Reno says federal agents had discretion to use tear gas, remove Davidians

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 23, 2000
By Matt Slagle

By MATT SLAGLE Associated Press Writer WACO, Texas (AP) -- During the final day of the Branch Davidian standoff, federal agents had the discretion to do what needed to be done to insert tear gas to flush sect members out of the compound, Attorney General Janet Reno said in a videotaped deposition played for jurors Friday.

"But the discretion would have to be exercised within the limits of the plan," Reno said of the FBI commanders at the Mount Carmel site near Waco.

The Reno-approved plan called for FBI agents to use tank booms to gradually insert tear gas in the building. If after 48 hours the tear-gassing plan was ineffective, then agents could begin the systematic dismantling of the compound.

Reno's testimony was played during the $675 million wrongful death lawsuit brought by surviving Davidians and family members who claim the government is responsible for the deaths of some 80 people who died April 19, 1993, some from fire, others from gunshots.

Plaintiff's attorney Michael Caddell contends that federal agents violated the approved plan when they prematurely began tearing down a part of the building know as the gymnasium while agents in tanks launched tear gas into the compound.

Earlier Friday, Steve McGavin, an FBI supervisory agent who helped draft a proposal to remove the Davidians, told jurors that firefighting equipment was not on the "inner perimeter." "There was no plan to bring in firefighting equipment until we could secure the building and secure the safety of firefighters," he said.

Caddell later showed videotaped testimony of four former high-ranking FBI officials who said they believed Reno's instructions for on-site emergency crews included firefighting equipment.

The testimony came from former FBI director Williams Sessions, former deputy director Floyd Clarke, retired deputy assistant FBI director Danny Coulson and former FBI Assistant Director Larry Potts.

Reno said she didn't dictate details of the plan, such as where the tanks were or how tear gas would be inserted into the building. She told investigators in the Justice Department's 1993 review of the Waco tragedy that senior FBI leaders told her to "butt out" after she agreed to let them tear-gas the compound because she was not on the scene.

Also Friday, several tank-riding FBI agents testified they saw smoke wafting from the thin wooden walls of the complex shortly after canisters of tear gas were fired into the Davidian complex.

Government lawyers say sect leader David Koresh and some 80 followers intentionally started three fires that quickly engulfed the complex and ended the 51-day siege.

Agent Tom Rowan testified he fired as many as 80 so-called "ferret rounds" -- plastic canisters containing tear gas -- into the complex to force Davidians from the complex. Experts say ferret rounds are not considered incendiary devices.

But Caddell attempted to get the agent to talk about more incendiary munitions, asking if the FBI used "military rounds," metallic canisters that potentially could be flammable devices.

Under cross-examination by government attorneys, Rowan and other agents said they observed what appeared to be muzzle flashes from gunfire in several windows before the fire started.

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