told his supervisors, "I have never encountered this much resistance." Similarly, The Washington Post quoted James Goldman, who led the raid, as saying, "In 22 years in federal law enforcement, the intensity level, the effort to stop us, I've never seen anything like it before."

Requests by the press to examine these reports were denied, but the only incident of "aggressive, physical resistance" attributed by Cardona to those inside the target house was an attempt to block the front door with a couch. All the other aggressive resistance cited occurred in the street, and included some persons linking arms in a human chain to prevent or slow the agents' entry. INS agent Betty Mills, who carried Elian Gonzalez to a waiting van, claimed to have been pushed into some bushes, but it is unclear from the video footage who–if anyone–pushed her; she may have been jostled accidentally by a fellow agent. Agents also claimed that allies of the Miami family threw objects at them, and in fact they can be seen doing so in the video footage as the INS agents are leaving the scene of the raid.

In attempting to portray the agents as the victims of unprecedented violent resistance, government officials were in effect "recasting" the drama implied by the photographs, and reassigning the motivation for the federal agents' behavior. The government was thus taking a page from the Rodney King defense. In the first trial of the police officers involved, defense attorneys persuaded a Simi Valley, California, jury that it was the pummeled King who was motivating the appalling action, because he continued to move while being beaten with batons. Had he only lain still, these lawyers argued, the beating would have ended.

Jose Garcia Pedrosa, a lawyer for the Miami family, rejects the INS version of motivation. "Any violence that occurred at the house," he told the Orlando Sentinel, "was brought there by Janet Reno."

"Reno Allowed Photos"

On April 25, The Washington Post carried a remarkable story headlined "Reno Allowed Photos During Elian Siege." According to this account, which was attributed only to "sources," Reno "personally decided not to prevent photographers from taking pictures" of the raid. Reno, said these sources, was "seeking to avoid allegations of a government coverup" of the kind that has haunted her since the Branch Davidian siege ended in more than 80 deaths by burning seven years before. Indeed, she foresaw that Alan Diaz himself would be present inside the house and taking photographs, said the sources, but liberally decided not to have him ejected. Her reported openness was also motivated by the fact that both her parents were journalists, according to the account.

Thus, while the content of the Diaz photographs may be unattractive, the very existence of the pictures is a supposed tribute to the government's policy of honesty, and to Reno's commitment to democracy, the First Amendment, and freedom of the press.

"It was a gutsy decision," Carl Stern told the Post. Stern is a former reporter who was also a Reno spokesman early in the administration. Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute saw things differently. According to him, removing the AP photographer when he was already in the house "would have been even greater police-state measures."

Attempting to limit the impact of damaging images by taking credit for those images is unusual, and may in fact be unprecedented. If the military had thought of this stratagem during the Vietnam War, for example, it could have tried to mitigate the damage of all that embarrassing footage of soldiers setting fire to villages by claiming that such images represented the very freedom that the military was fighting for. Certainly the most striking element of the story is its implication that Reno deserves extra credit for "allowing" the news media to do their job.

In fact, the Post account was one of several narratives that encouraged the public to see the pictures from Reno's pained and empathetic point of view. In The Miami Herald, for instance, the attorney general is quoted as asking herself, "How would [Elian] feel, suddenly being put in the arms of a stranger? What would he think? How frightened would he be? And I kept thinking, I wish I could see him when his daddy gets on the plane." In an extraordinary bit of sharing, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder informed the press that after Reno had ordered the raid to begin, "She put her head on my shoulder and wept."

The day after the Post printed the account of Reno's liberal press policies, Tony Zumbado was taken to the hospital. Who's he? He was the NBC cameraman on location the night of the raid, and the designated broadcast and cable pool cameraman. He and his soundman were alerted to the approach of the INS raiders moments before their arrival. Zumbado told The New York Times what happened when he attempted to cover the raid from inside the home. "We got Maced, we got kicked, we got roughed up."

NBC reporter Kerry Sanders, who was also outside the Gonzalez house on the night of the raid, described what happened to the right-wing Web site Newsmax.com, which has published the most detailed account.

According to Sanders, Zumbado encountered INS agents already in the house when he entered. Zumbado's soundman, still outside, was hit in the head with a rifle butt and fell to the ground bleeding. Zumbado, the camera perched on his shoulder, fell backward when someone yanked the heavy video and audio cables that were attached to it.

"At that point," says Sanders, "somebody smacks him in the stomach. Tony is hit in the stomach and goes down. And then the agent puts his foot on Tony's back and puts a gun to him and says, 'Don't move or I'll shoot.'

"Tony tells me that as he looks up around, he sees the family there and he sees these little red dots on Lazaro's [Elian's great uncle's] forehead, on Marisleysis' [Elian's cousin's] forehead. Which of course are the laser sights from the machine guns. He sees them all trained there and then he hears what's going on in the back room. But he's not in that back bedroom because he's now down on the floor with a foot in his back and a gun to his head saying, 'Don't move.'"

Zumbado had a pre-existing back condition that was apparently exacerbated when a federal commando planted a boot on his spine. The Wednesday after the raid, Zumbado, unable to move without pain, was removed from his home by stretcher and taken to a Miami hospital. While there, he would have been able to read about Janet Reno's liberal press-coverage policies at his leisure.

"Father and Son"

By the afternoon of April 22, the day of the raid, those defending the decision took their most effective action in limiting raid-imagery damage: They offered counter images. Photographs of a happy Elian in his father's arms at Andrews Air Force Base, and of the boy playing with his half-brother, were released to the press. The shot featuring the father was to accompany the raid pictures in much of the press coverage, and to dominate coverage in such major agenda-setting papers as The New York Times. Indeed, it was the cover shot of the next issue of Time magazine, which captioned it "Papa!" The photo was played with an air of denouement, of happy resolution. All's well that ends well.

