FBI struggles to rebuild credibility

Revelations about the Waco fiasco could threaten public trust, again,

As the much-investigated showdown between cult leader David Koresh and federal authorities enters yet another phase of examination, the question persists: How badly has the FBI's credibility been damaged?

From Waco, Texas, to Ruby Ridge, Idaho, the FBI often has been criticized for its heavy-handed approach. While there have been a lot of internal changes since the 1993 Branch Davidian confrontation, the latest revelations could further damage morale within the agency and erode public trust - beyond the militia movement that has always reviled the organization.

"Our ability to perform our mission is dependent on public confidence," says FBI spokesman Tron Brekke.

Today, the FBI begins the process of rebuilding that confidence. On the order of Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh, a 40-member team will start reinterviewing and reinvestigating those involved.

The action comes after revelations that FBI officials lied about or omitted the fact that flammable tear gas was used the day of the Waco inferno.

There is no evidence yet that the devices caused the showdown to end as it did, with more than 75 people burned or shot to death inside. But even the FBI, legendary for its exacting standards, acknowledges the discovery punches a hole in its credibility, while giving conspiracy theorists even more grist.

As the FBI and Ms. Reno seek to shore up institutional and personal credibility, there are calls that the in-house investigation be led by an outsider to set the record straight once and for all.

"I don't think they can restore their credibility by investigating themselves," says Rep. John Shadegg (R) of Arizona. Mr. Shadegg participated in congressional hearings, questioning Reno and federal officials.

"Waco has festered" because there was clear evidence that the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Department of Justice and even, perhaps, the White House "were not being forthcoming the first time around," Shadegg says.

Indeed, the case recalls lingering concerns of abuses not only at Waco but also at Ruby Ridge, where an FBI sharpshooter shot and killed the wife of antigovernment extremist Randy Weaver through a screen door.

"People are concerned there was a coverup," Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said yesterday. Mr. Hatch has promised a fresh round of hearings into the matter when Congress returns.

What started the fire?

A focus of past congressional hearings was the use or presence of incendiary devices that could have sparked the fire. For six years, the FBI has insisted no such devices were used. The agency maintained that, at the climax of the 51-day standoff, a hole was punched into the main wooden building and nonflammable tear gas fired.

But the FBI changed its story last week, admitting two potentially incendiary canisters were fired. But it insists they were fired six hours before the fiery end, and nearly 200 yards away from the main compound.

"The key issue is: Who caused the fire?" Mr. Brekke says. "There is not a sliver of evidence that anyone other than the Branch Davidians started that fire."

The Justice Department has not yet announced if an outside investigator will be named. But an FBI source says the report will be done "in weeks, not months."

Brekke says it is premature to conclude that agents purposefully obstructed past investigations, instead suggesting a simple omission of fact. But that's hard to swallow for many who've studied Waco.

"I think I can visualize agents in the field who were involved, who felt terrible about the fire, and were attacked viciously for it just deciding it would be safer not to reveal the information," says Ronald Kessler, author of "The FBI: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency."

The new investigation is aimed at learning exactly how the tear gas was used, and why its presence went unreported.

Reno also hinted that investigators will look into the presence of several members of the Army's Delta Force antiterrorism squad.

The Pentagon says the squad was only advising and observing.

The US military is forbidden from domestic police or law-enforcement operations without a presidential waiver.

A report released last week by the General Accounting Office did not investigate the role of the Delta Force, but did determine that military officials operated within the law in providing training, support, and equipment.

Ending Waco debate

According to outside observers, the quality of the latest investigation will be key for FBI director Freeh to put the matter to rest.

"He's got to show procedural deficiencies ... that will be fully explained even though they will reflect harmfully on bureau procedures," says Robert McCrie, professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

"The FBI was carrying on a legitimate law enforcement activity. The question becomes, Why didn't they say it at the time?" asks William Vizzard, professor of criminal justice at California State University in Sacramento.

"Law enforcement is having to get used to a whole new world of video cameras and scrutiny and this kind of oversight and this is what happens when you gloss over details," he says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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