WASHINGTON (APBnews.com) -- When U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno appointed former Republican senator John Danforth as special counsel to head up the Waco probe Sept. 9, Danforth said he would assemble a team of investigators from outside the Justice Department, possibly from outside the government. "My basic thought is, the FBI should not be investigating the FBI," Danforth told reporters then.
Later, in the Justice pressroom, a reporter joked that Danforth's detectives might be U.S. Postal Service cops, which brought cackles. But Danforth's office and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service have confirmed that a group of experienced federal postal inspectors will be tapped to investigate events that led to the deaths of about 80 followers of Branch Davidian cult leader David Koresh at their Texas compound on April 19, 1993.
After new evidence recently came to light, the FBI admitted its agents had used potentially flammable tear gas grenades that day, reversing six years of denials by both Justice and the FBI.
Upon Danforth's appointment, Reno excluded herself from oversight of the investigation, saying she is a potential witness. The selection of Postal Service investigators also suggests Justice will be a target of the probe. Postal Inspection Service spokesman Robert Bethel admitted the choice of postal inspectors may seem odd to Americans unfamiliar with the agency. "A lot of people don't know what a postal inspector is," he told APBnews.com. "If they hear of postal inspectors, they think, is that someone who inspects post offices?"
The 2,200 U.S. postal inspectors are federal investigators who carry badges and guns and typically investigate federal crimes involving the mails. Benjamin Franklin created the service in 1772, making it one of the nation's oldest law enforcement agencies, along with the U.S. Marshals Service.
Fraud and identity theft are the most common cases the inspectors unravel. The public may not realize it, Bethel said, but the Postal Service also investigates non-white collar crimes, including extortion and child pornography -- even murder -- if it involves Postal Service employees. "We've always been called the 'silent service,' because we go about our business and don't seek publicity," Bethel said.
The postal team has not been assembled, and Bethel said he was not aware that any specific agents had been assigned to Danforth yet. He referred all queries about the probe to the special counsel's St. Louis, Mo., office. Danforth aide Martha Fitz said she was not certain exactly how many postal inspectors would ultimately be called in to help the special counsel, but did not dispute news reports that about a dozen would be used. Postal Service tapped in Ruby Ridge
While it is unusual for postal inspectors to dig into matters not involving the mails, it is not the first time they have been called upon to investigate FBI investigators.
In 1996, postal inspectors were asked to help FBI agents look at a previous disaster for the Clinton administration -- the bureau's standoff with white supremacist Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. During several armed confrontations in 1992, one federal agent was killed and an FBI sniper fatally wounded Weaver's wife Vicki.
Postal inspectors helped build a case against FBI official E. Michael Kahoe in the matter, who was alleged to have destroyed evidence and obstructed justice.
Retired postal inspector Juan Albornoz, a board member of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said he is leery of the Danforth probe, fearing the special counsel has already implied federal agents are to blame for the fatal blaze.
He cited Danforth's Sept. 9 statement, when he said: "My job is to answer the dark questions... Did the government kill people?"
"That's an inflammatory statement," Albornoz ssaid. "[Danforth] is creating the context of a homicide -- a murder," without proof.
The 21-year Postal Inspection Service veteran said inspectors are white-collar detectives well suited to investigate a corporate-like cover-up, but suggested it would have been fairer to select a multi-agency team to work the re-opened case.
"I think it's an insult to law enforcement," said Albornoz. "It's a horrible assumption to think that we cannot be trusted to investigate ourselves."
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