"Happy resolution" was precisely the narrative pushed by the Justice Department. "Earlier this morning," Janet Reno told reporters at an April 22 press conference, "federal agents began to reunite Elian Gonzalez with his father and uphold the rule of law." These were the first on-the-record words out of the attorney general's mouth the day of the raid, and they established the themes that federal spokespersons were to pursue relentlessly in the weeks afterward. The raid, according to this story, was a necessary prelude to a heartwarming family reunion. No administration figure was to address the raid issue without at least once formulating a sentence referring to the benevolent reunion of a boy and his father.

The most florid of these father-son formulations came from Reno herself, during a bizarre May 1 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Sinking in an ocean of warm fuzzy rhetoric, Reno managed to evoke the Gonzalez reunion as a model for a great American joining of hearts. "I think it is time for us all to come together," the attorney general told the popular daytime hostess, "father and son, community, people who care about each other to make democracy work."

Who took the pictures of a happy Elian and his father? The father's $850-per-hour lawyer, Greg Craig. (Craig had written to the major news media, calling on them not to cover the raid at all in the name of "decency.") Notwithstanding the attorney general's embrace of openness and the free press, no reporter would be allowed to photograph the pair. The Air Force base, outside Washington, was closed to everyone–including, somehow, U.S. senators–in the interests of family privacy and healing.

Elian's Miami relatives were to argue that the "reunion" images were fakes, a desperate and ill-considered charge that was quickly proved false. The pictures are real enough–why shouldn't the boy be glad to see his father, especially given the violence with which he had been snatched from his Miami home? The question is, is the story that these pictures tell a false one?

The "reunion" pictures imply a resolution. Certainly, that is how the administration has used them, and how they have been treated by leading periodicals. But there is no reason to assume that the reunited Gonzalez family will now live happily ever after. If Elian returns to Cuba, he apparently will be housed in a state school for at least three months by a regime that considers children its property. Fidel Castro has promised as much. Thus, the Elian narrative may be far from completed: Lying ahead may be precisely the ugly possibilities that were all along at the heart of the Miami custody battle. Of course, if Reno had told the press or even Oprah Winfrey that "Federal agents have begun the process that will end in a Castro re-education facility," that wouldn't have sounded so good. Better to pretend that a story has ended happily, than to admit that an unhappy story may be beginning, one that featured the armed connivance of the American government.

The "reunion" pictures also imply familial intimacy. Certainly, Janet Reno has cited exactly this excuse in keeping the press and everyone else away from the family. That wouldn't be an unreasonable act, if it were true. But it is not true. (One notable exception occurred in May, when Elian was on display at a political dinner in Georgetown.) More important, perhaps, the family has been surrounded by a gaggle of Castro "diplomats" since the moment the boy arrived at Andrews, and this same extended "family" all moved in together at the Wye Plantation, a government-owned property across the Chesapeake Bay from Washington. In other words, Juan Miguel Gonzalez has almost never been out of sight of his Cuban overseers since his arrival in the United States, a circumstance that continues to raise questions about his free agency. Yet, the attorney general of the United States defines this situation as one of "privacy."

Cuba's "diplomats" in Washington–they staff an "interests section," and not an embassy–are a notably thuggish lot. A few days before the Miami raid, a dozen of them emerged from their building to beat up anti-Castro protesters, men and women, who were demonstrating on a public sidewalk. Federal police who were guarding the building actually had to intervene. In the two centuries Washington has been the seat of government, foreign diplomats have used their immunity for a great many nefarious purposes, from stiffing the city on parking tickets to espionage. But the crude criminality of this attack may be a first. The administration has expressed its "concern."

Finally, the "reunion" images portray a happy little boy. Elian may in fact be very happy, but not everyone is satisfied to take Greg Craig's or Fidel Castro's word for the matter. On April 29, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons released a letter to the INS expressing its concern that the boy's medical treatment may have been politicized. It asked the INS "to disclose the names and backgrounds of all U.S. government-appointed medical personnel involved in the treatment or evaluation of the boy." The AAPS added that it was "not confident that the glowing reports from anonymous government doctors of the boy's easy adjustment following a traumatic seizure at gunpoint are indeed, unbiased, or for that matter, first-hand." The government has since identified a social worker and a psychiatrist who have tended to Elian.

On April 27, Customs officials in Washington searched the bags of Elian's Cuban pediatrician, who was en route to Wye Plantation, and found such sedatives as Miltown and phenobarbital. This discovery has fueled persistent claims that Elian may have been sedated following his seizure. In fact, there is no evidence that the boy has been mistreated in this way, but the AAPS's point remains perfectly valid: There was no independent information about the boy during this crucial period, and neither the U.S. nor Cuba had any credibility on the subject.

The administration's response to the raid imagery reflects the media strategy it has employed through two terms of scandal. It had on its hands a narrative it didn't like, so it attempted to create a counter-narrative. That new story demonized Elian Gonzalez's Miami family as disturbed and violent, celebrated government commandos as victims, subsumed inconvenient emotions within the person of an empathetic attorney general, and even appropriated the problematic imagery itself. Tacked on was a useful but false fairy-tale ending in which Little Elian lives happily ever after. But his story has not really ended at all. If Elian sails off into the sunset, he'll land in Cuba. A lot of good Janet Reno's empathy will do him there.

Charles Paul Freund (cpf@reason.com) is a REASON senior editor.