Weeks After Waco Fire, `Blame Game' Goes On
WASHINGTON — TWO weeks after the fiery end to the Branch Davidian standoff, public attention has shifted from the immediate aftermath of the disaster to its long-term implications.
Investigators at the scene near Waco, Texas, say they believe they have found all the bodies they will be able to find - a total of 77, including Sunday's discovery of cult leader David Koresh's body. Federal investigations are now beginning to look into both the initial Feb. 28 raid on the cult compound by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) and into the final FBI attack on the compound April 19.
Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen is expected to announce that a three-person commission will oversee a Treasury Department investigation of the initial BATF raid. The Justice Department is conducting a separate investigation of the April 19 finale.
"I think the undertaking of a thorough review of the entire incident can't help but prompt some rethinking of a lot of the practices and procedures that were followed both at the outset of the effort and in the final tragic resolution," says Richard Thornburgh, who served as US attorney general from 1988 to 1991.
Janet Reno - who became attorney general March 12, part-way through the 51-day standoff in Waco - stressed in congressional testimony last week that the investigations must focus on ways to prevent a repeat of Waco. She outlined questions under examination, including:
* Did BATF follow established procedures in the execution of the arrest and search warrants and, if so, were they were adequate?
* Is federal law enforcement "adequately prepared to negotiate in dangerous situations in terms of training, staffing, and available techniques?"
* Are improvements needed in the coordination of law enforcement agencies?
* How best can "command and control" of field operations be handled in dangerous operations like Waco?
The congressman who gave Ms. Reno the toughest grilling, Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan, is introducing a bill to abolish BATF and transfer its functions to the Justice Department.
Some in Congress have suggested that competition between departments on law enforcement may be healthy, but former Attorney General Thornburgh agrees that a more centralized approach is preferable: "I think that law enforcement is difficult enough without creating artificial competition between departments."
IN a town where blame is usually ducked rather than assumed, Attorney General Reno has made herself the darling of the news media by immediately taking responsibility for Waco.
The day after her Capitol Hill testimony, she met with Representative Conyers, prompting a press release that fairly gushed about her. This came on the heels of the emotional confrontation the day before in which Conyers remarked that Reno had done "exactly the right thing" by offering to resign over Waco.
"He found her a straight shooter. That's the key," says an aide to Conyers, contrasting her performance to those of FBI Director William Sessions and the head of BATF, Stephen Higgins.
While Mr. Sessions has long been seen as a lame duck at the FBI, Mr. Higgins appears set either to lose his job or to resign from the post because of his role in the Waco incident. In contrast to Reno, Higgins has provided conflicting or incomplete responses to questions about the Waco raid.
A great deal about the initial Feb. 28 raid, which BATF has said was an attempt to serve the compound with a search warrant for illegal firearms, appears questionable.
A sworn statement by an undercover BATF agent indicates that cult leader Koresh knew his compound was about to be raided, despite statements to the contrary by other BATF officials.
Agency officials now acknowledge that Koresh had been forewarned, but they say they went ahead with the raid anyway because they felt the cult members would be unprepared.
The BATF has also been inconsistent in its response to accusations that it tipped off the news media to the raid so as to generate positive publicity - and as a result, increased the danger to BATF agents. The presence of a crowd of reporters at the site on Feb. 28 indicates they knew something was about to happen.