Reno Defends Use of Tear Gas in Waco Attack


Atty. Gen. Janet Reno on Tuesday vigorously defended her decision in 1993 to approve a tear-gas assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex., but conceded that, in hindsight, she would have delayed the action that ended in fiery tragedy.

Reno, the sole witness on the 10th and final day of congressional hearings into the events at Waco, told the joint House committee that she explored every possible option, from possibly putting Davidians asleep with chemicals to digging tunnels into the compound, before agreeing to the gas plan.

Aside from Reno’s concession that she would have risked waiting longer before launching the gas attack, her testimony repeated explanations that she has given over the past two years.


This time, however, Reno faced grilling by a committee run by hostile Republicans intent on finding errors in her handling of the siege. They pressed hard in questioning during the early hours of the hearing. But as the day wore on, they seemed to retreat as Reno remained steadfast in her position that Davidian leader David Koresh, and not federal officials, was to blame for the tragedy.

Reno rejected suggestions that she should have given more credence to a last-minute surrender proposal from Koresh. There was no reason to believe that Koresh would give himself up, Reno said, because he had reneged on at least three similar promises during the 51-day siege.

“This was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” Reno said. “It will live with me for the rest of my life.”

About 80 sect members, including 19 children, died in a raging fire on April 19, 1993, after FBI tanks inserted tear gas into the Davidian headquarters. The attack ended a confrontation that began on Feb. 28, 1993, with a failed attempt by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to arrest Koresh and seize illegal weapons. Four federal agents and six Davidians died in the raid.

Claims that President Clinton actively participated in the decisions on Waco went unsupported Tuesday as Republicans failed to produce any evidence of such involvement. Reno said that Clinton “did exactly right” by monitoring major developments while not interfering with law enforcement’s handling of the situation.

Rep. Bill Zeliff (R-N.H.), co-chairman of the panel, appeared to backpedal from statements he made Sunday on national television suggesting that Clinton had a hidden role in approving the tear-gassing plan. In his closing statement, however, Zeliff said: “American tanks were turned on American citizens without the approval of anyone who was politically accountable.”


The hearings concluded with Republicans and Democrats feuding over the significance of the testimony collected during the last two weeks. Although a final report will not be issued for several months, leaders on both sides agreed that the hearings served to debunk conspiracy theories about government actions at Waco.

The hearings found that a serious mistake was made by the ATF when it failed to call off the initial raid after the element of surprise was lost. The FBI also was criticized for using Army tanks to batter the complex during a tear-gas attack intended to rescue women and children inside.

At the conclusion of the hearings, committee co-chairman Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) said that “the American public has every reason to wonder” whether, if Reno had delayed her decision to stage the tear-gas attack, events would have turned out differently. He added that each of Reno’s reasons justifying her decision “fails on close examination.”

But Democrats had a different view. The lesson of the hearings, said Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the joint committee, is that “you can’t compare the evil of David Koresh with the mistakes of law enforcement.”

No federal agents or supervisors were disciplined for their role in the episode.

Reno said that she thoroughly reviewed the activities of FBI and Justice Department personnel at Waco and found no reason to discipline anyone.

“I have been over and over this case trying to find out anything that anybody did wrong . . ,” she testified. “I didn’t find what I conceive to be any negligence, any misconduct, any basis for which to discipline anybody.”


Reno said that she approved the decision to end the siege for several reasons, including the FBI’s increased inability to secure the perimeter of the compound, deteriorating health conditions inside the building, an impasse in negotiations and the need to withdraw or replace an exhausted FBI hostage-rescue team.

After initially opposing the tear-gas plan, Reno said, she approved it when military experts assured her that the gas would cause no permanent ill effects on children or the elderly.

But in retrospect, Reno said, she would have elected to hold off longer. “Knowing what I know now, I would wait and take the risk of the impaired perimeter,” she said.

Speaking in a strong, steady voice, Reno testified for more than seven hours as she answered two rounds of questions from the 32-member joint panel. She sat alone at a 20-foot-long wooden table taking notes on three legal pads.

In her opening statement, Reno said: “We will never know whether there was a better solution. Had we not acted when we did and Koresh had brought things to a sudden and violent finish, as he had rehearsed, we would probably be here today anyhow and you would be asking me why I had not done something sooner.”

It was the second appearance by Reno in the House Judiciary Committee room to answer questions about Waco. The first time was part of a daylong hearing nine days after the fire. On Tuesday, Reno handled all questions with aplomb, occasionally engaging in testy exchanges with Republican members.


On one occasion, Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) asked Reno if she was aware that gas masks distributed inside the compound did not fit small children. A committee staff member then pulled a black gas mask from a plastic bag and placed it on the witness table next to Reno.

Reno calmly picked up the mask and dropped it on the floor. When the staff member retrieved it and attempted to place the mask on the desk again, Reno grabbed it from his hands and put it in her lap.

Reno never said whether she knew there were no masks for the children but she scolded Mica for stressing the concern for children with her.

“I don’t think you comprehend--if you talk to me about children--the fact that this instance will be etched on my mind for the rest of my life,” Reno said.

Echoing the sentiments of many of his colleagues, Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) called the tragedy unavoidable.

“You became the designated spear catcher for everybody in the Administration,” Hyde told Reno. “I’m convinced you were not adequately informed.”


Reno rejected the notion--raised throughout the hearings--that the FBI failed to provide her with complete and accurate information in the days leading up to her April 17, 1993, decision to approve the final assault.

“I am very satisfied in the information provided to me by the FBI,” Reno testified. “I was fully informed.”

Reno said that she knew the tear-gas plan included an acceleration tactic if the Davidians fired upon FBI tanks, as they did minutes into the operation. The alternative called for the gas to be inserted immediately into all windows.

It remained unclear after Tuesday’s hearing whether Reno knew about the belief of Jeffrey Jamar, the FBI unit commander at Waco, that there was a “99% chance” the Davidians would shoot at the tanks, thus triggering the escalated attack.

Reno said that she was informed of a surrender plan presented to FBI negotiators on April 14 by Koresh’s lawyer. The proposal called for the cult leader to surrender after he had finished writing a manuscript on the Seven Seals prophecy in the biblical Book of Revelations.

She said Tuesday that the FBI negotiators repeatedly asked for signs that Koresh was making progress on the manuscript, but received none.


Three days later, on April 17, Reno approved the FBI’s gas plan.