The most impressive and relevant part of the eminent John Danforth's long, detailed and extensive investigation of the Waco massacre is what it didn't investigate.
The former senator from Missouri-and everybody's idea of the gray-haired elder statesman-didn't comment on the judgment shown by those who OK'd the plans to storm the compound outside Waco. That decision would result not in a rescue, but in an inferno in which 80 people would be sacrificed.
One of the lawyers for the few survivors is Ramsey Clark, the former attorney general who seems to show up in the wake of every political disaster. Told that the Danforth Report had cleared the Feds, he asked: "If their conduct was so right, how did it end so very wrong, with so many deaths?"
The answer is simple. Or as John Danforth himself explained, he wash't asked to investigate the judgment shown at Waco, only the facts on the ground--and those showed that David Koresh and his followers had started the fatal fires themselves.
But would they have ignited those fires if Janet Reno, Webb Hubbell and the other masterminds involved in this operation hadn't decided to go Macho? No one should absolve David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians, for his role in this massacre, but the law should protect the innocent, not fulfill the violent fantasies of a bloody-minded madman.
Why didn't the honchos in Washington just wait out these crazies? Or even pull back and maybe save the kids, the way similar sieges are now handled?
To those questions, John Danforth and his huge staff had no answers. Because those are precisely the questions Washington didn't want him to investigate. Or as the distinguished former senator himself explained, his assignment was limited to determining "whether government agents engaged in bad acts, not whether they exercised bad judgment." Exactly.
If no one questions official judgments, nothing will ever be found wrong with them. When it comes to defending officialdom, alack of interest will beat the best cover-up ever devised.
It's as if a learned archaeologist, working with a large and expert staff, had proved beyond a doubt that a group of ancient zealots had barricaded themselves on a mountaintop called Masada in the Judaean wilderness, and there methodically proceeded to slay themselves-every man, woman and child
The archaeologist might mention in passing that the defenders of Masada were being besieged at the time by a Roman legion, which had finally succeeded in breaching the walls of the fortress and were within the gates.
But delving into the decisions of the authorities, he would explain, was beyond his purview-for that was a political judgment and outside his assigned area. Anybody interested in that sort of thing would have to turn to historians like Josephus, who recorded the story.
Distinguished and discreet spokesmen for the government haven't changed all that much since Pontius Pilate, who left the definition of truth to others. It wasn't his area.
It was made clear to John Danforth from the outset that he was not to raise the most relevant questions about what happened at Waco that terrible day. Did the government use good judgment? Could the children have been saved?
It is too late to know now. And those responsible for the decision to storm the compound may not want to know.
Let it be noted that in a rare moment of candor Bill Clinton did acknowledge his grievous role in this awful thing. It happened when he was being quizzed about his role in a quite different outrage--the campaign finance scandal--by Robert Conrad, head of the Justice Department's investigation into that other tangled affair.
When it was noted that Indonesian money man James Riady had visited the White House that fateful April 19, the president volunteered: "I gave in to the people in the Justice Department who ere pleading to go in early, and I felt personally responsible for what happened, and I still do. I mad a terrible mistake."
At least this once, Bill Clinton faced the truth, and deserves credit for it. His impromptu acceptance of responsibility says more about what happened that April day than all the apologetics his administration has indulged in since.
Usually in Washington, taking responsibility for a disaster--as Attorney General Janet Reno also did in a brief, candid moment--means never having to say you're sorry, let alone resign. As the Danforth report makes clear, matters of political and even moral judgment are considered irrelevant.
WASHINGTON - Confronted with President Clinton's statement that he "gave in" to the Justice Department when he permitted the FBI assault on the Branch Davidian sect near Waco in 1993, Attorney General Janet Reno said Thursday that both she and the president required assurances about the operation's necessity.
"I think we both had to be convinced, if you will," Ms. Reno said at her weekly news briefing.
The White House this week released the transcript from an April interview in which Mr. Clinton says he made a "terrible mistake" in following Ms. Reno's recommendation to launch the tear-gas operation. The assault, designed to end the seven-week standoff with heavily armed Davidians, ended in tragedy. About 80 Branch Davidians perished during the fire that gutted their compound outside Waco several hours into the FBI operation.
