Waco Hearings Still Digging For Serious Political Pay Dirt

DURING the Waco hearings, members of Congress have described the behavior of federal agents with a host of $10 words: among them incautious, arrogant, and disingenuous.

But with only a few days of testimony left, it seems unlikely that the Republican-led probe will produce terms that constitute political pay dirt: like ''conspiracy'' or ''coverup.''

So far, testimony has revealed a pattern of poor judgment by both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). Republicans have made a strong case that these blunders contributed to the deaths of more than 80 Branch Davidians and four federal agents in the 1993 raid and standoff. And momentum is building to carve up the ATF.

But the hearings have failed to uncover the kind of high-level hijinks that could topple top administration officials, or at least make a durable campaign issue.

''If this is all there is, it won't be nearly as memorable as Watergate or Iran-contra, or even the Clarence Thomas [nomination] hearings,'' says Larry Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia.

Unlike those hearings, Dr. Sabato says, Waco has only captured the imagination of a small segment of the American public - mainly militia sympathizers and gun-rights advocates - rather than a wide swath. ''Of course,'' he adds, ''dramatic revelations could change all that.''

Today, the joint House committees hosting the hearings begin the second day of testimony about the role of the FBI, particularly the decision to attack the compound with a form of tear gas known as CS gas.

A source close to the hearings says that Attorney General Janet Reno will likely testify July 31 that her decision to launch the gas attack was motivated by misleading information from the FBI. And according to the source, Republicans on the panel believe that the decision to use CS gas represents their best opportunity to trace the trail of blame all the way to the White House.

Still, government officials will likely argue that even if the use of CS gas was not the best alternative, it did not justify, what they claim was, the Branch Davidians' decision to burn their compound to the ground in what federal officials call a mass suicide.

This argument - that for every mistake made by federal agents, there was a more serious counter-error made by the Branch Davidians - has been a constant ice cube in the Republicans' cocoa throughout the hearings.

In testimony Monday, ATF officials argued that although they may have erred in raiding the Mount Carmel compound after discovering that David Koresh had been tipped off, the Branch Davidians had no right to fire on federal agents.

Testimony about weapons violations, plans for mass suicide, and sexual abuse at the compound have also weakened David Koresh's image as a victim.''We can criticize their actions,'' New York Democrat Charles Schumer says of the federal agents involved, ''but no one should dare criticize their motivations.''

Nevertheless, Republicans on the panel have had no trouble exposing miscalculations and discrepancies in testimony.

On July 24, ATF undercover agent Robert Rodriguez, who said Koresh knew of the impending raid, alleged that instead of admitting their mistakes, his superiors tried to shift blame and ''almost ruined a great agency.''

On July 25, lawyers for the Branch Davidians, Dick DeGuerin and Jack Zimmerman, testified that during the siege, Koresh appeared to be amenable to some form of peaceful resolution, although the FBI failed to pursue that end.

THIS testimony was bolstered by two religious scholars, James Tabor and Philip Arnold, who criticized federal lawmakers for failing to try to understand Koresh's theology and use it to bring about a peaceful end. Had they studied Koresh's apocalyptic preachings, they argued, federal agents would have known that he would not have surrendered unconditionally.

Testimony on July 25 by a group of Texas Rangers suggests that Koresh may have been willing to surrender to them, but the FBI quashed that plan because they did not want to be upstaged.

While the hearings have not yet revealed anything that might shake the high branches of the Clinton administration, the fallout for the two law enforcement groups has yet to be determined.

Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, co-chair of the hearings, said last weekend that the hearings might warrant the appointment of a special prosecutor, or a move to transfer control of ATF from the Treasury Department to the Justice Department.

Also yet to be determined is the impression the hearings will leave on the public. Republicans say the hearings will deflate some of the conspiracy theories regarding Waco, and help restore confidence in federal law enforcement.

Democrats and federal agents lambaste the hearings as a political witch hunt designed to embarrass the Clinton administration and appease the gun lobby by weakening the ATF.

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