Reno says she ordered firefighting equipment to be present at Mount Carmel

Waco Tribune-Herald, June 24, 2000
By Tommy Witherspoon

Attorney General Janet Reno ordered that emergency vehicles, including firefighting equipment, be on hand before the FBI commenced its final tear-gas operation designed to drive the Branch Davidians from Mount Carmel, Reno and high-ranking FBI officials testified Friday.

Attorneys for plaintiffs in the Branch Davidian wrongful-death lawsuit against the government turned their attention Friday to allegations that the FBI helped start and spread the fire and failed to have a plan to fight a fire at David Koresh's compound east of Waco.

Reno, former FBI director William Sessions and three former top FBI officials, all testifying through videotaped depositions, said that Reno was not told that FBI commanders in Waco didn't have a plan to fight a fire if one broke out during the April 19, 1993, tear gassing of the Branch Davidian complex.

Koresh and 75 followers died in the wind-swept blaze.

Government attorneys have said that FBI leaders were justified in holding back firefighters because sect members had fired upon government agents in tanks earlier in the day and because the group's massive arsenal was "cooking off" in the inferno.

U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford of Beaumont and Assistant Attorney General Marie Hagen, who are representing the government in the $675 million wrongful death lawsuit, on Friday asked U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. to dismiss two of the four claims from the trial. Claims that government agents deviated from a Reno-approved plan and accelerated the destruction of the building while inserting tear gas and that the government failed to respond properly when the fire started "should be dismissed forthwith," the government motion states.

Government attorneys have said that FBI leaders in Waco should not be subjected to second-guessing on their discretionary decisions made under trying conditions. Smith did not rule on the motion.

"Our position remains as it has always been and we don't think the evidence has shown anything any different," Bradford said at the close of the first week of testimony Friday. "And that is the decision on whether or not to use certain kinds of firefighting equipment and whether to send firemen into an area in which Davidians were shooting .50-caliber weapons. Those kinds of decisions are discretionary decisions for the people who are on the scene."

Bradford said that Reno did not specifically direct that fire trucks of any kind be available on the scene.

However, Reno, Sessions, former deputy assistant FBI director Danny O. Coulson, former assistant FBI director Larry O. Potts and former deputy FBI director Floyd Clarke all testified that Reno ordered that sufficient emergency vehicles be available to handle all emergencies. They said that included fire trucks.

Under questioning from lead plaintiffs' attorney Mike Caddell of Houston, the top Justice Department officials said that cost would not have been a consideration in the decision not to use armored firefighting equipment at the end the 51-day siege, which already had cost the government $6 million.

Reno said she does not recall any discussions of using armored firefighting equipment at an April 12, 1993, meeting to discuss the Waco situation. Potts and Clarke said that if such equipment had been available, it would have been standing by.

Potts told Caddell that he was unaware of an offer from a private firm in California to loan a remote armored firefighting vehicle to the government during the siege.

Reno and the FBI leaders testified that the FBI commanders in Waco were told not to use pyrotechnic, military-style tear gas devices because of the possibility that they could spark a fire. Reno said she was told later that no such devices were used, although evidence revealed that at least two military canisters were shot into the compound on April 19, 1993.

Caddell introduced a report from an interview two FBI agents conducted with Reno in August 1993 during the investigation into the Branch Davidian tragedy. Reno indicated that she told FBI leaders to "back away" during the tear-gas operation if Branch Davidians put children in the compound's four-story tower.

"They told me I should butt out after giving okay. Can't call back. Not law enforcement official. Not on scene," the agent's hand-written notes from the Reno interview indicated.

Caddell criticized government officials for not providing the interview notes to him until two weeks ago, calling the delay "reprehensible, inexcusable and unforgivable."

"When an interview with Janet Reno in August 1993 says they told her to butt out and can't call back, I think the jury understands what that means," Caddell said. "And now to prop up Janet Reno as the be-all and end-all of what did or didn't happen at Mount Carmel in 1993, of course, is ridiculous. I think at the end of the day, the jury was dismissing Janet Reno and just ignoring her."

Reno testified that FBI supervisors in Waco had wide discretion in their actions because they were on the scene and she wasn't. She said, however, that they did not have "implied authority" to use pyrotechnic devices to deliver the tear gas.

In other testimony Friday, three FBI agents who were in tanks during the tear-gassing said the saw smoke coming from the kitchen and tower areas after canisters of tear gas were fired into the compound.

Government attorneys have said that the tear-gas operation had nothing to do with starting the fire, alleging that Koresh and his followers started fires that consumed their home.

FBI agent Tom Rowan said he fired 70 to 80 non-pyrotechnic "ferret rounds" into the complex during the early stages of the plan.

He said he saw a person firing a weapon from inside the tower, adding that he saw frequent muzzle flashes from other windows. He said he fired several ferret rounds into the window and then took cover while the person in the window returned fire.

"The person you saw firing. Was that a child?" Caddell asked.

Rowan said he couldn't tell who was firing at his tank.

The plan approved by Reno called for the slow and gradual introduction of tear gas into the compound using tanks equipped with booms to drive the Davidians out. It called for the systematic destruction of the compound only after 48 hours and it was determined that the tear-gas plan had failed.

After agents came under heavy fire from Davidians, the tear-gas assault was escalated, with agents in tanks firing the ferret rounds, agents said.

Steve McGavin, an FBI supervisory agent who helped develop the operation plan for the final day, defended orders that led to the destruction of the gym on the back side of the building. He said the tanks drove through the gym to open escape holes for Davidians and to clear a path to the tower.

"I can't say they are dismantling the gym," McGavin said. "They were ordered to try to create a path to the concrete bunker in the center of the structure because there were reports that there were people in there and the gas was not taking effect."

Cadell asked McGavin if he had watched FBI videos that showed a tank repeatedly driving into the side of the gym, backing out and driving in again.

"It is my belief that he was trying to create a path to the tower," McGavin said.

Caddell pointed out that the vehicle ramming into the side of the gym was not equipped to inject liquid tear gas.

"So if Mr. Bradford said in his opening statement that the purpose of the vehicle was to spray CS gas, that is just not right, is it?" Caddell asked.

"I would assume that he was clearing a pathway so another vehicle with gas could come around and deliver the gas," McGavin said.

Caddell asked the agents about the use of military rounds, tear gas canisters that potentially could spark a fire.

McGavin said FBI agents had several of the military-style rounds. He said most came from local law enforcement agencies which were called on to donate the items when the arsenal of ferret rounds was depleted.

Smith announced Friday morning that he had excused one of the seven jurors because of "personal problems of a substantial nature."

The judge also showed that he is becoming impatient with the pace of the trial, imposing a 40-hour time limit for parties in the lawsuit to present their cases. The judge told the plaintiffs at the lunch break that they already had used more than half their time.

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