"Senators agree on probe plan in Waco siege - Panel to investigate handling of case, other investigations"
by David Jackson and Lee Hancock ("The Dallas Morning News", October 15, 1999)
Senate members ended weeks of arguing Thursday with an agreement on how to investigate the Justice Department's handling of the Branch Davidian siege and other problematic, high-profile cases.
They scrapped the idea of a special task force, instead assigning an existing subcommittee to review the department's investigations of the 1993 standoff near Waco, allegations of Chinese nuclear spying, and campaign fund raising.
"They're all important, but the Chinese espionage issue is the most important," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. He fought to chair the proposed special task force and now will run the investigation through a special assignment to the subcommittee, although he said "that is not my preference."
Meanwhile, Attorney General Janet Reno declined to comment on a report in The Dallas Morning News that the FBI had closed-circuit television cameras ringing the Branch Davidian compound throughout the 51-day siege.
FBI documents state that some agents reported the cameras were in use on April 19, the day that the government assaulted the compound with tear gas and tanks.
Six hours after the assault began, a fire consumed the compound with leader David Koresh and more than 80 followers inside.
The FBI has never publicly acknowledged the cameras or produced any of the videotapes that FBI agents reported during a 1994 criminal trial of surviving Branch Davidians.
Ms. Reno deferred the matter of FBI closed-circuit cameras in Waco to former Sen. John Danforth, the Missouri Republican named last month to head an independent investigation into whether FBI actions contributed to the fire, and whether agents shot at Davidians during the siege.
The FBI has denied those allegations, which are the subject of a wrongful death suit in federal court filed by surviving Branch Davidians and families of the dead.
"I think it's better to - rather than comment -to let Senator Danforth pursue the issues," Ms. Reno said.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Danforth declined to comment.
But some congressional leaders said the revelation about FBI closed-circuit cameras at Waco is further proof that the bureau and the Justice Department have not given a full accounting of what happened in Waco.
Closed-circuit cameras and any tapes recorded from them "would provide critical information in overseeing federal law enforcement and determining accountability," said U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a member of the subcommittee and frequent FBI critic.
"So the question is, why would the FBI keep the existence of this evidence hidden from the public? . . . This report is one more reason why more expansive oversight of the bureau is needed," Mr. Grassley said.
FBI officials have said they have not engaged in any sort of cover-up and that they did not participate in any illegal activities.
Federal Judge Walter Smith, who is overseeing the wrongful death lawsuit, ordered all government agencies in August to give his court every document relating to the incident.
The first boxes of documents began arriving in Waco earlier this month, and government officials have said that more than a million pages of documents will be transferred there.
As for the Senate inquiry, Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin said Congress has already been supplied with thousands of documents on Waco, campaign finance, and the China case but will cooperate with the Specter inquiry.
"We'll certainly try to determine what else we can provide, consistent with the law," Mr. Marlin said.
The military has estimated that at least 6,000 pages of its documents are classified, and CIA, FBI, Treasury, ATF and Justice Department officials have indicated that their agencies have a number of secret documents relating to the standoff.
The White House is also producing documents, and the Treasury Department has asked White House lawyers to determine whether three of its documents may be exempt from the order under executive privilege.
Many of the documents being turned over to the court must also be copied for shipment to the ongoing congressional and independent counsel inquiries, said U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford of Beaumont, the federal prosecutor assigned to oversee the document turnover.
Mr. Bradford said he met with Mr. Danforth and members of his staff on Wednesday in St. Louis to discuss the logistics of producing the huge trove of documents.
The House Government Reform committee has already issued broad subpoenas on the Branch Davidian case and repeatedly sent investigators to Texas to gather information.
Mr. Specter said Thursday that he has agreed to defer issuing subpoenas or questioning witnesses until later this month at Mr. Danforth's request.
In his investigation, Mr. Specter said he expects to give higher priority to allegations of Chinese spying at American nuclear labs, allegations which the Chinese have denied.
His subcommittee could begin issuing subpoenas on that issue and on campaign finance on Tuesday if its members cannot agree on what documents should be sought voluntarily from the Justice Department.
Under the compromise worked out Thursday, Mr. Specter will have the authority to hire private attorneys and staff. He has already asked Philadelphia lawyer Michael Baylson to head the effort.
Democrats had objected to a broader investigation by a Specter-run task force, saying it smacked of a "get-Reno" effort.
Moreover, Ms. Reno had questioned whether she had the legal authority to provide classified documents to a task force subject to a Senate rules dispute.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had also expressed qualms about the task force. He spent recent weeks negotiating a compromise with senators Specter and Leahy.
"I think it's safe to say Senator Specter is not really happy with this," Mr. Hatch said. But he added that the subcommittee has a better chance of success than a task force that Democrats refused to join.
"It couldn't be effective without it being nonpartisan," Mr. Hatch said.
Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts, will ride shotgun on the investigation. Mr. Torricelli has been critical of Ms. Reno's performance, particularly in light of new Waco revelations. But he said Thursday that he is starting the subcommittee inquiry with an open mind.
"The best antidote for what has gone wrong is the truth," Mr. Torricelli said.
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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