WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno ordered U.S. marshals to the FBI's headquarters yesterday to seize a previously undisclosed tape recording of voice communications between FBI commanders and field agents during the ill-fated tear-gas assault at the Branch Davidian compound, Justice Department officials said.
The recording contains the voices of agents asking for and receiving authorization from their operational commanders at Waco, Texas, to fire flammable military tear-gas rounds at a covered bunker not far from the main Branch Davidian compound several hours before a deadly fire ignited, leaving about 80 people dead.
Even before the latest disclosure, Reno had decided to open an independent investigation of the 1993 siege, and officials said yesterday that she planned to name a prominent figure to head the inquiry.
Reno's list of people under consideration does not include any present or former officials of the Justice Department or the FBI. The officials said that Reno had added and subtracted names in recent days from a list that has at times included former Republican senators John Danforth of Missouri and Warren Rudman of New Hampshire. Another candidate is Dan K. Webb, a prominent Chicago lawyer who was a highly successful Republican-appointed federal prosecutor.
Before yesterday's extraordinary order to the marshals to take custody of evidence from the FBI, Reno was said by subordinates to be furious when she was told of the existence of a tape that had remained hidden in FBI files for more than six years. It was discovered Saturday at the FBI's training academy in Quantico, Va., in the offices of the Hostage Rescue Team, the unit that was heavily criticized for its tactics in carrying out the Waco assault, law-enforcement officials said.
Myron Marlin, a Justice Department spokesman, said last night that the Justice Department did not know of the tape's existence until that day. "The FBI informed the Department that it had come across the material in Quantico, Va.," he said. "On learning of the discovery of the material, senior officials of the Justice Department immediately directed the marshals to take possession of and inventory the materials at the FBI's headquarters."
The disclosure of the tape represents another blow to the credibility of Reno and FBI officials who had said repeatedly in the years since the operation that they had unearthed all relevant information about the assault before concluding that there was no possibility that the FBI had caused the fire.
The recording is on the audio track of an infrared videotape that picked up heat images from inside the compound. The tape was made by an aircraft flying over the site at the time the tear-gas canisters were launched at the bunker. Law-enforcement officials said the tape supports their account that the flammable canisters bounced harmlessly off the bunker's roof and could not have ignited the fire.
Arson investigators had found evidence that gasoline, charcoal lighter fluid and camp stove fuel had been poured inside the wooden structure, and they said that the fire appeared to have started in three places. The FBI also cited evidence from listening devices that recorded ambiguous conversation of Davidians discussing possible plans for a fire just hours before the blaze.
But last week, the disclosure of the use of two incendiary military tear-gas rounds prompted an uproar that has forced Reno to announce that she would reopen a long-closed internal inquiry into the operation.
In an unusual scene yesterday afternoon at FBI headquarters, agents from the marshals service arrived at the J. Edgar Hoover Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, the FBI's headquarters across the street from the Justice Department, to take the tape and related materials. The step was said by officials to be taken as a rebuke by Reno to the FBI for its failures to turn over information related to the central question of who started the deadly fire.
Reno and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh have had an increasingly uneasy relationship.
Pub Date: 9/02/99