Valuable lessons arise from Waco for Clinton ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

April 21, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- When the mission approved by the new, young president turned into a disaster, he told a press conference: "There's an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan . . . I am the responsible officer of the government and that is quite obvious."

But afterward, talking to his chief White House confidante, he asked: "How could I have been so far off base? All my life I've known better than to depend on the experts. How could I have been so stupid, to let them go ahead?" And he said to a reporter: "How could everybody involved have thought such a plan would succeed?"

The words were spoken 32 years ago almost to the day by John F. Kennedy, as recounted by Theodore C. Sorensen, his special counsel and alter ego, in his 1965 best seller, "Kennedy." The remarks were made, and the questions asked, in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, in which an attempted invasion of Fidel Castro's Cuba by U.S.-trained and supported Cuban exiles ended in the invading forces being destroyed as they hit their country's shores.

They come to mind now as another new, young president, Bill Clinton, steps up and takes responsibility for another fiasco planned and executed by "the experts" -- this time FBI agents under the command of FBI Director William Sessions and at the direct order of Attorney General Janet Reno.

Reno says now she was wrong to approve the plan to tear-gas the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, adding, "I'm accountable. The buck stops with me." But she says she informed the president of "what the options were," that she "had carefully studied and reviewed" the plan and told him "I thought this was the best way to proceed," and Clinton gave her a green light.

Clinton, emulating Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs, says the responsibility was his, and that he accepts it, while duly noting that "I gave her authority to make the last call." That is all fine and good in terms of maintaining morale within his new administration, but just as in the Bay of Pigs fiasco 32 years ago, a lot of critical questions remain to be answered. They warrant congressional investigation, just as that military disaster did, and they seem likely to get it, along with an internal Justice-Treasury inquiry Clinton says will be conducted with "outside" law-enforcement help.

The most obvious question is why, after officials said saving lives was the first consideration in dealing with cult leader David Koresh, and after more than seven weeks of prudent and patient waiting, such action suddenly had to be taken? The initial raid on the compound had itself been a fiasco, and thereafter cooler heads seemed to prevail.

Clinton says he asked the question, "Why now?" and was told that the experts' best judgment was that things were only likely to get worse, with the children in further jeopardy. Sessions said after the fiery denouement that "we had been assured both from our own evaluations of David Koresh, from psychologists, from the psycho-linguists . . . from his assertion himself, repeatedly, that he did not intend to commit suicide." But even a 10-year-old playing checkers knows you don't make a move without thoroughly contemplating your opponent's full range of responses.

Now that the episode has ended with the deaths of scores of Koresh's followers, including an indeterminate number of children, the FBI spokesman in Waco can blandly say that they died "not because of our action" but rather "because David Koresh started those fires . . . We didn't have anything to do with their deaths." Clinton said much the same thing, that the government "did everything we could" to avoid the deaths and that it was ludicrous to suggest Reno should resign "because some religious fanatics murdered themselves." But the question remains, would they have died if the FBI plan had not been implemented?

The Bay of Pigs proved to be a costly but important learning experience for Kennedy. Thereafter he looked twice when he got advice for rash actions from "the experts," and it paid off in his deft handling of the Cuban missile crisis 2 1/2 years later. The country can only hope that the terrible misjudgments in Waco likewise will be an education for Clinton.

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