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Danforth Investigation of Waco Will be Blunt and Far-Reaching

By Eric Lichtblau

Former Sen. John C. Danforth, named to lead the re-examination of the Branch Davidian disaster, declared in stark terms Thursday that he intends to find out whether federal agents “killed people” outside Waco, Texas, six years ago and lied to cover it up.

The Missouri Republican gave himself a blunt and far-reaching mandate, pledging to use all available prosecutorial powers to find out what happened at David Koresh’s compound on April 19, 1993.

“I think my job is to answer ... the dark questions,” he told reporters. “Was there a cover-up? That’s a dark question. Did the government kill people? How did the fire start? And was there shooting (by federal agents)? I mean, those are questions that have been raised. Those are questions that go to the basic integrity of government.”

In formally naming Danforth as a special counsel to investigate the Waco matter, Attorney General Janet Reno said the former Missouri attorney general, now in private practice in St. Louis after leaving the Senate in 1994, would bring “impeccable credentials” and bipartisan support to the job.

Danforth said a public airing of his findings will be a top priority, but it remained uncertain how long that would take. “It would be a mistake to set a fixed time limit” on his investigation, Danforth said, adding that he hopes to finish up by the presidential election in November 2000.

While Danforth’s appointment reflects a concerted effort by Reno and other government officials to reclaim some credibility on the issue, critics of the attorney general and the FBI have vowed to pursue their own lines of inquiry.

In Waco, a federal judge has set an Oct. 18 trial date for a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit against the government filed by relatives of some of the roughly 80 people who died after fire swept through the main Branch Davidian dwelling. Some of the victims had been shot.

Congressional committees already have taken steps toward their own investigations, and public hearings could get under way this fall.

Danforth’s appointment came two weeks after the FBI -- reversing six years of denials -- acknowledged that its agents used pyrotechnic munitions on the final morning of the Branch Davidian standoff. That acknowledgment and newly discovered evidence have reignited the political controversy over the government’s handling of the siege, badly damaging the credibility of Reno and other federal authorities.