Janet Reno Confronts Waco's Bitter Legacy

By Morganthau, Tom | Newsweek, May 15, 1995 | Go to article overview
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Janet Reno Confronts Waco's Bitter Legacy


Morganthau, Tom, Newsweek


In Newark, NJ., last week, Attorney General Janet Reno chose an audience of federal law-enforcement officers to deliver a speech on a topic that obviously bothers her - the presumed connection between the Oklahoma city bombing and the deaths of 85 Branch Davidians outside Waco, Texas, two years earlier. Speaking "from the heart," Reno lashed out at those who seek to find "a moral equivalency" between the two events. "Such reckless comparisons are despicable and out of bounds, as far as I am concerned," she said. "It is unfair, it is unreasonable, it is a lie, to spread the poison that the government was responsible at Waco for the murder of innocents."

But the questions aren't going away. Waco has spawned a growth industry among far-right conspiracy theorists, some of whom claim the FBI deliberately set the fire that killed 25 children along with cult leader David Koresh and his disciples. It has clearly pushed many members of the militia movement toward paranoia, and two separate federal investigations have not persuaded even mainstream critics that those responsible for the debacle are telling all they know. Now Waco is becoming a political wrangle. last week Republicans in the House and Senate announced hearings on the conduct of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and on the Clinton administration's handling of the incident.

The established facts are damning enough. On Feb. 28,1993, the ATF mounted the biggest raid in its history to seize what it believed was a cache of illegal weapons at the Davidian compound 12 miles outside Waco. According to a harshly worded report released by the Treasury Department in October 1993, this raid was a hopeless botch. Lax security allowed Koresh and his followers to be forewarned of the impending bust, and ATF supervisors knew it. They went ahead anyway and in the subsequent shootout, four ATF agents and six Davidians were killed. The Clinton administration then ordered the FBI'S elite Hostage Rescue Team to replace the ATF, setting up a tense, 51-day standoff with armed cult members in the compound. On April 19, after review by Reno and Bill Clinton, the FBI moved in with tanks to force the cultists to give up. After three attempts to "inject" tear gas into the buildings, a ferocious fire burned Mount Carmel to the ground.

Only nine of the Davidians who were in the compound got out alive. In 1994, eleven cult members were tried in San Antonio on charges of conspiring to murder federal agents. The jury found them not guilty of conspiracy but convicted most on lesser charges.

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