WASHINGTON -- Former Sen. John C. Danforth pledged yesterday to ask "the dark questions" about the deadly standoff at Waco and to determine the truth about two broad, potentially explosive issues: Did federal officials kill people at the Branch Davidian compound, and was there a cover-up afterward?
Danforth officially took the helm of an independent investigation of the Texas fiasco, assuming the mantle of "special counsel," the first such investigator since the Watergate-era law that created the independent counsel was allowed to lapse in June. Though his powers will be more circumscribed than those of an independent counsel, Danforth said he would have the authority and independence needed to conduct a thorough inquiry.
President Clinton lauded Danforth as "an honorable man and an intelligent and straightforward man," adding: "All that I ask is that he do a thorough and honest inquiry and do it as promptly as he can."
A narrowed focus
Danforth made it clear that he did not wish to re-examine all the decisions that led to the fiery deaths of about 80 Branch Davidians on April 19, 1993. Instead, he said, he will focus on more narrowly prescribed issues: whether any federal employee suppressed information, lied or misled the Congress, the attorney general or the American people; whether the FBI used potentially incendiary devices during its final assault on the Davidians; whether federal agents fired guns during that assault or started or contributed to the spread of the fatal fire; and whether U.S. armed forces were illegally deployed at Waco.
"What we're going to be looking at is whether there were bad acts, not whether there was bad judgment," said Danforth, a former Republican senator and Missouri attorney general who is an ordained Episcopal priest.
"Our country can survive bad judgment. But the thing that really undermines the integrity of government is whether there were bad acts, whether there was a cover-up and whether the government killed people."
Republican leaders on Capitol Hill vowed yesterday to launch a far more expansive investigation that would revisit all of the events and decisions that led to the final disaster. Republican investigators who led the last Waco hearings had warned the leaders that such an approach could ensnare the issue in partisanship and prevent lawmakers from discovering critical truths that two previous inquiries had failed to uncover.
But Republican leaders rejected such counsel, saying new revelations had discredited the previous testimony of FBI agents and Justice Department officials. Those revelations include evidence that the FBI had fired pyrotechnic tear-gas rounds -- conflicting with their denials for the past six years -- and that military personnel had taken part in the siege.
"I want to know it all," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas.
Wide-ranging, lengthy investigations would satisfy the Republicans' conservative base while keeping the pressure on Attorney General Janet Reno, who some Republicans say should resign. But Reno was resolute yesterday, as she has been with every call for her resignation, saying she had no plans to step down.
"I don't run from controversy," she said.
Clinton reiterated his support, saying: "I certainly don't think there is any reason for her to resign."
Aides from both parties predicted that Congress' start-from-scratch approach would heighten the perception that the conclusions of Danforth's investigation will be the most widely accepted. Danforth said the Justice Department had given him the independence and power that he requested, including subpoena powers and the authority to convene a grand jury. He could also question Reno and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh under oath.
Reno, who said she would "obviously" be a witness, recused herself from any supervisory role, leaving that job to Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder.
To add a note of bipartisanship, Danforth named a lifelong Democrat, Edward Dowd, to be his deputy special counsel.
Clinton -- at the recommendation of House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt -- appointed Dowd to be the U.S. attorney in St. Louis in 1993. Dowd said he will resign from that post to handle the Waco inquiry full time.
Danforth made it clear that he had been coaxed away reluctantly from his law practice in St. Louis to take on an investigation that is likely to satisfy neither the strident critics of federal law enforcement who have kept the Waco issue alive, nor the Democrats who have proved highly protective of Reno during earlier crises.
"As a friend of mine said, this is not what you call a good career move," Danforth joked.
But what is at stake, Danforth said, is nothing less than the Declaration of Independence's pledge to protect the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of the American people.
"If government doesn't do that, if government covers things up, if government kills people, if that's what happened -- and I don't prejudge that -- then that undermined what Jefferson talked about as being the very foundation of government," Danforth said.
While he declined to lay out a timetable for his investigation, Danforth vowed to be expeditious, hinting that the inquiry would not drag on as have other recent independent counsel investigations. He said he would "certainly hope" to complete the investigation before the end of the Clinton administration in January 2001.
But such confidence might be misplaced, warned Robert Charles, a Republican investigator who led the House Waco inquiry in 1995. Charles said he had seven investigators working around the clock to reconstruct the events at Waco. It took a year to complete their work, and many questions were left unanswered. Danforth will have to go further, reviewing not only the events of the siege but also whether there was a subsequent cover-up.
And Danforth could find that his seemingly circumscribed list of issues leads him far afield. For example, delving into the presence at Waco of the Army's secretive Delta Force would revive allegations that the Davidians had been manufacturing illicit drugs. The military's presence there, in a drug-fighting role, could have been legitimate under federal law.
But Republican investigators say the allegation that the Davidians were manufacturing drugs was trumped up by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to legitimize its initial assault on Feb. 28, 1993. Danforth said he would not examine the ATF's actions.
"If he gets to all four of his questions, by definition he will get to the bottom of it all, and he doesn't even realize that," Charles said.