New Waco probe seeks elusive answers

Reno appoints new investigator to shed light on politically volatile

At least a dozen investigations have done their best to sort fact from conspiracy fiction in the government assault and raid on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, more than six years ago.

By this fall, at least three more will be launched - all seeking to set the record straight on FBI conduct and the rules of engagement that ended in the deaths of 80 in the fiery finale.

The question is: Will they?

As Attorney General Janet Reno yesterday appointed John Danforth, a former Republican senator from Missouri, to head an independent investigation of the matter, some wonder whether the investigatory dog pile is the most effective way to get to the truth.

Experts agree it's hard to get clear answers, even with the best of intentions, when a host of separate government investigations are happening at the same time. But the process becomes even more complicated when the political dimension is added - something Ms. Reno is clearly trying to avoid by appointing a respected former GOP senator.

"Worst case is that Congress will hold hearings, acting shamelessly for the cameras," says Alan Stone, professor of law and psychiatry at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., who has investigated Waco. The best case "is that they will straighten out the incredibly complicated details of what happened at Waco."

As Republican leaders escalate criticism of Reno, calling for her resignation, the drive to get to the bottom of the 51-day standoff is reaching critical mass.

In the Senate, Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah is planning hearings. In the House, Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton (R) of Indiana has begun his own investigation. Those hearings are expected to start next month.

Depending on how these probes go, Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois may introduce legislation calling for an independent commission to examine the matter.

Moreover, the Texas Rangers are conducting their own investigation. According to reports this week, the Rangers discovered the FBI used combustible flares.

"That's the reality of congressional work in Washington. There will be more than one review," says Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R) of Arkansas.

SENATOR Danforth is seen as acceptable to both sides. During his Washington career, the former Episcopal priest earned a reputation as an independent moderate. Earlier in his career, he served as Missouri's attorney general for eight years.

He is charged with finding out why pyrotechnic devices - including potentially flammable tear gas and flares - were used, if federal agents lied about their use of force, and if there was illegal use of military forces.

"He will have the same authority as any special counsel," Reno said. "Senator Danforth is a person who can find those answers."

While the number of probes is expanding, the basic goal is the same: Investigators want to know how it is that key facts and material evidence were not discovered over the past six years. The subtext of the question is: How many of the April 1993 deaths at the compound were the FBI's fault?

High-profile cases involving charges of federal abuse of power often result in dual investigations, both from Congress and an independent investigatory team under the authority of the Justice Department. But they sometimes have cross-purposes.

In short, a host of simultaneous investigations has the potential to create a less-than-optimal environment for discovering the truth.

"There are several problems," says Lanny Breuer, a former White House lawyer under President Clinton. "Congressional committees have different priorities than investigators."

As Congress performs its oversight function, its findings usually become public quickly. That means potential wrongdoers are tipped off for the next round of questioning from independent investigators, who tend not to be in the same rush to disclose their findings.

"They can even escape the country," say law professor Paul Rothstein at Georgetown University in Washington. "That happened with the campaign finance investigation."

BOTH kinds of investigation have a necessary purpose in a democracy, even if they clash, constitutional experts say.

"Congressional investigations are always done with an eye toward a legislative process," says Viet Dihn, professor at Georgetown University Law Center and former Whitewater investigator. "They can propose legislation as a remedy."

But congressional investigations are sometimes accused of partisanship.

"The question isn't whether a complete investigation [of Waco] is needed," says Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California. "It's whether this Republican-led Congress can investigate anything without turning it into a circus."

But a nonpartisan outside investigation can usually conduct its business without being as politically charged.

"On the other hand, an independent commission can usually escape ... charges of partisanship," Mr. Dihn says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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