Probe faults agents for Waco fire Those on scene urged end to talks


WASHINGTON -- A Justice Department report on the fire that consumed a cult compound near Waco, Texas, and killed most of the group's members criticizes mid- and lower-level federal agents who recommended that negotiations be abandoned in favor of a tear gas assault, according to law-enforcement and administration officials who have read the report.

But the report is said to clear senior officials from the FBI and Attorney General Janet Reno of making any significant mistakes, even though Ms. Reno, acting on the advice of the senior bureau officials, ordered the assault on April 19 in which armored vehicles punched holes in the compound and filled it with tear gas.

The Justice Department report is the administration's second assessment of the government's handling of the cult. Thursday, the Treasury Department issued a scathing critique of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Treasury agency that set all the other events in motion when it raided the compound, known by cult members as Mount Carmel, on Feb. 28.

Stephen E. Higgins, the head of the firearms agency, was replaced as the agency's chief, and five other officials were suspended for making crucial mistakes in the initial raid, then covering them up and issuing misleading and self-serving statements about what had occurred.

The tear-gas assault seven weeks later ended in a fast-moving fire that burned the compound and killed about 85 people. The government has said the fire was set by the Branch Davidians at the insistence of the cult's leader, David Koresh.

The report coming out this week and the one issued on Thursday -- both ordered by President Clinton -- make clear that from beginning to end there were fundamental errors in the way the government approached the case of the Branch Davidians, one of the deadliest law-enforcement operations in memory.

But in contrast to the Thursday review, which criticized Washington officials as negligent by leaving the initial raid to inexperienced field agents, the Justice investigation of itself will say that the problems were beyond the reach of senior officials in Washington.

After the fire, senior officials from the bureau and Justice Department officials, including Ms. Reno, said that, although they did not dismiss the possibility of a mass suicide, it was the unanimous view of the behavioral experts that it was remote.

But officials said the Justice Department report will say that senior Washington officials decided on the assault despite conflicting evaluations from Waco. Some negotiators wanted to talk and wait out the cult, while the tactical officials wanted to move on the compound.

According to a portion of the report provided to the New York Times by a person involved in the review, some FBI experts in behavior had warned of the strong possibility that the cult would fight to the finish or kill themselves.

In April, Ms. Reno said officials had concluded that further talks would have been fruitless, that sanitary conditions inside the compound were deteriorating and that Koresh had abused children.

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