Janet Reno: Government and Business in a Technological World

Janet Reno was nominated by President Clinton to be the first woman attorney general of the United States. When she left office in 2001, she had become the longest serving U.S. attorney general in the 20th century.

In 2002, she ran for governor of Florida as a democrat and lost the nomination. She lives in Miami and pursues issues related to criminal justice reform, workforce education, health care, and the law and technology. She has occasionally lectured at Cornell University as the Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of 1956 University Professor.

Ms. Reno attended public schools in Miami and then enrolled at Cornell University, where she majored in chemistry and became president of the Women’s Self Government Association. In 1960, she enrolled in Harvard Law School, one of only 16 women in the class of 544. She received her LL.B. from Harvard three years later.

In 1971, Ms. Reno was named staff director of the Judiciary Committee of the Florida House of Representatives and in that position helped revise the Florida court system. After service in the State Attorney’s Office in Miami, she became a partner in a private law firm.

In 1978, the governor appointed Ms. Reno to state attorney for Miami-Dade County. In this position she served as chief prosecutor for the county focusing on violent crime, major drug dealing, and economic crime. She also helped reform the juvenile justice system, pursued delinquent parents for child-support payments, and helped establish the Miami Drug Court. She was elected to the office in November 1978, and she was returned to the office by voters four more times before she went to Washington, D.C., to serve as U.S. attorney general.

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Ethix: Technology is changing the way both governments and criminals work. How does law enforcement keep up with technology to anticipate future criminal behavior?

We must have a workforce that is more literate in the language of technology and at home with its use.

Janet Reno: In order for law enforcement agents and prosecutors to keep up with technology, we must develop training programs that bring the law and science together, each player learning from the other. The cyber-expert must have an understanding of the constitutional limits on law enforcement so that they can work together to fashion equipment, processes, or standards that help prevent cybercrime or bring the perpetrator to justice after the crime is committed. Judges, prosecutors, and agents must understand the science and the language it uses and how it can be applied to the legal process. We have seen how effectively the law and science can work together in the DNA-based prosecutions.

But it is not enough to educate just those who work in the court system. If we are to build systems that protect our critical information infrastructure and ensure the security and privacy of the communication, we must have a workforce that is more literate in the language of technology and at home with its use.This is one of the great challenges we face. President Eisenhower said it best in his farewell address on leaving office:

“Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

“It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system — ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.”

Yet our nation is not educating a workforce capable of achieving these goals, as too many of our nation’s students fail to graduate from high school and college, while others graduate lacking a basic knowledge of science and technology. We must improve our public school system, particularly in science and technology.

Technology makes our borders meaningless to hackers. A man can sit in his kitchen in St. Petersburg, Russia, and use his computer to attack our critical information infrastructure. Effective prevention and enforcement require that we insure a link between law enforcement and technological experts around the world, prepared on a 24/7 basis to respond to calls for assistance from law enforcement agencies.

Do you see that happening?

Parts of it may be in place, but it is imperative if law enforcement is to prevent attacks, they have a standard response procedure in place. We must prevent whenever possible and demonstrate at the same time the capacity and willingness to bring the subject to court and convict the offender.

Dealing With Cybercrimes

Do law enforcement agencies have the capability to deal with the nuances of cybercrime?

Some law enforcement agencies have developed the capability, but we can do a better job of building a network nationwide of trained agents and detectives who have access to the necessary equipment to get the job done.

One of my concerns in a technological age is that we tend to look backward and understand what happened, but we need to look forward and anticipate new issues. After 9/11, we prepared for an attack using an airplane, but are we thinking about what other things could happen? Then we had the shoe bomber, so we check shoes. We all have gotten used to consuming our airline meals with a plastic knife. So, it is almost like we keep covering ourselves with past events instead of anticipating future events.

I agree with you. To anticipate is to help prevent problems before they are upon us.

What about the problem of coordination among the various law enforcement agencies in the United States?

