An unwavering Janet Reno defended her decision to use tear gas to end the siege at Waco but said Tuesday the fiery deaths of children there "will be with me for the rest of my life."
The attorney general rebuffed persistent Republican attempts to blame President Bill Clinton for what went wrong at the Texas standoff two years ago. And Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida, one of two Republicans chairing the hearings, said he was satisfied that she "made the ultimate decision."
But the other co-chair, Rep. Bill Zeliff of New Hampshire, suggested at one point that Clinton made the decision and at another point that he improperly distanced himself from the decision.
"When military weapons are turned on the American people, who makes that decision?" Zeliff asked.
Reno insisted, as she has from the start, that the decision to use tear gas was hers and that Clinton pledged to "back me up" when she explained what the FBI was going to do.
"I made the best judgment I could based on everything I had available," she said.
Reno was the final witness in 10 days of hearings into what went wrong at Waco, where Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and 80 followers died by fire or gunfire on April 19, 1993, six hours after the FBI started filling the compound with tear gas.
The deaths, which the government termed a mass suicide in fires set by the Davidians, ended a 51-day standoff that began with a shootout Feb. 28 that left six Davidians and four federal agents dead.
Throughout the contentious hearings, Republican lawmakers criticized a number of actions taken by the FBI, the Justice Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. But none of the other decisions was as closely examined as the FBI's use of tear gas.
Zeliff said that decision led to the deaths of Koresh and his followers.
"Koresh was the bomb," he said. "We lit the fuse."
Reno said she initially rejected the plan but agreed to it after military experts told her the gas would not be harmful to children inside the compound. Other factors in her decision, she added, included FBI reports that the group had fresh water and enough food for up to a year, the likelihood that reported …