"GOP Senators Form Waco Probe"
by Laurie Kellman ("The Associated Press", September 24, 1999)
WASHINGTON (AP) - Senate Democrats are refusing to participate in a Republican-led task force that will investigate how President Clinton's Justice Department handled inquiries into the Waco standoff, alleged campaign finance abuses and nuclear espionage.
A key Democratic lawmaker scoffed at the Republican's offer to make the probe bipartisan, saying the task force had been set up over Democratic objections and had been announced to reporters first.
``This is a Republican task force. No Democrats have been involved,'' said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. ``I don't intend to be part of a Republican-organized, partisan investigation.''
At an earlier news conference, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said the task force would be chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and would focus on ``what in the world is happening at the Justice Department, why is there no justice at the Justice Department?''
Lott said the five-member task force would include two Democrats and two more Republicans in addition to Specter. But only one other Republican member, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, was present at Thursday's announcement. No Democrats attended.
Republicans had squabbled among themselves for weeks over the size and scope of the probe. But even as they debated, Specter was moving forward. He said his aides had traveled to Texas to preserve evidence collected from the FBI's 1993 siege against members of the Branch Davidian cult. The 51-day siege ended when the cult's compound near Waco erupted in flames. Davidian leader David Koresh and some 80 followers died during the inferno, some from fire, others from gunshot wounds.
Specter said his aides found only one of two canisters that federal agents only recently admitted firing. ``Nobody knows'' what happened to the other one, Specter said.
He also confirmed he had talked with Charles LaBella about leading the panel's investigation. LaBella is a former Justice Department prosecutor who publicly disagreed with Attorney General Janet Reno's decision not to have an outside, independent counsel investigate alleged fund-raising abuses by the Clinton-Gore campaign in the 1996 election.
``There are a great, great many questions which are left unanswered,'' Specter said.
``Things just aren't right,'' agreed Grassley.
Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina will round out the Republican side of the panel, Specter said.
Specter said that at the request of former Sen. John Danforth he will hold off for 30 days before talking to witnesses to the government siege. Reno named Danforth to head an independent investigation of the government's use of force against the Davidians.
In a letter to the Judiciary Committee last week, Danforth complained that Specter's investigators already had interviewed witnesses. ``In the interest of avoiding even the appearance of a turf battle,'' Specter told reporters Thursday, he agreed to hold off on interviews.
The probes were sparked by public disclosures last month that the FBI used the potentially incendiary tear gas on the final day of the siege. Although Republicans had accused the FBI of covering up use of such devices for years, the Justice Department, in fact, had informed Congress in 1995.
Government officials maintain that Branch Davidians, and not federal agents, set the fatal fire on April 19, 1993.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, had wanted a narrowly focused probe; Specter and Lott advocated a broader look at the Justice Department. Hatch did not attend Thursday's news conference on the issue, and later told reporters he grudgingly signed off on Specter's plan.
``I would have preferred it be done another way,'' Hatch said. ``It's out of my hands now.''
Specter was ready to start putting a staff in place. LaBella, he said, ``would hit the ground with a sprint.'' But he added that he will not extend a formal offer to LaBella until after he has spoken with Democrats over the next few days.
Concerned that LaBella's stewardship of an investigation that would focus largely on his former boss' performance, Specter said he has received informal approval for the hiring from officials on the Senate Ethics Committee.
LaBella would have intimate knowledge of the campaign finance investigation, but Specter said the task force probe would stretch to a third topic, the Justice Department's handling of alleged nuclear espionage by China.
The FBI has expanded its China spying probe following criticism that for more than three years it focused too narrowly on the Los Alamos nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico.
Waco, FBI and the Branch Davidians: Updates
CESNUR reproduces or quotes documents from the media and different sources on a number of religious issues. Unless otherwise indicated, the opinions expressed are those of the document's author(s), not of CESNUR or its directors.
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