That has to do with homeland security, and that really goes to the reorganization and cooperation between the various intelligence organizations including the FBI and CIA. This is a good thing that should be retained. We tried to make progress on this at the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, but when it turned out to be domestic terrorists, people did not really see the urgency in it.

Business and the Law

Will prison sentences have an impact on business behavior? Unfortunately, only for a period of time.

Let’s talk about the intersection between business and government. American business leaders seem to want to have as few laws as possible, and yet most responsible business people recognize you cannot do business without the rule of law. So, there is this kind of love/hate relationship between business and the law and government. How do you see your relationship with business?

When I was state attorney in Miami, one of our large banks suffered a substantial embezzlement. Bank officers were reluctant to go to the police for fear of adverse publicity and the burdens of coping with discovery. For them, the criminal justice system was a mysterious place. We met with the Chamber of Commerce and other banking institutions to consider ways we could work with the banks to address their concerns. We also worked with them to develop in-house prevention programs that worked. As attorney general, I met with general counsel and other corporate representatives and heard the same message. Again, by meeting and working together on issues we were able to solve problems as each side better understood the role of the other.

What is your reaction to the recent sentencing of CEOs for their involvement in the business ethics scandals. Both Bernie Ebbers (WorldCom) and Donald Kozlowski (Tyco) have been sentenced, along with others, and it looks like there will be more. Do you think this will have an impact on business behavior?

Unfortunately, only for a period of time.

The problem is not limited to financial fraud. For example, consider the way companies deal with the environment. They make the argument that the company is absolutely essential to this city’s economic growth and prosperity. But in order to serve this community well by providing jobs, they need the means of economically disposing of waste, so they are just going to dump it into the river. It seems there is always a rationalization. We need to move beyond the episodic treatment of these “incidents” to a longer term view of businesses and the communities where they reside.


If we think we can protect against global competition by raising arbitrary barriers in saying, “No, you cannot outsource, you are going to be penalized for outsourcing,” we are fooling ourselves. If we say outsourcing is a bad thing, we are not going to be competitive in a way that will enable us to maintain our position in the world.

What is your prediction about China?

It is fascinating to see how China has emerged in such a brief period of time.

China is going to be an extraordinary force for us to deal with and I think a very uncertain, unpredictable force, not necessarily for good. What I wonder is at what point would the Chinese people just rise up?

During the 1990s when you were attorney general there was an equally extraordinary change going on in Europe. They had their own issues in bringing together very different traditions on the continent and the British Isles with respect to law, for just one example.

That was interesting, because I think one of the best-kept secrets is the emergence of the European Union. I met with many EU representatives, starting with a good working relationship with Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary. He was helpful to us in terms of better understanding the situation. Working together with Canada, we had agreed that we would like to try to get in on the ground floor of the EU in terms of some of the legal issues. What we found was that they did not want our involvement, and they constantly rebuffed both Canada and the United States despite Straw’s urgings to the contrary. They said it was not done out of a lack of the desire to have us involved, but because they needed their own counsel to get their own act together. We pressed to be involved early, since continued dealings with Europe would impact us directly.

What would you think of the most recent events in Europe both for Europe and the world and their U.S. relationship? Two countries (The Netherlands and France) have recently rejected the proposed European Union constitution.

They have been able to resolve differences before under the radar, and my hope is that they can do it again. This is the first time in my memory that there has been an obvious problem developed above the radar. I believe they will use their abilities to resolve this.

Another global issue is that we are in a very connected world because of technology, and yet the structure of law is very diverse. The intellectual property laws are very weak in China, for example, and enforcement is even weaker. So what do you do about global law enforcement when you have different national laws?

