August 26, 1999
Six years after fire ended a 51-day standoff between Branch Davidians and federal agents, the Justice Department admits to using pyrotechnic devices at the compound. Two journalists discuss the investigation.
KWAME HOLMAN: It was six years ago last April an inferno ended the 51-day standoff between federal authorities and the group known as the Branch Davidians. At least 76 members of the sect died in the fast-moving fire that engulfed the Davidians' wooden compound in Waco, Texas. The group's leader, David Koresh was among the dead. Almost from the moment the blaze began, its exact cause was a subject of dispute. Group members who escaped the fire and families of those who didn't filed a wrongful death suit against the federal government claiming police agencies caused the catastrophe.
Federal agents used tanks and teargas during their attack on the compound but from the outset and throughout several Justice Department and congressional investigations, the government denied using any fire-causing devices. Arson investigators said they found evidence the Branch Davidians had spread gasoline and other fuels throughout the compound before the fire. Nine days after the fire, Attorney General Reno told a House Committee "I wanted and received assurances that the gas and its means of use were not pyrotechnic. I was concerned about intentional or accidental explosions." Today, however, the government's story changed.
JANET RENO: I am very, very troubled by the information I received this week suggesting that pyrotechnic devices may have been used in the early morning hours on April 19, 1993 at Waco. At this time, all available indications are that the devices were not directed at the main wooden compound, were discharged several hours before the fire started, and were not the cause of the fire. Nonetheless, it is absolutely critical that we do everything humanly possible to learn all the facts as accurately as possible and make them available to the public and Congress. Prior to April 19, I received assurances that the gas and its means of use were not pyrotechnic. Since then, I have consistently been told that no pyrotechnic devices were used. I will continue to pursue this matter to get to the truth.
That is why Director Freeh and I have ordered a full review of all the facts concerning this matter. I intend the results of the review to be made public and I will not stop till I get to the bottom of this. One of the things that you have learn, if you care about public service is that it's not always the easy issues -- that you face very difficult issues. You do the best you can. You try to pursue every avenue to get to the right thing to do, to get to the truth. And if you are going to let things get you down, maybe you should go do something else.
KWAME HOLMAN: The F.B.I. and Justice Department today began a fresh investigation into what happened at Waco, assigning agents to re-interview witnesses. Meanwhile, members of Congress are asking questions of their own. Both the House and Senate panels that oversee the FBI are planning inquiries.
|A new investigation into Waco|
MARGARET WARNER: To explain what's behind this we turn to two journalists: Lee Hancock of the Dallas Morning News, who has covered the Waco story since 1993, and Roberto Suro, who covers the Justice Department for the Washington Post. Roberto Suro, what caused this turnaround on the attorney general's part?
ROBERTO SURO, Washington Post: Well, from the outset she has based her position that she takes responsibility for what happened at Waco on the firm belief that law enforcement had no part in starting the fire. The mere possibility that in some way law enforcement might have become involved in setting off that fire and the deaths that resulted is deeply troubling to her, and sparked her determination, her very angry determination, as you could see, to get to the bottom of this.
MARGARET WARNER: And what was she told that made her decide that she had to do this?
ROBERTO SURO: Well, she was told, contrary to everything she has been told since 1993, she was told that there were pyrotechnic devices, tear gas canisters that were capable of starting a fire that have an incendiary quality in the way they were propelled at the structure were on the scene and may have been used. She had previously been told, as she said this morning, quite consistently, that there was nothing in the law enforcement arsenal that could have started that fire. And this evidence directly contradicts that point.
MARGARET WARNER: Lee Hancock, how did this new evidence come to light?
LEE HANCOCK, Dallas Morning News: Well, over the summer it became apparent that an independent investigator, a gentleman who's done one documentary on Waco, had been allowed into the evidence lockers at the Texas Department of Public Safety in Austin to look at some evidence that he had gotten photographs of from crime scene pictures. These were given to the defense attorneys in the Davidian criminal trial. And there were questions as to what those pieces of evidence that were projectiles actually were. The Rangers began investigating, the Texas Rangers, who have custody of the evidence.
We began asking experts to look at these photographs and an expert from James Information actually looked at one picture and said it was, in fact, a pyrotechnic tear gas grenade made for the US military that this photograph was taken from the area around the compound and the Rangers said they further have developed evidence that it was used by the FBI on the 19th.
After that, over the weekend, we had an interview with Danny Coleson, he's a former -- senior FBI official. He's the founding commander of the Hostage Rescue Team, which was on scene at Waco. They were trying to -- they were trying to get a peaceful end to this entire standoff. Mr. Coleson was not actually in Waco, but he said he learned from others on the hostage rescue team that two of these devices, two M651 CS gas grenades were actually fired and were fired with the permission of supervisors in the FBI on the 19th.
|The use of pyrotechnics|
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Now, Roberto, the attorney general and FBI, though, are still insisting that these could not have caused the fire. Explain that.
ROBERTO SURO: Well, the evidence available thus far to Reno's office indicates that these devices were fired a good three, perhaps even four hours prior to the outbreak of the fire that caused the deaths in the major part of the compound -- and that they were fired at an outbuilding a good hundred yards away from the main building where the people died in the fire some hours later. The problem is that once the question is raised, that there may have been these pyrotechnic devices -- these projectiles were fired at one point, Reno is obliged to determine and be certain whether or not they may have been fired at some other point and whether they were fired at the building where the fire took place at some point.
