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Reno Seeks Waco Probe Leader From Outside Dept of Justice

By Edward Walsh and Roberto Suro

Attorney General Janet Reno has determined that someone from outside the Justice Department and the FBI should lead a new investigation into the circumstances surrounding the fatal fire that ended the 51-day siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, in 1993, government officials said Wednesday.

The officials said that an informal list of about six names to head the investigation is circulating in the Justice Department and that some candidates have been contacted. None of those being considered is an employee of the Justice Department or the FBI, they said.

In addition, officials said, it is likely that FBI agents will not play a role in the new investigation. Instead, the Justice Department is developing a plan for the field work to be done by a team of investigators from agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Postal Service, the Secret Service and the U.S. Marshals Service.

Reno is under pressure to act quickly in the case, which she said has tarnished her credibility. She vowed last week to launch a new investigation after the FBI, reversing six years of denials, disclosed that its agents fired “a very limited number” of potentially incendiary tear gas cartridges during the final assault on the Branch Davidian compound, where 76 people died.

The move to place the investigation in the hands of someone outside the Justice Department and the FBI came amid indications that some officials in those agencies may have known as long ago as 1996 that incendiary devices were used on the last day of the siege. A law enforcement source confirmed that the FBI has an internal memo dated Feb. 15, 1996, that discusses the use of military tear gas weapons on the day of the final assault. But it is not clear whether officials at the time realized that such tear gas cartridges are pyrotechnic devices.

In addition to investigating the use and effect of the incendiary cartridges, officials said the new investigation will focus on who knew about their use and why this was not disclosed until last week. Based on what she described as repeated assurances by the FBI, Reno testified before Congress in 1995 that no pyrotechnic devices were used during the April 19, 1993, assault on the compound.

The FBI still maintains that its agents did not cause the final conflagration. According to the bureau, the potentially incendiary tear gas cartridges were fired hours before the fire started and were not aimed at the main wooden compound.

On Tuesday, officials said that FBI Director Louis J. Freeh suggested that an outsider conduct the investigation because of a perception that the bureau and the Justice Department were incapable of conducting an impartial probe of their actions during the Waco siege. One measure of how badly the case has shaken the FBI and the Justice Department is that officials Wednesday said they could not recall any instance in which such an investigation was turned over entirely to outsiders.

White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta has spoken with Reno about the possibility of an independent Waco inquiry. White House officials refused to offer details of that conversation, but indicated they supported an outside investigation.

“The attorney general has made clear that she’s going to find out all the facts that are relevant and make them available to the American public and to Congress,” said White House press secretary Joe Lockhart. “She, with the FBI director, is working currently on how they’ll do that.”

Reno was on a visit to Panama Wednesday and is not due to return to Washington until Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, as members of Congress prepared to return to Washington next week, at least two House committee chairmen moved forward Wednesday with their own plans to investigate the assault on the Branch Davidian compound.

A spokesman said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., “has all but decided” to introduce legislation creating a five-member commission to do the job.

The House Government Reform Committee is planning a separate investigation and earlier this week issued subpoenas for Waco-related material to the Texas Rangers and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Waco. Mark Caralo, a committee spokesman, said the panel planned to issue new subpoenas today to the Justice and Defense departments, the White House and the FBI.