Waco hearings clouded by fact-finding vs. politics

July 30, 1995|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- House committee chairman Bill Zeliff made no apologies for seeking the truth. In investigating the fiery siege near Waco, he said people of "conscience and good will" could do nothing less.

As the Republican ticked off the "new" facts learned from the inquiry, Rep. Charles E. Schumer sat back, waiting for his turn to speak.

When that chance came, the New York Democrat pronounced his view of the fact-finding: "Nothing new. Nothing new. Nothing new."

In the days since two House panels opened hearings into the botched raid at the Branch Davidian compound in Texas and its deadly aftermath, the debate has focused on this kind of political one-upmanship.

Republicans proclaim what's new, to justify calling 100 witnesses to discuss a twice-reviewed debacle that cost lives, sullied federal law enforcement and engendered, for some, a deep distrust of the government. The Democrats point out what's not new, to prove their theory that the true agenda is embarrassing the Clinton administration.

"What legislative purpose is being served?" asks Chip Berlet, a consultant with Political Research Associates of Cambridge, Mass. "What we have here, unfortunately, is a set of hearings less detailed, more confused and more partisan than the Treasury Department report [on the botched raid]."

Maryland Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. doesn't see it that way. While the hearings have depicted a fact of Washington life ("props and spin rule the day"), they also represent a primary function of Congress: its oversight responsibility.

"There are reasonable people in my district and in Maryland and in the country who have legitimate questions about what happened there," said Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican committee member.

"Some were answered in the Treasury report. Some were not. Even if all the questions were answered, a lot of people are not going to read [the report]."

The hearings conclude Tuesday. Despite the political wrangling, the midst of 12- and 14-hour days, the hearings have produced some answers to lingering questions surrounding the raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the ensuing 51-day standoff at Mount Carmel, the FBI's tear-gas assault April 19, 1993, and the fatal fire.

The topics have included: The lost element of surprise. The use of the military by federal law enforcement agencies. The sexual perversions of Davidian leader David Koresh. The negotiators' mind-set. The tear gas plan. The effects of CS-gas. The origin of the fire that consumed the building, killing Koresh, many of his followers and 22 children.

Truths have been told in the committee room. But even truth is subject to interpretation.

In assessing the first eight days of hearings, Undersecretary of the Treasury Ronald K. Noble concluded that "no new material facts emerged." But Mr. Noble, who oversaw Treasury's review of the raid, finds the hearings worthwhile.

They "further clarified the difference between fact and fiction," he said. His agency mounted its own offensive in that regard.

Poised for defense

As the hearings focused on the ATF and Treasury, a team of department officials sat in the audience, ready to correct and rebut testimony. The agency issued daily reports that listed an "assertion" of a witness and the "fact" of the matter. Sometimes those "facts" corroborated the assertion. Sometimes they challenged it.

"In short, no findings, conclusions or recommendations [of the Treasury review] have been demonstrated false or incomplete by these hearings," Mr. Noble said.

Carol Moore would disagree wholeheartedly. Just ask her about the helicopters hovering over the Mount Carmel compound during the ATF raid. Despite sworn testimony from the pilots that no shots were fired from the copters, Ms. Moore is convinced otherwise.

Her book, "The Davidian Massacre," is being published this fall by Gunowners of America, one of several groups that have equated the Waco fiasco to a government out of control. She has attended the hearings daily. Nothing has changed her mind about the helicopters.

"The congressmen are afraid of this coming out," said Ms. Moore, who wears a lilac "Waco Never Again" button on her "Free the Branch Davidians" tie-dyed T-shirt. "You had survivors willing to testify; they would not call them."

Gene Guerrero, the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington field director, has been watching the hearings when he can. In an unusual alliance, the ACLU joined the National Rifle Association last year in calling for hearings into the Waco case. His assessment so far?

"Clearly, the hearings have been worthwhile," Mr. Guerrero said. "It still remains very much to be seen what comes out of this."

Some facts have emerged

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