Special counsel vows to get siege answers

Former senator says he'll focus on deaths, start of compound fire

The Dallas Morning News, September 10, 1999
By David Jackson and Catalina Camia

WASHINGTON - John Danforth vowed Thursday to get answers to "dark questions" that still shroud the deadly 1993 fire near Waco - including whether the government killed Branch Davidians.

"Was there a cover-up? That's a dark question," Mr. Danforth said after Attorney General Janet Reno introduced him as special counsel to investigate the FBI siege.

"Did the government kill people? How did the fire start? And was there shooting? I mean, those are questions that have been raised."

Ms. Reno - embarrassed at disclosures, after years of denials, that pyrotechnic tear-gas canisters were used against the Branch Davidians - gave the former Republican senator from Missouri wide latitude to conduct the investigation. That includes the right to convene a grand jury if necessary.

FBI officials pledged to cooperate with Mr. Danforth, maintaining that the two recently disclosed tear-gas grenades the FBI fired did not cause the blaze that killed David Koresh and more than 80 of his followers.

In taking the politically challenging assignment, Mr. Danforth said he plans to use investigators from outside the FBI and the Justice Department. Their work could include questioning Ms. Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh.

Mr. Danforth said he will not second-guess the government's "judgment calls," including its initial efforts to arrest Branch Davidians on weapons charges. He will instead focus on possible "bad acts," invoking the Declaration of Independence and the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

"If government covers things up, if government kills people - if that's happened, and I don't prejudge that - then that undermines what Jefferson talked about as being the very foundation of government," Mr. Danforth said.

According to rules negotiated by the Justice Department and Mr. Danforth, the investigation will determine whether the FBI fired any other flammable devices at the compound. It will also look into whether anybody acted illegally to cover up the existence of the recently disclosed tear-gas canisters.

Other charges

Critics have also accused the government of firing gunshots at the Davidians during the FBI's final assault, on April 19, 1993. The Danforth investigation will also address whether members of the military took part in violation of federal law. Federal officials have denied both allegations.

Members of Congress saluted the Danforth appointment, though Republicans pledged to move forward with their own renewed inquiries.

For six years after the deaths, Ms. Reno and the FBI denied using any kind of flammable device during the final assault. They reversed themselves after a former FBI official told The Dallas Morning News last month that agents fired two pyrotechnic CS tear-gas grenades at an underground bunker near the compound.

FBI officials said those canisters, which were fired early in the assault, did not contribute to the fire. A series of previous investigations determined that the Branch Davidians set the blaze themselves in three parts of the compound.

Acknowledging that the revelations crippled her credibility, Ms. Reno said she wanted someone with "impeccable credentials" and "bipartisan support" to lead an independent investigation.

Praise for Danforth

Members of Congress echoed Ms. Reno's praise of Mr. Danforth, though some questioned his emphasis on bad acts as opposed to judgment calls.

"I think it should be a complete thing," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Irving. "I want to know what prompted the [government] action. . . . I want to know it all."

Mr. Danforth, approached by the Justice Department last week, said the investigation needs "definition," hence its focus on "two big questions."

"The first question is, 'Was there a cover-up?' " Mr. Danforth said. "And the second question is, 'Did federal officials kill people?' "

He defined one judgment call as the initial decision by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to raid the Branch Davidian compound Feb. 28, 1993. The ATF tried to arrest members of the religious sect on weapons charges, but the raid ended with a gunbattle that killed four federal agents.

The ensuing 51-day siege by the FBI ended with a tank-and-tear-gas assault, another judgment call Mr. Danforth said he has no plans to address.

Congress probes

Mr. Danforth, a three-term senator who declined to seek re-election in 1994, spent Thursday afternoon visiting members of Congress who are planning their own reviews.

Staffers with the House Committee of Government Reform are reviewing videos and reading testimony from previous congressional hearings on the siege. But Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind., who is planning his own hearings, pledged to work "in concert" with Mr. Danforth.

"He has one task, and we have another," Mr. Burton said.

The committee's ranking Democrat, Henry Waxman of California, said any new hearings should not cover old ground.

"Unless Senator Danforth comes up with something new, I don't know that we need to rehash it," Mr. Waxman said.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., has proposed that congressional leaders from both parties appoint an outside investigating commission. But Mr. Hyde said Thursday he will not push the idea unless there are signs that the Justice Department is frustrating Mr. Danforth's efforts.

"We will hold the legislation in abeyance, and it's going to sit there as an option should some untoward obstruction occur, but I don't foresee that," Mr. Hyde said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, plans hearings on why the existence of the pyrotechnic tear gas - and videotapes of its use - remained hidden for more than six years.

Mr. Danforth said he believes his work can coexist with that of Congress.

"I do have great confidence in Congress, and I can't go tell them what to do," Mr. Danforth said. "I can just tell them what I intend to do."

Other members of Congress praised Mr. Danforth's independence and integrity.

"If anyone can give a fair shake to all sides and be concerned about the overreaching of law enforcement, it's John Danforth," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., also endorsed his former colleague, saying "I don't see him as a Republican." "I see him as an American, volunteering for a most difficult mission," Mr. Kerrey said. "This is not going to be necessarily easy, or necessarily safe."

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, called Mr. Danforth's selection "fine," but said it will not answer criticisms of the Justice Department and the FBI.

Mr. Gramm and other Republicans have called on Ms. Reno to resign. Some Democrats questioned how critics can seek Ms. Reno's ouster without also endorsing the dismissal of FBI Director Freeh.

"We ought to look at both [Ms. Reno and Mr. Freeh], but she is the person in charge," Mr. Gramm said. "Her explanation here is the same as it has always been: 'I didn't know, and no one told me.' " Ms. Reno said she has no plans to resign in any event.

The political pitfalls of his investigation are not lost on Mr. Danforth.

"As a friend of mine said, this is not what you call a good career move," Mr. Danforth said.

Justice Department officials first contacted Mr. Danforth last week. They spent days negotiating the rules of the investigation, including the possibility of a prominent Democrat as co-counsel. But Mr. Danforth said the investigation should have a single leader.

Instead, he named the Clinton-appointed U.S. attorney for St. Louis as his main deputy. The official, Edward Dowd, member of a prominent Democratic family, will resign his post to work on Waco full time.

Mr. Danforth and Mr. Dowd said they realize they can never satisfy the conspiracy theorists. They said they can only do their best.

"We will call them as we see them," Mr. Danforth said.

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