ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - An outside investigator exonerated Attorney General Janet Reno and the U.S. government on Friday of responsibility for a fire and shooting deaths in the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, blaming the group's leaders instead.
``There is no evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of Attorney General Reno, the present and former director of the FBI, other high officials of the United States, or members of the FBI hostage team who fired pyrotechnic tear gas on April 19, 1993,'' former Sen. John Danforth, a Republican from Missouri, told a news conference.
Reno appointed Danforth 10 months ago to take up the investigation, under pressure from members of Congress who alleged there had been a coverup of government wrongdoing.
``I give you these conclusions with 100 percent certainty,'' Danforth said. ``They are, one, government agents did not start the fire at Waco; two, government agents did not shoot at the Davidians on April 19, 1993; three, the government did not improperly use the United States military; and four, the government did not engage in a massive conspiracy and coverup.''
Danforth's report said, ``The tragedy at Waco rests with certain Branch Davidians and their leader, David Koresh, who shot and killed four (government) agents, wounded 20 others, shot at FBI agents trying to insert tear gas into the complex, burned down the complex, and shot at least 20 of their own people, including five children.''
About 80 sect members, including Koresh, died in a fire after a raid at the end of a 51-day siege. The standoff began on Feb. 28, 1993, when agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to serve Koresh a warrant. A gunfight erupted in which four of the agents and six cult members were killed.
Danforth issued his report one week after a Texas jury found in a damage lawsuit that federal agents were not to blame for the deaths in the siege and fire. A federal judge was expected to rule soon, based on the jury's advisory finding.
Danforth said his investigation had revealed that some government lawyers and FBI agents ``did conceal from the public, Congress and the courts that an FBI agent fired three pyrotechnic tear gas rounds. I want to emphasize that these rounds were fired at a construction area ... four hours before the fire and that they did not cause the fire,'' he told the news conference.
He said that chief among ``nettlesome'' issues still to be investigated was the whereabouts of all the pyrotechnic shells and casings and that he envisioned more than three more months of work before he issued his final report.
The disclosure in September, six years after the siege, that agents had used pyrotechnic devices against Reno's explicit orders triggered a public outcry and precipitated Reno's naming of Danforth, a prominent Republican, as special counsel.
Danforth repeatedly expressed dismay at the lack of ''candor'' by at least one FBI agent and some government lawyers who knew about the tear gas. He said their failure to be frank had raised doubts about the government's actions and intentions at Waco among a majority of the public and had ``caused real damage to our country.''
But he said none of those involved in the coverup would be prosecuted, at least at this point. ``That would be overkill,'' he said.
Danforth declined to comment on the overall handling of the siege at the Branch Davidian compound, saying that was not the purpose of his probe. ``This investigation was into bad acts, not bad judgements,'' he said.
In Washington, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder issued a statement saying Danforth's report ``discredits many of the unsubstantiated allegations that have skewed the public's perception of the events of April 19, 1993.''
``We are pleased that Senator Danforth has determined that the responsibility for the tragedy at Waco rests with the Branch Davidians, not the government. It is a finding entirely consistent with the decision rendered by a jury in Waco just last week,'' he said.
Asked about the timing of the interim report, Danforth said he wanted to be sure that Reno was exonerated before she left office and hinted at another factor concerning himself: He might be under consideration as Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush's running mate.
``In May, an unexpected political possibility was coming my way, and if that came to pass, I would have had to step down as special counsel,'' he said, adding he wanted to finish the job.
Pressed to elaborate on his apparent willingness to run for vice president if chosen by the Texas governor, Danforth declined, neither confirming nor denying speculation that he had discouraged any such offer months ago.
Danforth, seen as a moderate Republican while in the Senate, is in private law practice in St. Louis.
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