Congress Begins Search for Answers In Waco Tragedy

Tough questions surface about decisions made by officials preceding fatal fire

THREE days after the fiery tragedy outside Waco, Texas, questions about the government's actions involving David Koresh and his Branch Davidian followers are multiplying.

Congress has already begun the search for answers. Next Wednesday, a House Judiciary subcommittee will hear testimony from top federal law enforcement officials, including Attorney General Janet Reno and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director William Sessions.

Later, the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the FBI, and the Senate Finance Committee, which monitors the Treasury's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), are expected to examine why Mr. Koresh's compound, and as many as 86 people, went up in flames.

The Waco standoff between Koresh and federal agents began Feb. 28 when a 100-man ATF team raided the Branch Davidian compound. The armed assault, on a Sunday morning, was a failure. It left four ATF agents dead, 15 wounded, and an undetermined number of casualties among Koresh's followers.

The FBI soon took over the siege, and planned Monday's assault, which included a tear gas attack led by tanks. The FBI claims Koresh and his followers set the subsequent fires. Surviving members deny that suicide was ever part of their plan and blame the FBI for causing the fire.

Investigators on Capitol Hill insist they are not looking for scapegoats to blame for the disaster, which FBI spokesmen say killed as many as 24 children, most below the age of 10.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, a member of the Senate Judicary Committee, is one who supports a quiet, but probing, search for answers to questions like these:

* How can the federal government prevent such a heavy loss of life in a similar crisis?

* Why were Waco firemen not put on alert before the FBI assault on the Koresh compound?

* Did officials act because their 50-man hostage rescue team was worn out?

On the latter question, White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos said yesterday: "Unfortunately, we [didn't] have the trained backups in place."

President Clinton, who characterized Koresh and his adherents as "religious fanatics," said "we did everything we could to avoid the loss of life." Nevertheless, he promised "a vigorous and thorough investigation" by the executive branch. No resignation

The president sharply rejected suggestions that he might accept Ms. Reno's resignation because of the outcome of the FBI assault. "I was frankly surprised ... that anyone ... would suggest that the attorney general should resign because some religious fanatics murdered themselves," he said at a news conference.

He continued: "These people killed four federal officials in the line of duty. They were heavily armed. They fired on federal officials ... and [this time] they were never fired back on.... They made the decision to immolate themselves, and I regret it terribly, and I feel awful about the children."

Yet questions nag Washington. Some congressmen, including Rep. Don Edwards (D) of California, chairman of the subcommittee which will hear from Reno next week, describes himself as "surprised" that the FBI used battering rams and tear gas against the Koresh group.

Other members described themselves as "shocked" and "saddened" that the lengthy standoff ended so violently. One said he found an elevator operator weeping in a House office building because of the deaths of the children.

Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois says: "The American people want to know whether this was the only alternative. [Did] we just run out of patience?" Yet Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado, says: "At some point you have to act." She says the siege was costing great sums of money needed for important federal programs.

Analysts see little fallout for Clinton from the incident. Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar, says: "I don't think this is the sort of thing that sticks to the ribs as a political issue." The view from Waco, Texas

In Waco, Texas Rangers have taken charge of the Branch Davidian compound and will conduct a search for evidence that could last weeks. A day after the conflagration that consumed the compound on Monday, the site was still hot enough that ammunition amassed by the sect was exploding, according to Jeff Jamar, the FBI agent in charge during the 51-day standoff.

Court documents unsealed Tuesday in Waco contained evidence that the Branch Davidians had spent $200,000 within 16 months to assemble an arsenal that included parts for making illegal weapons. The documents also reported that Koresh had spoken of an eventual "military-type operation" in Waco that would exceed the Los Angeles riots in destruction.

The FBI has stated it considered a mass suicide unlikely, yet it also says the deaths of the sect members may have been inevitable. The court documents say Koresh vowed not to be taken alive. "I think this was his plan from the beginning," Mr. Jamar told reporters Tuesday. "It was clear to us it would have happened 30 days ago if we would have gone in there. So if you want to say, `Well, if the FBI would have done nothing, these people would still be alive,' that's probably true. For how much longer?"

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