Reno Bashers Forget How Waco Started

You don’t have to believe that Vince Foster was murdered or that the Pentagon shot down Trans World Airlines Flight 800 to wonder what exactly went wrong during the Federal assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex., six years ago and the subsequent investigation. A new and independent probe is warranted, if only to restore the reputation of the F.B.I. and the credibility of the Government.

That is not the motivation behind many of the most insistent demands for the reopening of the Waco case, of course. To the gun lobby, David Koresh was martyred in the cause of the Second Amendment, which they interpret as a license to stockpile machine guns, mortars and plastic explosives. To the Republicans, Koresh died for the sins of the Clinton Administration.

Indeed, in the current attempt to affix blame some conservatives are suddenly even mentioning the name of Hillary Rodham Clinton-as if the First Lady for some incomprehensible reason conspired to murder Koresh and his misguided followers, along with the children he was allegedly abusing. Pretty soon, we will probably be told that she not only shot her friend Foster but fired a Tomahawk missile at Flight 800, too, just for kicks.

Setting aside for a moment such bizarre smears-and the overwhelming culpability of the late Koresh himself-the Clinton Administration does bear some responsibility for the tragic outcome that claimed almost 80 lives. At the recommendation of Attorney General Janet Reno, the President authorized the April 19 assault, as she acknowledged when she offered to resign immediately following the incident.

But before we embark on still another pointless exercise in partisan retribution, let’s review some of the salient facts that are usually ignored in the debate and theorizing about Waco.

The events leading up to that awful slaughter began at the end of the Bush Administration, months before Bill Clinton was inaugurated, when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms opened an investigation of the Branch Davidians for stockpiling illegal automatic weapons and explosives in June 1992. In January 1993, the bureau commenced an undercover operation against the Davidians that found sufficient evidence to justify a search warrant.

Mr. Clinton had been in the White House for only five weeks when bureau agents attempting to search the Davidian premises were caught in a firefight that ended with four agents dead and more than a dozen wounded. At that point, Ms. Reno had not yet been appointed, let alone confirmed by the Senate.

During those critical weeks, the highest-ranking individual responsible for the Waco situation was the incumbent F.B.I. Director, William Sessions-a Reagan and Bush appointee held over pending an investigation of his own allegedly improper personal use of F.B.I. resources. Strangely, the name of Mr. Sessions is almost never mentioned by Republican critics of the Waco fiasco, although by all accounts he adopted a strongly hawkish approach to the Davidians’ resistance. It was Mr. Sessions who insisted on the use of tear gas and tanks to end the siege, and it was he who ignored advice about other, less violent methods to induce Koresh to surrender.

His successor, Louis Freeh, also has escaped the heavy opprobrium of the Republican right, perhaps because Mr. Freeh has fought publicly with Ms. Reno over various embarrassments to the White House, most notably his endorsement of an independent counsel in the 1996 campaign finance affair. Yet surely if there was a coverup of pertinent evidence in the Waco matter, Mr. Freeh was responsible for ensuring that the Attorney General was aware of all the relevant facts before she reached a conclusion about who shot first, how the conflagration started and why the hostage negotiation failed.

Mr. Freeh may have been misled as badly as Ms. Reno was, but he certainly bears at least as much blame for any flaws in the investigation as she. When did the F.B.I. Director learn about the tape of agents in the field asking permission to fire the two flammable tear gas rounds at the Davidian compound? The answer to that question may be more important than the actual firing of those gas projectiles (which apparently had little or nothing to do with the deadly firestorm that erupted hours later).

A new probe is unlikely to alter the 1996 findings of the House Government Operations Committee, then chaired by that inveterate Clinton critic, Representative William Clinger. His report found that most of the evidence indicated the Davidians themselves had set the fires; that the gunshot wounds which killed 19 of them were fired by their own weapons; and that the Davidians prevented their own members from escaping the fiery deathtrap. “But for the criminal conduct and aberrational behavior of David Koresh and other Branch Davidians,” concludes the committee’s report, “the tragedies that occurred in Waco would not have occurred.” Did the Republican Congress join in the coverup, too?