Clinton blames Koresh President backs Reno, says action was 'appropriate'

April 21, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration continued to maintain yesterday that the Justice Department did nothing wrong in Waco, but with questions reverberating all the way to the Oval Office, President Clinton and FBI officials sought to pin the blame squarely on the man the administration insists was in control all along -- David Koresh.

Speaking publicly for the first time about the tragedy that left more than 80 people -- including 17 young children -- dead, Mr. Clinton said, "Mr. Koresh's response to the demands for his surrender by federal agents was to destroy himself and murder the children who were his captives as well as all the other people who were there and did not survive."

In the face of mounting criticism, Mr. Clinton continued to defend the government's decision to increase the pressure on the Branch Davidians. He also provided additional details on the FBI's rationale for escalating the action, vowed to cooperate with pending congressional investigations and to have his administration conduct its own investigation, and expressed complete confidence in Attorney General Janet Reno.

Rep. Don Edwards, a California Democrat who is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, hurriedly scheduled hearings into the matter.

The hearings, originally scheduled for Friday, were delayed until next Wednesday at the request of Texas Democrat Jack Brooks, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

"I want to express my appreciation to the attorney general, to the Justice Department and to the federalagents on the front lines, who did the best job they could under deeply difficult circumstances," the president said in the Rose Garden. "I think it's important to remember to recognize that the wrongdoers in this case were the people who killed others and then killed themselves."

The White House was content Monday to let Ms. Reno be the sole administration official facing the cameras and the questions. But yesterday the president came forth and said he was "bewildered" by any perception that he was trying to use Ms. Reno to shield himself from the consequences of a plan that went awry.

"The only reason I made no public statement yesterday was that I had nothing to add to what was being said," he said. "It's not possible for a president to distance himself from things that happen when the federal government is in control."

Mr. Clinton also reaffirmed that he had been briefed Sunday by Ms. Reno and that he approved the decision to escalate the standoff by having tanks puncture the Branch Davidian compound and pump tear gas inside the buildings.

"I said if you decide to go forward with this tomorrow, I will support you -- and I do support her," he said. "She is not ultimately responsible to the American people. I am. But I think she conducted her duties in an appropriate fashion, and she has dealt with this situation, I think, as well as she could have."

Shortly after midnight Monday night, Ms. Reno was asked by Ted Koppel on ABC-TV's " Nightline" whether she should resign in the wake of the tragedy. "If that's what the president wants, I'm happy to do so," she replied.

But Mr. Clinton indicated that was the furthest thing from his mind.

"I was frankly . . . surprised would be a mild word . . . that anyone would suggest that the attorney general should resign because some religious fanatics murdered themselves," the president said. "I regret what happened, but it is not possible in this life to control the behavior of others in every circumstance."

Though Mr. Clinton praised the FBI, no one at the White House issued any such vote of confidence for FBI Director William S. Sessions, whose job was already in jeopardy.

Mr. Sessions said he did not plan to offer his resignation and that, in retrospect, he wouldn't do anything different

"No. I think it was a good plan . . . a solid plan," he said. "I thought it was the right thing to do. It was well thought out, well executed."

Other government officials didn't go quite that far, but they emphasized that they blame Mr. Koresh and not themselves.

"I don't believe these people died because of the government's actions," Jeff Jamar, the FBI agent in charge of ending the standoff, said in Waco. "These people are dead because David Koresh had them killed.

He chose those children to die."

At the White House, Mr. Clinton amplified a question being asked across the nation: What, after waiting 51 days, was the FBI's hurry?

Mr. Clinton said he asked Ms. Reno that question during their 15-minute phone conversation. The answers, he said, were that:

* There was a limit, with the federal government's "limited resources," to how long the FBI hostage-rescue experts could remain on the scene. "They might be needed in other parts of the country," the president said.

* FBI experts were convinced that the negotiations with Mr. Koresh were going nowhere.

* The danger that the cult members might do "something to themselves or to others" was increasing.

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