Janet Reno Confronts Waco's Bitter Legacy

In Newark, N.J., last week, Attorney General Janet Reno chose an audience of federal law-enforcement officers to deliver a speech on a topic that obviously bothers her--the presumed connection between the Oklahoma City bombing and the deaths of 85 Branch Davidians outside Waco, Texas, two years earlier. Speaking "from the heart," Reno lashed out at those who seek to find "a moral equivalency" between the two events. "Such reckless comparisons are despicable and out of bounds, as far as I am concerned," she said. "It is unfair, it is unreasonable, it is a lie, to spread the poison that the government was responsible at Waco for the murder of innocents."

But the questions aren't going away. Waco has spawned a growth industry, among far-right conspiracy theorists, some of whom claim the FBI deliberately set the fire that killed 25 children along with cult leader David Koresh and his disciples. It has clearly pushed many members of the militia movement toward paranoia, and two separate federal investigations have not persuaded even main-stream critics that those responsible for the debacle are telling all they know. Now Waco is becoming a political wrangle. Last week Republicans in the House and Senate announced hearings on the conduct of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and on the Clinton administration's handling of the incident.

The established facts are damning enough. On Feb. 28, 1993, the ATF mounted the biggest raid in its history to seize what it believed was a cache of illegal weapons at the Davidian compound 12 miles outside Waco. According to a harshly worded report released by the Treasury Department in October 1993, this raid was a hopeless botch. Lax security allowed Koresh and his followers to be forewarned of the impending bust, and ATF supervisors knew it. They went ahead anyway and in the subsequent shoot-out, four ATF agents and six Davidians were killed. The Clinton administration then ordered the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team to replace the ATF, setting up a tense, 51-day standoff with armed cult members in the compound. On April 19, after review by Reno and Bill Clinton, the FBI moved in with tanks to force the cultists to give up. After three attempts to "inject" tear gas into the buildings, a ferocious fire burned Mount Carmel to the ground.

Only nine of the Davidians who were in the compound got out alive. In 1994, eleven cult members were tried in San Antonio on charges of conspiring to murder federal agents. The jury found them not guilty of conspiracy but convicted most on lesser charges. According to some critics, U.S. District Judge Walter Smith took the highly unusual step of interpreting the jury's verdict on the lesser charges as convictions on the conspiracy charge as well--and sentenced five of the cultists to prison terms as long as 40 years. The sentences shocked jury foreman Sara Bain, who said the jury did not believe the defendants were leaders of the cult. Bain also said that "using tanks with those children in there was beyond belief," and sharply criticized the FBI and the ATE "I think we've got some scalawags out of control, with the power to play games they shouldn't be playing," Bain said.

The incident prompted Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen to clean house at the ATE Its director, Stephen Higgins, resigned and five key supervisors were fired -- although two of them, Charles Sarabyn and Phillip Chojnacki, later won reinstatement and back pay in a negotiated settlement.

The FBI is a different story. Despite dissent from some outside experts, a review by former Justice Department officials commissioned by Reno found "no fault during the standoff and the tear-gas assault" and concluded that Koresh had "choreographed his own death and the deaths of most of his followers." In this version, the FBI had no choice but to try to force the Davidians out and did not provoke what appeared to be mass suicide. Crucially, a four-man team of arson investigators also con-eluded that the fire was probably set by the cultists themselves. Though this finding is bitterly disputed by many in the militia movement, these investigators say the evidence shows the fire broke out at three different points well away from the FBI tanks.

It is unlikely that congressional hearings will ever settle the issue completely-which could mean that the Waco fire, like the Kennedy assassination, will be endlessly mythologized by conspiracy buffs. But the real questions run deeper. Why did the FBI team use such heavy-handed tactics during the siege? Retired FBI agent Peter Smerick, who advised the FBI high command on Waco, now says he warned that getting tough could lead to fatalities--and that he was pressured to adopt a harder line. Why, exactly, did Reno and the FBI decide to end the siege when they did? Their primary explanation, that the hostage team had been on duty too long, sounds paltry given the horrendous final result. Last week one bureau veteran said the FBI welcomes the chance to defend itself in public--but even he conceded the official version leaves much to be desired.