Former Missouri senator John C. Danforth, appointed yesterday to investigate the FBI's 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex., signaled immediately that he plans to wage an aggressive and independent probe focusing on two "dark questions": Did the federal government kill people? And was there a coverup?

Appearing at a news conference with Attorney General Janet Reno, Danforth said he will have broad discretion to conduct the investigation as he sees fit. Underlining Danforth's independence, Reno announced that she will take the unusual step of recusing herself from the probe, in which she expects to be called as a witness. Danforth will instead report to Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

After weeks of questions about pyrotechnics, flares and who-knew-what-when at the Justice Department, Danforth brought a sense of decisiveness to the inquiry, which he intends to conduct from St. Louis, his home town. The 63-year-old Republican said he will use all the tools at his disposal, including a grand jury if necessary, to get at the truth.

President Clinton, speaking to reporters at the White House, applauded the selection of Danforth, calling him "an honorable man and an intelligent and straightforward man." He added: "The only thing I would ask is that he conduct a through and prompt investigation."

Danforth, who served in the Senate for 18 years and whose appointment has widespread support on Capitol Hill, said he is tackling the difficult task because of lingering uncertainty over what really happened during the April 1993 raid that left about 75 people dead, including numerous children. He said that event and new revelations about the FBI's use of at least two potentially incendiary military tear gas rounds during the raid have shaken the faith of the American people in the "integrity" of government.

The FBI and the Justice Department have maintained that the tear gas cartridges, used hours before the blaze that took the lives of the Branch Davidians and their leader, David Koresh, did not start the fire. But the revelation that such potentially incendiary rounds were used has prompted queries on Capitol Hill and elsewhere about whether other information might have been withheld.

"The first question is, `Was there a coverup?' And the second question is, `Did federal officials kill people?' " Danforth said. "That's the question of the cause of the fire, whether there was shooting and so forth. And those are the two big questions."

Danforth is the first "special counsel" appointed under rules issued by the Justice Department after the independent counsel law expired in June. He said that while Holder technically must approve his actions, he has been assured by Justice officials that he will have the power to make important decisions and will be able to question Reno and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh. Danforth said he intends to unearth information using lawyers and investigators from the private sector rather than FBI agents.

Danforth emphasized that he will focus on actions, rather than second-guessing decisions made in 1993. "What we're going to be looking at is whether there were bad acts, not whether there was bad judgment," Danforth said. "And I want that understood."

His first stop after the news conference was Capitol Hill, where he met with House and Senate leaders, some of whom have begun their own investigations into the Waco affair. Asked whether he was worried about conflicts with congressional probes into Waco, Danforth said he hopes legislators would share relevant information with him.

Harvard University law professor Philip Heymann said Danforth's inquiry actually may benefit from the congressional reviews. "It is a way of making sure you are not dropping the ball anywhere," Heymann said.

But Michael R. Bromwich, a former Justice Department inspector general and a partner with the Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson law firm, said multiple investigations could complicate Danforth's probe. "Any time you have parallel or competing investigations, it makes things more difficult," Bromwich said. "We have seen multiple examples of that over the last several years. It never makes them easier."

On the House side, Danforth met with Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and the panel's ranking Democrat, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.). Hyde has drafted legislation that would form an alternative investigative commission but has said he will not try to pass it unless he feels Danforth's probe has run into trouble.

Conyers, in his meeting with Danforth, expressed his concern that Danforth's probe not take on the lengthiness of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's inquiry into the Clinton administration, according to congressional sources. Danforth reportedly responded that he hopes to complete his work before the end of next year.

Mark Corallo, spokesman for the House Government Reform Committee chaired by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), said that panel is pressing ahead with its own investigation. "Right now, the two basic things we're looking at are the use of pyrotechnic devices and the role of military personnel," Corallo said.

Danforth also met with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and who said yesterday that Congress must conduct its own "independent examination of the circumstances and events which led to evidence being concealed."

Danforth said he will continue to serve as a partner in the Bryan Cave law firm while serving as special counsel. He will be assisted by Edward Dowd, a Democrat who will resign as U.S. attorney in St. Louis to join Danforth's firm and work full time on the investigation with the title of "deputy special counsel."

Danforth said he will continue to work on client matters for the law firm, adding that he and Dowd will each receive $118,000 a year from the Justice Department for their work. Danforth said he will submit a budget to Holder later this year for his approval.

An ordained Episcopal minister, Danforth said some of his friends had tried to talk him out of taking on the politically charged assignment. "As a friend of mine said, `This is not what you call a good career move,' " the former senator quipped.

Danforth's Mandate

John C. Danforth was appointed special counsel yesterday to investigate the 1993 Waco siege and determine whether any government employee or agent:

Made false or misleading statements, allowed others to make false or misleading statements, or withheld evidence or information.

Destroyed, altered or suppressed evidence or information.

Used any incendiary or pyrotechnic device.

Started or contributed to the spread of the fire.

Engaged in gunfire.

Also, whether there was any illegal use of the U.S. military during the siege.

SOURCE: U.S. Attorney General's Office