Utah Republican Orrin G. Hatch was talking about Attorney General Janet Reno this week in his Senate office with the door closed. Hatch's take on Reno is important--he chairs the Judiciary Committee--and, as his words this week showed, it is more nuanced than that of most in his party.

Surrounded by a mix of art and autographed basketballs, he made it clear during an interview that he regards Reno as a nice person but a weak attorney general, manipulated by what he derisively refers to as a "palace guard" of political appointees around her.

Hatch is convinced that Reno will go down in history not only as the longest-serving attorney general in this century but also as one who stumbled at crucial moments by relying too heavily on advisers who kept her insulated from the truth.

"We've had people that made the attorney general seem asleep at the switch," Hatch said. "A stronger leader would not have allowed a number of these things to happen and the country would have been better off."

Hatch, like most Republicans on Capitol Hill, is angry at Reno's decision not to seek appointment of an independent counsel to investigate allegations of wrongdoing on campaign finance, one of the matters he recently dispatched a special Senate Judiciary subcommittee to dig into anew. He says the lead investigator, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), has requested $2.1 million for the probe into campaign finance, alleged Chinese espionage and the Branch Davidian siege--a princely sum he doubts Democrats will approve.

But unlike numerous other Republicans on the Hill, Hatch says he has had private conversations with Reno founded on mutual regard.

"She knows I am fair to her," Hatch said. "I personally like her."

So what does she tell him when he asks about her campaign finance decision? The same thing she says at her weekly news briefings and to the public. Hatch said she insists it was her reading of the law, not political considerations, that governed her decision not to request an independent counsel.

Does he believe her? Hatch shakes his head and shrugs.

"I think the palace guard around Reno is responsible and she doesn't assert herself," he said.

His harsh evaluation of Reno's performance stands in marked contrast to his view of FBI Director Louis J. Freeh. Hatch, in step with other Republicans, says Freeh has provided strong leadership at the troubled bureau he inherited in 1993. Though he laments the public split between the attorney general and the FBI director on various issues, Hatch complimented Freeh for making his views known and maintaining his independence.

"It is good for Freeh to call it as he sees it," Hatch said. "He's as straight a shooter as you'll ever find. . . . I am very high on Louis."

REENACTING WACO? Did FBI agents fire shots at the Branch Davidians during the April 1993 siege near Waco, Tex.? Plaintiffs' attorney Michael A. Caddell says yes. The FBI says no.

So Caddell wrote to the Justice Department, which is defending the FBI in litigation filed by Davidian survivors, and suggested that a reenactment be staged to find out.

Caddell wants the news media on hand to watch and he wants to mount an infrared camera on an aircraft and have it film gunshots at a Dallas firing range. That film could be compared with similar film from the final day of the siege.

FBI officials consistently have said no agents fired shots, leaving experts debating whether flashes on FBI forward-looking infrared (FLIR) tapes are indications of gunfire, reflected sunlight or something else.

"The result of this demonstration will prove conclusively that the only possible explanation for the flashes seen on the FBI FLIR tapes . . . is government gunfire," Caddell wrote.

Justice attorney Marie Hagen responded icily: "Because this case is in active litigation in the forum you chose, i.e. federal district court, we believe that the issues should be tried there, rather than in the press. Therefore, we decline your invitation."

Hagen also wrote that "it does appear from your letter that several of your assumptions about the facts, the science and the experts are in error."

Caddell fired back: "You and your superiors at the Department of Justice continue to treat this matter as some sort of game."

Behind the scenes, the FBI has been trying to get its FLIR experts to brief the news media, but civil division attorneys, sources say, won't allow it. One FBI official said privately he fears civil division lawyers may win the Waco lawsuit but lose the public relations battle over whether the FBI acted properly.