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Call for fairness echoes over hearings on Waco


The longest standoff in federal law enforcement history ended in a fiery siege at a religious sect's compound near Waco, Texas. The destruction of Mount Carmel in April 1993 and the deaths of at least 80 Branch Davidians provoked searing questions about a raid gone awry, the culpability of federal officials and the government's ability to police itself.

Two government investigations failed to quell public concerns over Waco. Instead, they fueled suspicion about the government's handling of the incident and spurred anti-government rhetoric by the far right.

Tomorrow, lingering questions about Waco will be aired -- this time, in Capitol Hill hearings convened by a Republican-controlled Congress gunning for a Democratic administration.

Even the lawyer for David Koresh, the Branch Davidians' leader who died along with many of his followers April 19, 1993, recognizes the political timing of the inquiry.

"I think one reason we are where we are is political expediency," said Dick DeGuerin, the Houston attorney who tried to persuade a wounded Mr. Koresh to surrender. "It's a great way to embarrass the administration. . . . I don't really care what motivates Congress as long as they have full and fair hearings.

"If the end result is the truth becomes more available to the general public, then the hearings will have accomplished something."

Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, who oversees the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms -- the agency that conducted the raid -- wants the same consideration, a fair hearing. And the same outcome. He also expressed concern that the hearings would be used to "promulgate distortions" about the events at Waco, undermine law enforcement and erode support for gun control measures.

"The hearings are an opportunity to get the truth to the American people," said Mr. Rubin, whose department produced a detailed, 500-page critique of the BATF's actions at Waco several months after the raid and standoff.

But whose truth? And to what end?

"People who are interested in the truth will find out that this was not a heavy-handed government attempt to limit people's rights to have arms or harm a religious group," said University of Southern California journalism professor Edwin O. Guthman, who was one of three people appointed by the Treasury Department to review its report on Waco. "But that it was a lawful action that was botched. It's so clear it was badly handled."

An association that represents law enforcement groups questioned the need for the hearings, because federal officials already have addressed Congress on the issue.

"We want the truth to be revealed in all law enforcement operations," James A. Rhinebargar of Washington-based Law Enforcement Steering Committee wrote to the committee chairmen. "But endless investigations of federal officers will render them less effective and seriously damage" morale.

The events surrounding Waco dealt a crippling blow to the BATF -- including the deaths of four agents who were killed in the initial raid. The standoff's calamitous end resulted in criticism of Attorney General Janet Reno and the FBI, which tried for 50 days to resolve the conflict before launching a military-style, tear-gas assault.

Differing agendas

"You can look at what happened at Waco and still see there are unresolved issues to satisfy a reasonable person that changes have been implemented to make sure this doesn't happen again," said Chip Berlet, a Cambridge, Mass., political consultant and founder of a newsletter on police misconduct.

Stanley I. Kutler, a University of Wisconsin legal historian, said past congressional investigations have discovered new information and then informed the public. Today, however, Mr. Kutler is less sanguine about the matter.

"Everybody has an agenda," said Mr. Kutler, the author of a book on Watergate. "Everybody has a political goal. I would like to think there was a degree of disinterestedness that allowed people to pursue the goal of what we may call 'truth.' I kind of despair about whether we are institutionally and politically capable of functioning in this disinterested way."

The botched raid at the Branch Davidian compound occurred Feb. 28, 1993. BATF agents went ahead with the raid after learning they had lost the element of surprise. The raiding party was met by gunfire from the Branch Davidian compound and four agents were killed. A 51-day standoff ensued. Before Waco, the longest standoff involving the FBI had been four days, according to a Justice Department spokesman. The FBI took control of the scene and tried to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Although the negotiators helped gain the release of some Davidians and children, many more stayed behind.

On April 19, the FBI used armored personnel carriers to inject tear gas into the sect's compound in an attempt to flush out the remaining Davidians, including 25 children. But the compound erupted in flames. Arson investigators and other evidence later determined that the apocalyptic Branch Davidians had set the fire, ensuring their demise.

Since the siege, there have been two departmental reviews. The Treasury report on BATF's missteps, errors in judgment and post-raid lies was brutally honest. The Justice Department's review of the FBI left many key questions unanswered and remained uncritical of officials even when the department's inquiry suggested otherwise. The reports resulted in the firing of BATF chief Stephen E. Higgins and disciplinary action against other BATF and top FBI officials.

But segments of the public remained unconvinced that all had been told.

The raid, its aftermath and the subsequent reviews allied such diverse groups as the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union. In January 1994, they jointly called for hearings. The Waco events also become a rallying cry for the far right, armed, citizen militias and their comrades in the Christian Patriot movement.

The far-right groups have pedaled a host of conspiracy theories regarding the government's involvement in Waco. Those theories -- and the range of anti-government sentiment in the country -- gained greater prominence after the April 19 bombing in Oklahoma City. One of the suspects in the bombing allegedly was upset over the government's actions at Waco.

60 witnesses possible

Since the siege at Waco, there have been both criminal and civil cases, forums that produced additional information about the raid, standoff and tear gas assault. A Davidian acquitted of murder and a firearms dealer who sold guns to Mr. Koresh are among the 60 witnesses who might testify during the eight-day congressional hearing.

Also scheduled to appear are Attorney General Reno, fired BATF director Higgins, a Texas child welfare caseworker who investigated reports of child abuse at the compound, and the manufacturer of the gas that was pumped into the compound.

"This is not a witch hunt," Rep. Bill Zeliff, a New Hampshire Republican and one of the committee chairmen who will preside over the hearings, said recently on "This Week With David Brinkley."

"We're going to try to do a very fair, open process. We're going to try and put this thing behind us. . . . It will give an opportunity for those agencies to regain some credibility that I think is absolutely vital."

In the past two weeks, Treasury Secretary Rubin has made a concerted effort to ensure that the agency's investigation of the incident, its findings, disciplinary action and department reforms reached the public.

The agency redistributed about 200 copies of its review, which included a panel of outside experts. In an accompanying four-page letter, Mr. Rubin reiterated the reasons for the raid -- evidence that the Davidians were illegally manufacturing machine guns, bombs and grenades.

The department also permitted four BATF agents who participated in the raid to speak publicly for the first time -- in a nationally televised interview.

In the weeks before the hearing, the Justice Department has been providing documents to the committees. Ms. Reno also pledged her cooperation. "As I've always said, I'm quite willing to nTC answer any questions about Waco and quite willing to explore with everybody how we approach such an issue to avoid such a tragedy for the future," she said.

"Our hope is that something productive will come out of the hearings," said Gene Guerrero, the ACLU's representative in Washington. "We think Waco is one example, a particularly serious example, of a pattern of abusive conduct by federal law enforcement officials and a bunch of different federal agencies."

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