Feuding over Waco
Sects, files and videotape fuel the face-off between Justice and
the FBI over the Branch Davidians
By Elaine Shannon
September 6, 1999
Web posted at: 10:18 a.m. EDT (1418 GMT)
No one quite believed what Janet Reno was saying. The Attorney
General walked into the press conference on Friday, dressed in a
straw yellow silk suit and pearls, and denied that she was
furious at the FBI and its director, Louis Freeh. "You all are
going to try your level best to make us enemies, but you're not
going to succeed," Reno said, her face fixed in a thin smile.
But what was one to think? Two days earlier, Reno had ordered
U.S. marshals into FBI headquarters in the Hoover building to
"take custody of"--not "seize," she and the FBI insisted--evidence
that the bureau's crack Hostage Rescue Team had fired at least
two "hot" military tear-gas grenades during the 1993 Waco siege.
The week before, the revelation had humiliated Reno and rekindled
conspiracy theories--in the face of overwhelming evidence to the
contrary--that the government had set the fires that destroyed the
Branch Davidian compound and killed some 80 men, women and
children. And why hadn't she been told that airplane surveillance
tapes, which captured the moment when the pyrotechnic rounds were
deployed, had been found in a box in the HRT office in Quantico,
Va.? Dispatching the marshals would be a sign of her anger and a
vote of no confidence in Freeh and the FBI, right? Wrong, she
said. "I don't think this is a matter of anger," Reno said
stonily. "This is a matter of getting to the truth. And whatever
I am, I am as dedicated as I possibly can be to getting to the
truth." She added, "Sometimes anger obscures the truth, and so I
try to do so as calmly and as clearly as I can."
The resurrection of Waco has been a nightmare for the Justice
Department and the FBI, and particularly for the Attorney
General. Her G.O.P. critics in Congress are gearing up for new
attacks, guaranteeing that the controversy will last for months.
Meanwhile, a documentary filmmaker was accusing the FBI of a
second set of pyrotechnic attacks yet unconfessed by the bureau.
Then there was the question of whether Reno and Freeh were locked
in a behind-closed-doors feud.
She was in Panama for a presidential inauguration when the U.S.
marshals marched into FBI headquarters, and instantaneous leaks
of the foray were regarded as her camp's first big p.r. move
against Freeh since the debacle erupted two weeks ago. He had
started his own damage control early, making public the memos
that confirmed the use of hot grenades, naming 40 agents to
gather the facts and proposing that a reputable outsider head the
new investigation. The extremely deliberate Reno would accede to
all that later but seemed to be plodding two steps behind the
nimbler FBI director. It wasn't the first time Freeh rushed to
stake claim on the moral high ground. Reno's supporters say she
However, she has other things to worry about. Representative Dan
Burton's Committee on Government Reform (which has always favored
Freeh over Reno) was sending out subpoenas and watching the new
tapes for signs of illegal involvement by "observers" from the
Army's supersecret Delta Force. Led by chief investigative
counsel Jim Wilson, the committee seems to be on the verge of
starting up a fresh probe.
That is something the House G.O.P. leadership would rather avoid.
Republicans, in fact, believe they have a "Dan Burton issue" to
contend with. Chairman Burton's erratic behavior (calling the
President a "scumbag"; shooting a pumpkin in his backyard to
simulate the Vince Foster head wound) has drained a lot of
potency out of controversies with which the G.O.P. would like to
beat the Clinton Administration. To avoid a circus, Judiciary
chairman Henry Hyde suggested that his committee form a
five-person commission composed of non-office holders to handle a
Waco investigation. Some in the G.O.P. want Burton to hand his
material over once the commission is up and running. Says a
G.O.P. leadership aide: "We've got as much out of this as we can
politically. We can bash the White House, and it reminds everyone
what a botched operation it was; but the longer it stretches on,
it brings up the nut-case crowd." An investigative source says
the new disclosures are "like the Dead Sea Scrolls for the
There is certainly a lot more unreleased material to stimulate
that crowd and provide grist for an official investigation. This
week, in response to a subpoena from Burton's committee, the
Texas Rangers will deliver a report on the pyrotechnic rounds.
The Rangers still have 24,000 lbs. of Waco evidence in their
vaults, and they are under orders to turn over the material to
U.S. District Judge Walter Smith Jr. once logistics are worked
out. Smith is committed to opening the evidence to public
scrutiny--against the advice of the Justice Department.
Documentary filmmaker Michael McNulty has already examined some
of the material. Last week he told TIME that a second pair of
40-mm pyrotechnic projectiles may have been used at Waco. The
devices, he says, were fired as the others were--from grenade
launchers--but unlike the two that the FBI admitted were fired at
a concrete bunker, this second pair passed through the wooden
main building of David Koresh's compound. FBI officials aren't
ready to issue a categorical denial until the new investigation
is completed, but they suspect McNulty is citing an inventory in
which Rangers mislabeled two items as military gas projectiles.
The inventory, they say, has since been corrected.
"There are a lot of legitimate questions," says Tron Brekke, an
FBI spokesman. Some of the FBI's own: What exactly did HRT
commander Dick Rogers understand about his latitude to make
operational decisions without seeking clearance from FBI
headquarters or from Reno? And why didn't FBI lawyers alert Freeh
and Reno when, in February 1996, they received a memo from
Quantico reporting that HRT operators had sought and received
permission to attempt to gas the concrete bunker with military
rounds that had "the potential for causing a fire"? And did
conflicts within the federal team at Waco play any role in the
decision making? Byron Sage, now retired but in 1993 the FBI
negotiator at the compound, confirms seeing graffiti in the HRT
Porta-Johns on the Waco front line that declared SAGE IS A
DAVIDIAN. Still, Sage insists such acrimonies "had nothing to do
with the final conclusion."
The FBI has been reduced to raising bureaucratic ineptitude as a
defense. Danny Coulson, retired founder of the HRT, agrees: "If
there was a cover-up planned, neither the documents nor the tape
would ever have been located." Now, says spokesman Brekke, "we
have a greater interest in finding out what happened than
probably anybody." And the big question, he says, continues to
be, "What else is out there?" --With reporting by John F.
Dickerson/Washington, Hilary Hylton/Austin and Richard
AUTHORIZING THE ATTACK: EMERGING DETAILS
Part of transcript recorded April 19, 1993, released by the FBI
Conversation between FBI Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) agent Stephen
P. McGavin and his superior, HRT commander Richard M. Rogers
McGAVIN "[The gas-canister operator] thinks he can get into
position with relative safety, utilizing the [armored vehicle]
for cover, and attempt to penetrate it with military rounds."
ROGERS "Roger. Of course, if there's water underneath, that's
just going to extinguish them, but you can try it."
McGAVIN "Ten-four. Copy. He can try it?"
ROGERS "Yeah, that's affirmative."
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Cover Date: September 13, 1999