Sifting through the ashes

April 21, 1993

Now the nation's law enforcement and law enforcement oversight authorities will begin sifting through the ashes of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco. Literally and figuratively.

The figurative sifting may be the most difficult, for all concerned. There are many questions about what was done, why it was done, why it was done when it was done, who decided to do this, who recommended something else and so forth. President Clinton has ordered an "inter-agency inquiry." But it is hardly enough. Some of the agencies involved have axes to grind, and some may feel they have to play that favorite Washington game of CYA -- sometimes translated as "cover your agency."

So there has to be review from outside the executive department. That means the Congress. It has both constitutional and statutory mandates to oversee the operations of the executive, both day-to-day routine ones and extraordinary events such as at Waco. Congress is expected to be a hound dog (investigation) as well as a watch dog (surveillance).

The House and Senate Judiciary committees have prime jurisdiction in this case, obviously. Other committees can claim a role, too, and considering the publicity generating capacity of this story, some will no doubt try to get a piece of the action. Congressional leadership should prevent that. The last thing the American people want now is a three-ring circus on Capitol Hill.

The two Judiciary committees, separately or jointly, should review every aspect of the Waco story with open minds. Some of the obvious inquisitors already seem to have come to conclusions. For example, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden of Delaware lavished praise on Attorney General Janet Reno in an interview yesterday. Ms. Reno is the highest ranking government official to have approved the details of the assault at Waco that ended so sickeningly with 87 deaths. (She informed President Clinton in advance of her decision to implement the plan, but not the details of it.) She does deserve credit for publicly and unequivocally taking full responsibility for the outcome. On that we agree with Senator Biden.

But until Congress and the American people know more about how she arrived at her decision to approve the use of armored vehicles and tear gas at the Branch Davidian compound, absolution is inappropriate. So, of course, are condemnation, criticism and second guessing. Ms. Reno, FBI Director William Sessions, the FBI commanders on the scene in Waco and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms personnel, including the dead and wounded, deserve better than that. Whether they failed will be evident in due course. Understanding exactly what happened and how to avoid a next time will be difficult enough without going into the exercise with preconceived notions.

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