WASHINGTON -- After days of delicate negotiation, Attorney General Janet Reno will announce today that former Sen. John C. Danforth will head an independent inquiry into the FBI's conduct at Waco, Texas, and whether the agency later tried to conceal information about it.
Reno, who has acknowledged that her credibility has been damaged by recent revelations, yielded to pressure to grant Danforth broad powers to subpoena evidence that will allow him to conduct a credible investigation.
Congressional aides say that Danforth, a Republican former state attorney general in Missouri, had held out on accepting the job until assured that he would have the latitude needed for an investigation that will be scrutinized by foes of federal law enforcement.
In his 18 years in the Senate, Danforth, 63, an ordained Episcopal priest, was widely regarded as a voice of moderation and rectitude. Yesterday, Republicans and Democrats praised Reno's choice to lead the inquiry.
Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican, said Danforth has "an excellent reputation and the highest integrity."
Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat, predicted that Danforth would be "someone who can't be pushed around."
Given the heated emotions that have long swirled around the Waco disaster, Danforth will need that reservoir of good will. About 80 people died in the conflagration that consumed the Branch Davidians at Waco on April 19, 1993, and to many who are suspicious of government powers, the issue is as fresh today as it was six years ago.
The Danforth investigation is taking on more significance because new congressional investigations into Waco are already showing signs of partisan division. As lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill yesterday, their differing approaches to another Waco inquiry began to show.
Democrats expressed anger that Republican aides on the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee had already issued subpoenas to the White House, Justice Department, FBI and the Texas Rangers, without consulting their Democratic colleagues.
"The question isn't whether a competent, nonpartisan investigation is needed," fumed Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, the committee's senior Democrat. "It's whether this Republican-led Congress can investigate anything without turning it into a political circus."
House Republicans -- eager to reopen the Waco issue -- have their own problems. Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has said he favors an independent inquiry staffed by a bipartisan crew of investigators chosen by Republican and Democratic leaders. That would take the matter out of the hands of Rep. Dan Burton, the Indiana Republican who is chairman of the Government Reform Committee and has been a lightning rod for Democratic criticism.
But Burton aides say they already have the staff in place and the authority to begin digging. Indeed, the Texas Rangers -- who have been guarding evidence ever since the Davidian complex in Waco went up in flames -- said they will send new information on the siege to Washington by tomorrow.
On the Senate side, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said his committee would conduct its own inquiry.
Ultimately, the Republican leadership will have to decide which, if any, committee will handle what would be the third Waco inquiry since 1995, said Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the Government Reform Committee.
"This is not a political issue," Corallo said. "This is an attempt to finally get to the truth and put this thing to rest once and for all."
Hyde also tried to avoid a turf war, announcing that he would delay introducing legislation to create his proposed commission, to allow congressional leaders to decide how to proceed.
A House investigation in 1995 concluded that the fire at the Davidian compound was started by the religious group's leaders.
But in recent weeks, new evidence has emerged that has raised serious questions about the FBI's conduct, if not the origins of the fire. FBI videotapes that emerged last week indicate that agents fired pyrotechnic tear-gas canisters at a bunker near the Davidians' compound. For six years, FBI agents and Justice Department officials insisted that such devices were never used during the 51-day standoff.
Evidence has also emerged that the Army's secretive Delta Force was involved in the siege, though there is no proof that the soldiers took part in the final assault on the compound. The use of the Delta Force in a combat role would likely have violated federal statutes that bar soldiers from attacking U.S. civilians.
The Dallas Morning News reported yesterday that the Texas Department of Public Safety had also recovered potentially flammable flares from the ruins of Waco.
The revelations have led some Republicans on Capitol Hill to call for Reno's resignation. Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott yesterday added his voice to that chorus, saying a "pattern" had emerged of Justice Department obfuscation and noncompliance with congressional investigators.
"All of that leads me to conclude that the attorney general should resign," Lott said.
Lott even said he now has doubts that the Davidians started the conflagration.
Republicans say they have no doubt that FBI agents lied to them in denying they had used potentially incendiary tear gas rounds against the Davidians. "That one lie has caused us to reopen this whole thing," Corallo said.
But Democrats say they are still not convinced. One senior Democratic investigator, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a new House inquiry would need strong evidence of at least one of three allegations: that the pyrotechnic tear-gas canisters ignited the fire; that the FBI misled Congress; or that FBI agents and Justice Department officials intentionally concealed evidence.
So far, the investigator said, the evidence still indicates the Davidians started the fire, and he is not convinced there was an intentional cover-up. He suggested that Congress allow Danforth to pursue those questions before launching a new probe.
But Burton said he was resolute in pursuing his own investigation. "We would be happy to work with Mr. Danforth, but his appointment won't alter or change our investigation into what happened here," Burton said.
Pub Date: 9/09/99