DALLAS -- House Republican aides preparing for hearings on the Branch Davidian standoff brought NRA-paid consultants to examine firearms recovered from the sect's compound and refused to say who was bankrolling them, Texas and congressional officials said yesterday.
The aides told Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) officials that the consultants were assisting in the congressional investigation of the 1993 siege at Waco and demanded that they be allowed to X-ray the guns during a June 26 visit to Austin, said a DPS official and a federal official who witnessed the incident.
But the X-ray examination ultimately was not allowed because the committee staffers refused to reveal who had retained the consultants, Failure Analysis Associates Inc. of Houston, the officials said.
In a letter to House Republicans overseeing the Waco hearings, the Justice Department said it was "extraordinary" that a congressional inquiry would seek to use a consulting firm hired by an outside advocacy group.
A spokesman for Charles Schumer of New York, ranking Democrat on one of two subcommittees conducting the inquiry, said the incident "taints the hearings."
"This proves what we've suspected all along, which is that this is an NRA-inspired circus," said Josh Isay, spokesman for Mr. Schumer.
"This stinks from beginning to end."
Bill Zeliff, the New Hampshire Republican who chairs the second panel involved in the hearings, said he was not aware until Tuesday that the experts had been hired by the NRA.
He said his subcommittee aide, T. March Bell, may have erred in not revealing who hired the consultants.
"He should have, except that he didn't feel that it was anybody's business," said Mr. Zeliff, chairman of the National Security, International Affairs and Criminal Justice Subcommittee. Mr. Bell declined comment.
Mr. Zeliff hotly disputed charges that the NRA's involvement signaled that the hearings would be unfairly slanted.
"My goal, my commitment here is to do an honest, fair and open hearing that gets to the bottom of Waco and that we tell the American people exactly what happened," he said.
The NRA has been among the fiercest critics of the Branch Davidian incident. The standoff began on Feb. 28, 1993, when agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to serve search and arrest warrants for firearms violations on the sect's rural compound.
A firefight erupted as the agents arrived, leaving four agents dead and more than 20 wounded. Five sect members also died in the initial shootout.
After 51 days of FBI efforts to negotiate a peaceful surrender, bureau agents assaulted the compound with tear gas. Within hours, a fire erupted and consumed the compound along with more than 80 Branch Davidians and their self-proclaimed messiah, David Koresh.
In a news release issued yesterday, the NRA acknowledged that it had paid for the Houston experts to examine the firearms and criticized the Justice Department for its refusal to allow the X-ray examination.
Mr. Zeliff said he believes that such an examination is still needed because of the FBI's involvement in the standoff.
"The FBI is investigating themselves here," he said. "We're trying to find out were they fully automatic guns. Have they been tampered with? We're not gun experts."
Mr. Zeliff and other members of the investigating panels spent hours reviewing presidential documents relating to the 51-day siege. The White House agreed to let them see the confidential memos and notes, but once again refused to release them.
Mr. Zeliff said there were no major surprises.