This requires a great deal of communication. I spent an awful lot of time with my attorney general colleagues in other countries. Discussions often included the minister of justice, the chief prosecutor, and the ministry of the interior with responsibility for intelligence and prisons. So, I wore a number of hats and met with colleagues around the world, sometimes through the G8 or the OAS (Organization of American States). We were looking for ways to have a common understanding and a common way of handling and understanding the evidentiary features of these cases. These were interesting issues.

Germany did not want neo-Nazi parties. Free-speech issues were high on the agenda for us, and we learned a great deal with extradition. If the death penalty was an issue, they would not extradite, and the death-penalty problems caused a lot of tension. These discussions enabled us to share information. What did we want to accomplish by extradition, why was it important, how the treaty was to be effective? I think we made real progress. I think with 9/11 all those efforts correctly went to the background. Now we need to get back on track quickly. There are so many hard feelings against the United States, but this is the time when we should be reaching out and saying, “Let’s work together.”

Migrant Workers

The United States has a growing population of migrant workers, who often come here without proper papers to provide for their families. Yet hotels, orchards, and construction industries are more and more dependent on these people. How do you deal with conflicting issues of border protection, the need for workers, and allowing people to provide for their families?

It is clear that we depend on migrant population for a workforce in agriculture and in some domestic industries. I think the best we could do is to recognize that, develop the capacity to identify the workers who want to pursue economic success in this country, and provide for their assimilation both legally and socially. It would have to be understood that they would need to work in this country for a period of time, be law-abiding and pay their taxes. The big issue is whether they should have the right to become citizens if they establish a track record. We need to face this issue and do it right. Right now we are dealing with it emotionally and episodically.

Today, these people are caught in the middle. We need them, but won’t recognize their needs. We deport them when they are caught, and want to limit their opportunities to education and health care.

We need to educate their children, to get their children into college. If we have people in this country who are high school graduates, who are perfectly capable of going on to the college, but are prevented from doing so as not eligible for tuition benefits or the like, they are only going to become a burden in this country.

Issues With the Elderly

Are there some other issues facing our country that concern you?

A major issue we face is what we do about the graying of America.

A major issue we face is what we do about the graying of America. The numbers in Florida are staggering: about 18 percent of the population is over 65 now, and 26 percent will be 65 or over in 18 years. What can these people do? What can companies do to productively use the elderly?

I am working with some elder-law groups on this issue. We need to think about cyber-issues, business issues, and a whole range of social, economic, and health care issues. We need to plan elder communities. I am not talking about plush retirement facilities.

Here in a section in Miami, we are working on a mixed community that will include, but not be limited to, the elderly. We will put low-income housing as part of the project and build a balance between young and old, public and private sectors, private not-for-profit, police and community policing. We need resources to help people understand how to get their computer working again. So many are finding that they are kind of closed out when they get older. They don’t know how to run the computer, they cannot pick up the telephone and call their bank like they used to, etc.

This problem is really quite profound as life spans extend and technology change accelerates. The prospect for alienation is very real.

I do not think America has even begun to come to grips with what this age division is going to mean, because a greater percentage will be very old and a smaller percentage will be young and capable of supporting that larger block of elders.

So are you suggesting that as we understand the traditional business enterprise, the business enterprise is going to be obliged to address this issue?

During my campaign for governor in 2002, I visited elder facilities. The number of people over 100 years old is just amazing, and we are totally unprepared to deal with it. America has become, for so many, two cars in the garage, matching silver, matching China, everything just right. You can have a good quality of life with less. Life can tip into chaos for the elderly who cannot manage and care for everything. Service businesses are needed. You cannot send it halfway around the world to India. You have to perform it here. If you organize businesses based on sections of the community, I think you could do some really interesting things.


Gautschi: Do you have other issues you are passionate about?

I want to do whatever I can to improve the school systems in this country and to make sure that health care is available on a reasonable rate to all our citizens and not just to some. We can do a far better job of educating all of our young people, not just some. We can do a far better job of getting them through college and figuring out how we are going to pay for it. We are faced with globalization, have got to be competitive with many other forces around the world. I think it requires that we educate people in a new way. I think Bill Gates has recognized that through the money he has put into education. It reflects a splendid effort to meet a need, but government has to keep up with that too.

