WASHINGTON -- Republican congressmen stepped up efforts yesterday to discredit administration officials for the bungled raid at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, the ensuing 51-day standoff and the siege's fatal, fiery end.
In its third day of House hearings on the operation, the Republican majority set its sights on former Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, whose agency oversaw the raid Feb. 28, 1993, by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The Congress members grilled Mr. Bentsen about an April 15 memo on the Justice Department's plan to end the standoff at the Mount Carmel compound with a tear-gas assault.
"The risks of a tragedy are there," former Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman said in his memo dated just days before the tear-gas assault, after which the Branch Davidians set fire to the compound.
But Mr. Bentsen told the committee, "I had nothing to do with that decision. This was the responsibility of the FBI and the Justice Department."
But the Republicans didn't let up. They also charged Justice Department officials with trying to thwart an internal investigation of the raid.
They also criticized present Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, alleging that he asked a Democratic committee member not to ask any questions during the hearings that would embarrass the Clinton administration.
Committee staff members distributed a story in which Rep. Bill Brewster, an Oklahoma Democrat, told the Daily Oklahoman that he was offended by a telephone call he received from Mr. Rubin.
The treasury secretary said in a statement last night that the congressman "simply misunderstood the call."
"I did ask him to seek the truth, like the rest of us, and not to join any effort to undermine law enforcement," Mr. Rubin's statement said.
The Republicans convened the hearing to answer lingering questions about the Waco confrontation, in which four ATF agents, Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and more than 80 of his followers died. Since its start, the inquiry by two House subcommittees has been peppered with partisan sniping and political posturing.
Each day, the Democratic minority has repeated its assertion that the process has been tainted by the National Rifle Association and its attempts to influence the hearing. The GOP has refused to subpoena committee staff members about any contacts they may have had with the NRA.
"We are not playing politics," said Rep. Bill McCollum, the Florida Republican who is cochairing the joint hearing. "We are trying to answer the basic questions of who, what, when, where and how and to get some accountability into this process."
Focus so far
So far, the hearings have focused on life in the Branch Davidian compound and the events surrounding the failed ATF raid.
More than 70 federal agents arrived at the Waco compound the day of the raid to arrest Mr. Koresh and execute a search warrant. But the Branch Davidians had been tipped off, and a gunbattle erupted after the search party arrived.
Witnesses have testified about Mr. Koresh's biblical teachings and apocalyptic view, the sect leader's sexual liaisons with young girls and the Branch Davidians' arsenal of weapons.
Others have testified about the mismanagement of the raid, the use of military equipment and training by ATF agents and the Treasury Department's lack of oversight.
Yesterday, Joyce Sparks, a child-welfare worker who investigated allegations of child abuse at the Branch Davidian compound, told the committee about a conversation she had had with a woman identifying herself as a member of the "Waco hearing team." When Ms. Sparks discovered that the woman was on the NRA's payroll, she ended their conversation. The social worker, however, assured the committee that her testimony would in no way be affected by that NRA contact.
Earlier in the day, the hearing focused on the Treasury agency's approval of the "dynamic entry" to be used by the raiding party. But the Republicans quickly seized on the Altman memo.
Mr. Altman could not be present at yesterday's hearing. He is scheduled to testify Monday when the hearings resume.
In his memo, Mr. Altman predicted that Attorney General Janet Reno would not approve the tear-gas plan as a way to force the Branch Davidians from the compound. He also suggested that "if the FBI waits indefinitely, Mr. Koresh will eventually concede." But that is not what happened.
"Didn't Roger Altman sound the alarm?" asked Rep. Bill Zeliff, a New Hampshire Republican.
By then, Mr. Bentsen said, the matter was being handled by the FBI and the Justice Department. He said he had other responsibilities, including mounting an extensive review of the ATF raid that resulted in a 500-page report.
"This was no directive," said Mr. Bentsen. "It was not something asking for a decision."