Not At Fault

ABC News, July 21, 2000

July 21 — One week after a jury absolved the government of wrongdoing in a suit stemming from the siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, an independent counsel concluded today that federal agents were not responsible for the deaths at the fiery end of the 1993 standoff.

Special counsel John C. Danforth told a news conference in St. Louis he had determined with “with 100 percent certainty” that federal agents and the government were innocent of any wrongdoing. The former Missouri senator blamed the Branch Davidians and sect leader David Koresh for starting the fire that claimed 80 lives on the last day of the 51-day siege.

Announcing the findings detailed in a preliminary report to the Justice Department, Danforth also concluded that federal agents did not shoot at the Davidians and that government officials did not engage in a major coverup in the investigation. In addition, he found that the military’s involvement in the siege was not improper.

Failure to Disclose Pyrotechnic Devices

While Danforth absolved the government in his report, he said he is still expects an explanation for why government officials initially hid the fact that federal agents used pyrotechnic rounds such as tear-gas canisters during the siege.

“All of us should be more skeptical of those who make sensational accusations against evil acts by government,&0148; Danforth said. &0147;But the investigation revealed that a few government lawyers and an FBI agent did conceal from the public, Congress and the courts that an FBI agent fired three pyrotechnic tear-gas rounds.”

The devices, Danforth said, did not cause the fatal fire. The rounds were fired at the compound four hours before the blaze began and were not a factor, he said.

Still, the government’s use of the pyrotechnic devices did not become known until last year, more than six years after the siege. In his report, Danforth said the failure of government officials to disclose the information led to the appearance of a coverup and shook the public’s faith in the government.

“The failure of certain government officials to acknowledge the use of the pyrotechnic gas rounds until August of 1999 constitutes, at best, negligence in the handling of evidence and information and, at worst, a criminal effort to cover up the truth,” Danforth wrote. “The Special Counsel has made substantial progress in resolving the coverup issue, the investigation is not yet complete.”

FBI Feels Vindicated

FBI Director Louis Freeh said he was pleased with Danforth’s findings and was gratified that FBI agents had been absolved of wrongdoing for the second time in the past week.

“The simple truth, as the FBI has maintained since April 19, 1993, has been unmistakingly confirmed today — the FBI fired no shots on that day and the Davidians started the fires that ultimately engulfed the compound,” Freeh said in a statement.

“Seven years of absorbing unproven allegations and unfounded criticisms has levied a heavy burden on the agents who were at Waco and their families as well,” Freeh said. “Like the jury findings, this report brings great solace to them in that its findings reaffirm that which we have always believed — they did their best and for all the right reasons.”

Danforth is expected to issue his final report in approximately 3 ½ months.

Judge’s Final Verdict Remains

On June 14, a federal jury hearing a $675 million wrongful death suit filed by surviving Davidians and relatives of those who died in the siege said the government was not responsible for the deaths. The jury’s decision is not final; its recommendation was taken under advisement by U.S. District Judge Walter Smith, who will render the final verdict.

The plaintiffs’s suit, which consolidated nine civil cases filed against the government, alleged the government was responsible for deaths that occurred during botched raids that started the siege on Feb. 28, 1993, and ended it on April 19, 1993.

The plaintiffs contended that FBI agents fired at sect members during the final hours of the siege, preventing them from escaping the fire, which they said was started during an FBI tear-gassing operation intended to end the standoff. The government said the Davidians started the blaze and maintained agents did not fire at the sect members.

Smith also still must decide gunfire controversy. Before the trial, he ruled that the jury would not consider the issue because a court-appointed expert was unable to testify because of illness. Smith will consider the issue separately when the expert is able to testify.

Investigation Kept Secret

Danforth, a Republican former senator from Missouri, was appointed in September by Attorney General Janet Reno to lead the investigation.

His preliminary report gave the first glimpse into what Danforth and his investigators had been doing behind closed doors at offices in St. Louis, Waco and Washington. Danforth insisted that his investigation be conducted in secret and made sure that his findings were not leaked to the media.

Danforth’s budget indicated he did not use Justice Department investigators to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest, since the actions of FBI agents were under scrutiny. Most of the work was done by a staff of 17 lawyers — including Danforth — and 32 postal investigators, who were not paid through Danforth’s budget.

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