Tapes suggest tear gas not source of Waco fire

But investigators see evidence of cover-up, over-aggression

September 04, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Two rounds of potentially flammable tear gas were fired into a bunker at the Branch Davidian compound on the morning of the FBI's final assault in 1993, but both canisters bounced harmlessly off the shelter, a newly released FBI videotape indicates.

The video seems to support the assertions of federal investigators that the tear-gas canisters had nothing to do with the fire that later took the lives of around 80 people at the compound outside Waco, Texas.

But to congressional investigators who are increasingly wary of the FBI, the videotape raised other questions.

Why, for example, was a tear-gas round requested after FBI agents spotted movement inside a bunker known to be sheltering children? And why, at 8: 24 a.m., did an FBI surveillance pilot request that the audio recording of communications be shut off?

"They may try to poo-poo that," said one senior House investigator. "I'm not going to poo-poo that. The only reason I can think of is that you don't want your conversation recorded for a reason."

FBI officials released yesterday what they said was the last infrared videotape that mysteriously turned up this week, six years after the deadly assault on Waco and four years after an exhaustive House investigation of the incident.

Once the FBI disclosed the existence of the tapes, Attorney General Janet Reno took the unusual step Wednesday of ordering federal marshals to seize them.

Reno took pains yesterday to play down any friction between the Justice Department and the FBI, saying her relationship with FBI Director Louis J. Freeh "is excellent."

"You are going to try your level best to make us enemies," she told reporters, "but you aren't going to succeed."

Reno promised to cooperate with a new round of congressional investigations into Waco. At the same time, she is seeking a widely respected figure to lead an independent investigation of how the FBI and Justice Department handled the assault and its fallout.

One of her choices, Warren B. Rudman, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, apparently declined the invitation, according to sources. Meanwhile, former Sen. John C. Danforth, a Missouri Republican, has emerged as a leading candidate for the post.

Buck stops with her

Reno, asked whether she still takes full responsibility for the Waco debacle, repeated a pledge she made the day the Branch Davidian compound burned to the ground: The buck stops with her.

"When the buck stops with somebody, what you do is you take appropriate action," Reno said. "You dig at it until you get it right. You don't run away from it. You keep at it until you get the truth."

Reno said she believes that any new investigation would reach the same conclusion that other inquiries have: "The FBI did not set that fire. That fire was set by [cult leader] David Koresh and his followers."

Even some House Republican aides acknowledge that the latest revelations may not fundamentally change the existing conclusions about Waco. One aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there is a "good possibility" that two rounds of pyrotechnic tear gas canisters were indeed fired hours before the conflagration at an uninhabited building -- just as the FBI contends.

Tron Brekke, an FBI spokesman, said that neither canister did any damage, and contrary to investigators' suspicions, he said, the abrupt end of the audiotape was not a cover-up. More than likely, the sound was turned off because the surveillance pilot was being distracted by interference and aerial traffic, Brekke said.

Videotapes clearly show other planes in the area, and radio traffic from the Waco airport does intrude in the FBI communication recordings.

Other issues raised

But who started the fire is not the only issue raised by the videotapes, investigators say. For instance, at around 8: 15 a.m. on April 19, an FBI agent suggests that a round of tear gas be fired into an opening in the compound because "we've got some movement in there."

That could indicate overly aggressive tactics in trying to flush out the Davidians, one investigator said.

But pre-eminent among unresolved questions is why for six years the FBI withheld crucial information and why FBI officials lied to Congress in asserting that they had never used potentially flammable tear-gas canisters against the Davidians.

And there are still questions about how the Davidians died. Exponent Failure Analysis Inc., a well-known accident-analysis firm in Menlo Park, Calif., conducted an analysis of Waco in 1995 at the behest of the National Rifle Association.

The company investigators confirmed that three fires were ignited on April 19, 1993, in three locations far inside the building, indicating that the conflagration had been deliberately set.

But the firm also found troubling evidence that FBI actions may have contributed inadvertently to the deaths of some Davidians, said Greg J. Haussmann, a principal engineer and thermal scientist at Failure Analysis.

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