Making Sense of Waco

April 29, 1993

Attorney General Janet Reno told the House Judiciary Committee yesterday, "I will not engage in recrimination, I will look to the future," in connection with the Waco, Texas, tragedy. Recriminations are not called for, but to avoid such outcomes in the future she and Congress must look to the past. What exactly happened, and what, if anything, went wrong at the Branch Davidian compound?

Arson investigators say the fire was started in at least two different spots and was "intentionally set by the persons inside the compound." The evidence seems to justify such a conclusion, but this will not be the last word on the subject.

Though we have no reason at this time to question the integrity of these experts, many others predictably will. And not just because of the nature of this bizarre tragedy. Inexplicably, the experts chosen for the investigation were all recommended by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and chosen by the local U.S. attorney, a Justice Department official. Since the BATF and Justice Department both have an interest in being absolved of any blame, the arson investigators should have had no link whatsoever to those agencies.

Justice and the Treasury Department are also conducting reviews, as they should. But again, there are bound to be conflicts of interest. Congress ultimately will have to do the job.

Last week, a Senate Appropriations subcommittee quizzed the attorney general about the matter. Apparently mindful of the polls showing Ms. Reno is highly popular for her "the buck stops here" acceptance of responsibility for the failed raid, no senators asked probing questions. Not that they were well prepared to do so. It was much too soon. House Judiciary Committee members questioned Ms. Reno, FBI Director William Sessions and BATF Director Stephen Higgins somewhat less sympathetically yesterday, but the representatives were no better prepared than the senators.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden has refused to join the rush to hearings, and properly so. He says he'll wait until internal government reviews are completed before deciding what to do. We believe full-fledged congressional hearings are in order. And the more thorough the preparation, the more responsible -- and credible -- the hearings will be.

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