Amid renewed questions about the role of federal law enforcement agencies in the 1993 Branch Davidian siege, President Clinton said yesterday he has confidence in Attorney General Janet Reno but stopped short of saying the same of FBI Director Louis J. Freeh.
Summoning reporters to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., to speak about Mideast peace developments, Clinton was asked if he had confidence in Reno and Freeh.
"Well, I certainly have in the attorney general. You know, she told us what happened. She told us she asked the right questions and didn't get the right answers," Clinton said.
As for Freeh, while not casting blame, Clinton remained reserved.
"I think that with regard to the director, there is going to be an independent investigation which she supports and which he has said he supports," Clinton said. "I don't think it serves any purpose to assign blame until the investigation is concluded and the evidence is in."
Clinton said he thought Freeh "did the right thing in saying that there ought to be an independent investigation and I think that is all we can ask of him."
The president offered his remarks as an Oklahoma City newspaper quoted Bob Ricks, the FBI spokesman during the siege, as saying that a year after about 75 cult members died following the 51-day standoff he had urged Reno to allow publication of more information about the siege, but she had rejected the idea.
The Daily Oklahoman quoted Ricks, who now heads Oklahoma's highway patrol, as saying he told Reno during a conference in 1994 that Justice Department rules requiring FBI agents to remain silent about the standoff were causing credibility problems for the bureau in the Midwest.
"I said, 'You probably don't realize it, but in the Midwest, Waco is still an extremely big deal out here, and it's the subject of much conversation,' " Ricks told the paper.
Exactly two years after the deadly conflagration at the Branch Davidian compound, a bomb killed 168 people and crumpled a federal building in Oklahoma City. Prosecutors contended that the convicted bombers, Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols, attacked the building in retribution for the government's action against the cult.
Ricks said he told Reno he objected to rules preventing more open discussion of the ill-fated siege and that the silence that was imposed "could ultimately end up being a problem."
Ricks told the paper that Reno had responded: " 'I don't think the American people care about Waco anymore.' " The report added that a Justice Department spokesman denied Reno had made the comment.
"I think the government could have done a much better job in providing full disclosure," Ricks told the Oklahoman.
Investigation after the incident indicated the fires that killed many of the Branch Davidians were set by cult members inside the compound, not by agents.
Later statements by the FBI and the Justice Department claimed no potentially flammable devices were used in the assault. The bureau recently reversed this stance after revelations by former agents and taped evidence showed that potentially incendiary military tear gas canisters were used by the FBI during the assault, but were fired three or four hours before the compound erupted in flames.