An independent investigation of the 1993 government raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex., has exonerated federal agents there and officials in Washington in the events that killed 75 cult members, some of them children, former senator John C. Danforth announced yesterday.
Danforth, the special counsel named by Attorney General Janet Reno to review the government's assault, found that federal agents did not fire a single shot at members of the heavily armed religious cult or start the deadly fire that engulfed their compound.
Nor was there any "massive cover-up" by the government, Danforth said, but several federal lawyers and an FBI agent did fail to reveal that four hours before the compound caught fire, potentially incendiary tear gas rounds were fired, landing harmlessly 75 feet from the living quarters.
"It was important to answer these dark questions for the American people," Danforth said at a St. Louis news conference where he released his report. "I give you these conclusions with 100 percent certainty."
"The responsibility for the tragedy rests with certain of the Branch Davidians and their leader, David Koresh," Danforth said, adding: "This is not a close call."
Danforth's report comes on the heels of last week's jury verdict clearing federal officials in a $675 million civil lawsuit brought by Branch Davidian survivors and relatives. That verdict and the conclusions by Danforth--whose appointment last September was welcomed by both critics and defenders of the government's handling of the tumultuous siege--may begin to put to rest public suspicions and years of congressional inquiries.
The findings are a decisive victory for Reno, who has been dogged by criticism throughout her term as attorney general for the department's aggressive handling of the standoff with the Branch Davidians. Danforth, a Republican who spent 14 years in Congress, specifically cleared Reno and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh of wrongdoing.
The Justice Department and the FBI expressed great relief at the findings.
"Today's independent review sheds further light on the truth, and discredits many of the unsubstantiated allegations that have skewed the public's perception of the events of April 19, 1993," said a statement released by Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
Freeh issued a statement saying the FBI was gratified at the finding that there were no "ill motives" on the part of agents on the scene. Years of unproven allegations have taken a heavy toll on those who were present at Waco, he said.
"Like the jury findings, this report brings great solace to them in that its findings reaffirm that which we have always believed--they did their best and for all the right reasons."
In Texas, however, lawyers for the Branch Davidian plaintiffs, already discouraged by last week's jury verdict, were critical of the Danforth report. "The unanswered questions concerning the use of pyrotechnic devices are very troubling," said Michael A. Caddell, who represented families of those who died at the compound. He said the government's failure to prosecute its own agents or lawyers for misconduct in the investigation reflects a "double standard."
The siege began Feb. 28, 1993, when Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents attempted to serve a search and arrest warrant on Koresh. A gunfight erupted, leaving four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians dead.
A 51-day standoff ensued, coming to an end only when the attorney general gave the go-ahead for tanks driven by FBI agents to pump tear gas into the compound. A fire broke out, consuming the rambling compound. Koresh and 74 followers died, some from fire and some from gunshot wounds the Branch Davidians inflicted on one another, Danforth's report shows.
The inquiry did not exonerate everyone. Danforth said he is continuing to investigate the government officials who failed to disclose the use of the tear gas canisters. But he stressed that his investigation determined that the canisters were not fired at the compound and did not cause the blaze.
"Government personnel, especially government lawyers, owe the American people an openness and candor that was lacking in response to the tragedy at Waco," Danforth said. "Although the government did nothing evil on April 19, 1993, the failure of some of its employees to fully and openly disclose to the American people the use of pyrotechnic devices undermined public confidence in government and caused real damage to our country."
The belated discovery last year that the canisters had been fired--after years of official denials--prompted Reno to appoint Danforth and launch the 10-month investigation.
Danforth said FBI and Justice Department lawyers failed to tell Congress about the canisters during a 1995 investigation of law enforcement actions at Waco, nor did they share the information with defense lawyers during the prosecution of 12 Branch Davidians for the deaths of the four ATF agents.
In addition, an FBI hostage rescue team filed a report to the FBI general counsel's office mentioning an agent had fired the canisters, but an attorney there failed to provide the information to plaintiffs in the Branch Davidians' civil suit or other lawyers at the Justice Department.
Danforth also sharply criticized an internal Justice Department inquiry commissioned by Reno in 1993, calling the failure to pursue the question of whether pyrotechnic devices were used "clearly negligent."
Danforth did not rule out the possibility of criminal charges when his final report is issued in about 3 1/2 months. And still in question is what became of the projectiles, which are missing from evidence.
Justice Department officials said those failings should not obscure the larger findings.
"While I am concerned by his initial findings regarding the government's delay in acknowledging it used three pyrotechnic rounds on April 19," Holder said, "I am heartened by his conclusion that the rounds fired that morning did not cause the fire that engulfed the complex four hours later."
The special counsel's work was conducted by a team of 56 lawyers and investigators who conducted 900 witness interviews, reviewed about 2 million documents and examined infrared videotapes of the assault that led them to conclude government agents fired no shots.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who heads a special Senate task force on Waco, agreed to hold off his inquiry until Danforth completed his work. Yesterday he said he wants to examine the report and take testimony from Danforth, perhaps as early as next week, before deciding whether Congress should continue its investigation.