AUSTIN - The FBI is preparing to acknowledge in a formal statement that its agents fired pyrotechnic tear gas grenades on the last day of the Branch Davidian siege, senior federal law enforcement officials said Tuesday.
The statement would represent a reversal from the federal government's adamant, long-held position that the FBI used no device capable of sparking a fire on the day the Branch Davidian compound burned near Waco.
Earlier this week, former senior FBI official Danny Coulson told The Dallas Morning News that pyrotechnic grenades had been used on April 19, 1993, the day that the compound burned with David Koresh and more than 80 followers inside.
Mr. Coulson's statement was the first time that a former or current federal law enforcement official publicly acknowledged the use of pyrotechnic devices on April 19. The government has long fended off accusations that FBI agents touched off the fire on that day, but Mr. Coulson said the pyrotechnic grenades were not responsible.
Earlier Tuesday, Texas Department of Public Safety Commission Chairman James B. Francis said the Texas Rangers have "overwhelming evidence" supporting Mr. Coulson's statement about the use of pyrotechnic devices.
"There are written reports by Rangers, there is photographic evidence, there is physical evidence, all three of which are problematic," said Mr. Francis.
Later, officials with the U.S. Justice Department began backing away from their long-held assertion that the FBI used no pyrotechnic devices when it launched a tear gas assault to end the 51-day standoff with the Branch Davidians.
"We've seen the reports, and we're trying to get to the bottom of them," said Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin, declining to comment further.
Senior federal law enforcement officials in Washington said Tuesday night that the FBI was drafting a statement that would confirm that two pyrotechnic devices were used. A spokesperson at FBI headquarters initially told reporters that a statement would be released Tuesday afternoon but later said it had been postponed until Wednesday.
Mr. Coulson, a former assistant deputy director of the FBI and founding commander of the hostage rescue team, told The News this week that he recently learned that two M-651 CS tear gas grenades were fired hours before the compound burned.
Rangers' inquiry The issue is a major focus of an ongoing inquiry by the Texas Rangers. It is also a key allegation in a federal wrongful death lawsuit in which surviving Branch Davidians and families of the dead have alleged that government wrongdoing and negligence caused the tragedy.
The issue also was a factor in a decision by the state DPS to persuade a federal judge in Waco to take control of all the evidence in the case. U.S. District Judge Walter Smith issued a sweeping order on Aug. 8 requiring federal authorities to turn over all physical evidence, documents, recordings and photographs connected to the Branch Davidian tragedy.
A law enforcement official familiar with the Rangers inquiry said Tuesday that the agency has positively identified a shell casing recovered from near the compound as part of an M-651 CS canister, a 40 mm U.S. military device that releases tear gas with a burning explosive capable of sparking fires.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Rangers also have strong evidence that it was used by the FBI on April 19. The official said the shell casing's markings and distinctive shape are unique to the M-651.
"There is no question of what it is and where it came from," the official said.
That information was among findings shared Tuesday afternoon with two congressional investigators, who flew to Austin for a private briefing on the Rangers inquiry.
"We look forward to getting to the bottom of it," said one investigator, speaking on condition of anonymity. He declined further comment.
Attorney General Janet Reno and other senior Justice Department and FBI officials have repeatedly told congressional committees, federal courts and the public that the federal government used nothing capable of starting a fire on April 19.
But federal law enforcement officials in Washington confirmed Tuesday that FBI agents did use the two grenades on the 19th. They were fired into a construction pit that contained a tunnel entrance leading to the compound. The sources said the devices were fired at 6:07 a.m., just after tanks began spraying tear gas into the compound. The M-651s were used because nonpyrotechnic gas rounds known as "Ferrets" were not adequately penetrating the area, the source said. Details unclear Federal authorities said they are still trying to determine who gave permission for members of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team to use the devices and why their use was not revealed before now.
"Maybe this didn't come up because it was at 6 in the morning six hours before the compound burned, and maybe it was because it was fired away from the compound," the law enforcement official said.
The issue is especially sensitive because of the pending wrongful death lawsuit, which is scheduled to go to trial in Waco in mid-October.
But federal officials said they do not believe the use of the devices will change official conclusions that the Branch Davidians started the deadly fire that ended the standoff.
"I don't think this changes the bottom line, which is the Davidians started the fire. Law enforcement did not," the official said.
An investigation by a panel of independent arson experts concluded that the April 19 fire began simultaneously just after noon in three separate places inside the compound.
FBI bugs intercepted Branch Davidians discussing spreading fuel and planning a blaze for hours before the compound burned. Arson investigators also found evidence that accelerants, ranging from gasoline to charcoal lighter fluid and camp stove fuel had been poured in the compound.
Court and congressional records indicate the arson investigators' conclusion that the FBI's tear gas played no role in the fire was partially based on the FBI's assurance that it used no pyrotechnic devices on April 19. Troubled by denials Earlier Tuesday, Mr. Francis said he was troubled that Justice Department officials had initially denied Mr. Coulson's statements about the use of pyrotechnic tear gas.
"I would suggest that Janet Reno get a full briefing of the facts. She's not getting the facts," he said. "I can't understand for the life of me why a senior FBI official's statement was flatly contradicted by the Department of Justice without even checking the facts."
Mr. Francis said the Texas Rangers will soon wrap up their inquiry and are still discussing what to do with it.
"We're in a very awkward spot," he said.
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