The tragedy of Waco still haunts nation

FBI: Agency damaged its credibility by not telling all from the start

now it must correct its account.

August 30, 1999

THE FBI assault on the heavily armed and deluded Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993, led to the deaths of 80 people, 25 of them children. It burned into the nation's consciousness and fueled paranoid fantasies that were used as excuses for the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and other acts of lawlessness and terrorism.

So the nation is entitled to know that it heard the whole truth about Waco, wherever that leads and without public servants protecting their bureaucratic backsides. To defuse rational distrust and paranoia alike, the nation needs confidence that the government does not lie to the people or the executive branch to Congress.

Attorney General Janet Reno is right to concede that her credibility was damaged and right to order a massive FBI re-investigation, after a shift in detail in the FBI's account of what occurred.

After a 51-day standoff by a massively and illegally armed cult that menaced its neighbors and its members and after a deadly failed raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, then-new Attorney General Reno authorized the FBI raid. It began with tear gas. The cult's compound went up in flames.

After six years of denying that it used incendiary devices, the FBI now concedes it fired some potentially flammable tear gas canisters six hours earlier, though not where the fire started. The FBI story has not changed its belief that leaders of the cult torched their compound.

But if details are wrong, the attorney general never knew all and the Justice Department lied in congressional hearings in 1995. A new look by Congress is inevitable, and will include the newly raised question of whether three soldiers present at the standoff compromised laws keeping the military out of domestic policing.

If the FBI's revised version is all there is, the major account does not change. It was a deeply flawed operation at best, leading to atrocity by an outlaw maniac.

But the nation needs to trust the FBI, whose testimony is the cornerstone of the federal justice system. Whatever was wrong in the account, however petty or huge, must be corrected. That is more important than anyone's career.

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