Waco secrecy fed public mistrust, Danforth says

St. Louis Post-Dispatch/ July 23, 2000
By William H. Freivogel And Terry Ganey

Special counsel John C. Danforth was amazed that most Americans were willing to believe, without evidence, that the government intentionally burned up a group of its citizens at Waco, Texas, in 1993. Danforth said that amount of mistrust, revealed in a poll last September, undermines the fundamental bargain of American democracy -- that government derives its authority from the consent of the governed. But in his 10-month investigation of the Waco siege, Danforth also concluded that the government itself was partly at fault for the mistrust. When it came to telling what really happened at Waco, the government was its own worst enemy.

Danforth said that by withholding information from Congress and even stonewalling Danforth's investigators, a few FBI agents and Justice Department lawyers sometimes made it look as if the government was lying.

Danforth called for greater "openness and candor" in government as an "antidote" to the "remarkable" distrust of government. And he called upon all Americans to surrender the dark assumption that the government is involved in evil acts.

The main point of Danforth's interim report of his investigation into the deaths of 80 Branch Davidians at Waco was that the serious allegations of government wrongdoing were untrue. David Koresh caused the death of the Branch Davidians who died in a fire on April 19, 1993 - not Attorney General Janet Reno or anyone else in the government.

But, even though he exonerated Reno, Danforth did not give the Justice Department a clean bill of health. He provided the most detailed account to date of how a few FBI agents and lawyers held back important information about the use of pyrotechnic tear gas rounds, which can cause fire. Agents fired three of these rounds at a bunker 75 feet away from the building four hours before the fire started.

The government's failure to disclose information about the pyrotechnic tear gas was "especially puzzling," Danforth said, "because the use of pyrotechnics had nothing to do with the fire because they weren't fired at the building.

"Yet the failure to disclose this information, more than anything else is responsible for the loss of the public faith in the government's actions at Waco," he said.

Danforth disclosed that:

  • Dick Rogers, the head of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team during the siege, sat silently behind Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director William S. Sessions when they testified to Congress in April 1993 that no pyrotechnic tear gas was used at Waco. That was nine days after the April 19 siege during which Rogers had authorized agents to fire three pyrotechnic tear gas rounds at the bunker away from the building. Danforth said Rogers' failure to step forward with the truth "was a significant omission that contributed to the public perception of a cover-up."
Rogers has retired from the agency.

  • The government repeatedly denied, until 1999, the existence of an audiotape of Rogers authorizing the firing of the pyrotechnic rounds. Danforth continues to investigate why it took so long for the government to acknowledge the tape's existence.
  • Two Justice Department lawyers, Ray Jahn and his wife, LeRoy Jahn, submitted written statements in court and to Congress stating that only "nonlethal" rounds of tear gas were fired. The Jahns knew at the time that pyrotechnic rounds had been used. Danforth is still investigating whether their actions might be illegal.
  • An FBI lawyer, Jacqueline Brown, knew about the pyrotechnic rounds but failed to tell a Justice Department lawyer about them. Brown gave Danforth's investigators "several different accounts of her actions," but Danforth decided that "one FBI attorney's attempt to cover up her own misconduct" should not be prosecuted because it was not the main focus of the investigation.
  • The three pyrotechnic tear gas projectiles and two of their casings still have not been found among the tons of evidence collected from the scene. Danforth reported that he "has developed information" about what happened to the missing evidence and is continuing to investigate it.
Danforth also criticized the Justice Department's own 1993 investigation of Waco, which was headed by Richard Scruggs, an acquaintance of Reno's who came from Miami at her request. Danforth said Scruggs began with the assumption that the FBI did nothing wrong and "did not conduct a formal investigation."

Government hindered inquiry

The Justice Department's roadblocks to finding out what happened at Waco did not end with Danforth's appointment last September.

He disclosed that Justice Department lawyers had tried to withhold documents from the investigation, telling him he was not entitled to documents written after his appointment. They also told him he needed their permission before he sought to simulate the conditions of the Waco siege. And he disclosed that top government officials tried several times to persuade him to seek a delay in the civil suit that the Branch Davidians had filed against the government.

After "contentious" discussions with the department, Danforth refused to give in to any of these limitations. He got the documents, conducted the simulation, and the civil case went ahead. Ironically, the test cleared the government of the gunfire allegations. Then, on July 14, a jury in Texas cleared the government of wrongdoing in the civil case.

Danforth recommended in his report that the Justice Department draw up new guidelines to provide more cooperation with future special counsels who are investigating the department. Danforth is the first special counsel appointed since Congress allowed the independent counsel law to lapse.

Reinforcing public mistrust

Danforth said he was astonished that a poll last September showed that 61 percent of respondents believed that federal law enforcement officials started the fire of the Davidians' complex "despite the lack of any real evidence."

Danforth said his decision to clear the government of bad acts wasn't a close call. "What is remarkable is the overwhelming evidence exonerating the government," he said.

One new piece of evidence in the government's favor was a lie detector test that Danforth's team administered to David Corderman, the agent who fired the three pyrotechnic tear gas rounds. The test indicated that Corderman was answering truthfully when he said he had not fired the fire-causing tear gas at the building.

