House panel probes Waco

Subpoenas issued to Justice Dept., FBI, White House, Pentagon

Scores died in 1995 siege

Reno plans to start own inquiry into how evidence was buried

September 03, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman and Tom Bowman | Jonathan Weisman and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- House investigators issued broad subpoenas to the Justice Department, the FBI, the White House and the Pentagon yesterday, demanding to know who exactly was outside the Branch Davidian compound the day it erupted into flames, how long they had been there and what they had done in the hours preceding the conflagration.

The subpoenas effectively launched the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee into a new investigation into Waco. An exhaustive inquiry in 1995 concluded that the Davidians had ignited the fire themselves on April 19, 1993, leading to the deaths of their leader, David Koresh, and about 80 members.

But new revelations indicate that, contrary to its denials for the past six years, the FBI used pyrotechnic military tear gas during the final assault on the compound.

As House investigators moved forward, the Justice Department formally announced that Attorney General Janet Reno had ordered an outside investigation.

Justice Department and FBI officials say there is no indication that the tear-gas canisters contributed to the fire. But House members say a new investigation is necessary, tailored to answer these questions:

What led the FBI to use pyrotechnic tear-gas rounds, and why did it take six years for that information to surface?

Did the FBI fire gunshots into the compound, contrary to sworn testimony that agents gave to Congress in 1995? Newly discovered videotape has been interpreted by some as showing gunfire from an FBI helicopter.

Why were troops from the Army's Delta Force, the military's most secretive counterterrorism and assault unit, outside the compound? And what was their role in the final assault?

The engine driving the new investigation is the FBI's deception about its role in Waco.

"It seems to me that someone was not telling the whole truth back in 1995," said Robert Charles, staff director of the House subcommittee that conducted 130 hours of hearings and more than a year of investigations into the Branch Davidian seige.

Scrambling to contain the furor, the FBI yesterday released videotape that, its agents contend, bolster their argument that they had nothing to do with the deadly Waco blaze.

On the aerial surveillance tape, Stephen P. McGavin, a supervisory special agent with the FBI's hostage rescue team, tells the team's leader, Richard M. Rogers, that an agent is prepared to fire pyrotechnic tear-gas canisters into a concrete bunker on the Davidian compound during the final assault.

"He thinks he can get into position with relative safety and attempt to penetrate it with military rounds," McGavin says on the tape.

"He can try it?" McGavin then asks his supervisor.

"Yeah, that's affirmative," Rogers replies on tape.

FBI agents stress that the target was not the wooden Branch Davidian structure that burned to the ground, but rather the concrete bunker 50 yards away. And the tear-gas shots were fired hours before the blaze started.

Even so, the existence of those tear-gas shots starkly contradict the sworn testimony of FBI and Justice Department officials.

Rogers made it a point in the 1995 hearings to say emphatically, "I'll remind the American people one more time that during the entire time [of the final assault], those six hours, and indeed those 51 days, the FBI never fired one shot at the Davidians."

Statements like that have strained the credibility of federal law enforcement and is likely to further fray relations between Reno and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, who have long had an uneasy relationship. Last year, they engaged in a public spat over Freeh's recommendation that Reno seek the appointment of a independent counsel to investigate President Clinton's fund-raising activities in the 1996 election.

Even Democrats who have long supported Reno against Republican attacks are showing signs of discontent.

"The credibility of the FBI, and of course by proximity, the Department of Justice's credibility, is damaged," said David Carle, a spokesman for Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Ever since the conflagration at Waco, activists suspicious of federal law enforcement have been incredulous about the government's explanations of the events.

But it took a dogged pursuit of the evidence by an Arizona lawyer named David Hardy and Michael McNulty, a documentary film maker, to pry the case open again. After years of trying to get access to evidence held by the Texas Department of Public Safety, McNulty finally persuaded Bill Johnston, an assistant U.S. attorney in Waco, to get involved.

Johnston gained access to Texas department's evidence room, where investigators found at least four shells believed to be pyrotechnic projectiles.

Hardy then enlisted the support of James B. Francis Jr., the chairman of the Texas Department of Public Safety, who began publicly asserting that his department possessed damaging evidence that had been hidden for six years.

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