The FBI yesterday reversed a six-year-old position that it never used munitions capable of sparking the blaze that ended a standoff with the Branch Davidian sect near Waco, Tex., and left 76 people dead.
The acknowledgment that FBI agents fired "a very limited number" of potentially incendiary tear gas cartridges on the final day of the 51-day siege contradicts congressional testimony from high-ranking Justice Department officials, such as Attorney General Janet Reno, who said that the tear gas used against the Davidians "could not have caused a fire."
An FBI spokesman, Paul Bresson, said yesterday that none of its munitions started the fire on April 19, 1993, and noted that they were used hours before the inferno that consumed the Davidians' compound. FBI officials said they still believe that Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and his followers deliberately torched the compound but expressed regret if their answers to Congress ultimately may prove to be inaccurate.
Reno and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh have ordered "a full review of the facts and circumstances" surrounding the use of military gas canisters on that day, according to an FBI statement.
The use of at least two military 40mm cartridges was confirmed by a former senior FBI official, Danny O. Coulson, whose comments were first reported this week in the Dallas Morning News.
"I only found out a week ago that these rounds were fired," Coulson, a deputy assistant FBI director during the Waco siege, said in an interview yesterday. "This is the truth and this is what happened. It's important for the American people to know."
Coulson said the pyrotechnic gas rounds were not linked to the fire, which broke out shortly after noon. The 40mm munitions were fired "no later than 8 a.m.," he estimated. News videos from the time show that the tear gas grenades landed near a storm shelter and emitted smoke but did not ignite any part of the main building.
Congressional investigators, as well as attorneys representing the families of dead Davidians, questioned the FBI's credibility after learning of Coulson's remarks. At hearings in 1993, and again in 1995, officials stressed that all forms of tear gas used against the sect were not incendiary. Reno testified in 1993 that she "wanted and received assurances that the gas and its means of use were not pyrotechnic."
Robert Charles, who as chief counsel for a House Government Reform and Oversight subcommittee wrote the final report on the 1995 Waco hearings, said that the new information would have changed how Congress probed the incident.
"It's just a shock to hear from one of the key players that this fact -- which was obviously material to what we were investigating -- was not volunteered, or was deliberately withheld," Charles said.
Michael Caddell, a Houston attorney for the estates and family members of Branch Davidians who died in the siege, said the FBI's acknowledgment proves "what we've been saying along: that the government intentionally used fire-starting devices on that final day."
"The conspiracy of silence is beginning to crumble," Caddell said. "The government lied about this. What else have they lied about?"
Texas officials last month opened an inquiry into the Waco fire after a documentary film producer and plaintiffs' attorneys raised questions about projectiles discovered on the scene. Other evidence -- including videotapes and photographs -- also were discovered in storage in Austin, in custody of the Texas Rangers but controlled by the Department of Justice.
"Some of the evidence in our possession, to a fair-minded person, is problematical to what the federal government is saying about what happened that day," James B. Francis, chairman of the Texas Public Safety Commission, said in an interview yesterday.
The Texas Rangers are conducting an inquiry into "certain evidence related to the Branch Davidian fire," a spokesman said, and will turn over the findings to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Waco.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Johnston, who is working with the Texas Rangers on the Waco inquiry, said yesterday that he could not comment.
Two staff members of the House Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), flew to Austin this week to meet with Texas Rangers to review the evidence, which includes a photograph of a military 40mm munition and several "flash bang" grenades found in the compound.
Another never-before-seen piece of evidence on the siege is a videotape shot by the Texas Department of Public Safety that some experts say appears to show machine gun fire directed at the compound's occupants from an FBI helicopter the morning of April 19. Federal officials have said that no federal agents ever fired on the Davidians. The video was obtained by a Colorado filmmaker, Michael McNulty, who helped produce the documentary "Waco: The Rules of Engagement."
Earlier this month, McNulty showed portions of his upcoming film, "Waco: A New Revelation," to some members of Congress. After seeing the new footage, Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.) called on Burton to reopen the Waco hearings.
Barr yesterday urged Reno to "clear the air once and for all" by investigating whether any weapons fire was directed against the Branch Davidians on April 19 and whether military personnel were operating on the scene.
The Justice Department had no official statement on the Waco controversy yesterday.
On Aug. 9, U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. in Waco granted Texas officials' request to have the evidence transferred to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service for use in an upcoming wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the estates and families of dead Branch Davidians.
"We want the evidence to be turned over to the court and let litigants have access to it and media," said Francis, the Texas safety commission chairman. "Let the truth come out. Let the chips fall where they may."