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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The return of Waco

Reno's admission could set off the conspiracy buffs, but the culprit may be a sloppy FBI bureaucracy

By Howard Chua-Eoan

August 30, 1999
Web posted at: 12:00 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT)

TIME magazine

Once it was easy to pass over a story like David Thibodeau's. He says he saw the shiny thing embedded in a wall of the chapel in the Branch Davidian compound, where he took refuge with fellow believers. It was the middle of a lull between government tear-gas assaults, and in the calm, Thibodeau studied the thing. "It was the size of a Coke can," he says. "Silver, stainless steel in color. There were three fins on the back. It was some kind of projectile." Before he could look more closely, however, the screech of tanks started up again. Chaos ensued. Then fire. Thibodeau's tale of the wayward rocket is one of many now rekindling David Koresh's Waco--especially after a week in which other suddenly identified flying objects have turned this piece of rural Texas into Janet Reno's Area 51, a place full of things she did not know existed.

Angry and embarrassed, the Attorney General admitted last week that it appears the FBI fired pyrotechnic military tear-gas rounds during the showdown with the Branch Davidians on April 19, 1993. For years, she and the bureau had denied that such "hot" devices were used, an allegation made by conspiracy buffs who believe the feds set fire to the compound. Reno said last week--and most evidence indicates--the grenades were launched too early in the day and landed too far away to cause the fires. But, she added, "I did not want those [hot grenades] used. I asked for and received assurances that they were not incendiary." She confessed the news did not help her credibility and promised another probe, most likely overseen by an outside legal expert, into a controversy she thought she had put behind her. "She is not a person who screams or throws things," says a Justice Department official, "but she is doing the functional equivalent of throwing a Ming vase."

The use of military tear-gas rounds had actually been noted in a number of documents amassed by the FBI and other law-enforcement officers over the years, but no officials realized they were technically--and thus figuratively--"hot" until the press started calling around a month ago. Reno's foes are already sharpening their barbs. House Republicans like Dan Burton, who have seen her as Clinton's protector through various scandal probes, have always relished pitting her against her rival, FBI director Louis Freeh. Though overlooking the troublesome pyrotechnic fact is actually the fault of Freeh's bureau, watch for the G.O.P. to place the blame on Reno. Already the longest-serving Attorney General since 1829, Reno is not likely to find much comfort from Hill Democrats, who are tired of defending her over the years and who found her performance last week to be less than inspiring.

Can more of the "truth" still be out there? The range of truthmongers is broad. Thibodeau, for example, is one of nine people who emerged from the compound alive on April 19 and is an unnamed litigant in a class action, an excessive-force lawsuit in Texas by survivors and victims' families. His memory of the rocket in the chapel wall is part of his forthcoming book, A Place Called Waco. Others argue that the tear gas, at the very least, set the stage for an inadvertent inferno--a claim long since dismissed as bad science by an independent investigation. Meanwhile, Michael McNulty, a dogged FBI critic whose Waco documentary was nominated for an Oscar in 1998, has teamed up with Frederic Whitehurst, an FBI whistle blower, and is reportedly working on a second film, Waco: A New Revelation. It purportedly includes footage of an FBI helicopter opening fire on the Davidians on April 19. The FBI has always claimed that its agents never shot at the cultists and that it fielded additional tear-gas-bearing Bradley tanks only when fired upon.

The trouble for Reno and the FBI is not so much with what's out there as with the facts that may still be undetected and undigested in their files. James B. Francis, civilian overseer of the Texas department of public safety and thus head of the elite Texas Rangers (regional rivals of the FBI), told TIME, "I have known for some time that certain pieces of evidence may be problematic to what the FBI public position has been." He has had his department petition federal court to determine custody of the tons of documentary and physical evidence gathered at the Branch Davidian site, seeking to take it out of the unplumbable depths of FBI bureaucracy and make it available to outside experts. Francis was involved in another controversy last week when he told the Dallas Morning News that Delta Force units--whose existence the Pentagon is loath to confirm--may have taken part in the siege, a violation of the law. The Pentagon conceded that three Army personnel were in Waco on April 19 but only as observers and technical advisers.

It was the Morning News' questions about persistent rumors of pyrotechnic devices that led to a re-examination of the record and Reno's admission. Until then, she and the FBI had said only "cold" means had been used to disperse tear gas, and dismissed the notion that heat-producing devices had been deployed. Among those who made the denials was Danny Coulson, a senior official at the operations center in Washington at the time and founder of the FBI's hostage-rescue team (HRT). But shortly after once again denying the story to the Dallas paper, he heard that the Texas Rangers had taken a statement from an FBI employee saying that military rounds had indeed been deployed. Now retired, Coulson (whose book No Heroes: Inside the FBI's Secret Counter-Terror Force was co-authored by TIME's Elaine Shannon) made inquiries through his network of contacts. Says he: "I was made aware of one photograph that depicted one of these devices in a puddle of water" after it had been used. "I also learned that a news crew had videotaped the incident and that it had occurred in the early morning." Coulson, who says he was "gravely disappointed" by the discovery, confirmed it to the Morning News last week.

Why use hot rounds? The FBI wanted to prevent the Davidians from taking refuge in a concrete bunker, but a cold round fired shortly after 6 a.m. bounced off the roof. According to a document at the FBI's legal counsel's office dated February 1996--but that officials say they realized only last week was significant--HRT agents asked to use M651 military rounds because the heat they generate produces a vapor that provides greater penetrating power. A yet unidentified FBI official on the ground authorized the plan but did not report it to Washington. The two M651 rounds ricocheted off the bunker and bounced uselessly into a field.

An Administration official told TIME that notes submitted to Congress just months after the debacle described a military gas round used to "shoot gas into the bunker" and "some sort of military round to be used in a concrete bunker." At that time, however, no one knew enough to understand what those notes meant--or the trouble they might later bring.

FBI and Justice officials remain convinced that the Davidians ignited the fires that consumed Mount Carmel. They believe the forensic evidence is overwhelming and is corroborated by transcripts of bugged conversations among the Davidians. But last week's admissions made it seem as if Reno, Justice and the FBI, in bureau parlance, couldn't find a pie in a bakery. FBI director Freeh, who took office 3 1/2 months after Waco, is declining to talk to the press until the Waco incident is reinvestigated. He apparently wants to make certain that nothing he says now will be contradicted by nasty little truths that may still be out there.

--Reported by Elaine Shannon, Sally Donnelly, Viveca Novak and Mark Thompson/ Washington and Hilary Hylton/Austin


Cover Date: September 6, 1999

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