Former Missouri senator John C. Danforth said yesterday that he is already assembling a team of private attorneys and federal investigators to probe the government's 51-day standoff against the Branch Davidian sect in 1993 and would not hesitate to prosecute officials for wrongdoing.
"I have been given assurance that I can carry this investigation in whatever direction I see fit," he said on "Fox News Sunday."
But Danforth's remarks, following his appointment as a "special counsel" last week by Attorney General Janet Reno, did little to quell a growing political controversy over the standoff outside Waco, Tex., that ended in a fire that killed about 75 people.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), on CBS's "Face the Nation," renewed his call for Reno to resign. "I believe the time has come where that would help the sense of justice at the Justice Department," Lott said.
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform, said on "Fox News Sunday" that an internal Justice Department memo obtained by his staff last week indicates that the Justice Department failed to provide Congress with critical information about the siege.
"She's responsible," Burton said on Fox. "So it remains to be seen whether or not she'll stay or go."
The controversy over the Waco siege, first investigated by Burton's committee four years ago, flared anew last month after FBI officials admitted that they had used potentially incendiary tear gas canisters on the last day of the siege.
Reno, who said she had been misled by FBI assurances that no such devices had been used, sent U.S. marshals to FBI headquarters on Sept. 1 to secure a videotape of the last day of the standoff. The move exposed a deepening rift between Reno and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh.
But on Friday, one day after Danforth's appointment, the Justice Department memorandum obtained by Burton's staff became public. It said that the department gave Congress an incomplete copy of a 49-page FBI lab report stating that potentially incendiary tear gas rounds had been fired during the Waco siege.
The disclosure that a military tear gas round had been fired--it was not described as pyrotechnic--came on the 49th page of the report, according to the memo. But the report Justice gave to Burton's panel in 1995 was missing the final page, the memo states.
It is not clear whether the Justice Department was aware of the significance of the military tear gas round. Nor is there evidence that the final page was deliberately withheld from Congress.
Burton praised Danforth but said his committee planned a wider probe to determine not only whether federal officials were criminally negligent, but also whether they were incompetent in the way they handled the siege and subsequent internal reviews of the matter.
"We need to find out who's responsible," Burton said. "We don't want people in charge of things like Waco if they're not doing their job properly."
Danforth, appearing yesterday on all five major television news shows, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he planned to use the broad prosecutorial powers conferred on him as special counsel to determine answers only to "the dark questions--whether there was a coverup and whether government officials were involved in killing people."
"It is not going to get into judgment calls," such as whether the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms should have taken "on the Branch Davidians in the first place," Danforth said.
Danforth said he had no timetable for completing his investigation but wanted to give the American people a full airing of the facts as quickly as possible. He said he already had hired a deputy from the U.S. attorney's office in St. Louis, who would resign his government post. He said investigators probably would come from the postal inspector's office, because agents from the FBI and the ATF were involved in the siege.
The Justice Department must approve covening a grand jury or issuing subpoenas in the special probe. Danforth noted on Fox that Reno had recused herself from any oversight of his work because she "anticipated being a witness."
Republicans were not alone in questioning Reno's credibility. Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), on ABC's "This Week," said that he too believes President Clinton should review Reno's job performance.
"Whether she's been right or she's been wrong, there is a problem in this country when there's so little confidence in the administration of the Justice Department," Torricelli said.
But John D. Podesta, White House chief of staff, said on CBS's "Face the Nation" that Reno "is doing a good job."
Podesta said White House officials were troubled by the disclosure that the Justice Department had failed to provide the full 49-page FBI lab report to Congress. But he noted that the department had provided the full document both to defendants in the Branch Davidian case and to plaintiffs in a wrongful death civil action stemming from the siege.
"So I'm not sure what happened, whether it's just a screw-up or there's something more to it," Podesta said.