"Reno Promises To Find Truth on Waco"
by Michael J. Sniffen ("The Chicago Tribune", August 27, 1999)
WASHINGTON (AP) - Upset and frustrated, Attorney General Janet Reno pledged Thursday that a new investigation of the Waco, Texas, siege will ``get to thebottom'' of how FBI agents used potentially flammable tear gas grenades against her wishes and why the bureau took six years to admit it.
``I have no reason at this point to believe the FBI is responsible for the deaths of those people,'' Reno said of Branch Davidian cult leader David Koresh and some 80 followers who died during a fire that broke out as FBI tanks pumped tear gas into their compound outside Waco on April 19, 1993.
The entire episode - which began 51 days earlier with a deadly shootout as federal agents tried to arrest Koresh on weapons charges - has become a rallying cry for anti-government and militia movements across the United States.
Reno described herself as ``very, very troubled,'' ``very, very frustrated,'' and ``very, very upset'' by the FBI's admission Wednesday night that such devices probably were used nearby earlier that day.
Reno - who learned about the use of the military-type tear gas grenades this week - and other top FBI and Justice officials had denied such use for six years.
She ordered the new investigation late Wednesday, and FBI Director Louis Freeh assigned 40 FBI agents to re-interview everyone who was at the scene.
Reno planned to discuss with Freeh, who is on vacation, whether an outsider should supervise their probe. Freeh became FBI director some four months after the siege ended.
With Republicans in Congress moving toward new hearings on the siege, Reno told her weekly news conference, ``It is absolutely critical that we do everything humanly possible to learn all the facts as accurately as possible and make them available to the Congress and public.... I will not stop until I get to the bottom of this.''
She said the probe would range beyond the use of pyrotechnic tear gas canisters and whether their use was covered up.
``We will pursue any issue in question,'' including whether Army commandos played an improper role and, possibly, old allegations that agents fired shots, Reno said.
The FBI's final assault to end the siege came just five weeks after Reno, a former state prosecutor in Miami, took office. Her national image and early popularity emerged from her plainspoken admission on television that day that she was personally responsible for ordering the assault that ended in so many deaths.
Asked if she thought the FBI's reversal harmed her credibility, Reno replied, ``I don't think it's very good for my credibility.''
``I'm not embarrassed. I'm very, very upset,'' she said, but added,``Anybody that says they never ... rely on information that proves to be inaccurate, I'd like to meet them.''
``Before I approved the plan, I made inquiry as to whether the gas or the devices used for conveying the gas were incendiary, and I was told they were not,'' Reno said. ``I was concerned about the possibility of fire started by such devices.''
As of Thursday, Reno said, ``All indications are that the (pyrotechnic) devices were not directed at the main wooden compound, were discharged several hours before the fire started and were not the cause of the
Independent investigators concluded cult members set the fires. A federal law enforcement official who interviewed agents involved in firing the military-type tear gas said two shells were fired at the roof of a concrete bunker 30 to 40 yards from the main building and they bounced off it into an open field. An agent fired the two shells almost 180 degrees away from the wooden, main building and six hours before the fire began, said the official, who requested anonymity.
Only nonpyrotechnic, civilian tear gas was fired into the main building, this law enforcement official said.
The information about the military-type shells came to light Tuesday when former assistant deputy FBI director Danny Coulson mentioned them to "The Dallas Morning News".
Waco survivors and relatives had contended in damage suits against the government that flammable devices had been used.
The law enforcement official said Coulson's remarks prompted the FBI to check its files, and it found that some hostage rescue team members had confirmed the use of the military-type shells when asked by the FBI general counsel to respond to the lawsuits' allegations.
The general counsel got some of these answers as early as 1996 or 1997, a Justice official said.
Bob Ricks, the FBI's chief spokesman during the siege, said Thursday he was shocked by the revelations.
``It's inconsistent with the press statements that were made by myself and others,'' said Ricks, now Oklahoma's Commissioner of Public Safety. ``It looks like on its face they were trying to withhold something,'' he said of people in the FBI who provided him with information.
On Capitol Hill, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said his panel ``will conduct an independent examination of this matter, and it is my expectation that hearings will be necessary.... The credibility of this Justice Department is at an all-time low.''
On the House side, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., chairman of the Government Reform Committee, said, ``No one is going to be satisfied with an internal Justice Department investigation.... Congress is going to have to conduct a thorough investigation.'' And House Judiciary Committee aides were reviewing the records from 10 days of televised hearings in 1995 to determine whether more congressional investigation is necessary, spokesman Sam Stratman said.
Texas Department of Public Safety Chairman James B. Francis told The Dallas Morning News that federal officials need to explain why members of the Army's secret Delta Force anti-terrorism squad were at the scene April 19.
A senior Pentagon official said Army special operations officers early on offered advice on an FBI plan to end the standoff. Later, three military observers watched the final assault but had ``no operational involvement,'' said the official, who requested anonymity.
Waco, FBI and the Branch Davidians: Updates
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