Call for fairness echoes over hearings on Waco

July 18, 1995|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Writer

The longest standoff in federal law enforcement history ended in a fiery siege at a religious sect's compound near Waco, Texas. The destruction of Mount Carmel in April 1993 and the deaths of at least 80 Branch Davidians provoked searing questions about a raid gone awry, the culpability of federal officials and the government's ability to police itself.

Two government investigations failed to quell public concerns over Waco. Instead, they fueled suspicion about the government's handling of the incident and spurred anti-government rhetoric by the far right.

Tomorrow, lingering questions about Waco will be aired -- this time, in Capitol Hill hearings convened by a Republican-controlled Congress gunning for a Democratic administration.

Even the lawyer for David Koresh, the Branch Davidians' leader who died along with many of his followers April 19, 1993, recognizes the political timing of the inquiry.

"I think one reason we are where we are is political expediency," said Dick DeGuerin, the Houston attorney who tried to persuade a wounded Mr. Koresh to surrender. "It's a great way to embarrass the administration. . . . I don't really care what motivates Congress as long as they have full and fair hearings.

"If the end result is the truth becomes more available to the general public, then the hearings will have accomplished something."

Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, who oversees the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms -- the agency that conducted the raid -- wants the same consideration, a fair hearing. And the same outcome. He also expressed concern that the hearings would be used to "promulgate distortions" about the events at Waco, undermine law enforcement and erode support for gun control measures.

"The hearings are an opportunity to get the truth to the American people," said Mr. Rubin, whose department produced a detailed, 500-page critique of the BATF's actions at Waco several months after the raid and standoff.

But whose truth? And to what end?

"People who are interested in the truth will find out that this was not a heavy-handed government attempt to limit people's rights to have arms or harm a religious group," said University of Southern California journalism professor Edwin O. Guthman, who was one of three people appointed by the Treasury Department to review its report on Waco. "But that it was a lawful action that was botched. It's so clear it was badly handled."

An association that represents law enforcement groups questioned the need for the hearings, because federal officials already have addressed Congress on the issue.

"We want the truth to be revealed in all law enforcement operations," James A. Rhinebargar of Washington-based Law Enforcement Steering Committee wrote to the committee chairmen. "But endless investigations of federal officers will render them less effective and seriously damage" morale.

The events surrounding Waco dealt a crippling blow to the BATF -- including the deaths of four agents who were killed in the initial raid. The standoff's calamitous end resulted in criticism of Attorney General Janet Reno and the FBI, which tried for 50 days to resolve the conflict before launching a military-style, tear-gas assault.

Differing agendas

"You can look at what happened at Waco and still see there are unresolved issues to satisfy a reasonable person that changes have been implemented to make sure this doesn't happen again," said Chip Berlet, a Cambridge, Mass., political consultant and founder of a newsletter on police misconduct.

Stanley I. Kutler, a University of Wisconsin legal historian, said past congressional investigations have discovered new information and then informed the public. Today, however, Mr. Kutler is less sanguine about the matter.

"Everybody has an agenda," said Mr. Kutler, the author of a book on Watergate. "Everybody has a political goal. I would like to think there was a degree of disinterestedness that allowed people to pursue the goal of what we may call 'truth.' I kind of despair about whether we are institutionally and politically capable of functioning in this disinterested way."

The botched raid at the Branch Davidian compound occurred Feb. 28, 1993. BATF agents went ahead with the raid after learning they had lost the element of surprise. The raiding party was met by gunfire from the Branch Davidian compound and four agents were killed. A 51-day standoff ensued. Before Waco, the longest standoff involving the FBI had been four days, according to a Justice Department spokesman. The FBI took control of the scene and tried to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Although the negotiators helped gain the release of some Davidians and children, many more stayed behind.

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