"I gave in to the people in the Justice Department who were pleading to go in early, and I felt personally responsible for what had happened, and I still do," Mr. Clinton said in his bluntest public comments yet about Waco. "I made a terrible mistake."
The president's statement came during an April interview with federal investigators who are examining campaign fund-raising controversies. The issue arose when Mr. Clinton explained that his memory of an April 19, 1993, White House visit by political supporter James Riady is blurred because of the unfolding Waco drama.
Asked her reaction to his comments, Ms. Reno said: "I think everybody who has been touched by Waco would like to be able to undo it."
During a phone conversation on the eve of the assault, Ms. Reno said, she and the president discussed the questions she had presented to the FBI before recommending the operation go forward.
"My recollection was that we had a very difficult situation, that there were many issues. I went over those issues with him," she said. "He wanted to make sure my questions had been answered."
The government's long-held insistence that the Branch Davidians died by their own hand was reaffirmed anew in recent days. The special counsel appointed to investigate lingering Waco controversies last week exonerated the government of "bad acts." Special Counsel John Danforth concluded with "100 percent certainty" that federal agents neither fired their weapons nor played a role in touching off the inferno. He also cleared the government of engaging in a "broad" cover-up or improperly using the military at Waco.
His report, the result of a 10-month, $12 million investigation, emphatically cleared Ms. Reno of wrongdoing.
She was circumspect Thursday in discussing the findings, noting that the Branch Davidians' $675 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the government has yet to be concluded. But she grinned broadly when asked to describe her emotions about the report.
As to whether she feels vindicated, Ms. Reno said: "One doesn't think in terms of exoneration when you look at something like that. That was a terrible tragedy. And what I have always said was we have got to look to the future to see what we can do, what we can learn about human behavior to avoid tragedies like that."
But Ms. Reno, who pledged "total openness and independence" when she appointed Mr. Danforth last fall, declined comment Thursday on his complaint about Justice Department stonewalling during his investigation.
He reported that he had encountered "substantial resistance" to his inquiry within the Justice Department - in some cases resulting in a "tug of war" over requested evidence that required intervention by Ms. Reno's top deputy.
WASHINGTON, July 27 (Reuters) - A day before the disastrous 1993 FBI raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, President Bill Clinton wanted to make sure that Attorney General Janet Reno had no unanswered questions about the situation there, Reno said on Thursday.
``My recollection was that we had a very difficult situation, that there were many issues. I went over those issues with him,'' Reno said of a Sunday afternoon telephone call a day before the April 19, 1993, raid.
``I think we both had to be convinced,'' she said. ``I had to be convinced before I made the determination. He wanted to make sure my questions had been answered ... . He had questions and I answered those questions and we went ahead.''
Reno said at her weekly Justice Department news briefing that she told Clinton why she had decided to go ahead with the raid. Reno had been asking the FBI a number of questions that she wanted answered before she gave approval.
About 80 sect members, including David Koresh, the group's leader, died in the fire that engulfed the compound after the FBI launched its raid. The raid was designed to end a seven-week standoff with the cult.
In an interview made public earlier this week Clinton said he ``felt personally responsible'' for the deaths and that he ``made a terrible mistake'' by allowing FBI agents to storm the compound.
He made the comments to a Justice Department prosector in April as part of an interview about a meeting with Indonesian businessman James Riady at the White House on the day of the raid. Riady has been linked to a campaign finance investigation.
``I gave in to the people in the Justice Department who were pleading to go in early, and I felt personally responsible for what had happened, and I still do,'' Clinton said.
Reno said Clinton made clear he had wanted to be kept advised of what was happening at Waco because of a similar situation that occurred when he was governor of Arkansas.
Former Sen. John Danforth, a Republican from Missouri, last week issued an report completely exonerating Reno and the government of wrongdoing, saying the group's leaders set the fire and shot at their own people.
Danforth, who was appointed by Reno as an outside special counsel, said he found ``no evidence of wrongdoing'' by the government.
``I think it would be best for the report to speak for itself,'' Reno said. ``I think my reaction should be obvious.''
