WASHINGTON -- Justice Department documents released yesterday by a senior House Democrat raise questions about Republican allegations that the FBI and Justice Department deliberately covered up the use of military rounds at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco.
The documents, which have been in the possession of House Republicans for four years, disclose the FBI's use of potentially incendiary tear gas rounds during the disastrous assault on Waco in 1993.
"They appear to conflict fundamentally with the assertions that evidence about the use of military tear gas rounds was deliberately withheld from Congress," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, in a letter to former Republican Sen. John C. Danforth, the newly appointed special counsel investigating Waco.
GOP aides said they were not aware of the documents, and they countered that their accusations of a possible Justice Department cover-up were influenced by Attorney General Janet Reno's assertions that information about pyrotechnic tear gas rounds had been withheld from her.
The newly released documents mesh with a report released yesterday by the Texas Rangers, in which Ranger Sgt. George L. Turner revealed that FBI agents told him in January 1994 about the use of military rounds. Turner indicated that he did not see the significance of the admission.
"I never came forward with the information that would seem to indicate that an explosive projectile was fired on April 19, 1993," Turner admitted, in a June 30 letter to a superior, Chief Bruce Casteel. "But I was never asked the question."
Allegations of a cover-up have been swirling around Washington since last month, when FBI officials publicly conceded they had used potentially flammable tear gas shells in the hours before fire consumed the Davidians, killing about 80 of them. Reno expressed her own anger, hinting that the FBI had withheld information from her.
Last week, she appointed Danforth to investigate whether the FBI had helped spark the fire at Waco, whether FBI agents had fired at the Davidians during the final assault and whether there had been a cover-up.
Suspicions fell on the Justice Department over the weekend when it was revealed Friday that the department had failed to transmit to Congress the final page of an FBI lab report that alluded to a fired military tear gas round. Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott called for Reno's resignation, and House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Dan Burton accused Reno of withholding evidence from Congress.
But the documents released yesterday came from Burton's committee, which had received them from the Justice Department before the committee's 1995 hearings into the Waco disaster.
Military rounds mentioned
In one document, FBI Special Agent R. Wayne Smith, the co-pilot of a surveillance plane that circled the Davidian compound, stated that he recalled "one conversation relative to the utilization of some sort of military round to be used on a concrete bunker."
Another document, which summarized interviews with members of the FBI's hostage rescue team, alludes to an "attempt to penetrate bunker w/ 1 military and 2 ferret rounds." Ferret rounds are less-potent tear gas shells that do not use a flame to disperse their gas, as military rounds do.
Handwritten notes in another document explain that smoke from the Davidians' bunker "came when these guys tried to shoot gas into the bunker." The words "military gas round" are then written in parentheses.
Still another set of handwritten notes describes the use of military tear gas rounds, noting that the "rounds bounced off." The FBI said this month that two potentially flammable tear gas rounds were fired at a cement bunker 50 yards from the Davidians' wooden compound, but both failed to penetrate the structure.
Waxman, the senior Democrat on Burton's Government Reform Committee, charged that Republicans calling for Reno's resignation were simply trying to score political points. It took Waxman's staff two hours to find the references to military rounds in the committee's archives, he said, and if Republican leaders did not know of their existence, they should have before they accused Reno of a cover-up.
"If she should resign because she didn't reveal that military rounds had been used, then Sen. Lott and Chairman Burton and the GOP leadership should also resign," Waxman said.
Waxman released the documents along with a letter he sent to Danforth that excoriates Burton for alleging a cover-up "without reviewing even the contents of the files contained in his own offices."
Republican investigators who led the 1995 hearings in Waco expressed surprise that they had such documents in their possession.
"I'm grateful if he has found something that will defuse a little bit of the mystery behind the uses of these rounds," said Robert Charles, staff director of the Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, who led the 1995 investigation.
But Republicans said the documents did not change their contention that either Reno has participated in a cover-up or she is incapable of running her department.
Nor do the documents exonerate the FBI or the Justice Department, Charles said. FBI agents were asked under oath what they had shot into the Davidian compound during the final assault, he said. They did not at that time reveal the use of military rounds.
Besides, Charles said, questions remain about why the FBI would use such a powerful tear gas shell in such a confined bunker. Such military rounds are designed to disperse crowds or turn back enemy troops in the open.
Rangers release study
More questions were raised by the Texas Rangers, who released yesterday their study of about 24,000 pounds of evidence that was collected after the Waco conflagration. The report had been delivered to Capitol Hill Friday in response to a Government Reform Committee subpoena.
Among the evidence were at least three dozen high-powered rifle shells recovered from two houses where FBI snipers were quartered during the 51-day standoff at Waco. FBI officials continue to insist that agents never fired at the Davidians during the standoff.
In an interview with a superior, FBI Agent Charles Riley said he had heard shots fired from a sniper post on April 19, 1993, but he later recanted. The evidence is all the more incendiary because the sniper post was manned by sharpshooter Lon Horiuchi, who was implicated in the disastrous shootout with white separatist Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge in 1992.
Horiuchi has asserted that no shots were fired from his post.
The Rangers' report also confirmed that two potentially flammable Whitestar illumination flares were found on the Davidian compound.
The Rangers also released a scathing letter to Reno written Aug. 30 by William W. Johnston, an assistant U.S. attorney and chief of the Justice Department's Waco division. In the letter, Johnston told Reno, "I have formed the belief that facts may have been kept from you -- and quite possibly are being kept from you even now, by components of the Department."
He accused the Justice Department's torts branch of hiding documents from Reno and from the lawyers of surviving Branch Davidians, who are suing the government in a wrongful death suit.
Pub Date: 9/14/99