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Janet Reno Vows to Uncover Truth About Siege In Waco

By Eric Lichtblau
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- WASHINGTON

An angry Attorney General Janet Reno, moving to quell a growing credibility crisis, promised Thursday to find out why she -- and the American public -- have been misinformed for six years about the FBI’s use of flammable munitions in the last hours of the Branch Davidian seige near Waco, Texas.

But even as Reno and other federal law enforcement officials moved to answer new questions about the 1993 disaster, they acknowledged that the reversal of their longstanding position on the matter undermines their credibility.

In addition, it could give rise to a new round of conspiracy theories and reopen one of the most tragic chapters in the nation’s recent history, recalling the deadly end to a standoff between the government and religious separatists that, among other things, inspired Timothy J. McVeigh two years later to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City.

The controversy over the government’s misstatements in the Waco case already has fueled accusations of a cover-up from survivors and relatives of the dead -- some of whom are bringing a wrongful death lawsuit that is to go to trial in October. And it has prompted calls for new congressional hearings on the matter from Republican lawmakers who have long criticized Reno for her handling of the Waco episode and a wide range of unrelated issues.

The new disclosure “undermines the public’s confidence in our ability to do the job,” FBI spokesman Tron W. Brekke said in an interview. “It really hurts our ability to perform and it’s very much of an embarrassment.”

Triggering the controversy was the FBI’s acknowledgment earlier this week that its agents may have launched incendiary tear gas canisters -- capable of catching fire -- toward a bunker near Davidian leader David Koresh’s compound hours before he and dozens of his followers died in the inferno outside Waco on April 19, 1993.

The admission marked a sharp departure from past statements. For years, Reno and other federal officials have insisted that no pyrotechnic or incendiary devices were used by the government that day. Lawmakers grilled Reno and FBI officials about the issue in weeks of high-profile congressional hearings. Just last month, when similar allegations resurfaced in Texas during the filming of a documentary on the disaster, Justice Department officials dismissed the notion as “nonsense.”

But after the issue was raised again this week in the Dallas Morning News, a further review of FBI records -- including a 1996 memo that made reference to the use of the military-style canisters -- prompted the bureau to reverse its long-standing position, officials said.

The new information indicates that about 6 a.m. on the day of the disaster, agents may have fired at least two flammable, military-style gas canisters at a concrete bunker about 100 yards from the main, wooden, dwelling where the fire began some six hours later.

Officials said the agents were seeking to use the tear gas canisters to block an underground escape route between the bunker and the Davidians’ main dwelling. Sect members had been holed up in the building for 51 days following a deadly gun battle with federal agents who had tried to raid the compound in response to reports of stockpiled weapons.

Reno, whose early days in office in 1993 were haunted by the prolonged standoff at Waco and its fiery conclusion, said she still believes Koresh and his followers set the fire that ripped through the compound, killing 57 adults and 19 children.

“I have no reason whatsoever at this point to believe that the FBI was responsible for the deaths of the people. But I think it is important for the American people to know that we have pursued every question and pursued as far as we humanly can to get to the truth,” she said.

“If there is any information that indicates” the military canisters played a part in the fire, Reno said, “we will pursue it.”

Reno said that, in approving the FBI’s use of tear gas during the course of the standoff, she was concerned about the risk of a fire and received assurances that no incendiary devices would be used. Among the key issues now to be determined, officials said, is why that assurance was violated, who knew about the use of the incendiary munitions and how it was that top officials gave contrary reports in their public statements.

In addition, Brekke said that some 40 FBI investigators assigned to the review also will likely pursue new allegations that members of the Army’s secret Delta Force anti-terrorist unit not only were at the Davidian compound that day but may have played an active role. The unit’s involvement, if confirmed, could conflict with federal regulations restricting the role of military personnel in civilian law-enforcement operations.

Reno and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh conferred Thursday on how the review will be carried out. No decisions were announced. One issue still to be decided, a Justice Department source said, is whether Reno will bring in an official from outside the department to oversee the investigation.

“I will not stop ’til I get to the bottom of this,” Reno told reporters.

But Republican lawmakers indicated that they would not leave the matter entirely to Reno.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thursday joined the call for congressional hearings, saying that a new inquiry must determine whether Justice Department officials are guilty of “a cover-up or negligent oversight.”

The revelations also could complicate the government’s defense against a $100 million lawsuit brought by more than 200 relatives of the Davidians. The wrongful-death suit alleges that the FBI trapped the Davidians in the compound, helped to spark the deadly blaze and prevented firetrucks from reaching the scene. It also claims that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms used excessive force in the initial raid on the compound.