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The Re-igniting of Waco

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The return of Waco could herald the pending death of the final shreds of credibility of Janet Reno and federal law enforcement. Or it may turn out to be one more episode of Stepin Fetchit journalists racing to help cover up the worst misdeeds of the Clinton administration — forever willing to accept whatever government’s latest version of the truth happens to be — regardless of how many times the government has changed its story.

When the House hearings on Waco ended in August 1995, many Americans believed that the Justice Department, FBI, and Clinton administration had been caught lying regarding what happened at Waco. However, Republicans allowed the story to return to hibernation. Last June 30, a federal judge shocked the Clinton administration by allowing wrongful death lawsuits against the feds by Davidian survivors and relatives to proceed. Private investigations, an Academy Award- nominated documentary, and damning responses from Freedom of Information Act requests resulted in a growing surge of new information which eventually broke the dam of media apathy in August 1999.

News leaked out that the feds knowingly suppressed information about using pyrotechnics that might have started fires that killed scores of women and children. Reno was shaken to the core by the revelations, announcing to the media: “I am very, very upset. I don’t think it’s very good for my credibility.” Reno played the victim, lashing out at the FBI for supposedly withholding key information from her. But Reno bears responsibility for whatever she did not find out — since she orchestrated the initial Justice Department investigation to whitewash every fed with any involvement in the scandal.

Revelations about possible and actual federal abuses have trickled out practically every week since then.

Military involvement at Waco

The U.S. military was far more involved at Waco than previously admitted. At the press conference in July 1996 releasing the House report on Waco, I asked the two co-chairs — Bill Zeliff and Bill McCollum — how much cooperation they had gotten from federal agencies. They said the cooperation had been pretty good — except for the Pentagon, which had apparently refused to give them almost any information. (Being good Republicans, they acquiesced in the refusal.)

A former CIA officer told the Dallas Morning News in late August that Delta Force commandos were “present, up front and close” in the final day’s action at Waco in the tanks. If that is the case, either those soldiers violated the Posse Comitatus Act — which prohibits military involvement in domestic law enforcement — or President Clinton has lied about signing a waiver of the act that allowed military participation in this action.

National security is the excuse increasingly invoked for not turning over key files to congressional investigators. The Dallas Morning News reported, “The military has estimated that at least 6,000 pages of its documents are classified, and CIA, FBI, Treasury, ATF [Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms], and Justice Department officials have indicated that their agencies have a number of secret documents relating to the standoff.” The Texas Department of Public Safety last month blocked the release of a report listing all the evidence they collected after the fire because the information contained military secrets. Why the secrecy? Was the military testing new weapons on American citizens during the standoff or what?

Why withhold evidence?

The FBI in early October turned over thousands of pages of key documents to congressional investigators — information previously withheld because it had supposedly been mislaid in boxes kept at Quantico, Virginia, home base of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team. Throughout the 51-day siege, FBI spokesmen bitterly complained that none of the Branch Davidians would leave their residence.

However, in at least seven instances, FBI agents threw flash-bang hand grenades at people who had left the residence — effectively driving them back into the building. (Flash bangs emit a deafening explosion and blinding flash; Clinton’s 1994 crime bill reclassified them as “weapons of mass destruction” and made any private owners of such devices eligible for life in prison.) FBI agents at Waco asked headquarters for permission to shoot Branch Davidians who were leaving the building — regardless of whether they posed a direct threat to federal agents.

New infrared footage from a military plane circling 9,000 feet above the Davidians’ home on the final day indicates that federal agents — most likely the FBI or Delta Force operatives — unleashed machine-gun fire at or into the back of the Branch Davidians’ home — either shortly before or just after the fire broke out.

An investigator for Dan Burton’s House committee concluded that the film does indeed show such gunfire directed at the Davidians. One FBI agent stated in an after-action report that he heard gunfire from the sniper post occupied by Lon Horiuchi, the same FBI agent who killed Vicki Weaver as she held her baby daughter in the cabin door of her Idaho home.

Clinton declaimed on the day after the fire: “I do not think the U.S. government is responsible for the fact that a bunch of religious fanatics decided to kill themselves.” If the FBI or Delta Force shot a single person fleeing from the building under assault — or did anything to impede anyone from exiting the building before or during the fire — the nature of federal action at Waco radically changes. Instead of merely destroying much of the building with their tanks, the FBI was attempting to keep the people inside while the tanks crushed in the walls and collapsed the roofs — long after the air inside was nearly unbreathable because of a massive five-hour chemical warfare attack with CS gas.

Cover-up: an inescable conclusion

The FBI deceived Congress by withholding information that it had six closed-circuit television cameras monitoring the Davidians’ home throughout the siege. These cameras could have recorded the key information that would resolve the major issues of Waco. However, the FBI claims that none of the cameras contained tape. The FBI is relying on a recycled excuse from the ATF, which had cam-coms both in the helicopters and on the ground when it launched its February 28th commando-style raid on the Davidians’ home. ATF officials later claimed that someone had forgotten to put tape in any of the cameras — an unlikely scenario, considering the massive gear-up the ATF press office made to publicize the raid’s success.