During the civil trial, lawyers for the Branch Davidians had suggested that Corderman had started one of the fires in the building by firing pyrotechnic rounds into the structure.

Danforth also prepared his own transcripts of conversations among Davidians about starting the fire. The conversations had been intercepted by 11 electronic bugs that the government had sneaked into the complex with the delivery of milk and other items.

Separate transcripts of the conversations that had been prepared by the Justice Department appeared to have been influential in the recent trial. Danforth's transcripts added some new detail and fixed the time of the conversations more precisely. In the hour just before the fire - between 11:17 a.m. and 12:04 p.m. - Davidians said:

"Do you think I could light this soon?"

"I want a fire on the front . . . you two can go."

"Keep that fire going, keep it."

Danforth concluded, as did the jury, that "The only plausible explanation for these comments is that some of the Davidians were executing their plan to start a fire."

Danforth said all of the witness and physical evidence was consistent with Koresh's teaching that fire would "transcend" or "translate" the Davidians immediately to heaven.

No evidence of gunfire

Danforth said "zero" evidence supported the claim that government agents fired on the Davidians in the hour before the fire, trapping them inside. All of the more than 500 government agents who were interviewed by Danforth said there was no government gunfire. Nor was there testimony from any Davidian claiming to have witnessed government gunfire.

Danforth also stressed autopsy results showing that none of the 20 Davidians who died of gunshot wounds had died from "high velocity" rounds that FBI snipers use. Instead, Danforth said, the Davidians killed each other - including five children - with "execution-style" shots from close range.

Tests on 36 shell casings collected from the floor of a government sniper position (called Sierra-1) showed that the casings had not come from FBI guns. The casings were instead from guns fired earlier by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who got in a gunbattle with the Davidians at the start of the 51-day siege.

But Danforth said that the key event of his investigation was the test he organized simulating the conditions of the final day of the Waco siege. The idea of the test was to help determine whether flashes on a 1993 infrared surveillance tape that day had come from the muzzles of guns, as the Davidians claimed.

The test, performed by Vector Data Systems Inc. of England, concluded with "no doubt" that the flashes were from reflections of sunlight, not guns.

Danforth disclosed Friday that he had hired another consultant, Lena Klasen, to perform a separate analysis that determined that no people were on the ground near the places where the flashes were recorded - in other words, that there were no shooters near the flashes.

FBI photographs of the scene, showing no agents on the ground, verify this finding, said Danforth.

Finally, Danforth said it would make no sense for agents to leave the safety of their armored vehicles and face a hail of Davidian gunfire from above. Nor does it make sense, he said, that agents at the back of the complex would be firing at the Davidians, while agents at the front were saving Davidians from the fire.

Military had limited role

Danforth called "entirely meritless" the allegation that commandos had been involved in an armed attack on the complex.

Before the initial ATF raid on Feb. 28, 1993, there was disagreement within the military about how much assistance the military could provide. In the end, the military cut back on its assistance for that raid.

But the sensational allegations of military involvement related to the final day, April 19, when the fire occurred. Davidians claimed that military commandos had taken part in an armed raid on the complex. Danforth administered a lie detector test to a military officer present on the final day of the fire who said that he had not gotten near the complex.

Danforth also dismissed as entirely baseless the claim made in a documentary movie about Waco that a high-explosive "shaped" charge had blown up a concrete bunker where most of the women and children were found dead. Danforth said a propane gas explosion accounted for the damage to the bunker.

Finally, Danforth said the evidence supported the claims by FBI commanders Rogers and Jeff Jamar that they had not begun the premature demolition of the complex in the hour before the fire. Rogers and Jamar insisted that tanks were knocking down part of the building to insert tear gas into an interior room where Davidians had sought refuge. Danforth cited an FBI log entry substantiating Rogers and Jamar's claims.

But Danforth said he was still investigating who had written a medal commendation letter that proposed decorating FBI tank drivers for "dismantling" part of the complex. That was the strongest evidence that FBI agents were ordered to destroy the complex.

Spreading the blame

In a preface that Danforth personally wrote, the special counsel said that the willingness of people to believe such clearly erroneous charges poses a challenge to the principle in the Declaration of Independence that government derives its "just powers from the consent of the governed."

"When 61 percent of the people believe that the government . . . intentionally murders people by fire, the existence of public consent, the very basis of government, is imperiled."

Danforth cast his net of blame widely. He blamed government lawyers for their lack of candor. He blamed lawyers for the Davidians for taking their zealous representation to "extremes." He blamed the media for giving "equal treatment to both outrageous and serious claims" in the interest of "balance." And, he blamed Congress for forcing government officials into a "bunker mentality."

To break "this vicious circle of distrust and recrimination," said Danforth, requires action from the government and from the people.

The government must be more open. Government lawyers must stop "playing it close to the line" and trying to win legal "victory at all costs."

"A government lawyer should never hide evidence or shade the truth, and must always err on the side of disclosure," Danforth said.

As for the people, Danforth said, "We all have the responsibility to distinguish between healthy skepticism about government and the destructive assumption that government is an evil force engaged in dark acts."

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