A visibly angry Attorney General Janet Reno said yesterday that she had been given repeated assurances by the FBI that the weapons used in the final assault on the Branch Davidian sect near Waco, Tex., six years ago did not include incendiary devices that could have ignited the deadly fire that ended the 51-day siege.
The day after the FBI acknowledged that its agents fired "a very limited number" of potentially incendiary tear gas cartridges during the final assault on the Branch Davidian compound, where 76 people died, Reno described herself as "very, very troubled" and "very, very upset" by the revelation. She promised a thorough investigation of the incident and the six years of denials about the types of munitions that were used. She vowed to "pursue it until I get to the truth."
"Prior to April the 19th , I received assurances that the gas and its means of use were not pyrotechnic," Reno said at her weekly news conference. "Since then, I have consistently been told that no pyrotechnic devices were used.
"I intend the results of the review to be made public, and I will not stop till I get to the bottom of this," Reno added.
The decision to end the siege by storming the compound has long been a focal point of criticism by some anti-government groups that have said they suspect the deadly conflagration was set off by federal agents. Reno said yesterday that there still is no evidence to support such an assertion, but the FBI's reversal of its long-standing position has revived the Waco controversy and renewed calls for congressional investigations.
According to munitions experts, the M651 tear gas canisters that the FBI has acknowledged using during the assault burn for about 30 seconds in the process of releasing their tear gas. But even with the use of these grenades, Reno said yesterday, "all available indications are that the devices were not directed at the main wooden compound, were discharged several hours before the fire started, and were not the cause of the fire."
Almost wistfully, she added, "One of the truths that we will never be able to get to is what was the right thing to do, because we don't know whether [Branch Davidian leader] David Koresh would have done it two weeks later on his own without any provocation. And we would have been blamed for not acting.
"All that we can do in law enforcement where we deal with human beings who do different things and march to different drummers is make the best judgment we can based on the information we have available, pursue it, and then do everything we can to get to the truth and to determine what can be done to avoid such tragedies for the future."
But Republican critics of the administration in Congress indicated they will not be satisfied with such explanations.
Threatening to reopen hearings on the Branch Davidian incident, House Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) said in a statement: "This new information requires a thorough investigation of whether the Justice Department has misled the American people and the Congress about what happened at Waco."
Reno also insisted that there is no evidence indicating that law enforcement authorities fired their weapons at the Davidians during the final assault.
Federal officials have always maintained that federal agents never fired their guns, but a newly discovered videotape of the siege shot by the Texas Department of Public Safety contains footage that some experts say appears to show machine gun fire being directed at the compound from an FBI helicopter on the morning of April 19.
After six years of denials, the FBI's admission that it used munitions capable of starting a fire clearly caught Justice Department officials off guard as they scrambled to produce an explanation.
"I don't think it's very good for my credibility," Reno said.
Another Justice official said: "We were hoping any statement we put out would be unequivocal and put an end to [the controversy]. But I think it's fair to say that we just don't have all the answers."
On Martha's Vineyard, where President Clinton is vacationing, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said Clinton "stands with the attorney general in her determination to get all the facts in this case and to make them available, to Congress and the public, as soon as possible."
Meanwhile, as new questions arose yesterday over the role of the Army's secret anti-terrorist Delta Force during the siege, the Pentagon reiterated its long-standing position that all military personnel were lawfully deployed at Waco and acted only as observers or advisers. Any direct military involvement in a civilian law enforcement operation would have required a presidential waiver of the law barring such activity. Officials said such an order was not sought because it was not necessary given the military's limited role.
In congressional hearings, Defense Department officials have acknowledged providing equipment and personnel to both the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms -- which conducted the initial raid on Koresh's compound -- and the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team, which carried out the final assault.
Military documents recently obtained by The Washington Post show that three members of Delta Force watched the tank and tear gas assault by the Hostage Rescue Team. The documents also recount that top-ranking Army officers met with Reno on April 14, 1993, primarily to discuss the use of tear gas to end the standoff. When Reno asked the officers for their analysis, they told her that "some people would panic" and that "mothers may run off and leave their infants," according to the documents.
The officers, whose names were deleted from the papers, told Reno that "this was not a military operation and could not be assessed as such." A military operation, they said, would focus on capturing or killing Koresh, "and hope that the situation ended there."
Other memos show that the military also provided FBI agents training in the use of 40mm grenade launchers, but say the FBI did not request, and the Defense Department did not supply, "incendiaries such as flame-throwers." The military also lent sophisticated technological support -- including experimental surveillance robots and a television satellite signal jammer.
The FBI used the top-secret Air Force jamming device to shut off the Davidians' access to television, including CNN and other newscasts, documents show. The jammer was provided to assist the FBI's psychological warfare operation, designed to get the Davidians to surrender, said a former Pentagon official who asked not to be identified.
A report prepared after congressional hearings in 1995 sharply criticized Reno, calling her decision to approve the FBI's assault plan "premature, wrong and highly irresponsible." But the panel concluded that the military support given to both the ATF and FBI was legal.