| July 21, 2000
Special Counsel John Danforth details his report into his
JIM LEHRER: And now with his conclusions, former Senator Danforth joins us again from St. Louis. Senator, welcome.
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: And your conclusion on the question about whether or not agents killed people. Your answer is no, is that correct, sir?
|Davidians caused the fire and shootings|
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: My answer is no and it's an absolutely clear answer. As I said today, I stated it with 100 percent certainty. There is no question about it. There is no evidence of gunfire by federal agents that morning. There is absolutely no evidence that the government officials started the fire. By contrast, David Koresh and his followers spread fuel throughout the complex, lit it on fire. And that was the cause of the tragedy; moreover, the Branch Davidians killed about 20 of their own people execution style mainly by shooting them in the head.
JIM LEHRER: So let's take this one at a time. The starting of the fire -- that is -- you have conclusive evidence that that fire was started by those people themselves?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Absolutely conclusive -- including the results of electronic surveillance, which had to be enhanced to hear what was happening. But you could hear the Davidians talking about spreading the fuel. Also, there's physical evidence such as Coleman lantern, containers with puncture marks so the fuel could be spread.
JIM LEHRER: Did that electronic surveillance shed any light on why they were setting the fire?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Well, we've examined the fire why they were setting the fire. And we've interviewed six of the surviving Davidians. We believe that it's related to the religious beliefs of the Davidians; that they believe that death by fire doing battle with the Babylonians, which is how they viewed the government, would transport them to heaven.
JIM LEHRER: So it was in fact a mass suicide?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Yes, it was. I would consider it a mass suicide plus the execution of about 20 people, including five children. So I wouldn't lump the children in the suicide.
JIM LEHRER: Who did the shooting, Senator? Who shot whom and why?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: The only people within the complex were the Davidians themselves. And I can't tell you whether they shot people. I can just tell you the results.
JIM LEHRER: But do you believe... is there any evidence to indicate that these 20 people were singled out because they didn't want to go along with the suicide? They wanted to escape? Is there any evidence on that issue at all?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: I don't think so. I think one of the people was shot in the back, which might indicate that, but most of them were shot in the head.
JIM LEHRER: Why were the children shot? Do you have any idea?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: I can't judge this at all. You know, as I say, we were really looking into whether or not the government was culpable and trying to figure out what happened. And it's absolutely clear that government agents did not fire shots that day.
JIM LEHRER: They fired no shots at all?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: No shots at all.
JIM LEHRER: And the evidence about that, you say is 100 percent certain, is that correct?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: It's 100 percent certain. And, in fact, the evidence presented on the other side was so weak that it had to do with so-called flare tests, which showed flashes. We hired two sets of experts to examine that issue. In both cases they concluded with, again, total certainty, that the reflections were... the flashes were glints of reflected sunlight and that they were not any kind of shots by guns.
JIM LEHRER: These were flashes that turned up on videotape.
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Right.
JIM LEHRER: Right. Now, on the fire, no connection at all -- you're absolutely certain -- between the firing of those pyrotechnic flares and the fire, correct?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: That's right. The pyrotechnics were fired four hours before the fire. They were fired at a target 75 feet away from the residential complex that went up in flames. They were at what amounted to a foundation, a construction site with concrete walls, with water in the bottom of it. They bounced off, and they caused no fire at all.
|American's perception of the government|
JIM LEHRER: What about -- what would you say to - we just ran a tape from the - one of the House hearings on this issue - that this was a profound disgrace for all law enforcement. Can you - would you agree with that?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: I would not agree with that. Now we didn't get into questions of judgment as to - and whether the FBI should have attempted to put the teargas in and that kind of thing. I leave that to the law enforcement people. We got into what I called the dark questions of whether really evil deeds were caused and they were not. And I think what happens when something like this occurs is that it's so shocking and the visual image of the flames and the knowledge that 80 people died, that there's a desire on the part of all of us, maybe all of us, to explain and to decide, hey, something was wrong and government must have done something terrible. So I think we jumped to conclusions. But when the conclusions relate to really terrible suggestions, such as shooting people and setting buildings on fire with people in them, I think that we've exaggerated situation, and that's really an unfair thing to charge.
JIM LEHRER: You spoke to that directly in your three-page preface to your report. And you were... you expressed terrific concern over the fact that there was this conclusion jump, this jump to this conclusion almost immediately that the federal law enforcement officers had caused those people to die. How do you explain that, Senator, this jump, this conclusion jump?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Well, that is the concern expressed in the preface because 61 percent of the American people according to one poll believe that the government started the fire. I think when something terrible happens, we want to try to say somebody is to blame. I think that there are various forums for people who have dark theories of what happened, and those forums help gain public traction for terrible thoughts about what happened and I think basically that's it. I also think that the government in this case, particularly government lawyers, were not forthcoming about the use of the pyrotechnics, even though the pyrotechnics had nothing to do with the fire. The fact that they were not forthcoming caused a lack of confidence in government, so people said, well, if they're not totally truthful even about inconsequential matters, they're not truthful about anything at all.
|Justice Department and FBI withheld information|
JIM LEHRER: So that fed this belief, you think?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: That fed it. And I think the two lessons are first of all, that I think all of us have to be skeptical when people are charged with very serious things or when government is charged with very serious things. There has to be some kind of, presumption that these terrible things didn't happen, and burden on those making the charges to come up with more evidence than is the case here. And I also think that one of the lessons is that the government has to be very candid and very open, which was not entirely the case here.
