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"Report: Clinton, Reno deceived public about Waco tragedy"
Sat Jun 5, 2010 17:26

"Report: Clinton, Reno deceived public about Waco tragedy"

by Lee Hancock and Michelle Mittelstadt ("Dallas Morning News," October 19, 2000)
A Congressional report released Thursday alleges that President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno misled the public for years with claims that U.S. military experts endorsed the "flawed" FBI tear gas attack that ended the Branch Davidian siege.
"President Clinton and Attorney General Reno have deceived the American people for over seven years by misrepresenting that the military endorsed, sanctioned or otherwise approvingly evaluated the plan," stated the report by the House Government Reform Committee.
The 99-page report also vigorously criticizes that Justice Department's response in the aftermath of the tragedy, contending that all of the agency's actions "were consistent with an organization that was not eager to learn the full truth about what happened on April 19, 1993."
Officials at the Justice Department and the White House did not immediately return calls for comment Thursday.
But an opposing report by the committee's Democratic minority disputed the Republican majority's criticism of Ms. Reno. Committee Democrats contended that the attorney general acted properly during the siege and its aftermath and that the committee had wasted more than a year of investigative resources on the Waco tragedy.
The Democrats' 25-page response contended that the Republican majority findings were duplications of earlier investigative efforts or "unsupported allegations of wrongdoing."
"The committee's 13-month investigation was unnecessary, expensive and fruitless," the Democrats charged. "It contributes virtually nothing to the public's understanding of Waco."
Both reports released Thursday follow a year-long investigation by the same House committee that conducted two weeks of contentious and highly partisan hearings in 1995 on the Waco tragedy.
The committee renewed its Waco inquiry in September 1999 after FBI and Justice Department officials were forced to reverse years of public denials and acknowledge that some pyrotechnic tear gas grenades had been used during their final Waco operation.
That admission and a Waco federal prosecutor's public warnings to the attorney general last fall that some of her subordinates may have covered up the use of pyrotechnic tear gas grenades also led to the appointment of Waco Special Prosecutor John C. Danforth.
Mr. Danforth issued a preliminary report in July exonerating the government of "bad acts" in Waco and clearing Ms. Reno of any wrongdoing or effort to mislead Congress or the public in the aftermath of the worst law enforcement tragedy in U.S. history.
About 80 Davidians died on April 19, 1993, when their compound burned. The fire broke out about six hours after FBI agents began ramming the building with tanks and spraying in tear gas to try to force and end to a 51-day standoff.
The incident began when a gunfight broke out as agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to search the Davidian complex and arrest leader David Koresh on weapons charges. Four ATF agents and six Davidians died.
The committee inquiry that led to Thursday's report began with intense partisan sniping. Ranking minority member Henry Waxman, D.-Calif., angrily chastised committee chair Dan Burton, R-Indiana, last September after the chairman accused Justice Department officials of withholding parts of an FBI lab report from Congress that identified at least one tear gas round used at Waco as a military device.
Mr. Waxman's staff discovered last fall that several copies of the report, including the reference to the military rounds, were given to the congressional committee before its 1995 hearings.
On Thursday, Democrats renewed their criticism of Mr. Burton, charging that his committee's entire report and investigation was flawed because of its beginnings with that "false accusation."
But the committee's majority noted in its report that those documents were "dumped" on the committee only three days before the start of the 1995 Waco hearings "in an apparent hope that one would have the opportunity to find these documents and ask relevant questions."
"Justice Department officials were more concerned in 1995 with their own political self preservation than their duty of full disclosure to the American people and the Congress," the report released Thursday charged.
The report issued by the committee's Republican majority includes accounts from an Army general and colonel of how they refused Ms. Reno's request to evaluate an FBI plan to assault the Davidian compound when FBI officials were seeking her approval for the tear-gas operation carried out on April 19, 1993. The two special forces officers said they told Ms. Reno that federal limits on involvement by U.S. military in domestic law enforcement actions prohibited them from offering any critique or suggestion about the Waco plan.
At one point in discussing the operation plan, then deputy attorney general Webster Hubbell even asked one of the officers "is this legal," the report stated. "The army colonel did not answer when Hubbell looked at him, but stated during his interview with committee staff that his private thought at the time was, 'that's your job; not mine.'"
The report adds that both officers told Congressional investigators that they were stunned when they later learned that the tear-gassing plan had been allowed to go forward, but were never contacted by Justice officials assigned to review what happened after the siege.
