Counsel's input sought in Waco siege

Senate panel calls on Danforth to tell how he conducted inquiry

The Dallas Morning News/July 22, 2000
By Michelle Mittelstadt

WASHINGTON - Congress wants to hear from the Waco special counsel who has emphatically cleared the government of wrongdoing during the 1993 Branch Davidian siege.

Hours after he issued a report exonerating federal law enforcement, special counsel John Danforth was asked Friday to appear next week before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee reinvestigating the government's conduct at Waco. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, want Mr. Danforth to explain how he conducted his sweeping, $12 million investigation and answer questions about the 51-day standoff that ended with the deaths of about 80 Branch Davidians.

"We need to know obviously more than his conclusions, but the details of the evidence and what he has done," Mr. Specter said. "... There is a responsibility on congressional oversight to make an independent determination. The starting point is to get the details as to what Danforth has done."

Congressional aides said the invitation to appear on Capitol Hill next Wednesday, extended after Mr. Danforth issued his report in St. Louis, has yet to be accepted.

Last fall, Attorney General Janet Reno appointed Mr. Danforth to answer what he called the "dark questions" swirling around the Waco tragedy - chief among them whether federal agents had a hand in starting the fire that consumed the Davidans' retreat on April 19, 1993, or whether they fired on sect members during the standoff's waning moments.

In his 152-page interim report, Mr. Danforth said he had 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 massive cover-up or improperly using military personnel at Waco.

"The responsibility for the tragedy at Waco rests with certain of the Branch Davidians and their leader, David Koresh," Mr. Danforth told reporters. Those Davidians "shot and killed four [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] 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," he added.

Warm welcome

Those conclusions, coming after a 10-month investigation and a review of more than 2 million documents, were warmly welcomed at the highest levels of federal law enforcement.

"The simple truth, as the FBI has maintained since April 19, 1993, has been unmistakingly confirmed again today - the FBI fired no shots on that day and the Davidians started the fires that ultimately engulfed the compound," the bureau's director, Louis Freeh, said in a statement.

Mr. Freeh noted that the findings came just a week after a federal jury in Waco, that was set up to hear the Branch Davidians' $675 million wrongful-death suit against the government, concluded that federal agents committed no wrongdoing. Their ruling is advisory only. U.S. District Judge Walter Smith is expected to issue his verdict next month.

"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," Mr. Freeh said, adding that both the jury finding and the Danforth report bring "great solace" to them.

Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder also said he was satisfied with the report's conclusions.

"Today's independent review sheds further light on the truth, and further discredits many of the unsubstantiated allegations that have skewed the public's perception of the events of April 19, 1993," he said.

Ms. Reno appointed Mr. Danforth last September after the Justice Department was forced to recant years of denials that pyrotechnic tear-gas devices were used on the siege's final day. She declined to comment on Waco because of her role in approving the FBI's tear gas plan. She designated her deputy, Mr. Holder, to deal with Mr. Danforth.

"We join Senator Danforth in wishing that this report begins the process of restoring the faith of the people in their government," Mr. Holder said. But in some circles, the report did little to quell the tenaciously held belief that the government committed wrongful acts and then covered them up. "We had received indications from Danforths' office that they intended to tow the government line on every issue," said Michael Caddell, the lead plaintiff's attorney in the civil suit. He said he was troubled by the fact that the inquiry accepted the explanations of FBI commanders and other agents with little criticism, even though "they've admitted that they lied for seven years," about the pyrotechnic tear-gas grenades issues. "But you're willing to believe them on everything else? These people are never challenged on their credibility," he said.

Mr. Caddell agreed with some of the report's conclusions, specifically those clearing the military of an active role in Waco. But he was disappointed in much of its findings, especially Mr. Danforth's assertion that the FBI's commanders in Waco did not violate Washington-approved operation plans by sending tanks in to dismantle the building on the last day of the siege. Mr. Caddell says a 1993 document initialed by the two on-scene commanders describes their mission as a demolition.

He said the report also failed to address criticisms that were raised in depositions of infrared experts hired by Mr. Danforth and the federal court that is hearing the civil case.

"There are a number of us, us being Waco critics, who are dumfounded by his results," said Colorado filmmaker Michael McNulty, whose two Waco documentaries popularized the theory that agents fired on the Davidians, trapping them inside their burning retreat. "I'm afraid Danforth has not answered all of the dark questions."

Branch Davidian Clive Doyle said the findings in Mr. Danforth's report came as no surprise, especially after the jury's verdict last week.

"It takes somebody with a lot more courage, than probably most politicians have got, to stick their neck out and buck the system," said Mr. Doyle, who survived the fire that consumed the compound at the end of the siege and who is a plaintiff in the suit. "His job is make Janet Reno look good, make the government look good, because ... he is trying to get people to trust the government again, so he's got to exonerate them. Otherwise, you still got the problem."

Taken with the jury's findings, Mr. Danforth's report could blunt the move toward in-depth congressional hearings.

"Does that form how the process will go from here? Hell yeah," said one Senate aide. "It would just be ludicrous to not take that into account." Said Mr. Grassley, the Iowa senator: "Based on the developments in the court case and by this report, it appears that this dark chapter in our history is coming to a close."

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