Hoping to put to rest "the dark questions of Waco," the outside counsel who investigated the 1993 Branch Davidian siege said Friday that his 10-month inquiry has found that top government officials did nothing wrong but that lower-level FBI employees misled the public and Congress about relatively minor details.
Former Sen. John C. Danforth said those details, centering on the FBI's use of three pyrotechnic tear-gas canisters on the final day of the standoff, did nothing to change his central finding: Government agents did not start or spread the fire at the Davidian compound at Mt. Carmel near Waco, Texas, that killed about 80 cult members.
It was the second vindication in a week for federal officials in the Davidian tragedy, following a verdict from an advisory jury in Waco last week that found the government blameless in a civil lawsuit brought by cult survivors and relatives.
But the failure of some FBI officials to reveal what they knew about the pyrotechnic canisters no doubt has fueled lingering suspicions about the siege, said Danforth, who was appointed last year by Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to reinvestigate the standoff.
"Although the government did nothing evil on April 19, 1993, the failure of some of its employees to fully and openly disclose to the American people the use of pyrotechnic devices undermined public confidence in government and caused real damage to our country," Danforth wrote in a report sent to the Justice Department.
"They didn't tell. They knew things and they didn't disclose those things," he said. "And the result of that is that people who want to believe the worst about government say, 'Aha! This is something that's really bad. And if government lies about one thing, it will lie about everything, so everything is suspicious.' "
Danforth told reporters the damage has been so widespread that 61% of Americans polled last year thought that the government had started the fire--even though "there is no evidence to support that, really none, and the evidence is so overwhelming on the other side."
The 149-page Danforth report, released online at http://www.osc-waco.org, sparked immediate charges of a whitewash from longtime critics of the government's tactics at the Branch Davidian compound. But it also marked a key validation for Reno, whose seven-year tenure at the Justice Department has been dogged by seemingly unshakable questions over her handling of the matter.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement that the report "discredits many of the unsubstantiated allegations that have skewed the public's perception" and may help to begin "the process of restoring the faith of the people in their government." FBI Director Louis J. Freeh also praised the report, although he made no mention of the failure of some FBI personnel to disclose the use of pyrotechnics.
Among those who died amid the burning wreckage of the Branch Davidian compound at Mt. Carmel were at least five children who had been shot to death. Sect leader David Koresh and his followers had been locked in a 51-day standoff with FBI agents surrounding their compound after a shootout that killed four agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and injured 20 others. The ATF agents were trying to execute arrest and search warrants against Koresh because of reports that his group was stockpiling illegal weapons.
The deadly confrontation has led over the years to a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists. Those suspicions became even more widespread last year when the FBI was forced to admit--after six years of denials--that some of its agents had used a handful of pyrotechnic tear-gas canisters on a bunker at the compound on the final day of the siege.
Reno, hit with a fresh round of criticism in the face of those revelations, named the former Republican senator from Missouri as an outside counsel last September to lead a new inquiry into the tragedy.
Danforth said Friday that--with the help of 16 lawyers, 38 investigators and about $12 million in public money--his work is 95% complete. He said he thought it important to release the bulk of his findings as quickly as possible.
Danforth told reporters that he and his staff had reached their main conclusions "with 100% certainty," rejecting allegations that have been widely repeated in the years since the disaster. Specifically, Danforth said, his investigation found that government agents did not start the fire at Mt. Carmel or shoot at the Davidians on the final day of the siege; that the government "did not improperly employ" U.S. armed forces; and that there was no "massive conspiracy and cover-up" in the wake of the conflagration.
"There is no evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of Atty. Gen. Reno, the present and former director of the FBI, other high officials of the United States, or members of the FBI Hostage Rescue Team who fired pyrotechnic tear gas on April 19, 1993," Danforth said. "The responsibility for the tragedy at Waco rests with certain of the Branch Davidians and their leader, David Koresh."
But Danforth's report did little to mollify many of the government's chief accusers. Ramsey Clark, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys in the civil suit, said in an interview that Danforth "failed to look at what really happened. He doesn't focus on the obvious."
"History will clearly record, I believe, that these assaults on the Mt. Carmel church center remain the greatest domestic law enforcement tragedy in the history of the United States," said Clark, a U.S. attorney general during President Johnson's administration.
Danforth said he will spend the remaining part of his investigation, probably three months or so, on questions surrounding why a handful of FBI officials appear to have misled Congress and the public about whether pyrotechnics were really used on the final day.
Danforth said in his report that FBI agents did nothing improper by authorizing and firing the three pyrotechnic canisters toward a bunker about 75 feet from the main compound when they realized that traditional tear-gas canisters would not penetrate the structure. Nor did the pyrotechnic devices start or spread the fire, he concluded.
But FBI officials should have come clean about their use of pyrotechnics when questions were later raised in Congress and elsewhere, he said. He noted, for instance, that former FBI Special Agent Richard Rogers, head of the Hostage Rescue Team at the compound, sat by silently during congressional testimony in 1993 as Reno and then-FBI Director William S. Sessions told legislators that flammable canisters were not used at the compound.
"Rogers claims he was not paying attention and did not even hear [Reno] when she made this statement," Danforth said in the report. "Rogers' failure to correct the misleading implications of the testimony of Atty. Gen. Reno and Director Sessions was a significant omission that contributed to the public perception of a cover-up and that permitted a false impression to persist for several years."
"Rogers attended the congressional hearings precisely to ensure that Congress was provided with accurate information," he said.
Even so, Danforth said, at this time he has no intention to use his power as outside counsel to bring criminal charges against anyone. Prosecuting one official, he said, "would be just overkill."