JANET RENO'S wood-paneled office, with its warm furnishings, oil portrait of Robert Kennedy, and view of the Washington Monument, hardly resembles a gritty urban police station or a dusty border-patrol office on the Rio Grande. And the tall, soft-spoken woman in an electric-blue dress who answered a reporter's questions last week doesn't look like a cop or a border guard.
But this is the attorney general of the United States, and two hot issues - crime and immigration - sit squarely on her desk. Ms. Reno is in fact a ``general,'' for she ultimately commands thousands of troops in the ``wars'' on crime, on drugs, and to control the nation's borders.
Polls show crime to be the No. 1 issue for many Americans. And the Haitian and Cuban boat people as well as a surge of illegal aliens into the US have roused national concern.
The attorney general discussed these subjects with the Monitor on Sept. 23. Here are excerpts from the interview:
What responsibilities does the Department of Justice have for implementing the crime bill recently passed by Congress?
The community-policing grant [an $8.8 billion program that aims to put 100,000 additional police officers on America's streets within six years] is our responsibility, and we've done a lot of planning in that regard.
A year ago we were given responsibility for the administration of a $150 million police-hiring supplement [passed by Congress], so we were able to put in place mechanisms and structures to figure out how to do it as responsibly as possible, in a nonpartisan way, to avoid waste, to make sure that small communities had the same chance as large communities [to hire police]. We learned an awful lot about how it should be done.
I felt that the [crime bill's] cops program was so massive that we should focus accountability for it at the highest levels of government. Some people have perceived that as a political step, because I made the cops-program director report to the associate attorney general [the third-highest-ranking official in the department], but I did it to try to narrow the lines of authority, streamline it, build on everything that we have learned from the police-hiring supplement....
The Office of Justice Programs will be responsible for administering significant other parts of the bill, such as the domestic-violence and violence-against-women initiatives.
How has your experience as the Dade County (Fla.) prosecutor affected your work in this job?
It frustrated me [as a prosecutor] to see federal law-enforcement agencies engaged in turf fights with state agencies, and too often it was a one-way street, with a federal agency coming to local police and saying, ``Give us all the information you have,'' but never giving anything back.
I think we've gone a long way. Career people tell me ... that they've never seen federal law enforcement work together as well as it has, and work with local law enforcement as well as it has. It [federal coordination with state and local authorities] may be us giving information to the local police so they can solve a homicide that's drug related.
It may be us taking a case in federal court that cuts across state lines or has a particular federal implication [and thereby reducing a state prosecutor's caseload]. I think we have really developed a partnership with state and local prosecutors and law enforcement, and I think that's in part due to my experience.
What are you doing to improve the enforcement of US immigration laws?
That is going to be one of the most critical problems I deal with. I think we're making progress, considering where we came from. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) [which is part of the Justice Department] was probably the most neglected agency in the federal government.
My first step was to get the best INS commissioner I possibly could, someone who understood immigration policy and the needs of the Service. Doris Meissner took office last October, and I've been so impressed with what she's been doing to respond on the border in a comprehensive way.
It can't be done overnight. You can't recruit and train border-patrol personnel, and do it right, and get them to the line as fast as many people would want.
But we're trying to do it in an orderly way, focusing on where the highest activity along the border is, and developing plans for response - improving the lighting, improving the fencing, improving the night scopes and other technology that can make one border-patrol agent far more effective than just adding three agents with none of the technology to support them.
Doris has made major strides in providing the automation and technology infrastructure for the Service. She has announced a policy that provides for control of the border, a focus on criminal aliens [illegal aliens who commit crimes in the US], and taking steps to deport criminal aliens through an institutional-hearing process. In that regard, this is the first administration to start reimbursing the states for the cost of incarcerating criminal aliens.
Clearly, immigration is a touchstone. As a prosecutor in Miami who assumed many of the burdens of illegal immigration, I used to complain bitterly about the federal government's failure to respond. But I think we are responding, not in a knee-jerk way, but in a careful, ordered way done as fast as possible to get a long-range return.
* Immigration reform, Page 5.