JIM LEHRER: Well, let's go through that. There were FBI agents and Justice Department lawyers who withheld this information, correct?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Right.
JIM LEHRER: And are they still on the payroll?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Why? I mean why are they still working?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Well, first of all our report was just issued today, so I don't know what's going to be done. I know in the case of one FBI lawyer, we are referring this matter to the Office of Professional Responsibility in the FBI. So I don't know what's going to happen in this the case. They will have to weigh it and reach their own conclusions.
JIM LEHRER: Do you have any idea why these people withheld the information?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: No. The remaining subjects for investigation... And as I said today, we're about 95 percent finished, but there's about 5 percent left, and it all has to do with why there wasn't disclosure of the use of the pyrotechnic devices. And this is something that we're continuing to investigate.
JIM LEHRER: But the lack of disclosure, was it at the very top of the Justice Department or...
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: No.
JIM LEHRER: ..where was it? Tell us where this happened.
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Yeah, I think that is a very important point to make. It was not at the very top of the Justice Department. Janet Reno knew nothing about it. The directors at the time and now of the FBI had no knowledge of this. It was a surprise to them. On the other end of the spectrum the FBI agents who were present at the time and who were actually firing the pyrotechnics were totally open about it. They made no bones about it. They told the government lawyers. But somewhere in between the people who did it and the very highest levels of the Justice Department, evidence that was known by people, information that was known by people, was not passed on and was not disclosed to the public. And, in fact, it was not only not disclosed, but contrary representations were made so that it reinforced the idea that no pyrotechnics were used when in fact they were.
JIM LEHRER: They, in effect, lied?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: They in effect lied.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. And how many people were involved in this?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Well, these are matters that are under investigation right now. There was one FBI lawyer who had information who did not pass it on. We are looking into the so-called criminal trial team, the team of Justice Department lawyers who prosecuted the Branch Davidians back in 1993-1994. And we're looking into the question of why the projectiles that were shot, the pyrotechnic projectiles and the shell casings are missing.
JIM LEHRER: Senator, you said at the end of your preface and let me quote you here, the Waco investigation is the most important work I have ever done. Why is that?
|Public confidence and the government|
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: That's because the real issue has to do with public confidence in government. It has to do with the consent of the governed, which is right there in the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. It's the basis of government. When 61 percent of the American people believe that government would do something as terrible as set a building on fire with 80 people in it, it seems to me that the confidence of government has been so shaken, that this is a serious matter. And the only way to deal with it is to get at the truth. We've been engaged at this now ten plus month, very detailed investigation in order to lay out the truth.
JIM LEHRER: You said that even in the course of your investigation there were still some people within the Justice Department who tried to withhold information from you or did not... were not forthcoming. What is that all about?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Well, I think that one of the problems to try to explain why Justice Department lawyers or officials would not be totally forthcoming with information is that there is a kind of a bunker mentality. Something terrible goes on. Investigations are held, such as the special counsel investigation or congressional hearings. They feel that they're under siege in the Justice Department; they feel that any information that's given is going to get people in trouble. And therefore, they tend to be very close fisted in passing on the information. And then that, in turn, feeds the disbelief or the distrust of the American people.
JIM LEHRER: And you think this is a very serious problem, do you not?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: I think it's a very serious problem. I think that the preface of our report really lays out what I believe about this. How can it happen that when there is really no evidence that government agents did these terrible things, how can it happen that people would come to believe that? How or why is it that we as a people are so ready to believe such dark things? And what can government do to make sure that public confidence is at a high level, rather than public confidence easily shaken by the failure to turn over evidence even on small matters such as the pyrotechnics, which had nothing to do with the fire?
JIM LEHRER: Finally, Senator, on that question, as it relates to that general question, the specifics you've already mentioned, the people who withheld information, who were not forthcoming, what was your overall impression when you finished? You interviewed 900 people. You reenacted the incident down there. You did tremendous investigating. What was your overall impression of the people involved in this who work for the United States Government?
SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Well, I can tell you my impression of the people from the postal inspection service who were part of the investigation, is that we have some very good people in law enforcement in this country. My impression of the -- certain people in the Justice Department is that they should have been forthcoming. They had information, and that they didn't disclose this information, and that caused real damage to the country. And my impression just as a general principle is that when charges are made, and very serious charges about anybody, including government, all of us owe a degree of skepticism about those dire charges and a degree of presumption that people really are innocent, and not just jump to the conclusion that to make a charge is tantamount to proving the charge.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Senator Danforth, thank you very much.