Stopping the Waco Buck at Janet Reno

July 23, 1995|By ROBERT SCHEER

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles. -- You don't have to be a right-wing conspiracy nut to believe that what the Clinton administration did in Waco, Texas, was terribly wrong. All who care about civil liberties should condemn it as an egregious misuse of government power. One does not save children with a tank assault that leaves them burned alive.

In the next weeks of long-overdue congressional hearings, we will learn much about the poor planning and overkill of the attack by federal agents. Some will dismiss these criticisms as the luxury of hindsight not available to those compelled to act.

But there was no logical compulsion to act. The inhabitants of the Branch Davidian compound did not represent an imminent danger to public order. They were a danger only to themselves. And the well-being of the innocents among them was hardly enhanced by the FBI-manned tanks that flattened homes and left 57 adults and 19 children dead.

The prudent course was to wait them out. It could hardly have gone worse. The same is true of the siege of the Ruby Ridge, Idaho, cabin home of the fugitive Randy Weaver, whose unarmed wife, infant daughter in arms, was killed by FBI agents. That was back in August 1992, when George Bush was president, but the FBI acted then with the same callous arrogance it has exhibited throughout the agency's murky history when people of suspect political views are the target.

The FBI long has been out of control. During most of its life, it was a personal fiefdom of the autocratic J. Edgar Hoover, a man whose weird beliefs, behavior and practices were deeply hidden from public scrutiny. No other government agency, not even the CIA, was so revered and/or feared by Congress and the White House. This was a man who kept damaging dossiers on all elected officials, including presidents, who could challenge his power.

Liberals who now turn a blind eye to the FBI's excesses against right-wing groups should bear in mind that this is the same agency that smeared Martin Luther King Jr. and gave us the treacherous counterintelligence campaign of false letters and accusations aimed at destroying peace and civil-rights groups. The targets this time may be on the right of the political spectrum, but once again, the cry for law and order is being used as a fig leaf for government disorder.

But Hoover is dead. Who then is responsible for the current mess? One candidate was offered up when Larry A. Potts, the deputy director of the FBI who was in charge of the Ruby Ridge and Waco standoffs, was demoted. Days earlier, his subordinate, E. Michael Kahoe, was suspended after an internal Justice Department investigation of the destruction of FBI documents relating to the Idaho siege.

Surely the problems of the FBI are not restricted to the activities of those two agents. The sloppy arrogance that marked the shoot-outs at Waco and Ruby Ridge is obviously still deeply ingrained in this agency.

What is needed is a thorough revamping of the FBI, as is being done with the CIA, to redefine its purposes in a post-Cold War world in which paranoid secrecy no longer finds any justification. Indeed, the war analogy continuously employed by national police agencies in combating everything from drug dealing to terrorist bombers is inherently dangerous. In wartime, civil liberties are too easily obliterated.

Public accountability should be the order of the day in reference to all divisions of our national police force, including the freewheeling operatives of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Drug Enforcement Administration. But Attorney General Janet Reno resists reform. Her bent is obsessively prosecutorial.

Yet it was Ms. Reno who stated in the aftermath of Waco that ''the buck stops here.'' The president must now hold her to her word. If she cannot find the fortitude to protect the citizenry from the excesses of the police agencies under her jurisdiction, then she must be fired.

Robert Scheer is a Los Angeles Times columnist.

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