Asked if Danforth's findings make Waco any less personally painful for her, Reno replied, ``The answer ... is no.''
WASHINGTON (AP) - Recounting her conversation with President Clinton the day before the Waco disaster, Attorney General Janet Reno said Thursday that the president pressed her for an explanation of the plan for sending in the FBI.
``I went through it with him, told him why I decided that we should go ahead,'' Reno said of the Sunday phone call with Clinton on April 18, 1993. ``And he wanted, as I recall, to know what the questions were'' that Reno had asked the FBI.
Reno said Clinton asked her, ``Are you sure you've had all your questions answered'' about the FBI's plan?
``When I talked to him that Sunday afternoon, I advised him, we discussed it, and we went ahead,'' she concluded.
Reno's comments at her weekly news briefing follow disclosure this week of testimony by Clinton in April that he made ``a terrible mistake'' in yielding to Justice Department pleas to storm the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas.
``I gave into the people at the Justice Department who were pleading to go in early, and I felt personally responsible for what happened and I still do,'' the president said. ``I made a terrible mistake.''
As far as specific questions that Reno and Clinton discussed, the attorney general referred reporters to John Danforth's preliminary report on the Waco disaster released last week which states that before deciding to approve the FBI plan, Reno wanted to know ``conditions inside the complex, the status of negotiations and the reasoning behind the plan.''
The report says the FBI provided Reno materials including a behavioral psychologist's opinion that negotiations were unlikely to resolve the crisis and that the Branch Davidians' leader ``would probably continue to abuse the children.''
Reno told reporters that ``I think everybody who has been touched by Waco would like to be able to undo it. But the real issue is'' for the president and ``all of us ... what could we have done to have prevented the tragedy?''
Special counsel John C. Danforth yesterday said it was "puzzling" that FBI officials withheld information from the Justice Department concerning its use of pyrotechnics during the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Texas since none of the information showed any criminal misconduct.
But the former three-term Republican senator from Missouri told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee his investigation would continue to determine why the information was not turned over, saying the failure to do so was "disastrous" and had "shaken" the public's confidence in its government.
He said that lack of confidence had resulted in his appointment and in an investigation that cost taxpayers - so far - $12 million.
"It's puzzling why there wasn't just a total disclosure of everything relating to pyrotechnics because the use of pyrotechnics didn't do any harm," he testified. "But there is a distinction between bad judgment and bad acts, and the alleged bad acts in this case did not occur."
Mr. Danforth told the subcommittee, only three of whose members showed for the hearing, that his 10-month investigation concluded that government agents did not start the Waco fire, did not shoot at the Davidians, did not improperly use the U.S. military and did not engage in a conspiracy or cover-up.
"And it's not a close question. This isn't, 'Well, they're probably not true' or 'More likely than not they're not true'; they are clearly not true," he said. "The evidence is absolutely overwhelming. The government did not start a fire. The government did not direct gunfire at the Branch Davidians. The government did not improperly use the military. And there wasn't any broad cover-up.
"The Branch Davidians started the fire, spread fuel throughout this complex. The Branch Davidians then began shooting their own people, including children. People say, 'Was this suicide?' Well, maybe if people kill themselves, it's suicide. If they kill children, it is not . . . That's not suicide; it's murder," he said.
Mr. Danforth also said there was no evidence Attorney General Janet Reno, former FBI Director William S. Sessions or current FBI Director Louis J. Freeh "in anyway misled anybody intentionally." He said, "There is plenty of evidence that they got bad information along the way."
But, he said, the inquiry would continue in order to determine why the FBI - including a lawyer and a member of the bureau's hostage rescue team - did not disclose for six years that three rounds of pyrotechnic tear gas had been fired into the Davidian compound before the raid, even though the rounds did not start the fire that consumed the site.
"The fact that any pyrotechnics were used was not disclosed, and the opposite was told to various people, including members of the Congress," he said. "And so the issue is, why were they not told? Why was this something that was withheld?"
Mr. Danforth said investigators believe that while the use of the pyrotechnics itself was "not a big thing," the fact that midlevel FBI officials did not divulge the information had turned it into "a bigger thing."
