After the buck stops: assessing the Waco tragedy

Anthony Lewis

April 26, 1993|By Anthony Lewis

THE BUCK stops with me," Attorney General Janet Reno said after the Waco disaster. She projected a plain, earthy responsibility that struck the right note with the public. There was no official defensiveness or air of superior knowledge.

But what exactly does it mean to say "The buck stops with me"? In Japan, the person who takes responsibility for a failure resigns. The head of the airline whose plane crashes did not himself misdirect it, but in a hierarchical culture he takes the fault as his own.

We have a different culture. Here, it would not serve a public purpose for an attorney general who is brand-new in the job and who did not select the operating officials to take the fault on herself and resign.

Ms. Reno's words projected something else that was reassuring, I think: a willingness to learn. But that in turn will require two large steps. She and her colleagues must be ready to face failures of policy in Waco. And she must change the people and the attitudes that went wrong.

It can hardly be doubted now that policy failed. For the official explanations of the decision to crash into the Branch Davidian compound and fire tear gas are lame and contradictory.

At first the attorney general said the FBI had indications that children inside the compound were being abused, and that was a reason to try to end the stalemate. President Clinton said Ms. Reno had mentioned this point in briefing him. But then the FBI said it had "no contemporaneous information" of child abuse.

Ms. Reno said the FBI "hostage rescue team" around the compound was tired and needed relief. But there was no reason to think that the Davidians would know, and try to break out, if those agents were replaced for a while and allowed to rest.

The real reason for the urge to do something after 51 days was evident. The agents on the scene were frustrated by their inability to bring the siege to a successful end.

"These people had thumbed their nose at law enforcement," Larry Potts, a high FBI official, told reporters.

Official frustration could not be an adequate reason for the decision to try to force David Koresh and his sick band out of the compound. What difference would it have made if they stayed holed up for another month, or six months? Patience is a cardinal virtue in such episodes.

An even more egregious fault in the planning of this week's operation was the failure to anticipate the possibility of mass suicide. William Sessions, the FBI director, said that came as "a surprise." Mr. Sessions explained:

"We had been assured -- both from our own evaluations of David Koresh, from the psychologists, from the psycholinguists, from a psychiatrist, from his writings, from his assertions himself, repeatedly, that he did not intend to commit suicide."

If a more foolish statement has been made by a government official in recent times, I have missed it. David Koresh had repeatedly forecast the fire of Armageddon. And after Jonestown in 1978 no one should need reminding that the leader of a lunatic cult may be willing and able to take his followers into suicide.

Moreover, the FBI evidently failed to consult this country's leading authorities on cults. A number of them said they knew of none who had been asked about the Davidian problem. And they were critical of the tactics used by the FBI in the siege.

For example, some students of cults said the FBI had made a great mistake by isolating the Davidian group, cutting it off from the outside world and thus increasing its dependence on its guru.

Another mistake was directing bright lights and loud and unpleasant music at the compound, which reinforced the cult's paranoid view of outsiders as Satanic.

Attorney General Reno will earn respect if, after the inquiries she and Mr. Clinton have set in motion, she tells us honestly what mistakes were made. David Koresh is the ultimate author of the tragedy, yes. But none of us can rest easy about the role of our government in the death of 15 or more children.

Then it is surely time for Mr. Clinton to pick a new FBI director. Whatever weak claim Mr. Sessions still had on the job disappeared in Waco.

One thing above all Janet Reno should learn from the Waco disaster, and Bill Clinton, too: Do not defer too much to the judgment of veteran officials. John and Robert Kennedy learned that lesson, painfully, at the Bay of Pigs.

Anthony Lewis is a New York Times columnist.

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