WASHINGTON -- Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican, said yesterday that the Senate terrorism panel he chairs will hold "long overdue" hearings on raids by federal agents in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, -- events that have become rallying points for citizens' militias and other anti-government groups.
"I think the way to deal with a lot of the anger out there is to have the congressional inquiries on Waco and Idaho, which are long overdue," said Mr. Specter, a candidate for president.
Mr. Specter said his subcommittee on terrorism, a panel of the Senate Judiciary Committee, will hold hearings May 18 on "provocation and federal governmental response" in the FBI's ill-fated 1992 siege at the Idaho cabin of white supremacist Randy Weaver, whose teen-age son and wife were slain, and the 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian cult compound in Waco. The panel will also examine the militia movement around the country, he said.
Last week, Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona, called for hearings on Waco. Without them, he said, "I believe there will be lingering suspicion concerning the issue, which will fuel the fires of mistrust and suspicion about the federal government."
Members of paramilitary groups that have drawn attention since the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19 cite the two raids, as well as federal gun control laws, as proof that the government plans an assault on their way of life.
Senator Specter said, "I think we're very isolated here [in Washington] in not understanding how really angry the American people are, and I think Waco and Idaho have contributed materially to it," Mr. Specter said. "That's all you hear about now, after Oklahoma City, is how mad people are about Waco and about Weaver . . . and why isn't somebody doing something about it? Why aren't we taking a look at it?"
Carl Stern, the Justice Department spokesman, said the department would cooperate with the panel to ensure that the record is "set straight."
"There are efforts by some to try to draw some sort of equivalency between the terrorist incident in Oklahoma City and the Branch Davidians having set fire to their place in Waco, as though the two matters are somehow moral equivalents, and that is, I think, repulsive to any right-thinking, reasonable person," Mr. Stern said.
Mr. Specter said he had asked Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. to call hearings soon after the Waco raid, when the Delaware Democrat chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, but that Mr. Biden refused.
"I think they didn't do it because they didn't want to embarrass Janet Reno, who had been attorney general for a short period of time, and have her answer a lot of questions," Senator Specter said.
Instead, Mr. Biden said, "Let's do the internal investigations first," according to Mr. Specter. "They took months and months and months, and by the time they were finished we were on to a lot of other projects."
Larry Spinelli, Mr. Biden's spokesman, confirmed that Mr. Biden had declined Mr. Specter's request for hearings. The reason, Mr. Spinelli said, was that the Clinton administration had said it was undertaking a full investigation itself.
"It wasn't a question of whether the attorney general would or would not be embarrassed," he added. "She herself at the time was very forthright, in stepping forward and accepting full responsibility for what happened in Waco."
In October 1993 the Justice Department released a report on the FBI's tear-gas attack on the Waco compound that critics said was a whitewash of officials' handing of the incident.
By contrast, the Treasury Department issued a stinging report on the botched raid of Feb. 28, 1993, by its Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. That raid resulted in the death of five Davidians and four BATF agents and the wounding of 26 other agents.
The failed BATF raid precipitated the FBI's 51-day standoff that ended in the disastrous fire April 19 at the Davidian compound, in which 75 cult members, including 25 children, died.
Mr. Spinelli noted that the House Judiciary Committee held hearings on Waco a few weeks after the FBI raid.