FBI action received Clinton's OK Reno stands by decision WACO: A FIERY END

April 20, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon and Lyle Denniston | Carl M. Cannon and Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The FBI tactics that resulted in the apparent burning deaths of 24 children and dozens of adult cult members near Waco, Texas, yesterday were approved personally by President Clinton after he was briefed on the plan -- and other options -- by Attorney General Janet Reno.

Even before the magnitude of the carnage in Waco become evident and calls rose for a Senate investigation into the episode, the White House sought to distance the president from what even administration officials were characterizing as a tragic and disastrous end to the 51-day standoff.

The president laid the primary responsibility for the decision on his attorney general -- and she accepted it without hesitation.

"The law enforcement agencies involved in the Waco siege recommended the course of action pursued today," the president said in a prepared statement.

"The attorney general informed me of their analysis and judgment and recommended that we proceed with today's action given the risks of maintaining the previous policy indefinitely. I told the attorney general to do what she thought was right, and I stand by that decision."

Moments before, at the Justice Department, a resolute Ms. Reno said at tense news conference: "I approved the plan and I'm responsible for it. . . . The buck stops with me."

But that phrase is one presidents, not attorneys general, usually use, and both the White House and the Justice Department confirmed that Ms. Reno had sought -- and received -- the final OK from the president.

" 'Have you carefully considered it?' " Ms. Reno recalled the president asking in a weekend conversation.

" 'Have you looked at everything? Do you feel like this is the best way to go?'

"And I said, 'Yes, sir, it's my responsibility and I think it's the best way to go.'

" 'Well, OK,' the president said."

With that, the Justice Department, hours before dawn, went ahead with a plan that involved using tanks to punch holes in the walls of the Branch Davidian compound and hurling tear gas inside.

Members of the cult were told through loudspeakers that the FBI was not going to storm the compound but that members should surrender.

Instead, according to FBI observers and the few survivors who emerged from the compound, some cult members, believed to be acting on orders from cult leader David Koresh, set fire to the compound, using kerosene to spread it, and apparently burned themselves and their children to death.

One Justice Department official complained privately yesterday that the FBI should never have taken over exclusive jurisdiction from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and that one reason this was done was so that beleaguered FBI Director William S. Sessions could restore his good name.

But yesterday's events are expected to result in a lengthy inquiry of the FBI's methods for dealing with hostage situations.

In separate briefings, Ms. Reno and FBI Special Agent Bob Ricks appeared plainly distraught as they sought to answer the multitude of questions that surrounded the incident.

The most pressing are why the Justice Department chose these tactics, why officials felt they had to act yesterday and why they made no plans to deal with the possibility of a fire.

Mr. Koresh often had invoked biblical references of fire and Armageddon and had warned the FBI in a letter just last week that agents would be "devoured by fire" if they tried to harm him.

Agent Ricks and Ms. Reno both said Waco firefighters could not be put at risk from .50-caliber assault rifles with an estimated range of 3,000 feet.

But they did not explain why the fire trucks were not 3,000 feet away, but 10 miles away, nor why there was a delay in calling the fire department when the fire began.

In addition, they did not explain why Department of Defense firefighting equipment was not borrowed, or why airplanes or helicopters that are routinely used to battle western forest fires were not on hand.

On the question of whether they anticipated a mass suicide, officials gave conflicting answers.

Agent Ricks and Ms. Reno indicated they knew suicide -- and the murder of the children -- was a possibility all along.

In fact, Ms. Reno said, "What prompted me most was the consideration of the children."

But apparently they did not make the connection that their plan might precipitate what they most wanted to prevent.

Agent Ricks explained yesterday that officials knew that the Davidians would run out of oxygen for their gas masks and seemed to be basing their plan on the "hope [that] the women would grab their children and flee."

Instead, the children apparently were killed as a surprised and unprepared FBI looked on.

"I can't tell you the shock and the horror," Agent Ricks said upon seeing the flames.

"We thought, 'Oh my God, they're killing themselves!' "

Government officials have feared from the start that the Waco standoff could end the same way as the Jonestown massacre in 1978, when 912 people killed themselves in Guyana on the orders of cult leader Jim Jones.

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