"When they left the April 14, 1993, meeting, they were convinced the FBI would never execute the proposed operations plan as it was briefed at the meeting. The Army Colonel stated he believed the Attorney General 'didn't buy the plan being proposed by the FBI.' ...His impression from the meeting was that no one thought it was a smart way to proceed. He went on to state that he was astonished when he saw the fire on TV on April 19, 1993.
"General (Peter) Schoomacher ... wondered why anyone would make the decision to follow through with the FBI's proposed operations plan as it had been described at the meeting," the report stated. "His thought at the time of the meeting with Attorney General Reno was that [the Hostage Rescue Team] should have put a fence around the compound and waited until the Branch Davidians came out from hunger, but he did not state this thought openly at the meeting."
Ms. Reno told Congress after the operation ended in tragedy that the military officers she had consulted before approving the plan had concluded it was "excellent," and "sound." President Clinton told reporters immediately after the incident that he was told by Ms. Reno that military officers consulted before the operation "were in basic agreement" with the FBI's operation.
Committee Democrats contended in their minority response that the officers' statements about their meeting with Ms. Reno had been misinterpreted and that Ms. Reno's account of what happened was supported by three other Justice Department officials.
"In short, the majority grossly exaggerates the significance of what is largely a difference in semantics and subjective impressions," the Democrats' response stated.
While the committee report released Thursday diverges from the Danforth report in its repeated and intense criticism of the attorney general, its conclusions mirror several of the key findings by the Waco special counsel.
Like Mr. Danforth and a federal court in Waco that recently threw out a wrongful death lawsuit filed by surviving Davidians, the congressional committee found no evidence that any government agents fired guns at the sect in the last hours of the siege.
One analyst retained by the committee's investigators stated publicly last fall that he had found evidence on an FBI infrared video to support the government gunfire charge. But the Congressional report states that the analyst, Carlos Ghigliotty, died of heart disease in March before preparing or submitting a scientific report to support his gunfire claim.
A second analyst retained to evaluate the infrared videotape recorded from an FBI airplane filed a report in September stating that none of four segments of the infrared video that he examined for committee investigators depicted gunfire.
"It is extremely unlikely that anyone will ever be able to prove, scientifically, that no government agent ever fired a shot at the Davidians on April 19, 1993. The Committee, however, has not found sufficient evidence to support the allegations that law enforcement or military personnel directed gunfire towards the Branch Davidians on April 19, 1993."
The report also criticizes Justice Department lawyers who prosecuted surviving Davidians after the siege, contending that lead prosecutors Ray and LeRoy Jahn of San Antonio and former prosecutor Bill Johnston of Waco were told in 1993 that the FBI had used pyrotechnic tear gas against the sect.
Ray Jahn, the lead prosecutor, told Congress in 1995 that only non-pyrotechnic gas was used in Waco, and his wife, LeRoy, signed pleadings during the criminal case that offered similar statements to a federal court and lawyers defending members of the sect. Records made public for the first time last fall included handwritten notes in which Jahn wrote in 1993 describing the FBI's use of military, pyrotechnic rounds.
The Congressional report notes that recent government admissions about the use of pyrotechnic gas were due in large part to Mr. Johnston's public criticism of the Justice Department and warnings to Ms. Reno of a possible coverup.
But it noted that Mr. Johnston, who resigned his prosecutor's post earlier this year, also withheld notes from the committee that showed he was told in the fall of 1993 that several "incind" or incendiary military gas rounds were fired at a bunker adjacent to the compound.
"While Johnston deserves credit for his role in bringing to light the use of pyrotechnic devices on April 19, 1993, a secret that lasted four seven years, his record in this matter is a mixed one," the report stated. "Johnston performed a public service for which he suffered undeserved reprisals from the Department of Justice. On the other hand, Johnston's apparent decision to withhold his handwritten notes ...cannot be overlooked or excused."
A lawyer for the former prosecutor said last month that he has been notified by the Waco special prosecutor that he is being targeted for prosecution for withholding the notes. The lawyer, Michael Kennedy of New York, also has said that Mr. Danforth's office tried to convince Mr. Johnston to plead guilty and testify against the Jahns but Mr. Johnston has repeatedly refused.
Neither Mr. Kennedy nor Gerald Goldstein, a San Antonio lawyer representing the Jahns, could be reached for comment Thursday.

"Judge to testify in inquiry by Waco counsel"
by Lee Hancock ("The Dallas Morning News," October 18, 2000)

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