WASHINGTON — WHAT is the proper response when one government agency willingly deceives another, stretches the norms of law enforcement, and sparks a tragic loss of life?
This is what Republicans ultimately hope to answer during their probe into the disastrous government standoff between federal agents and a heavily armed religious group near Waco, Texas, two years ago.
As a joint House subcommittee enters its second week of Waco hearings, Republicans will attempt to show that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms acted imprudently and deceptively in its planning and execution of a 1993 raid on the group's compound.
GOP committee members admit there is no smoking gun, no single piece of evidence that proves deliberate ATF wrongdoing. But after the first three days of hearings, a solid case is beginning to emerge that previous investigations, including a critically acclaimed probe by the Treasury Department, failed to tell the whole story.
"It's like peeling off the layers of an onion," says a senior staff member of the joint subcommittee conducting the hearings. "No big lies, but lots of little lies."
Some Republican lawmakers have already heard enough to take further action. Some are expected to introduce legislation to move the ATF from the Treasury Department to the Justice Department. Still others may push for an investigation by an independent prosecutor.
Democrats on the joint subcommittee contend that the hearings have brought out no new evidence. "The majority case would raise serious questions of competence of counsel in a genuine trial," said Rep. Charles Schumer (D) of New York.
Today's hearings will likely be a climax. After looking into how the ATF planned the largest and most deadly raid in its history, during which four ATF agents and 20 Waco Hearings Continue
agents were injured, testimony now turns to the raid itself.
Acting on the request of the local sheriff's office, ATF had conducted an investigation into the possible illegal possession of firearms and explosives by the Branch Davidians and their leader, David Koresh. The ATF determined that the only safe way to execute search-and-arrest warrants would be by "dynamic entry."
The Republicans, according to well-placed sources, will follow three primary lines of inquiry into the execution of that raid:
r The big lie. The Treasury report claims that ATF officials responsible for implementing the raid made a fatal mistake in judgment by going ahead with the plan even though they knew they had lost the element of surprise. Koresh had been tipped off almost an hour before the special forces were to arrive.
Republicans hope to reveal that the originally planned raid never hinged on the element of surprise. Last Wednesday, Dan Hartnett, who as ATF deputy director for enforcement was one of the senior-most officials to approve the raid, testified that while "surprise was part of the plan, nothing was ever said" about halting the raid if that element were lost.
Mr. Hartnett has said openly that he believes Treasury Undersecretary for Law Enforcement Ron Noble, who oversaw the Treasury investigation, may have obscured certain facts to protect the White House. Republicans hope Hartnett will testify today that Mr. Noble created the notion of surprise when conducting the investigation.
r The big mystery. Chuck Sarabyn and Phillip Chojnacki, the two senior-most ATF agents responsible for implementing the raid, were fired as a result of the Treasury investigation. They were subsequently rehired, however, after filing lawsuits against the agency. Do they know something embarrassing that Treasury does not want made public? Is that why they were rehired?
r The tragedy. In an April 15, 1993, memo to Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, then-Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman wrote that Attorney General Janet Reno was considering the use of a potentially lethal gas, CS tear gas, to force the Branch Davidians from the compound. He warned that "the risks of a tragedy are there." (see box.)
Four days later, the FBI pumped the CS gas into the compound, provoking the fire that consumed the building and roughly 80 Branch Davidians.
Last Friday, Republicans seemed incredulous that Secretary Bentsen did not act on the Altman warnings, either by calling Attorney General Reno or the president. Bentsen simply stated that once the Federal Bureau of Investigation took over the operation in March, it was no longer the jurisdiction of the Treasury.
Republicans today will question Altman for his side of the story. What, for instance, did he know about Reno's reluctance to use CS gas, and why did she consent in the end?
THE hearings today follow three days of testimony during which the Republicans tried to show that ATF deliberately misled the military to obtain advanced tactical training and heavy equipment.
By law, the only way the military can become involved in civilian law enforcement is if the case involves significant drug activities. ATF requested military assistance on the grounds that the Branch Davidian compound was the site of an active methamphetamine lab. In response, the military provided helicopters, Bradleys, and other vehicles, along with special training.
But the evidence of a drug lab inside the compound is questionable. The military had its doubts, as did the Drug Enforcement Agency, the local sheriff, and others.
Did ATF deliberately mislead the military to secure its involvement in Waco? The Republicans haven't proved it, but they haven't dropped it either.
THE ALTMAN MEMO
This document, dated four days before federal agents pumped tear gas into the compound, has become part of the paper trail in the House hearings into assigning responsibility for the Waco operation. Former Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen says he knew that the impending use of tear gas risked tragedy but did nothing to stop it because the operation was no longer under his control.
April 15, 1993
Memorandum for Secretary Bentsen
From: Roger Altman, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury
Ron Noble informed me that the Attorney General is weighing a request from the FBI to use an advanced form of tear gas on the compound in Waco. Among other things, this gas doesn't dissipate.
The FBI apparently has concluded that the outlook for a negotiated end to the standoff is poor. They don't believe it is worth waiting.
If the Attorney General approves the request, the gas would be used and, hopefully, the Davidians would be forced to leave the compound. The gas would not be followed by an assault.
This is the Attorney General's decision. You said, on "Meet the Press," that nothing like this would occur without your knowledge. As I understand it, you will be formally notified if Janet Reno OK's it.
My rough guess is that she won't. The risks of a tragedy are there. And, if the FBI waits indefinitely, Mr. Koresh eventually will concede.