Former Missouri senator John C. Danforth said yesterday he plans to move swiftly to interview key witnesses in his investigation of the FBI's 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian complex near Waco, Tex., before they give testimony to congressional committees or in court.
In an interview, Danforth said some members of Congress, as well as lawyers involved in a civil lawsuit in Texas, have agreed to postpone interviewing witnesses for 30 days in order to give his team the first crack at questioning them. Danforth, who was appointed special counsel by Attorney General Janet Reno earlier this month, initially had said he would not tell Congress how to proceed with its multiple Waco probes, but he explained yesterday that his investigators need to speak with witnesses first.
"I don't want anything that anybody does to in any way undermine my job," Danforth said. "And it is a basic rule of investigations that it is in the best interest of the person conducting the investigation to be able to go first in questioning people . . . so that you get the freshest possible response."
The new probes into the Waco siege that claimed the lives of about 75 Branch Davidians were prompted by recent admissions from the FBI and Justice Department that, contrary to repeated assertions, potentially incendiary devices had been used in the assault on the Davidian compound on April 19, 1993. The simultaneous investigations being conducted by Danforth and Congress have raised concerns, however, about overlap and conflicting agendas.
Danforth had objected strenuously when Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) recently dispatched investigators to Waco without informing him, apparently in part out of concern that the senator's action could compromise any criminal proceedings Danforth might undertake.
In response, Specter sent Danforth a letter last week, writing: "When you raise a concern about your possible duty to conduct criminal prosecutions, I understand that from my own experience as a prosecutor and I anticipate our Senate oversight would pose no problem."
Specter, who is heading a Senate task force reviewing the Waco matter, also agreed to grant Danforth's request for a 30-day delay in questioning witnesses. "I want to avoid any suggestion or appearance of a turf battle," Specter said yesterday. "I had a talk with Senator Danforth last week and slept on it and wrote him a letter on Thursday telling him I'd forbear on witnesses for 30 days."
Specter's task force also includes Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and was intended to have two Democratic members as well. But Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, has objected to the makeup of the task force. "We are not going to take part in a partisan, special ad-hoc committee," Leahy said. "I can't imagine us putting Democrats on it."
In Texas, U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr., who is hearing the civil case brought against the government by relatives of Branch Davidians killed in the 1993 siege, agreed to postpone further depositions until after Oct. 18. But in a letter to Danforth he noted, "I do not share your concern that your investigation might be adversely affected if witnesses are interviewed by the civil lawyers before your investigators interview them. . . . Actually, I can easier understand that the civil lawyers, particularly the plaintiffs, would prefer that potential witnesses not be intimidated by an investigator for a special counsel."
Although he does not anticipate holding hearings in the next 30 days, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, has not responded to Danforth's request for a delay. However, Burton has pledged to cooperate with Danforth and share information. In addition, Danforth has asked Burton for his input on a range of matters, including allegations regarding the allegedly improper use of the military at Waco.
"We're going to help Senator Danforth in any way we can without subverting congressional prerogatives," said Mark C. Corallo, spokesman for Burton's committee.
Nonetheless, Danforth said he knows he must move quickly. "When you have a civil suit and congressional investigations . . . we understand we can't hold them at bay for long periods of time," he said.
Danforth said he was "in very good shape in building a staff." He has recruited a chief of staff, a team of about 12 to 15 lawyers and a cadre of postal inspectors. He said he intends to borrow additional lawyers from the U.S. Attorney's Office in St. Louis and some investigators from government agencies other than the FBI. He also has identified office space in St. Louis, where he lives and practices law, to serve as a base of operations.
Danforth said his broad message to Congress and the public is, "If anybody has any information relating to the charge the attorney general has given us, I want that information . . . I am determined to do a good job."
In his letter to Danforth, Judge Smith suggested that won't be easy. "You have taken on a difficult, thankless job," the judge wrote to the former senator.
Staff writer Richard Leiby contributed to this report.
CAPTION: John Danforth wants his investigation to get first crack at key testimony.