U.S. seeks to shield Waco files

The Dallas Morning News, December 17, 1999
By Lee Hancock

Government lawyers have asked a federal judge to block public release of hundreds of government documents recently surrendered to lawyers for the Branch Davidians, arguing that disclosure poses security risks for federal agents and military personnel.

The motion was filed late Wednesday in federal court in Waco, two weeks after lawyers for the sect began challenging what they described as a broad Justice Department effort to keep secret hundreds of documents detailing government actions in the 1993 siege.

Lawyers for the Branch Davidians argued in a Dec. 2 letter that the Justice Department was misusing court rules to try to prevent public access to information that might prove embarrassing to the FBI or other government agencies.

But Justice Department lawyers wrote that they were stamping some sensitive documents "confidential" because of the potential danger to any federal employees who might be publicly linked to the tragedy.

Two unnamed Defense Department employees have received recent threats because of their involvement in the incident, the motion stated. Threats to personnel reported by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI in December 1995 provide further justification for maintaining the secrecy of some documents, Justice Department lawyers argued. "The confidential designations are important to the agencies' efforts to foster, to the extent feasible, the safety and security of federal employees involved in law enforcement operations," the 21-page government filing states. "The most compelling example of the need for security is the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, the purported motivation for which was the events at the Branch Davidian compound."

The motion also dismissed arguments by the Branch Davidians' lawyers that many of the documents that have been marked confidential have already been released to congressional investigators and attorneys in earlier trials. Having to sort out what has been made public before designating documents confidential would take too much time and effort, Justice Department lawyers argued. Objections by the Branch Davidians' lawyers are far too broad because they challenge the government's overall effort to impose secrecy rather than the classification of specific documents, the motion contends. That creates the "unreasonable burden" of having to defend "each and every" instance in which the government wants to keep documents from public view, Justice Department lawyers argued.

"Moreover, there is no resulting prejudice, since the parties' counsel and their experts are entitled to access the information for purposes of this litigation. Thus the approach taken by the United States strikes the best balance between the goals of full and timely disclosure to the plaintiffs and protecting the safety and security of federal employees." Lawyers for the Branch Davidians could not be reached for comment Thursday. Their wrongful-death lawsuit filed in Waco federal court alleges that government actions were directly responsible for the deaths of Davidian leader David Koresh and more than 80 followers.

The sect members died in a fire that consumed their rural compound near Waco on April 19, 1993. The blaze erupted as FBI agents bashed the building with tanks and sprayed CS tear gas into the structure in a bid to force an end to a 51-day standoff.

Arson investigators determined that the fire was deliberately set by Mr. Koresh and his followers, and the government's lawyers have denied any wrongdoing by any government agency.

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