An Unbiased Inquiry on Waco

New York Times, September 2, 1999

Louis J. Freeh, the F.B.I. Director, has urged his boss, Attorney General Janet Reno, to appoint a qualified group of outsiders to investigate the agency's failure to keep Ms. Reno and Congress fully informed about all aspects of its role in the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex. This is the right thing to do, since it would be an appalling conflict of interest to have the F.B.I. and the Justice Department investigating themselves. Ms. Reno, who is said to have decided yesterday to mount an independent inquiry, should seek out and appoint qualified investigators as soon as possible.

The focus would be to find out why the F.B.I. failed for six years to tell anyone, including Congress and the Attorney General herself, that it had used incendiary tear-gas canisters near the end of the siege. The revelation last week that such devices were used has damaged the agency's credibility and greatly embarrassed Ms. Reno, who for six years had proclaimed that they were not used. Her seizure yesterday of a previously undisclosed tape of F.B.I. agents talking at the scene of the siege is a measure of her fury.

About 80 members of the Branch Davidian sect died in the fire that consumed the compound on April 19, 1993. There is no evidence so far to suggest that the incendiary canisters had anything to do with the fire, which the Government says was set by the cultists themselves. The canisters were apparently lobbed at a concrete bunker 40 yards from the compound about six hours before the fire broke out. But the mere fact that the F.B.I. has concealed an important piece of evidence for six years can only reinforce the suspicions of those who have never believed the Government's version of events.

The House of Representatives, which also feels badly misled by the F.B.I., is talking about two investigations, one by the Government Operations Committee and another by a joint House-Senate commission that would look into all aspects of the Government's handling of Waco. Such moves seem premature and might interfere with the independent inquiry proposed by Mr. Freeh.

A wiser course would be for Justice to go first, while Congress monitors the process and the final report.

At any hint of a cover-up, or if it becomes obvious that there are important unanswered questions about Waco, Congress could then hold its own hearings. But for now, a single investigation, free of partisan bickering, is the way to go.

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