WASHINGTON - Confronted with President Clinton's statement that he "gave in" to the Justice Department when he permitted the FBI assault on the Branch Davidian sect near Waco in 1993, Attorney General Janet Reno said Thursday that both she and the president required assurances about the operation's necessity.
"I think we both had to be convinced, if you will," Ms. Reno said at her weekly news briefing.
The White House this week released the transcript from an April interview in which Mr. Clinton says he made a "terrible mistake" in following Ms. Reno's recommendation to launch the tear-gas operation. The assault, designed to end the seven-week standoff with heavily armed Davidians, ended in tragedy. About 80 Branch Davidians perished during the fire that gutted their compound outside Waco several hours into the FBI operation.
"I gave in to the people in the Justice Department who were pleading to go in early, and I felt personally responsible for what had happened, and I still do," Mr. Clinton said in his bluntest public comments yet about Waco. "I made a terrible mistake."
The president's statement came during an April interview with federal investigators who are examining campaign fund-raising controversies. The issue arose when Mr. Clinton explained that his memory of an April 19, 1993, White House visit by political supporter James Riady is blurred because of the unfolding Waco drama.
Asked her reaction to his comments, Ms. Reno said: "I think everybody who has been touched by Waco would like to be able to undo it." During a phone conversation on the eve of the assault, Ms. Reno said, she and the president discussed the questions she had presented to the FBI before recommending the operation go forward.
"My recollection was that we had a very difficult situation, that there were many issues. I went over those issues with him," she said. "He wanted to make sure my questions had been answered."
The government's long-held insistence that the Branch Davidians died by their own hand was reaffirmed anew in recent days. The special counsel appointed to investigate lingering Waco controversies last week exonerated the government of "bad acts." Special Counsel John Danforth concluded with "100 percent certainty" that federal agents neither fired their weapons nor played a role in touching off the inferno. He also cleared the government of engaging in a "broad" cover-up or improperly using the military at Waco. His report, the result of a 10-month, $12 million investigation, emphatically cleared Ms. Reno of wrongdoing.
She was circumspect Thursday in discussing the findings, noting that the Branch Davidians' $675 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the government has yet to be concluded. But she grinned broadly when asked to describe her emotions about the report.
As to whether she feels vindicated, Ms. Reno said: "One doesn't think in terms of exoneration when you look at something like that. That was a terrible tragedy. And what I have always said was we have got to look to the future to see what we can do, what we can learn about human behavior to avoid tragedies like that."
But Ms. Reno, who pledged "total openness and independence" when she appointed Mr.
Danforth last fall, declined comment Thursday on his complaint about Justice Department stonewalling
during his investigation. He reported that he had encountered "substantial resistance" to
his inquiry within the Justice Department - in some cases resulting in a "tug of war" over
requested evidence that required intervention by Ms. Reno's top deputy.