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"Semantic Difficulties in Danforth Report on Waco"

by Stuart A. Wright

Was anyone else confused by the inconsistencies between the Special Counsel's conclusions and the substantive discussions of material in the report on Waco? On Friday, July 21, Special Counsel John Danforth absolved the government of wrongdoing and concluded that there was no coverup in the Waco disaster. A 152-page Interim Report was issued to the press and can be downloaded over the internet (www.osc-waco.org). Curiously, much of the report is spent discussing missing or concealed evidence (audio tapes, FLIR tapes, expended pyrotechnic projectiles, incriminating page from FBI evidentiary lab report), FBI misstatements to the Attorney General, Congress and the public, the failure of government prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence in the 1994 Davidian criminal trial, withholding key evidence of incendiary devices in the civil case by an FBI attorney, the failure by officials who authored the Justice report to discover and document use of pyrotechnic devices, and various other instances of miscommunication, negligence and vital omissions.
No cover-up? The authoritative Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines cover-up as «something used for hiding one's real activities, intentions, etc..» The report even chides government personnel for «non-disclosure,» suggesting that these individuals might have sought to conceal information for fear of «personal or professional ruin.» How does the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) define «cover-up?»
The answer lies on p.44 of the report. It states: «Whether or not there was a coverup is in many respects dependent upon nuances in terminology.» Nuances in terminology?
A central issue in the Danforth investigation has been the use of incendiary devices by the FBI during the April 19 CS insertion. For six years, the FBI denied using incendiary devices that might have started the fire that killed 74 Davidians. These denials were relayed to the Attorney General immediately after the tragic conflagration. Indeed, the AG asked for and received assurances that no incendiary devices would be used prior to the April 19 assault as a condition of her approval for the gassing plan. These denials were repeated in the 1994 criminal trial of the Davidians in San Antonio, as prosecutors failed to disclose evidence of pyrotechnic rounds in their Brady v. Maryland submission to defense attorneys . They were repeated in the 1995 Congressional hearings to members of the subcommittees who specifically requested «a listing of all pyrotechnic and incendiary devices» used at the Davidian complex. And finally, they were repeated in responses to requests for FBI documents in the civil case.
For the semantically challenged, the report explains that there is an important, though subtle, difference between «pyrotechnic» and «incendiary» devices. The purpose of an incendiary device, we learn, is designed to cause a fire. Technically, therefore, a pyrotechnic tear gas round is not incendiary, presumably because a pyrotechnic round may cause a fire but is not intended to do so. Incredibly, the Danforth report concludes that the FBI (mis)statements to the AG, the Justice Department, to Congress and the American public that «they never used any incendiary devices» were «technically true,» excluding, of course, the failure to disclose to Congressional subcommittees who asked for a list of both pyrotechnic and incendiary devices. In the latter case, the federal prosecutor, Ray Jahn, admitted to making a false statement, claiming he was merely «negligent.
Further complicating matters was that different terms were used for pyrotechnics rounds by different personnel. Pyrotechnic rounds were variously referred to as «military rounds,» «bubbleheads,» and «cupcake rounds.» Who could know that these terms all referred to pyrotechnic devices in the absence of a government linguist or translator?
Another complication, we are told, was that HRT commander Dick Rogers, who authorized the use of pyrotechnic rounds, claimed that the AG's prohibition against pyrotechnics applied only to its use at the living quarters of the Davidians and not the concrete construction pit where they were apparently fired. Never mind that «Attorney General Reno believes her exact words prohibited pyrotechnics Œat the compound,« which...included the concrete construction pit.» Apparently, Rogers did not share this belief, «so there was no meeting of the minds.»
Rogers also failed to correct false statements given to Congress by the FBI in 1993 and the Attorney General in 1995 even though «Rogers attended the congressional hearings precisely to ensure that Congress was provided with accurate information.» The OSC downplayed the actions as merely «a significant omission.»
FBI attorney Jacqueline Brown twice failed to disclose key evidence of military rounds in the civil case brought by the Davidians against the government. She also attempted to conceal her actions to the OSC. «Brown repeatedly made inconsistent, self-serving, misleading, and false statements to the Office of Special Counsel,» the report states. Her punishment? Barring additional evidence, the OSC declined to pursue criminal prosecution.
What appears as nuanced terminology to the OSC may seem more like a rather straightforward case of cover-up to government outsiders. The Danforth team expends a lot of energy apologizing for government misdeeds by attributing the problem to «semantic difficulties.»
While the Special Counsel's findings that the government did not start the fire at Mt. Carmel or shoot at sect members trying to escape are a welcome relief, the correlative claim that no cover-up took place suffers semantic difficulties of its own. A careful reading of the report, in conjunction with other evidence, suggests that government officials in the FBI and DOJ were fearful of disclosing the use of pyrotechnic devices for obvious reasons. Waco is a touchstone of antigovernment sentiment and a black mark on federal law enforcement. While the government was cleared of these specific charges, there are plenty of other things they did wrong at Waco which neither the OSC investigation or the civil trial addressed. Let's be honest.
The failure to disclose evidence, whether by intent, omission, or negligence, was an exercise in damage control to preserve the already beleaguered image of federal law enforcement. Or perhaps in some cases, an effort to avoid «personal or professional ruin.» The OSC should takes its own advice; government has a responsibility to be open and candid to the American people so as to restore confidence in public officials. Stuart A. Wright is Associate Director of Graduate Studies and Professor of Sociology at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. He is editor of Armageddon in Waco (University of Chicago Press, 1995) and he testified in the 1995 Congressional hearings on Waco.

Waco, FBI and the Branch Davidians: Updates

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