The Senate's top Republican called on Attorney General Janet Reno to resign yesterday, amid growing furor on Capitol Hill over recent disclosures regarding the FBI's April 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex., that left about 75 people dead.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) became the highest-ranking official to ask the attorney general to step down, saying her errors in handling the fiery standoff in Waco and other mistakes have left him doubting both her effectiveness and competence.
The majority leader's comments came as Reno worked on finalizing the details of an independent inquiry into the matter to be led by former Republican senator John Danforth of Missouri, an appointment Justice officials said she planned to announce at a news conference this morning.
Lott said Congress must also take a role in reexamining the Waco siege, and a flurry of new congressional probes, including investigations by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Government Reform Committee, are already beginning. While Lott said that Congress may need to "issue subpoenas in order to find out the truth," he suggested the broader question may be Reno's continuing ability to serve as attorney general.
"I think the attorney general is falling into a pattern of not showing competence or probity," Lott said yesterday.
"It's based on the pattern now that has developed over 6 1/2 years and the events involving the appointment of independent counsels, her refusal to provide information or answer questions by the Congress, the problem with the Waco investigation," Lott said. "All of that leads me to conclude that the attorney general should resign."
While other congressional Republicans have called on Reno to resign, Lott's comments raised the political stakes considerably because of his seniority and his direct attack on Reno's fundamental ability to serve.
Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and other congressional Democrats were quick to defend Reno. "I think Janet Reno deserves commendation, not criticism. . . . Under no circumstances do I think the attorney general should resign," he said yesterday.
President Clinton has also strongly supported his attorney general, saying she is doing a good job under difficult circumstances and pursuing the right course by launching an independent inquiry into the deadly Waco siege. Rather than pointing a finger at Reno, the president said any Waco investigation needs to focus on the role of the FBI and its director, Louis J. Freeh.
Clinton's remarks were not surprising, given tensions that existed between the White House and the FBI director before the new Waco revelations. The harsh GOP criticism of Reno too is but the latest in a series of Republican condemnations of the attorney general, which escalated after she declined to seek an independent counsel to investigate campaign finance issues.
Asked recently whether she had any intention of resigning over Waco, the attorney general said it was important to gather all of the facts before making any decisions regarding consequences. Although Reno and other officials at Justice and the FBI maintained for years that no incendiary devices were used in the Waco raid, new evidence recently emerged from an FBI review showing that two potentially incendiary tear gas canisters were fired into the Davidian compound hours before the deadly blaze began.
Both Reno and Freeh have said there is no evidence that the tear gas canisters caused the fire, which they have said was started by the Davidians themselves.
Asked yesterday whether he had doubts about who started the fire, Lott said, "Yeah, there's doubts because of the questions that have been raised. . . . How did that happen, who did it, and why were we not given full information or accurate information?"
Lott did not seem to have new information casting doubt on how the fire started but said it was a "very troublesome matter if we're not getting accurate and truthful information" about what happened.
Yesterday, senior FBI officials briefed congressional staff members on the Waco siege. They said an explanation regarding why information about the tear gas canisters did not emerge sooner would have to await completion of a thorough inquiry.
In a letter to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Freeh said the tear gas canisters were fired 30 to 40 yards from the main wooden structure housing the Davidians. "I have received nothing that indicates that any rounds of this type or any other potentially pyrotechnic rounds were inserted into the wooden structures at the compound," Freeh wrote.
Despite Republican frustration with Reno, response on Capitol Hill to her pending selection of Danforth to head an independent inquiry has been positive.
"Senator Danforth has got the kind of credibility and integrity that you look for in an independent reviewer," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). "He's perceived as nonpartisan and will command the respect of both parties."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) also said he welcomed reports of Danforth's expected appointment. But he warned that he has already drafted legislation to establish an alternative investigative commission, and that he will seek a vote on it if he feels that Danforth's investigation is running into difficulty. For now, Hyde said, "I will withhold advancing this legislation in the hope that Senator Danforth's efforts will not be obstructed by the Justice Department," Hyde said.
Staff writers Helen Dewar and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.