WASHINGTON - The appetite for more Senate investigation of the government's conduct surrounding the 1993 Branch Davidian siege may be waning, lawmakers acknowledged, now that the special counsel has exonerated federal agents of "bad acts."
John Danforth, the former Republican senator from Missouri, appeared Wednesday before his one-time Senate colleagues to discuss an interim report he issued last week concluding that federal agents neither fired on the barricaded sect members nor contributed to the fire that ended the 51-day standoff and killed about 80 Branch Davidians near Waco. "The evidence is absolutely overwhelming," said Mr. Danforth, appointed last year by Attorney General Janet Reno to examine lingering Waco questions. "The government did not start a fire. The government did not direct gunfire at the Branch Davidians. The government did not improperly use the military. And there wasn't any broad cover-up."
Emerging from the hearing, several senators said the special counsel's comprehensive findings and the respect he commands on Capitol Hill may effectively mean the end of the Senate's inquiry. The House Government Reform Committee has been conducting an investigation but has yet to decide whether to hold hearings. "Senator Danforth has a great deal of personal credibility, and the report appears exhaustive," Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., said when asked about the Senate investigation.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, agreed, saying Mr. Danforth's credibility "will make it very, very difficult for anything to be followed up on." The caveat, he said, would be if new revelations emerge from the unfinished part of Mr. Danforth's investigation. The question of possible minor cover-ups remains a part of Mr. Danforth's 10-month, $12 million probe, initiated last fall after the government was forced to recant years of denial that its agents had fired pyrotechnic tear gas devices in the hours before the fire. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., beseeched his colleagues to end their investigations. "Enough is enough," he said. "There are ... a lot of conspiracy theories out there on Waco that I hope this report debunks."
Mr. Danforth said he continues to investigate what happened to certain physical evidence, particularly the three tear-gas projectiles fired several hours before the blaze erupted. He also is examining why the FBI until last year denied the existence of an aerial infrared surveillance tape that includes audio of the command allowing use of the pyrotechnic rounds. Also under review is why the FBI and Justice Department didn't disclose use of the pyrotechnics in congressional appearances and court proceedings. "We have not ruled out anything in examining those four areas," Mr. Danforth said. "It could be that there are nefarious reasons, or it could be that they are more in the nature of human error."
At the sparsely attended two-hour hearing, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., questioned Mr. Danforth on his decision not to seek criminal prosecution of two FBI officials who knew of the pyrotechnic canisters' use but didn't pass along the information at key points. Mr. Danforth said he chose not to pursue legal action against the "relatively junior FBI lawyer" who did not disclose to her Justice Department counterparts the use of the pyrotechnic devices because he viewed the error as a "human thing" rather than an attempt to cover up for the bureau.
Even though he determined FBI lawyer Jacqueline Brown "lied" to the special counsel's office - an assessment her lawyer has called "unwarranted and unfair" - prosecuting her would be like "hitting a gnat with a sledgehammer," Mr. Danforth said. As for the Hostage Rescue Team commander who authorized the use of the pyrotechnics but remained silent as Ms. Reno and former FBI Director William Sessions told Congress in 1993 that no pyrotechnics were used, Mr. Danforth said he had no grounds to prosecute.
Team commander Richard Rogers, who sat behind Ms. Reno and Mr. Sessions as they testified, "did not correct them. He should have," Mr. Danforth said. "He claims that he wasn't paying any attention. I don't know. Who knows if somebody is paying attention or not? I know that it's not a crime not to correct somebody."