Former Republican Sen. John Danforth launched his investigation into the 1993 Waco siege Thursday with a promise to answer "the dark questions" left behind by a fire that claimed about 80 lives.
"Was there a cover-up? Did the government kill people? How did the fire start? And was there shooting?" Danforth asked, ticking off the issues he hopes to resolve. "Those are questions that go to the basic integrity of government, not judgment calls."
In accepting the assignment from Attorney General Janet Reno, Danforth expressed confidence that he will be able to use his sweeping investigative powers without political interference. He said he will focus almost exclusively on the events of April 19, 1993, the final day in a 51-day standoff between the FBI and members of the Branch Davidian sect.
With the title "special counsel," Danforth can impanel a grand jury and seek federal charges. He can interview Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh.
The FBI contends that Branch Davidian leader David Koresh ordered his followers to burn down their compound rather than surrender to federal agents. The death toll included 20 children.
Reno recruited Danforth as an outside investigator after FBI officials acknowledged that they had failed to disclose their use of potentially flammable tear gas canisters on the final day of the siege.
In addition to looking for evidence of a cover-up and the cause of the fire, the former Missouri senator will look into allegations that federal agents fired on the compound during their final assault. He also will try to determine whether military observers at the scene violated federal law by acting as law enforcement officers.
"I come into this with a totally open mind," Danforth said, with Reno standing at his side. "I come into this with the notion that the chips should fall where they may. And that's going to happen."
Congressional Republicans praised the appointment but said they would press ahead with their own investigations.
"He has one task, we have another, but I have no doubt that we'll be able to work in concert," said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., the chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.
The panel has taken the lead in pursuing the issue in Congress by issuing subpoenas for any relevant information from the FBI, the White House, the Justice Department, the Pentagon and the Texas Rangers. The committee is expected to receive a report of evidence gathered by the Texas Rangers at the scene after the fire.
Praising Danforth as both honorable and intelligent, President Clinton said: "Based on what I know of him, it was a good move by the attorney general."
House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas called Danforth's appointment "an important step in the search for truth."
Other Republicans said they would monitor Danforth's progress to make sure that he is allowed to pursue leads without interference. Because the federal independent counsel law has expired, Danforth lacks the statutory independence that was granted to Kenneth Starr and other outside investigators.
But Danforth said he is confident that Reno will fulfill her promise to give him free rein. The former senator spent most of the week negotiating the details of his appointment with the attorney general and her aides. As a possible target of the inquiry, Reno said she will turn any future decisions on Danforth's investigation over to Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, who was not involved in the Waco siege.
In another safeguard, Danforth said he will rely on private-sector investigators rather than FBI agents for legwork in his inquiry. U.S. Attorney Edward Dowd of St. Louis, a Democrat, will resign his federal job to serve as Danforth's chief assistant.
"I don't believe the FBI should be investigating the FBI," Danforth said. He declined to set a timetable for his final report, but he said he expects to complete his work well before the end of the next year.
"I will do everything I can to make sure that this is thorough. I know that it will be objective. I know that I will call it as I see it," he said.
But Danforth also acknowledged that he probably will not be able to satisfy both sides in the long-running debate over the government's actions in Waco.
"As a friend of mine said, this is not what you call a good career move," he said smiling. "This is a really big thing, and I think it is important to get answers to questions that are important for the whole integrity of our government."
"What we're going to be looking at is whether there were bad acts, not whether there was bad judgment," he said. "Our country can survive bad judgment. But the thing that really undermines the integrity of government is whether there were bad acts, whether there was a cover-up (and) whether the government killed people."
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