Last week, Mr. Danforth cleared the government of any wrongdoing in the April 19, 1993, raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, in which 84 persons, including 24 children, died when a fire ravaged their ramshackle, wooden compound.
He said Davidian leader David Koresh and his followers were responsible for the blaze and the deaths.
The Davidians died in the fire that erupted after the FBI inserted CS gas into the compound to end a 51-day siege by federal agents. The standoff had begun Feb. 28, 1993, when ATF agents sought to serve Koresh a warrant. A gunfight erupted, killing four of the agents and six sect members.
Miss Reno named the former senator as special counsel in September 1999 after the FBI acknowledged for the first time its agents "may have used a very limited number of military-type CS gas canisters" in the raid to penetrate the roof of an underground shelter about 40 yards from the main buildings.
The admission reversed a six-year position in which the FBI denied using pyrotechnics. The underground shelter, covered by plywood and tar paper, was used by the Davidians for storage.
Two forward-looking infrared (FLIR) videotapes discovered by the FBI confirmed that agents received permission to use military-type incendiary devices the day of the raid.
The Senate Judiciary subcommittee on administration oversight and the courts, headed by Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, is now probing the Justice Department's handling of three high-profile investigations: the Branch Davidian siege, the suspected theft of nuclear secrets from U.S. weapons laboratories, and campaign finance abuses.
WASHINGTON - Special counsel John C. Danforth told a Senate panel Wednesday in clear and sometimes dramatic words that the government was not responsible for the inferno at Waco that led to the deaths of about 80 people.
Rather, the former senator from Missouri said, it was the Branch Davidians and their leader, David Koresh, who were intent on suicide and even murder.
Davidians started and spread the 1993 fire and killed children in the compound, including a youngster of about 4 who was stabbed to death, Danforth said. Others were shot.
"That's not suicide - that's murder," said Danforth, who last week completed and released an interim report on the Waco tragedy.
"The charges were so dark that they had to be explored, and explored thoroughly," Danforth said. He cited four accusations:
* That the government started the fire;
* That federal agents shot at people during the siege and kept them from surrendering when the fire started;
* That the military was used improperly;
* That evidence of the other allegations was covered up.
His 10-month investigation has shown that, "These allegations simply aren't true," he said.
"I think when people are intent on burning themselves up, there's not much you can do about it."
Danforth said people should be less willing to make - or believe - charges not supported by a foundation of evidence. Those making accusations "should bear some burden of proof" before being accorded any credibility, he said.
Testifying before the Senate's Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts, Danforth took aim at a culture that he said was "willing to trash people on the basis of mistakes. Mistakes, even bad mistakes, are assumed to be evil mistakes."
He cited several instances in the aftermath of Waco where government officials were less than forthcoming, particularly a "junior attorney" who failed to disclose the use of three pyrotechnic devices. Yet Danforth said that failure was not part of a broad cover-up. Instead, he attributed some of the actions to an effort to hide an original misstatement or mistake for fear of losing a job or being attacked by political opponents.
Danforth cautioned, however, that his investigation is not complete on all counts. He said government officials must be forthcoming, because if anything - even something minor - is hidden, eventually it comes out and people then believe the worst.
Asked by subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., why he released the report before it is complete, Danforth gave two reasons.
He said he wanted to remove the suspicion that has hovered over several government officials, including Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh.
And, he said, the fact that he was considered as a possible vice presidential running mate by presumptive GOP presidential nominee George Bush provided an impetus to get key findings on the record as soon as possible. If he had been selected for the ticket, he would have had to resign from the special counsel post, Danforth said.
Specter and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, probed Danforth's conclusions to try to find out whether government officials acted improperly.
Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, on the other hand, said he hoped Danforth's report would "put to rest" the congressional focus on Waco.
DALLAS (AP) - A court-appointed expert who was expected to testify on whether FBI agents shot at the Branch Davidian compound will not travel from England to the United States after all, a U.S. District judge ruled Tuesday.
Judge Walter Smith said he decided against requiring David Oxlee to come to Texas after Michael Caddell, lead plaintiffs' attorney in a $675 million wrongful death lawsuit filed by surviving Davidians and family members, said he would not participate in the hearing.
