LAST week, in a farcical show of moral resolve, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno sent U.S. marshals crashing into FBI headquarters looking for tapes implicating that agency in the wanton murder of almost 80 people, including 19 children, in Waco, Tex., six years ago.
Her action is too little, too late, and she should be fired immediately as a disgrace to her office. Admittedly, this is not a fresh idea on my part.
In the immediate aftermath of Waco, Ms. Reno had said "the buck stops here," and in July 1995, I ended a column stating, "The president must now hold her to her word. If she cannot find the fortitude to protect the citizenry from the secret police agencies under her jurisdiction, then she must be fired."
That was more than four years ago, and she never lifted a finger to right this egregious wrong until the most recent revelation from outside sources that the FBI concealed tapes proving its agents had used incendiary devices.
No such proof was required for Ms. Reno to have acted earlier. FBI culpability in the Waco massacre was obvious from day one.
There was never a compelling reason for the FBI to launch its murderous assault on the compound. The people inside didn't represent a threat to anyone but themselves, and flattening the walls of their home with tanks was hardly an act of mercy.
The adults in that compound were there as a matter of free choice and should have been left alone. As for releasing the children, negotiations, however lengthy, were obviously the humane alternative.
Instead, the FBI fired between 300 and 450 projectiles of a "super" tear gas, creating confusion and hysteria inside. Now the FBI admits to firing at least a few pyrotechnic devices that could have set flammable material inside the compound on fire.
Even more damning is that the FBI refused to allow fire equipment to be present when it created what it must have known would be a fiery hell.
Most of this information was widely reported four years ago, and congressional hearings that followed revealed more incriminating evidence that the FBI was out of control. Yet Ms. Reno failed totally to respond to that flood of information by reining in an agency directly under her bureaucratic control.
She just wanted the memory of Waco to fade away. What motivated her contempt for the lives lost? Why protect the FBI when that agency, which once set out to destroy Martin Luther King Jr., has long been in desperate need of a thorough overhaul?
The FBI is the house that J. Edgar Hoover built, no matter who sits in the director's chair, and Ms. Reno, as boss, had an obligation to do something more than rearrange the furniture.
There's an obvious though partial explanation for Ms. Reno's failure to act. Ms. Reno's mind-set is that of the Florida prosecutor frozen in a stance of self-righteousness, butting heads with the bad guys who surround us and always eager to give police the benefit of the doubt.
The idea of overhauling the FBI was anathema to her core set of values, honed as a super policeman herself -- which is a compelling reason not to appoint people of that occupational bias to head a department devoted to justice.
There's a more disturbing explanation for her indifference to fixing culpability in the Waco slaughter: Those who died were of the wrong party.
I don't mean they weren't Democrats; certainly, the death of innocent Republicans would tug at Ms. Reno's soul. No, these people were of the party of "nuts," the party of people who don't belong and who live a life incomprehensible to those charged with maintaining mainstream order.
In short, the adults were undoubtedly dupes of their mad leader David Koresh and were potential sources of public disorder. Koresh was certainly loathsome, but that didn't justify obliterating him and his followers or denying their inalienable rights.
Isn't the basic lesson of civil liberty that it is precisely the loathsome whose rights require our most vigilant protection lest we lose freedom for all? Or are those just words to be uttered on safe occasions when there's no risk of the chaos that freedom inevitably carries?
Ms. Reno is a policeman gone wrong. She didn't commit the crime, but she covered for those who did, maintaining that eerie blue wall of silence.
As the nation's chief law enforcement officer, she had an overarching obligation to investigate wrongdoing at the center of power before she presumed to go policing the rest of us. She didn't.
As secretary of the Justice Department, she sabotaged justice. She should now be fired by President Clinton. That's where the buck stops.
Robert Scheer is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times.