"Reno Orders Probe as FBI Reverses on Waco Gas"
("New York Times News Service", August 27, 1999)
For the first time, the FBI has backed away from six years of unqualified denials to Congress and the public and conceded it used "pyrotechnic" tear-gas canisters on the final day of the 1993 standoff with the Branch
Davidian cult near Waco, Texas.
The bureau said Wednesday the devices were "pyrotechnic" only in a limited sense and bounced harmlessly off a concrete structure six hours before the compound's main building, made of wood, burned.
About 80 people, including 24 children, died in the fire.
But the revelation--after repeated staunch denials--that federal agents used pyrotechnic devices of any definition was deemed so serious that Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh late Wednesday ordered an exhaustive inquiry into the events of April 19, 1993.
About 40 FBI agents have been assigned to the review, and everyone who was at Waco that day will be re-interviewed, said John Collingwood, a bureau spokesman.
"We continue to believe law enforcement did not start the fire," Collingwood said. But there were clear signs the backtracking had spawned a serious credibility crisis for the FBI and the Justice Department.
"This new information requires a thorough investigation of whether the Justice Department has misled the American people, and the Congress, about what happened at Waco," Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who heads the Committee on Government Reform, said Wednesday night in a statement. "I intend for the Government Reform Committee to get to the bottom of this matter."
An FBI spokesman said earlier Wednesday that the devices in question were "pyrotechnic" only in a limited sense: They generated heat as they dispensed tear gas. He said they were fired at the concrete "bunker" about 100 yards from the main wood structure after less potent tear gas canisters failed to pierce the concrete.
The federal agents wanted to get tear gas into the bunker because they feared the Davidians would try to escape through a tunnel between it and the wood building, the spokesman said.
The two pyrotechnic devices, military-type gas canisters known as M-651 grenades that were fired by an agent from a range of about 40 yards, bounded off the bunker roof and into a nearby puddle, where they lay harmlessly, he said.
After flames consumed the wood building, the remains of the cult leader, David Koresh, and about 80 of his followers were found. Autopsies showed that some had died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds, others from the flames or smoke. A few escaped.
The FBI spokesmen, while saying there is no new information to challenge the finding that the Davidians themselves started the fire, acknowledged late Wednesday that the necessity to "recant and modify" earlier statements was acutely embarrassing to the FBI.
Waco, FBI and the Branch Davidians: Updates
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