Waco's Unsatisfactory Postmortem

October 14, 1993

The Justice Department's flawed examination of the FBI's handling of the Waco disaster is a curious contrast with the Treasury Department's tougher evaluation last week of its Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The Treasury report was devastating in its criticism of ATF's botched raid on the Branch Davidian compound. Several senior ATF officials, in Washington and at the scene, have been suspended. The FBI's more exhaustive study of the 51-day siege and its fiery climax leaves a great many central questions unanswered and lays blame on no one.

Blame there was aplenty for the initial raid by a law enforcement force that had no business attempting such an operation. In that sense the Treasury Department's self-examination task was simpler. The FBI inherited a mess not of its own making. It had to conduct a highly complicated operation that would have challenged the most sophisticated law enforcement officials anywhere: dealing with a religious fanatic whose sanity was in doubt, who possessed a potent arsenal of weapons and controlled the fates of dozens of followers, including women and children.

It would be grossly unfair to inflict second-guessing on the FBI for most of its tactical decisions during an operation that had no precedent. Some serious short-comings are identified and remedies proposed for the future. Still, there are huge gaps in the Justice Department's account of the siege and a strange lack of criticism of individuals even when the study itself makes a clear case for it.

To take just one example, key elements of the operation at Waco were riddled with dissension that plainly impeded it. Supervisors on the scene did nothing to remedy the problem and in fact may have exacerbated it. Officials from Washington who regularly visited the scene must have been aware of the situation but did nothing. Edward S. G. Dennis, Jr., the former Justice Department official who evaluated the FBI's performance, described the problem but never reached a judgment.

Both Mr. Dennis' report and the detailed description of events exhaustively list meeting after meeting in Washington and Waco but are remarkably uninformative about what was really said at them. The chronology makes it clear Attorney General Janet Reno had serious misgivings about the tear-gas attack before ultimately approving it. Mr. Dennis does not think this even worth mentioning.

As with the ATF agents on the firing line who were ill-served by their leadership, the FBI agents at Waco performed professionally under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. The Justice Department's report may not be a whitewash, but it is certainly an inadequate once-over-lightly. In shielding the bureaucrats, the report does a disservice to the field agents whose lives were at risk.

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