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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

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)

TIME magazine

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 deserved better.

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 conspiracy theorists."

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 Woodbury/Denver


Part of transcript recorded April 19, 1993, released by the FBI last week

7:48 a.m. 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."


Cover Date: September 13, 1999

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