Danforth Investigation Clears Government In Waco Incident

The Kansas City Star, July 21, 2000
By Oscar Avila And Kit Wagar

ST. LOUIS -- Answering the "dark questions" that have lingered for seven years, Jack Danforth said Friday that blame for the bloodshed near Waco rests entirely with Branch Davidians, not government agents.

A 10-month investigation led by the former senator from Missouri also found no evidence of a government cover-up or improper military involvement.

Danforth's 149-page interim report exonerates Attorney General Janet Reno and, he hopes, puts to rest conspiracy theories about Waco.

"I think any open-minded person, any fair-minded person, who reads this will say, `This is the way it was,' " Danforth told reporters.

David Koresh and about 80 Davidians died in an inferno following the raid on their compound near Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993. The raids, and allegations of a cover-up, caused some lawmakers to demand Reno's resignation.

In September, Reno appointed Danforth as special counsel to investigate Waco after revelations that the FBI used tear-gas rockets that could have sparked a fire, a contradiction of earlier government claims.

Danforth's report concluded that government agents did not set the fire at Waco or shoot at the Davidians.

But the government was not held blameless. In an interview with The Kansas City Star, Danforth said the lack of candor about the use of pyrotechnic devices contributed to public suspicion about Waco.

He said that deception allowed media, politicians and extremists to fuel conspiracy theories and erode public confidence.

"The result is that people who want to believe the worst in government say, `Aha! This is something that is really bad so everything is suspicious.' The lesson is that government has to be open," Danforth said.

Reaction to Danforth's report indicates that skepticism remains strong.

Larry Klayman, chairman and general counsel of the conservative legal group Judicial Watch, said he wasn't surprised. He said his group, which is suing the Justice Department to get access to documents involving the Waco standoff, would continue its investigation.

"Janet Reno knew what she was getting when she appointed Danforth," Klayman said. "Danforth is establishment and we expect him to scratch the back of the establishment."

Klayman said Danforth's sweeping exoneration of the agents on the scene would breed further mistrust of government. To exonerate the government for actions that left about 80 dead insulted the American people, he said.

Danforth would not comment on whether the government exercised bad judgment at Waco because his research only addressed "bad acts." He said he did not want to emulate special counsels whose investigations "morphed" into wide-ranging topics.

Danforth expects to present a final report by fall. He said his investigation of the 51-day siege was about 95 percent complete.

The report addresses four major questions: Did federal law officers shoot into the compound? Did agents start the fire? How involved was the military? Was there a government cover-up?

Investigators found no evidence that FBI agents returned fire from the Davidians. The report stated flashes that occurred around government vehicles were reflections or "glint" from scattered debris.

Interviews, autopsies, ballistics tests and other evidence indicated that Davidians who died from gunshot wounds committed suicide or were killed by other Davidians, the report said.

The report also placed blame for the fire on the Davidians. The report describes conversations among Davidians picked up by government listening devices within the compound. Several discussions involved ways to pour fuel and start a fire.

Investigators did find evidence that an FBI agent fired three pyrotechnic tear-gas rounds. But the report stated that the rounds were fired at an outbuilding that was under construction 75 feet from the Davidian complex.

They could not have ignited the fire because they bounced off the building and were launched about four hours before the fire erupted, the report said.

Danforth's report was the second time in a week that the government was cleared of wrongdoing at the Davidians' Mount Carmel complex.

A five-member jury in Waco decided July 14 that federal agents were not responsible for the Davidians' deaths. The jury's ruling was only advisory, but both sides expect a U.S. District judge to hold the government blameless when he issues a final ruling.

FBI Director Louis Freeh was heartened by the findings.

"The simple truth, as the FBI has maintained since April 19, 1993, has been unmistakingly confirmed again today -- the FBI fired no shots on that day and the Davidians started the fire that ultimately engulfed the compound," he said.

As for the military's involvement, the report found that armed forces "conducted themselves properly and commendably" by providing reconnaissance, training and medical assistance.

The report also found no evidence that Reno intentionally covered up the use of the three pyrotechnic rounds.

However, Danforth harshly criticized several Justice Department lawyers and FBI agents for concealing the use of pyrotechnic devices, even though the rounds caused no harm.

He said repeated denials by the FBI and the Justice Department from 1993 until last year seriously undermined the government's credibility. The report noted that the last page of a key FBI lab report was omitted from the information turned over to congressional investigators.

The missing page showed that the FBI had used pyrotechnic tear-gas canisters, which can spark a fire under certain conditions. Reno, in granting the order to storm the Davidians' compound, had ordered the FBI not to use such propellants because of the risk of fire.

An internal Justice Department report was at best misleading when it said tear-gas delivery systems were "completely nonincendiary," the report said. Testimony to Congress was similarly suspect, it said.

And during preparation for a criminal trial against surviving Davidians, prosecutors falsely told defense attorneys that they had no evidence that government agents used pyrotechnic rounds. They made the statement despite agents' reports that such rockets were used, the report said.

Danforth wrote that those actions were reprehensible because they undermined public confidence. Lawyers in private practice might skirt the truth, but that is not acceptable for the government, he wrote.

Danforth, who has the power of prosecution, said he did not expect to charge the officials.

Michael Caddell, a Houston lawyer who represents most of the families of people who died, said the report ignored or glossed over several major inconsistencies in the evidence. He said he was bothered that Danforth decided not to pursue criminal charges against those who lied.

Danforth said his conclusions are unanimously shared by the team's 16 attorneys and 38 investigators. Danforth's team, based in St. Louis, sifted through more than 2 million pages of documents and interviewed almost 900 witnesses.

"There is no doubt, whatsoever, in my mind as to these conclusions. This is not a close call," Danforth said. "These `dark questions' have been answered with total certainty."

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