Waco, one of the worst debacles in American law enforcement history, goes under the congressional microscope Wednesday as lawmakers seek to learn whether the loss of 84 lives at the Branch Davidian compound two years ago could have been averted.
In eight days of hearings, two GOP-dominated House subcommittees will dissect the bloody saga of federal law officers’ confrontation with religious zealot David Koresh at his compound outside the Texas city.
All aspects of Waco are fair game, from the botched Feb. 28, 1993, raid at the compound by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms which left four agents dead to the FBI’s 51-day standoff that ended April 19 when Koresh and his followers died in flames. The fire broke out after the FBI tried to flush out Koresh with tear gas.
“What we hope to accomplish is the educating of the American public about Waco in a way that takes away the mystique,” said Rep. Bill McCollum, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, in an interview last week.
He is co-chair of the Waco hearings along with Rep. Bill Zeliff, R-N.H., who heads the House Government Reform and Oversight Subcommittee on National Security, International Affairs and Criminal Justice. “What we want to do is bring forward the who, what, when, where, why of Waco - who is responsible and who is accountable,” said McCollum.
The hearings promise everything the public has come to expect from Capitol Hill marathon media events - a huge witness list with the final day, July 31, devoted exclusively to Attorney General Janet Reno. There also may be bombshells amid the 30,000 pages of subpoenaed government documents as well as plenty of political posturing.
Also unfolding this week are hearings on President Clinton’s and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s involvement in the Whitewater land development venture in Arkansas. Both the Whitewater hearings, scheduled to begin today, and Waco are bad news for the White House. Yet the dueling sets of hearings could backfire on the Republicans if they don’t produce much that is new.
On Waco, the issues to be covered include:
Whether BATF agents fully explored the possibility that Koresh could be arrested away from the compound. Waco critics have charged that agents were gung-ho for a raid - a “dynamic entry” - and did not bother to explore alternatives. The Treasury Department, which oversees the BATF, has already acknowledged that agents wrongly assumed that Koresh never left the compound.
The BATF’s success in obtaining free training from the Pentagon and its unsuccessful quest for military equipment by saying its agents were involved in a drug investigation of Koresh. A Treasury Department report in September 1993 said agents were investigating whether Koresh possessed illegal automatic weapons and explosives, but it said nothing about drugs. Federal law permits military assistance to civilian law enforcement in drug probes but strictly limits it in other circumstances. The subcommittees have documents showing military planners feared the BATF was leading them into violations of the law.
The FBI’s use of CS, a kind of tear gas. Reno relied on the advice of a toxicologist, Dr. Harry Salem, chief of the U.S. Army Chemical and Biological Defense Command’s Life Sciences Division at Ft. Detrick, Md. Salem told her that CS gas was appropriate and would not result in permanent injury to children.
The committee will hear from other experts who say that the gas, concentrated in the small rooms of the Branch Davidian compound where it was injected, was dangerous.
The possibility that Koresh was in the process of surrendering when Reno approved the FBI gas plan. J. Phillip Arnold of the Houston-based Religion-Crisis Task Force and James Tabor, a religion professor at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, have said they had convinced Koresh that he could write a treatise on the Bible’s Book of Revelation and give up peaceably.
The gas attack, they say, sent Koresh back to a dark mood, bent on apocalyptic destruction. By not understanding the religious fantasy of Koresh, the FBI triggered a tragic end to the siege, they insist.
Disagreement between some FBI agents negotiating with Koresh and behavioral scientists on one side and the bureau’s tactical commanders on the other side. One of the behavioral experts, Peter Smerick, co-authored profiles of Koresh saying a get-tough strategy wouldn’t work and might lead to mass suicide. His advice was ignored, and earlier this year, Smerick said he had been pressured into tailoring his analysis to suit the desire of the tactical commanders.
In recent months, things have gone badly both the BATF and the FBI. Last week, the BATF was rocked by revelations that some of its agents had attended a whites-only event in Tennessee called the “Good Ol’ Boys Roundup,” featuring signs with racial epithets and T-shirts with racist slogans. On Monday, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin announced the department would investigate BATF participation in the event.
Last Friday, FBI Director Louis Freeh demoted his deputy director, Larry Potts, amid allegations that documents related to an August 1992 raid on white separatist Randy Weaver in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, may have been destroyed to shield Potts from responsibility. An FBI sniper’s bullet claimed the life of Weaver’s wife, Vicki. Weaver’s son, Sam, and a deputy federal marshal also were killed during the incident.
Potts was also involved in managing the Waco standoff and will testify at the hearings.
Waco and Ruby Ridge became rallying cries for paramilitary militia groups and the National Rifle Association, which in varying degrees see federal law enforcement as involved in a conspiracy to take guns away from citizens. Bitterness over Waco is reported to have been uppermost in the mind of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Lynn Nichols, the two suspects in the Oklahoma City bombing, which occurred two years to the day after Waco.
Hearings “could serve a useful purpose if what happens is the American people have a better sense of the truth of Waco,” Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin said last week.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: KEY DATES Key dates leading to congressional hearings on the Waco incident: May 1992. Sheriff’s Department of McLennan County, Texas, informs Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that United Parcel Service has reported delivering dummy grenades, explosive powder and suspicious firearms to members of the Branch Davidian religious sect outside of Waco. ATF begins initial investigation. Feb. 28, 1993. Federal agents raid Branch Davidian compound outside of Waco, Texas, to execute search warrant for illegal weapons. Four agents and six cult members are killed in resulting shootout. April 19, 1993. Federal agents attack Branch Davidian complex with tanks and tear gas, ending a 51-day standoff. Over 70 people, including many children, die as compound is engulfed in flames. Sept. 28, 1993. Stephen Higgins resigns as AFT director. Sept. 30, 1993. Treasury Department issues critical report based on internal review of ATF actions in Waco. Oct. 8, 1993. Justice Department issues report defending the FBI handling of the siege at Mount Carmel and blaming the fatal fire on the Davidians themselves. April 19, 1995. Federal building in Oklahoma City demolished by bomb and 167 people, including 19 children, are killed on second anniversary of Waco inferno. July 19, 1995. With Republicans in control of Congress, two House subcommittees begin investigatory hearings into Waco incident. Cox News Service