Lawyers for surviving Branch Davidians were given a massively doctored videotape of the final day’s FBI assault. The tape has large gaps — including an 80-minute gap just before the fire started. The tape was also spliced numerous times — evoking memories of President Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods.

Bill Johnson, the lead federal attorney on the Waco investigations, sent Janet Reno a personal letter in early September warning her that she had been misled by other people in the Justice Department. The Justice Department quickly responded by removing Johnson from the case.

It is now clear that a massive cover-up has occurred — in the FBI or the Justice Department, or both. Newsweek reported that, according to a senior FBI official, “as many as 100 FBI agents and officials may have known about” the military-style explosive devices used by the FBI at Waco.

Reno could have effectively recused herself by calling for a panel of federal judges to appoint an independent counsel. Instead, she personally chose John Danforth, a former senator and golfing buddy of Clinton’s, to be in charge of the reinvestigation. The Washington establishment hailed the decision because Danforth is widely praised as a “moderate” — at least by the liberal media. It is peculiar to allow someone who is implicated in six years of perjury to be able to choose the person who investigates her and her agency — and to directly supervise and control the day-to-day operation of the investigation. The Justice Department claims the investigation will be objective because Reno has personally recused herself; however, Danforth must report to Eric Holder, Reno’s top subordinate.

Danforth promptly shredded his credibility by choosing federal attorney Edward Dowd as his chief investigator. Two years ago, Dowd used federal funds to campaign against a Missouri state referendum on citizens’ right to carry concealed firearms.

As Yale professor John Lott, who supported the referendum, recalled, “Dowd used taxpayer money to set up a 1-800 line to answer people’s questions about the initiative. He used federal money to also send out a letter to state law enforcement to try to get them to oppose the initiative.” Dowd was under investigation for violating federal law by the Justice Department Inspector General at the time Danforth picked him.

The Washington Times ran a front page story about the investigation — and voilĂ ! — the Justice Department announced the next day that it had cleared Dowd of all charges. When U.S. Senator Kit Bond (R-Mo.) asked to see the official report, the Justice Department refused to provide him any information, claiming that it was protected by the Privacy Act (regarding Dowd’s personnel file).

Danforth announced that he would investigate only the final day’s action — effectively giving a “get out of jail free” card to the ATF. Yet new evidence uncovered by Arizonan investigator David Hardy through FOIA requests ridicules the ATF’s pretext for assaulting the Davidians’ home — that Koresh could not be apprehended outside the so-called compound. Nine days before the February 28 raid, “ATF agents went over and asked David Koresh to go shooting. He agreed. In fact, he provided the ammunition. And the agents handed him their guns.” Yet, the ATF still insisted that Koresh could not be arrested without a small army — and lots of accompanying television cameras.

One of the first things that Danforth did was to ask federal judge Walter Smith to bar private lawyers in the wrongful death suit from interviewing key witnesses. The judge granted a 30-day freeze and Danforth may ask for further delays. Danforth’s actions — along with Clinton administration requests for more time to produce documents — have already resulted in a six-month delay of the trial — which was supposed to open in late October but is now postponed until May 15, 2000 — more than seven years after the Davidians’ mass deaths.

The wrongful-death lawsuits

The wrongful-death lawsuits could yet be derailed by Judge Smith, who wrote a letter to Danforth proclaiming his hope that the civil trial will “help restore the public’s confidence in the government.” At the 1994 murder trial of Branch Davidian survivors over which he presided, Smith opened the trial by announcing that “the government is not on trial” and ended up blocking the defense attorneys from offering any evidence that the Davidians acted in self-defense when the ATF attacked their home. Smith even prohibited the attorneys from introducing into evidence the official Treasury Department report on ATF action at Waco.

The Justice Department may choose to settle the wrongful- death lawsuits — the same way it settled the Weaver family’s lawsuit on the eve of Senate hearings on Ruby Ridge in 1995. It is far easier for the Justice Department to write someone a check (the money comes from taxpayers, after all) than to suffer the same treatment in trial that federal prosecutors render to private defendants. The payoff would generate a few days’ bad press and an uproar on the Internet, but the mainstream media would forget and pretend that the Justice Department was once again “the guardian of our freedoms,” as the subtitle of a 1996 book by two Washington Post reporters proclaimed.

Is obstruction of justice a primary job description of federal law enforcement? On the day after the Waco fire, one of the FBI commanders of the Waco operation, Larry Potts, declared: “Those people thumbed their nose at law enforcement.” And ever since April 19, 1993, federal law enforcement has been thumbing its nose at the U.S. Congress and the American public.

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.