To be competitive and have Americans working at the cutting edge, we need to think about our education system differently, but my fear is that we are not doing this.

One concern is the way colleges are spending their money. Fancy lounges and special reading rooms are fine things, but are they necessary? I do not see it. We need to develop an educated populace that understands the issues for the future including dealing with cybercrime, as well as cybertechnology and its effective use. To be competitive and have Americans working at the cutting edge, we need to think about our education system differently, but my fear is that we are not doing this.

And I think education begins before birth. Child-development experts say that 50 percent of all learned human response is learned in the first year of life, and the concept of reward and punishment, and conscience is developed in the first three years of life. If parents are going to be effective teachers of their children, the bonding has to be established within a six-month period. We ignore that. “No child left behind” starts too late, because we bring kids into the system for which we have to spend lots of remedial money.

Personal Issues

In reading about you, I found a quote that said, “Her employees speak with awe about her integrity.” Where does this come from in you?

One of the people I admired most was a fellow by the name of John Bior, who is the only legislator in Florida to vote for a resolution condemning the continuing segregation of our public schools. He knew by that vote that he was going home to overwhelming political defeat, but he made a splendid statement on the floor of the house. He did go home to overwhelming political defeat. He was out of office, drank too much for a while, made a political comeback as a prosecutor, got elected mayor of Dade County, and his death from cancer tragically cut that term short.

During the campaign, I was running for legislature when he was running for mayor, and he said, “Janet, I have been listening to you on the campaign trails. Just keep on doing and saying what you believe to be right. Don’t pussyfoot, don’t throw the cape, don’t talk out of both sides of your mouth. When you wake up the next morning you will feel good about yourself. But if you are equivocating and try to be everything to everybody, you are going to wake up the next morning feeling miserable.” That is one of the best lessons I have ever learned.

It also helps to have both parents as newspaper reporters who have reported on some of the wrong things that politicians have done and you see how easy it is to get into the traps.

Did you every find your integrity tested when you were attorney general working for President Clinton?

One of the places that I have had it tested, both in the administration and otherwise, is on the issue of the death penalty. I am personally opposed to the death penalty. I did ask for it when I was in office. But right now, knowing what I know about the post-conviction DNA exonerations, I do not think I could ask for the death penalty.

I have had the occasion in the last three or four years to focus on the number of people who have been exonerated for crimes they did not commit but for which they were convicted — 159 people. That is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope to participate in efforts that will permit us to use the information gained as to why people were wrongfully convicted and take that information and apply it to 80 percent of the cases that DNA is not available to provide a check and balance.

I heard that when you were being interviewed for the position of attorney general, President Clinton asked if you would be loyal to him and I think your response was, “Yes, as long as you do not break the law.” Is that what you said?

Basically, I said my obligation is to the people of the United States. I have to make the best judgment calls I can, and if the president asked me to do something wrong, I would tell him why I thought it was wrong and ask him to change his position. If he did not, I would say, “Well, thank you, Mr. President. It has been a privilege to serve and I am going home.” He never asked me to do anything that I thought was wrong.

1 thought on “Janet Reno: Government and Business in a Technological World”

  1. Years ago,many of us from Miami tried to persuade Janet to run for president. She would always say “Washington’s not for me.” She so served us well using truths that our country was founded on and has written so much about the criminal justice system and how to educate children of migrant workers to become a productive addition to our country. (I don’t see any of our out of work citizens rushing out to pick lettuce or tomatoes, do you?) Her knowledge and wisdom as a child of two journalists prepared her to deal on a national level with issues that learned as a young woman far into her later years. If only we would reflect on her writings, qualifications and conversations, perhaps we would not have to re-invent the wheel on a road that has become almost impassable.

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