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Waco Verdicts Seen as Time of Renewal for ATF : Law enforcement: The agency’s survival was recently in question. Now it has a broad gun-control mission, bigger budget, growing esprit de corps.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The verdicts in the Branch Davidian trial were a painful final chapter of a difficult year for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms--a year officials say has brought a good deal of soul-searching and changed the nature of the agency.

A jury in San Antonio on Saturday acquitted 11 cult members of the most serious charges against them--murder and murder-conspiracy--in the deaths of four ATF agents in the failed assault against the group’s compound. Five Davidians were convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Two were convicted on weapons charges.

With the trial’s outcome behind them, officials say they view today as a symbolic turning point for the ATF: It is the first anniversary of the bloody siege in Waco, Tex., that left the agents and six Davidians dead, and it is the day that the agency will assume broad new responsibilities as the Brady gun-control law becomes a reality.

“The most important firearms regulation law in a quarter of a century will go into effect, and ATF is central to the success of the new law,” said Ronald K. Noble, who oversees the bureau as assistant Treasury secretary for enforcement.

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Moreover, the ATF has won a budget increase from the Clinton Administration at a time when other agencies are struggling under severe cuts. It is also a central part of a recently announced effort by the Treasury Department to dramatically tighten regulations on gun dealers, and it is moving into new technologies that could revolutionize the way in which evidence of gun-related crimes is collected.

And if cigarette taxes rise as a result of the Administration’s health care reform effort, the ATF is also likely to face new challenges in preventing smuggling.

But less than five months ago, the very survival of the agency was in question.

For years, it had been seen by other law enforcement agencies as second-rate, with agents who lacked the training, breadth and polish of their counterparts in the FBI and the IRS.

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Vice President Al Gore, seeking ways to make government more efficient, called last fall for merging the agency’s functions into the FBI.

Meanwhile, a blistering Treasury Department report on the botched raid in Waco had alleged that individual ATF officers had tried to cover up their mistakes, that they had not given sufficient consideration to less confrontational options, that they had relied upon obviously flawed intelligence and that they had failed to coordinate and organize their operations properly.

The raid produced a 51-day standoff at the cult’s compound. It ended in the deaths of more than 80 Davidians, including their leader, David Koresh, in an inferno that was set after FBI agents tried a tear-gas assault.

The performance of the ATF was a major issue in the trial. Defense attorneys, adopting a strategy of putting the ATF on trial as well, apparently persuaded the jury that federal agents were also to blame for the tragedy.

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From Atty. Gen. Janet Reno on down, the Administration tried to put the best face on Saturday’s verdict, noting that most defendants were convicted of some offenses.

However, legal scholars said the voluntary-manslaughter verdicts suggested that jurors believed that the Davidians were provoked into killing the ATF agents.

“The verdict was surprising. I think it was a defeat for ATF and the government generally,” said Yale Kamisar, a professor of criminal law at the University of Michigan.

Kamisar suggested that the verdicts will fuel skepticism about “how often the public is misled by government officials. . . . Obviously, the jury was very troubled by the performance of the ATF and everyone else who was involved. It makes you wonder what else the government isn’t telling us the truth about.”

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If so, one of the main jobs ahead for the ATF is rebuilding its credibility.

For starters, new top management has been brought in, and officials said the agency has revamped its training and its procedures in crisis situations.

Its new director, Secret Service veteran John W. Magaw, has likened the process to the rebuilding effort undertaken by the Secret Service in the wake of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Meanwhile, the ATF received credit for helping to track down the defendants in last year’s World Trade Center bombing in New York.

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The agency has also benefited from the recent political surge behind the crime issue that led Congress last year to enact the Brady measure, which would require background checks on handgun purchasers and impose a five-day waiting period on gun sales. Virtually all enforcement of the new law will fall to the ATF.

In addition, the Clinton White House has put an emphasis on curbing the proliferation of firearms, which is one of ATF’s major areas of responsibility.

By comparison, the Administration’s GOP predecessors were hostile to anything that smacked of gun control.

“In a lot of ways, you see a certain pride developing in ATF. They don’t have to be embarrassed about what they are doing,” one Administration official said.

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