She’d been in office only 38 days when she made a life-and-death decision that has haunted her ever since.
On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno - stoic at times and emotional at others - faced the harshest questioning yet about her role in the blaze that consumed a building in Waco, Texas, and left an impact that few could have imagined.
Reno still defended her decision to back the FBI tear-gas assault that ended in disaster on April 19, 1993, though she said the tragic consequences “will be with me for the rest of my life.”
Her testimony concluded the 10-day congressional Waco hearings, which seemed to do less political damage to Reno and the Clinton administration than Republicans may have hoped for at the start.
Partisan political charges continued as Reno took responsibility for the tragedy, just as she did more than two years ago, when the FBI assault ended in the deaths of some 80 Branch Davidians.
“If I could wave a magic wand and do it over again and have the right answer, I would feel like I was the most fortunate person in the world,” she said.
Almost 100 witnesses were called before the House joint subcommittees that conducted the hearings. A report will be released later this year.
Though the hearings revealed tragic mistakes by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), Democrats and Republicans agreed that the sessions debunked conspiracy theories that have swirled around Waco and even became the alleged motive for the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in April.
Recent claims by congressional committee co-chairman Rep. Bill Zeliff, R-N.H., that President Clinton was heavily involved in the decisions on Waco went unsupported Tuesday as Republicans failed to produce any evidence of such activity. Reno said Clinton “did exactly right” by keeping informed of significant developments while not interfering with law enforcement’s handling of the situation.
As the hearing closed, Bill McCollum of Florida concluded that Reno - not Clinton - had made “the ultimate decision.”
At one point, Reno emotionally answered Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., after he spoke of a physician who had performed some of the autopsies on the Branch Davidians.
The doctor “found a closed and clenched woman’s hand,” Mica said, “and when he pried it open, he found the remains of an infant’s hand …”
When he had finished telling of such horrors, he pointedly asked, “Knowing this today, would you still proceed in the same manner?”
“I want you to understand because I don’t think you can comprehend - if you talk to me about children - the fact that this instance will be etched on my mind for the rest of my life,” Reno answered.
“Those children - no matter how they were found - the fact that they are dead is a tragedy that will be with me for the rest of my life.
“You,” she told Mica, “do not have to talk to me in those terms.”
When Reno was sworn into office on March 12, 1993, four ATF agents already lay dead in Waco, shot by Branch Davidians during a Feb. 28 attempt to serve a search warrant for illegal weapons.
FBI agents surrounded the compound after that, trying to talk Davidian leader David Koresh into surrendering.
On Tuesday, congressmen challenged Reno on the FBI plan she approved, which was based on the hope that tear gas would force the Davidians from their barricaded compound. Instead, cult members set fire to the structure, killing Koresh and all but nine of the others inside.
Given the apocalyptic, violent views of the Davidians, the FBI and Reno - should have known that a peaceful surrender wasn’t likely, Republican congressmen told Reno.
Reno responded, though, that she didn’t have “the ability to Monday-morning quarterback.”
She said the FBI told her that negotiations were at an impasse and that Koresh may have resorted to further violence. She said she also worried that the children inside were enduring physical and sexual abuse. At the same time, the FBI hostage rescue team was losing its readiness after the 51-day wait.