Waco hearings clouded by fact-finding vs. politics

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- House committee chairman Bill Zeliff made no apologies for seeking the truth. In investigating the fiery siege near Waco, he said people of "conscience and good will" could do nothing less.

As the Republican ticked off the "new" facts learned from the inquiry, Rep. Charles E. Schumer sat back, waiting for his turn to speak.

When that chance came, the New York Democrat pronounced his view of the fact-finding: "Nothing new. Nothing new. Nothing new."

In the days since two House panels opened hearings into the botched raid at the Branch Davidian compound in Texas and its deadly aftermath, the debate has focused on this kind of political one-upmanship.

Republicans proclaim what's new, to justify calling 100 witnesses to discuss a twice-reviewed debacle that cost lives, sullied federal law enforcement and engendered, for some, a deep distrust of the government. The Democrats point out what's not new, to prove their theory that the true agenda is embarrassing the Clinton administration.

"What legislative purpose is being served?" asks Chip Berlet, a consultant with Political Research Associates of Cambridge, Mass. "What we have here, unfortunately, is a set of hearings less detailed, more confused and more partisan than the Treasury Department report [on the botched raid]."

Maryland Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. doesn't see it that way. While the hearings have depicted a fact of Washington life ("props and spin rule the day"), they also represent a primary function of Congress: its oversight responsibility.

"There are reasonable people in my district and in Maryland and in the country who have legitimate questions about what happened there," said Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican committee member.

"Some were answered in the Treasury report. Some were not. Even if all the questions were answered, a lot of people are not going to read [the report]."

The hearings conclude Tuesday. Despite the political wrangling, the midst of 12- and 14-hour days, the hearings have produced some answers to lingering questions surrounding the raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the ensuing 51-day standoff at Mount Carmel, the FBI's tear-gas assault April 19, 1993, and the fatal fire.

The topics have included: The lost element of surprise. The use of the military by federal law enforcement agencies. The sexual perversions of Davidian leader David Koresh. The negotiators' mind-set. The tear gas plan. The effects of CS-gas. The origin of the fire that consumed the building, killing Koresh, many of his followers and 22 children.

Truths have been told in the committee room. But even truth is subject to interpretation.

In assessing the first eight days of hearings, Undersecretary of the Treasury Ronald K. Noble concluded that "no new material facts emerged." But Mr. Noble, who oversaw Treasury's review of the raid, finds the hearings worthwhile.

They "further clarified the difference between fact and fiction," he said. His agency mounted its own offensive in that regard.

Poised for defense

As the hearings focused on the ATF and Treasury, a team of department officials sat in the audience, ready to correct and rebut testimony. The agency issued daily reports that listed an "assertion" of a witness and the "fact" of the matter. Sometimes those "facts" corroborated the assertion. Sometimes they challenged it.

"In short, no findings, conclusions or recommendations [of the Treasury review] have been demonstrated false or incomplete by these hearings," Mr. Noble said.

Carol Moore would disagree wholeheartedly. Just ask her about the helicopters hovering over the Mount Carmel compound during the ATF raid. Despite sworn testimony from the pilots that no shots were fired from the copters, Ms. Moore is convinced otherwise.

Her book, "The Davidian Massacre," is being published this fall by Gunowners of America, one of several groups that have equated the Waco fiasco to a government out of control. She has attended the hearings daily. Nothing has changed her mind about the helicopters.

"The congressmen are afraid of this coming out," said Ms. Moore, who wears a lilac "Waco Never Again" button on her "Free the Branch Davidians" tie-dyed T-shirt. "You had survivors willing to testify; they would not call them."

Gene Guerrero, the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington field director, has been watching the hearings when he can. In an unusual alliance, the ACLU joined the National Rifle Association last year in calling for hearings into the Waco case. His assessment so far?

"Clearly, the hearings have been worthwhile," Mr. Guerrero said. "It still remains very much to be seen what comes out of this."

Some facts have emerged

With funding from the ACLU, the NRA and the American Friends Service Committee, the Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs has been assessing the news coverage of the hearings. While most of the information has been covered in the reviews done by Treasury and the Justice Department, other facts have emerged, said John Sheehan, the center's executive director. He cited:

* FBI supervisors didn't know that the on-site commander believed there was a 99 percent chance the Davidians would shoot at the armored vehicles pumping gas into the compound. This suggested that the decision to gradually insert the gas had been based on a false assumption. In its operations plan, the FBI planned to escalate the gas delivery if the tanks were fired on.

* The attorneys for Koresh believed they had persuaded him to surrender once he completed a religious manuscript. Koresh, they said, had been persuaded to become a messenger for God, not a martyr. But he failed to produce any writings in four days, and the FBI concluded it was a delaying tactic.

* During the tear gas assault, surveillance equipment inside the compound did not pick up voices directing residents "to spread the fuel" and start the fire. The FBI commander at Waco told the joint hearing he would have immediately halted the assault if he had known the Davidians were going to burn the place. FBI officials learned of the instructions when the tapes were enhanced.

Deeper than reports

The public may have missed nuances, but those watching or listening to the hearings heard the voices of Waco in poignant detail.

They listened to 14-year-old Kiri Jewell dispassionately describe her sexual initiation at the hands of David Koresh. They heard ATF negotiator James Cavanaugh's voice crack while recalling the cries for help of a gravely wounded and trapped comrade. They watched former Davidian Clive Doyle weep as he recounted the fiery end at Mount Carmel.

Overall, the hearings have produced no significant revelations of wrongdoing. The new information comes in bits and pieces, by )) way of an explanation, in an emotional retort, after a pointed question. It contributes to an already large body of knowledge of a law enforcement mission gone terribly awry.

But will it prompt legislative reforms, the end of careers, the dismantling of an agency, the appointment of a special prosecutor? Unlikely, observers say.

Mr. Berlet, the Cambridge political consultant, argues that the format of the hearings has undermined efforts to get at the heart of the matter. Partisan wrangling on the opening day led the Republican majority to abandon a 15-minute questioning format for a standard five minutes. That left committee members with little time to ask probing follow-up questions.

"If this is the unraveling of serious questions on civil liberties issues in this country, we are being badly served on both sides of the aisle," said Mr. Berlet.

While some Republicans and Democrats trade barbs, others see the benefit of a public airing.

"We felt all along there was this void of facts," said Sam Stratman, a spokesman for Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde of Illinois. "The lack of widely available factual information has permitted that vacuum to be filled by conspiracy theorists. It's corrosive. It hurts law enforcement in the long run . . . and denies the important issues that are at hand.

"The truth is in the outcome."

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