Grasping Waco's Lessons

The fiery end to the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in April, 1993, is seared in the nation's memory. The tragic loss of life there was repeated two years later when Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City federal building in what he indicated was an act of revenge.

Waco was Attorney General Janet Reno's initiation into office. The new Cabinet member took responsibility for the actions of federal agents and swore to get the whole truth to the American people. She testified several times before congressional committees about what happened and why.

On May 18, 1993, we wrote: "But personal candor is not enough. Now Reno must confirm her ability and toughness by seeing that this shocking event is fully explained and its lessons applied." The actions of federal agents since suggest some lessons were learned. But we now know that the event and what led up to it have yet to be explained.

As a consequence, Attorney General Reno's credibility with the American people is increasingly precarious. Republicans were already upset with her for refusing to appoint an independent counsel to investigate irregularities in the Clinton-Gore campaign's 1996 fund-raising practices. Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi says she should resign. Reno says she doesn't run from controversy and won't step down.

Waco raises questions that go far deeper than whether the FBI used "pyrotechnic" tear-gas grenades in the hours leading up to the final assault on the Davidian compound. It points to a culture, within the bureau or the Justice Department, that allows mistakes to be hidden and superiors misled. As with Watergate and the Monica Lewinsky affair, the coverup becomes the central concern.

The FBI's bumbling coverup after Waco has provided fodder for every crackpot conspiracy theorist in the country. The public needs the facts.

Reno's choice of former Sen. John Danforth, a Missouri Republican, to investigate the FBI's handling of the Waco matter was a deft move. Senator Danforth enjoys wide bipartisan respect and has a reputation for integrity and fairness.

Congress also has a role to play: Already committees in both houses are gearing up for inquiries. The GOP must avoid the temptation to use the matter to score points against the administration, Vice President Gore, and Democrats in general. Democrats must refrain from the scorched-earth tactics they have used to frustrate legitimate investigations of White House behavior.

The era of tit-for-tat partisan investigations - dating back at least to the failed nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court - must stop. If ever a bipartisan approach were needed, it is now.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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