The Politics of Waco

July 17, 1995

"We believe full-fledged congressional hearings are in order. And the more thorough the preparation, the more responsible -- and credible -- the hearings will be."

So we wrote in an editorial in April, 1993, concerning the tragic events at Waco, Texas, that winter and spring. Now the hearings are about to begin. On Wednesday, a joint committee composed of members of a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee and a House Government Reform and Oversight Committee subcommittee will start taking public testimony from witnesses.

Our concern about responsibility and credibility two years ago was based on the suspicion that a Democratic-controlled Congress' investigation might whitewash the Justice Department and Treasury for the roles played by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

Now our concern is that a Republican-controlled Congress' investigation might go to the other extreme. In both cases presidential politics is the volatile ingredient.

Some signs suggest that members of the joint committee may be more interested in making points against Bill Clinton and his administration than in finding out exactly what went wrong at Waco. Insistence on making public White House documents that Republican concede show no illegality would clearly be more related to politics than to legislative oversight. Of course, the White House could invoke executive privilege, but it would have to weigh the political cost of seeming to be hiding something specific, rather than preserving in general the important tradition of confidentiality.

There is also a political risk in these hearings for Republicans. If they seem too anti-law enforcement, many people -- including those who agree there were serious errors made by the FBI and BATF at Waco -- will be turned off. The joint committee's plan is to focus just on Waco, but there are already signs members will be under pressure from the far-right crowd to give a forum to critics of federal law officers in dealing with other individuals and groups. Critics of federal gun laws and their enforcement may also get to grind axes. In fact, the National Rifle Association helped the joint committee prepare for the hearings!

While we have always thought there should be congressional oversight hearings on the Waco incident, the timing is bad. There is an unavoidable linkage between Waco and the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City last April. Members of the joint committee must bend over backward to avoid giving the impression that they have even an iota of sympathy for the view that criminal retaliation is a natural and normal response to flawed law enforcement.

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