Reno Stands By Waco Decision
Attorney general rebuts allegations of Clinton's involvement
WASHINGTON — TO supporters, Janet Reno is a refreshing exception to the blue-suited army of smooth talkers that controls Washington. To detractors, however, she's responsible for the Waco debacle.
As Ms. Reno testified Aug. 1 about her role in the 1993 raid and standoff at the Branch Davidian homestead in Waco, Texas, both interpretations were evident.
Democrats praised Reno for her ''towering integrity'' throughout the ordeal and assigned blame for all 85 deaths to the religious group's leader, David Koresh. Republicans, led by co-chair Rep. Bill Zeliff (R) of New Hampshire, blasted Reno for endorsing a plan to end the 51-day siege with tanks and tear gas, and read from a White House memo that, they say, suggests President Clinton made the final call.
But whatever conclusion the hearings ultimately produce, they will affect federal law enforcement for a long time.
Representative Zeliff says ranking officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Federal Bureau of Investigation will have to ''err on the side of caution'' next time they face another such siege. Those decisionmakers, he says, will have to be held accountable.
Democrat Charles Schumer of New York warns that although federal agents need to be more cautious, Congress ''cannot allow law enforcement to be so tied in knots that they will be ineffective.''
While Republicans fired sharp questions at Reno about all aspects of the negotiations, their only attempt at producing new information seemed to be linking Mr. Clinton to them through a trail of memos, meetings, and telephone conversations.
''We're trying to establish responsibility at a level higher than Janet Reno,'' Zeliff said July 31. ''I don't believe that Janet Reno, all by herself, with less than two weeks' experience, made that decision.''
Earlier this week, both Reno and the White House dismissed allegations of Clinton's involvement as baseless. ''Such a position, Reno said July 31, ''is an insult to the truth.''
Much of Reno's testimony mirrored statements she made at the initial hearings on Waco two years ago. But the tone of the questions - posed now by a Republican-led panel - was far sharper.
IN her opening statement, Reno clicked off a series of incidents in which Koresh and his followers broke surrender promises. She also detailed information that federal agents received about the situation inside the compound: that conditions were deteriorating and that Koresh and several of his followers were formulating a plan to come out of the compound with explosives strapped to their waists ''to take out as many agents as they could'' in a suicidal rampage.
''We faced an impossible situation,'' Reno said. ''Koresh wouldn't leave. He had told us that no more children would be allowed to leave.'' Reno added that the perimeter was becoming unstable, that federal agents needed relief, and that experts told her that Koresh's promise to come out when he finished a religious manuscript was ''just another ploy.'' Still, she said, ''The FBI kept negotiating'' all the way up to the time of the gas assault. ''Six hours went by,'' after the assault began, Reno says, ''and still no one came out.'' Instead, she said, the Davidians opened fire.
The day's toughest questioning came from Zeliff, who pummeled Reno with questions about her discussions with the White House, and her decision to use CS gas, which some experts say is harmful to children, and to ignore a promise by Koresh, put in writing, to come out when his manuscript was finished.
The opening statements of the two co-chairs, Zeliff and Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, showed that a possible rift had opened between them. While Zeliff was Reno's most vociferous critic, McCollum told reporters that it ''seems clear'' that the Davidians themselves ignited the fire that engulfed the compound.