MARGARET WARNER: Lee Hancock, there had also been, had there not, an independent arson investigation that it also concluded that the fires started in the complex itself. Does this new evidence fight with that in any way?
LEE HANCOCK: Well, I don't think so in the main because the arson investigators relied on chemical testing which found that the residues of four or five different kinds of flammable liquids, gasoline, charcoal lighter fluid, camp stove fuel were poured throughout the compound before the fire. In addition, there were FBI bugging devices that picked up voices of Branch Davidians in the compound starting almost immediately after the gas assault began to talk about spreading fuel. A Davidian who came out of the fire who survived told investigators and testified before a federal grand jury that in fact he had heard someone -- he did not know who -- say "start the fire, start the fire."
So the problem is that the arson investigators much like Ms. Reno and other senior federal officials relied on assurances of the FBI that no pyrotechnic devices were used. And in their report they state that the gas insertion by the FBI had no effect on the fire. And they base that on the report that there were no pyrotechnics of any kind that day.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, staying with you, Lee Hancock, and I know that is complicated - but explain this as briefly as you can or simply why is it -- it is been five, six years now since this fire -- why has this evidence been sitting in a evidence room and has never come to light before given all the investigations, given the lawsuits that some of the family members have filed? Why has it not become public till now?
LEE HANCOCK: Very simply, the Texas Rangers were bought in to investigate this matter. They were deputized as United States Marshals. And after the criminal trials, they were asked to keep the evidence in the case. But the Justice Department told them that if anyone asked to see it, they were supposed to route that request up to Washington. And then in turn, people in Washington would simply tell any persons who wanted to see the evidence they were sorry but Washington and the Justice Department didn't have custody of it. So they would then route it back to Austin. That resulted in what the head of the Texas Department of Public Safety Commission James B. Francis of Dallas said, amounted to a catch-22. He said it had not been an intentional cover-up but it was a stone wall blocking people from seeing the evidence.
MARGARET WARNER: Go ahead. Roberto, how does the FBI explain that this
evidence never came to light?
ROBERTO SURO: The FBI officially is expressing its surprise at uncovering this information, and vows an investigation of itself. At this point it's not offered a full explanation of how its operatives had possession of this ordinance and that failed be noted in the reports that the FBI presented to Congress and to the attorney general.
|The center of the controversy|
MARGARET WARNER: But Lee Hancock just told us that in fact even an FBI agent, a former agent that she spoke with this weekend knew about this. I mean....
ROBERTO SURO: He knew about it only in just this the summer. Coleson has said he did not know about it at the time or the time he wrote a book of all of that. He has come to understand the existence of these projectiles only recently himself. What remains unknown and what the very difficult question here is whether senior FBI executives who were running the siege knew about the projectiles and did not inform either their superiors here in Washington or, most importantly, the attorney general. If that, that certainly will be a major focal point of this investigation.
MARGARET WARNER: Lee Hancock, anything you want to add to that? Have you done any, for instance, reporting into that aspect?
LEE HANCOCK: Yes. Actually, what Mr. Coleson told me was that he heard about questions being raised by the Rangers trying to figure out what some of the evidence they had was. And so he simply he called his colleagues up at HRT, the guys he used to work with.
MARGARET WARNER: HRT?
LEE HANCOCK: Hostage Rescue Team -- last week, they said, oh, yes, it was no secret. It had long been commonly known in hostage rescue teams that these devices were used. And they were surprised that was any big deal.
MARGARET WARNER: Lee, staying with you, what are the implications of this for the lawsuit that has been filed in this case?
|A question of credibility|
LEE HANCOCK: Well, certainly the plaintiff's lawyers are saying that this admission by the FBI should call into question the government's entire story about what happened. They are going to argue that the government can't be trusted with anything that it's told us about what happened on the 19th or during the entire siege.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Roberto, what are the implications here for Justice and the FBI?
ROBERTO SURO: There is a very fundamental and question of credibility here that is very difficult for Reno and very difficult in a personal way. You have to remember that Waco followed the Ruby Ridge incident which -- in which there was an FBI shooting under disputed circumstances which led to several senior FBI executives being forced out of work and one of them pleading to an obstruction of justice charge for covering up evidence of a disputed actions in the Ruby Ridge. Many of those same individuals were involved at the time of Waco.
Beyond that, the level of concern in certain circles about the FBI action at Waco has haunted Reno throughout her career. It was Waco which was in the mind of Tim McVeigh when he set off the bomb of Oklahoma City on the anniversary of this fire. And so it's a deeply difficult question to face at this point that somehow there has been evidence lurking around in Texas that has not come to light, the possibility of a cover-up. All of these things resonate quite forcefully in Washington and beyond and among the many people in certain political circles here who question the FBI, question the justice establishment and have a basic suspicion of all the events surrounding Waco.
MARGARET WARNER: Is there, Roberto staying with you, is there any question within the Justice Department about whether the FBI now is really the agency to investigate this?
ROBERTO SURO: There is a question and one of the things that has been under debate today is whether to go outside to ensure the credibility of this investigation. When you have to admit, when Reno has to admit that she has been misinformed for six years, how does she regain credibility? And that's what was very much under discussion today. The results should be known perhaps later today or tomorrow. But one of the possibilities is to go to an U.S. Attorney, who is not involved in this, or to another prominent prosecutor or investigator who could look into this matter and produce a report that would carry some greater credibility.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, Roberto Suro and Lee Hancock, thank you both very much.