Mistake Said Made In Waco Tear Gas

AP U.S.Wednesday July 26, 2000
By Jesse J. Holland, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - An FBI lawyer ``goofed'' in not telling superiors in 1996 that federal agents fired pyrotechnic tear gas canisters into the Branch Davidians' compound in Waco, Texas, a former senator who investigated the deadly raid said Wednesday.

That simple mistake by a ``very junior'' lawyer helped lead to the controversy over whether the government was trying to hide the fact the three canisters were fired, Special Counsel John Danforth told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee.

Danforth said the lawyer had marked on her ``to-do'' list in 1996 to tell the Justice Department about the canisters but never did. Refusing to name the lawyer, he said she even lied about it when his investigators questioned her but that there was no maliciousness in her actions.

``What happened in this case was that this fairly young lawyer simply goofed, simply failed to do an adequate job ... and in the face of the fear of personal ruin ... she then began to concoct various stories,'' Danforth said.

Danforth, a longtime Republican senator from Missouri, was appointed by Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate the siege after the government acknowledged, following years of denials, that it used pyrotechnic tear gas canisters during the final assault.

The siege began Feb. 28, 1993, when agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to arrest Branch Davidian leader David Koresh. A gunfight broke out, leaving four ATF agents and six Davidians dead, and the standoff started.

It ended 51 days later on April 19, 1993, when tanks driven by FBI agents pumped tear gas into the compound. A fire broke out and 80 Davidians, including Koresh, died, some from the fire, some from gunshots.

Danforth concluded last week with ''100 percent certainty'' that federal agents did not start the fire or shoot at cult members. The government also did not improperly use the military and did not engage in a major cover-up, Danforth said.

He continues to investigate why no one told the Justice Department that the tear gas canisters were fired.

Those canister had nothing to do with the fire, he told the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on administrative oversight and the courts.

He said the FBI lawyer found out about the tear gas while working on the Waco civil trial. On July 14, a five-member jury decided that the government was not responsible for the fire.

She marked it down on a list to tell her superiors but never did, Danforth said. After that mistake, she was afraid to come forward with the information, he said.

``I don't think for a minute that this FBI lawyer was part of any cover-up or conspiracy,'' Danforth said.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., asked Danforth whether he would recommend prosecuting the lawyer for lying. Danforth said that would be like hitting ``a gnat with a sledgehammer.''

Instead, the government needs to find a way to reduce its internal ``culture of fear'' and force its lawyers to be more open and candid, he said.

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