Well, maybe

Eric Beck rayrena at accesshub.net
Thu Aug 26 05:27:44 PDT 1999

[I knew this day would come, only I didn't think so soon.Will anyone believe that it was only two?]

August 26, 1999

F.B.I. Backs Away from Flat Denial in Waco Cult Fire


WASHINGTON -- The Federal Bureau of Investigation backed away from six years of unqualified denials to Congress and the public Wednesday, conceded that it used "pyrotechnic" tear-gas canisters on the final day of the 1993 standoff with the Branch Davidian cult near Waco, Tex., and ordered a full inquiry.

The bureau said the devices were "pyrotechnic" only in a limited sense and bounced harmlessly off a concrete structure six hours before the compound's main building, built of wood, erupted in flames.

The bodies of about 80 people, including 25 children, were found after the fire.

The revelation, after repeated staunch denials, that Federal agents used pyrotechnic devices of any sort was deemed so serious that Attorney General Janet Reno and Director Louis J. Freeh of the F.B.I. Wednesday night ordered an exhaustive inquiry into the events of April 19, 1993.

About 40 Federal Bureau of Investigation agents have been assigned to the review, and everyone at Waco that day will be reinterviewed, said John Collingwood, a bureau spokesman.

"We continue to believe that law enforcement did not start the fire," Collingwood said. But there were clear signs this evening that the backtracking had raised questions of credibility for the F.B.I. and the Justice Department.

"This new information requires a thorough investigation of whether the Justice Department has misled the American people, and the Congress, about what happened at Waco," Representative Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican who heads the Committee on Government Reform, said Wednesday night in a statement. "I intend for the Government Reform Committee to get to the bottom of this matter."

Burton's committee, along with the House Judiciary Committee, held hearings in 1996 on the Waco incident that were scathingly critical of the Justice Department, the F.B.I. and Ms. Reno as well as the Treasury Department and its Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which had a confrontation with the Branch Davidians that preceded the April 19 assault. But the lawmakers said there was no indication that the F.B.I. had caused the fire.

Representative Bob Barr, Republican of Georgia, said tonight that he applauded Burton's stand. "Was there testimony to the Congress that was knowingly wrong?" Barr said in a telephone interview. He, too, called for Congressional hearings.

Another F.B.I. spokesman said earlier today that the devices in question were "pyrotechnic" only in a limited sense, that is, that they generated heat even as they dispensed tear gas. He said they were fired at the concrete "bunker" about 100 yards from the main wood structure after less potent tear gas canisters failed to pierce the concrete.

The Federal agents wanted to get tear gas into the bunker because they feared the Davidians would try to escape through a tunnel between it and the wooden building, the spokesman said.

The two pyrotechnic devices, military-type gas canisters known as M-651 grenades and fired by an F.B.I. agent from a range of about 40 yards at 6 A.M., also bounded off the bunker roof and into a nearby puddle, where they lay harmlessly, he said.

After flames consumed the wood building, the remains of the cult leader, David Koresh, and his followers were found.

Autopsies showed that some had died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds, others from the flames or smoke. A few escaped.

The F.B.I. spokesmen, while insisting that there was no new information to challenge the finding that the Davidians themselves started the fire, acknowledged Wednesday night that the necessity to "recant and modify" earlier statements was acutely embarrassing to the F.B.I.

Asked if he thought there had been a cover-up, one spokesman replied, "absolutely not."

Ms. Reno came under heavy criticism immediately after the raid but then regained respect as she accepted responsibility and answered questions with seeming candor. Her credibility and that of the F.B.I. are at stake with the disclosures about the use of the military-type gas grenades. Freeh was not the F.B.I. director at the time.

Reports about the two pyrotechnic canisters were first carried by The Dallas Morning News this week based on an interview with a former senior F.B.I. official.

The kind of force used by Federal agents on April 19, 1993, could be critical in a wrongful-death suit filed by some Branch Davidian survivors and relatives of the dead and scheduled to open on Oct. 18. Some plaintiffs are represented by former Attorney General Ramsey Clark. The bureau said today that answers given by some F.B.I. agents to questions from plaintiffs' lawyers had indicated possible use of pyrotechnic devices.

While F.B.I. officials say Wednesday night's disclosure does not change the basic facts known about case, they said it does heighten concern that some radical anti-Government critics will seize on the discrepancy to challenge the Justice Department's entire account of what happened at Waco. "We're fighting the conspiracy theorists," one bureau spokesman said.

A former soldier, Timothy J. McVeigh, was so enraged by the incident at Waco that he bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people, according to evidence at his trial. Prosecutors said he chose the second anniversary of Waco for symbolic vengeance.

The F.B.I. explained Wednesday night that on April 19, 1993, a bureau agent was driven to within 40 yards of the Davidians' concrete bunker in an Army Bradley fighting vehicle, then fired the two military canisters. He was 100 yards from the wood structure at the time and was firing away from it, the bureau said.

The unsuccessful use of those two canisters was alluded to in documents at the time but almost as an aside, the bureau said Wednesday night. The issue began to resurface this week, when Danny Coulson, a former senior F.B.I. official in Texas, told The Dallas Morning News that pyrotechnic grenades had been used.

Texas law enforcement officials backed up Coulson's recollections, saying a continuing investigation by the Texas Rangers had turned up evidence of the use of the M-651's. And a review of internal F.B.I. documents supported the Texas findings, bureau spokesmen said today.

Denials by the F.B.I. and Justice Department that tear-gas use could have caused the fire have been consistent from the time of the siege. Just 10 days after the fire, Ms. Reno told the House Judiciary Committee: "I wanted and received assurances that the gas and its means of use were not pyrotechnic. I was concerned about intentional or accidental explosions."

When asked on July 29 at a news conference about the Texas Rangers' investigation and the fire, Ms. Reno said, "I have gone over everything, and I know of no such evidence.

Even if the F.B.I. restores its credibility on the episode, it will remain one of the saddest chapters in its history, and in that of the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Until 1993, the Branch Davidians were little known outside Texas. In summer 1992, the A.T.F. in Texas began an investigation into rumors that members were stockpiling illegal weapons and explosives.

After an undercover operation run from a small house across from the cult's property, the A.T.F. decided to search the cult property and arrest Koresh. On Feb. 28, 1993, a force of 76 A.T.F. agents stormed the compound, touching off a fierce gun battle that killed four Federal agents and two cult members.

The F.B.I. then took control of the situation, and the compound was under siege for 51 days. Negotiations were fruitless, and the bureau decided to break the siege on April 19. After the unsuccessful, and until now largely unknown, use of the pyrotechnic gas grenades, as well as the use of more conventional gas canisters, a tank was brought in to puncture the wood building and force gas inside it. Shots were heard inside the buildings before flames and smoke towered over the scene.

Arson investigators found evidence that gasoline, charcoal lighter fluid and camp stove fuel had been poured inside the wooden structure, and they said that the fire appeared to have started in three places.

The F.B.I. also cited evidence from listening devices that included recordings of Davidians discussing plans for a fire just hours before the blaze.

The House Government Reform Committee later criticized the Treasury Department and the A.T.F. in particular, concluding that the bureau had shown gross incompetence. It also criticized Ms. Reno and the F.B.I., saying they should have known that a "violent and perhaps suicidal reaction" might be touched off.

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