Risk posed by using gas at Waco debated

July 28, 1995|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- A top FBI official defended yesterday the agency's 1993 tear gas assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, and identified the extra safety steps taken to reduce the risk to the children held there.

Larry A. Potts, who served as assistant director of the FBI's criminal division during the April 19, 1993, incident, told a congressional hearing that Attorney General Janet Reno required "special rules of engagement" to limit gas exposure to the children.

He said the agency decided to pump gas incrementally into the compound -- instead of one massive dose -- because of its concern about the children.

The FBI broadcast warnings about the tear gas delivery in the hope Davidians would flee with their children, he testified.

"April 19th was not any kind of a D-Day where we said, 'We've got to end this thing right now,' " Mr. Potts told the hearing, now in its second week.

In her weekly news conference, Attorney General Reno said she has reviewed her decision to approve the tear gas assault repeatedly in the past two years. And, she has concluded, "I don't know any other way I would have approached it."

Ms. Reno is to appear at the hearing Monday.

The FBI tear gas plan ended the 51-day standoff between Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and federal law enforcement officials -- but with disastrous results.

A fire broke out at the compound, and Koresh and 80 of his followers, including 22 children, were found dead in the ashes. The evidence shows the Davidians set the fire, apparently to fulfill Koresh's apocalyptic prophesy.

The siege at Waco began Feb. 28, 1993, when the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms tried to serve a warrant on Koresh.

The raiding party was met by gunfire. Four ATF agents and six Davidians were killed in the ensuing battle.

The botched raid, the standoff and the subsequent tear gas assault became the focus of anti-government sentiment and suspicions.

To address lingering questions about the actions of federal law enforcement agencies, two House subcommittees have been conducting hearings into the events near Waco.

A key issue has been the use of CS gas to flush out Mr. Koresh, who preached that the sect would perish in a confrontation with government.

CS gas is an agent commonly used by law enforcement agencies across the country, according to testimony.

In the past two days, the FBI's on-scene commander and its chief negotiator detailed their repeated efforts to negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff. Both insisted they turned to the tear gas plan because negotiations were at an impasse and it had been weeks since Koresh had permitted any of his followers or the children to leave.

A tank driven by an FBI agent was to pump gas gradually into the compound over the course of 48 hours.

But when the Davidians began firing on the vehicle, the FBI stepped up the gas insertion. After six hours, the fire broke out.

The Republican-led panels yesterday heard from the Army's chief expert on CS gas, who had advised the FBI and briefed Ms. Reno.

"The advice I gave, that if a chemical was to be used, the safest and most potent riot control agent was CS," said Dr. Harry Salem, chief scientist in the Life Sciences Division of the Edgewood Research, Development and Engineering Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground. "And based on the literature, there are no validated reports where people have died following its use -- both infants, adults and elderly."

Several Republican committee members, however, suggested that the FBI had determined previously that CS gas was detrimental to children.

Reps. Bob Barr of Georgia and Bill Zeliff of New Hampshire cited documents related to a 1992 standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. The standoff took place at the remote cabin of Randy Weaver, after the shooting deaths of a federal marshal and Mr. Weaver's teen-age son. While trying to end the standoff, an FBI sniper shot and killed Mr. Weaver's wife as she stood in the doorway, holding her infant daughter.

The FBI's actions in that incident are the subject of a criminal investigation, a planned congressional inquiry and a Justice Department administrative review.

Mr. Potts, who oversaw the FBI actions at Ruby Ridge, was recently transferred from his position of deputy director of the FBI because of the controversy. Mr. Potts has denied allegations that he approved a policy authorizing FBI snipers to shoot anyone in view at the Weaver cabin.

In questioning Mr. Potts about Ruby Ridge, the committee members cited a document purported to be the FBI's operation plan during the standoff. That document discussed the possible delivery of "chemical agents" into the cabin if Mr. Weaver refused to surrender.

But according to a Justice Department review of Ruby Ridge, an operations plan was never approved.

Indiana Rep. Mark E. Souder, another Republican, referred to a second document, purported to be the Ruby Ridge Crisis Center Log. It stated "the deployment of gas into the residence presents a high degree of risk to small children."

In response to a question, Mr. Potts testified that the crisis center log was inaccurate. He said officials discussed using some type of gas if, in an emergency, the standoff had to be resolved with a tactical operation.

But a final decision on using a gas was never made, he said.

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