A spokeswoman for Caddell said he was out of town and would not comment on the ruling until he had a chance to read it.
Smith has yet to make a final ruling in the case. He gave plaintiff co-counsels James Brannon and former attorney general Ramsey Clark 10 days to tell the court if they would travel to England to depose Oxlee.
An advisory jury ruled July 14 that the government was not responsible for the deaths of sect members.
A week later, former Missouri senator John Danforth released preliminary results of a 10-month investigation into the 1993 catastrophe, blaming the Davidians for their own deaths.
Oxlee was an expert with British firm Vector Data Systems Ltd., which examined infrared images taken by an aerial FBI surveillance camera on the final day of a 51-day standoff between federal agents and the Davidians.
The siege ended with the deaths of some 80 sect members, including leader David Koresh, from either gunshots or fire.
A court-ordered field test in March simulated aspects of the siege using heat-sensing FLIR, or forward-looking infrared, equipment.
Vector concluded the flashes on the 1993 tape were reflections from sunlight as it struck debris on the complex. But Davidian lawyers insisted gunfire created the flashes.
Smith barred the issue before the June 19 trial began, saying he wanted Oxlee to review Vector's finding before admitting it into court. Oxlee was ill and unable to travel to the United States until August.
Justice Department spokesman Thom Mrozek said Tuesday's ruling reaffirmed the government's stance.
``The government position is that the judge can rule in favor of the FBI on this spurious allegation that shots were fired into the compound on April 19. Both the test conducted by Vector and the analysis by our expert concluded that no gunshots were fired on that day,'' he said.
WASHINGTON (AP) - President Clinton told investigators in April he made ``a terrible mistake'' in yielding to Justice Department pleas to storm the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas seven years ago and feels personally responsible for the tragedy.
``I gave into the people at the Justice Department who were pleading to go in early, and I felt personally responsible for what happened and I still do,'' the president said. ``I made a terrible mistake.''
Clinton's comments are contained in a transcript of his interview by federal investigators probing campaign fund-raising controversies. It was made public this week.
In the interview, Clinton explained that his memory of a visit to the White House on April 13, 1993 by Indonesian political supporter James Riady is blurred and incomplete because the events at Waco were unfolding at exactly the same time.
``Once this Waco thing happened I was totally preoccupied with it, because I felt responsible for it,'' the president said.
The siege at Waco began Feb. 28, 1993, when agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to arrest Branch Davidian leader David Koresh. A gunfight broke out, leaving four ATF agents and six Davidians dead, and the standoff began.
It ended 51 days later on April 19, 1993, when tanks driven by FBI agents pumped tear gas into the compound. A fire broke out and 80 Davidians, including Koresh, died, some from the fire, some from gunshots.
Clinton asserted that in a similar situation when he was governor of Arkansas ``we quarantined the area and got everybody else out safely.''
``And that's what I thought we should have done'' in Waco, he said. However, he did not say whether he pressed his view that the Davidian compound should have remained quarantined.
Attorney General Janet Reno, only a few weeks on the job, took full responsibility on April 19, 1993: ``I made the decisions. I'm accountable. The buck stops with me.''
``Obviously, if I had thought that the chances were great for mass suicide, I would never have approved the plan,'' she added.
Clinton said at the time that he had advance notice of the operation and had approved it but that ``the tactical decisions'' had been made by Reno and the FBI.
He firmly backed the actions of federal agents in Waco, saying the FBI ``made every reasonable effort to bring the perilous situation to an end without bloodshed and further loss of life.''
Just this week, after a 10-month independent investigation, Special Counsel John Danforth concluded that the blame for the fire and deaths that April 19 rests solely with cult leader Koresh.
``There are no doubts in my mind; this is not a close call,'' said Danforth, a former Republican senator from Missouri.
On July 14, a five-member jury in a civil trial in Waco decided the government was not responsible for the deaths at Waco. The ruling came in a $675 million wrongful-death suit brought by surviving cult members and the victims' families.
Waco, FBI and the Branch Davidians: Updates
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