"The Children of Waco"
- by Peter J. Boyer
- First published in The New Yorker (May 15, 1995)
- Reprinted by permission of the author
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Two years ago, a woman named Amo Bishop Roden came to live in the place where David Koresh and eighty-five of his Branch Davidian followers had just died. At first, the authorities kept her away from the site, and she lived in a ditch alongside the gravel road leading to the property, but eventually the officials left and she moved in, fashioning an eight-by-eight-foot home for herself from scattered fence posts, pallets, sheet metal, and some screens that were used to sift evidence from the ashes. Amo says she came because she was instructed by God to keep alive the true "end-time church," charged with gathering up the righteous before the destruction of the world. Also, she sold T-shirts, photographs, and other Davidian memorabilia. From the beginning, there was a public. "People come by every day, " she told me last week. "And usually it's running around a hundred a day."
As a tourist attraction, the site does not offer much; after the incineration of the compound, on April 19, 1993, bulldozers razed what remained of the buildings, and also the concrete bunkers below. Still, some people have come--a constant flow of them, determined to walk among the ruins, gaze at the foundations beneath the rubble, or glimpse the Davidian swimming pool, which the bulldozers somehow left in place. They walk through the grove of young crape myrtles, each bearing a cross and the name and sometimes the picture of a Davidian who died in the fire. But only a few of the visitors are motivated by religion. "Most of them are tourists, but some are constitutional activists," Amo says; that is, members of that portion of the American extreme fringe which believes the F.B.I. raid on the Davidian compound exemplified a government at war with its citizens.
To them, Waco is a shrine, and April 19th is a near-mystical date, warranting sober commemoration. Last month, on the second anniversary of the Waco conflagration, among those gathered at the site were former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who represents some Davidian survivors and families, and who believes that a special prosecutor should investigate the government's actions, and an honor guard from the Northeast Texas Constitutional Militia, which showed up in full military dress to dedicate a stone monument listing the names of the dead. It was also on that morning, of course, that a bomb exploded at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in Oklahoma City. Timothy McVeigh, the principal suspect in the bombing, had himself made the pilgrimage to Waco, an experience that is said to have fed his rage against the federal government. The phony driver's license that McVeigh handed to the police officer who arrested him listed the issue date as April 19th.
If the Oklahoma City horror alerted the American mainstream to a dangerous and heretofore mostly unregarded fringe, it also served as a reminder that Waco remains a piece of unfinished national business. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who was a Vietnam War prisoner, likens the brooding enshrinement of Waco to the dark mosaic of conspiracy and mistrust made of the unknown fates of missing American servicemen in Vietnam. McCain feels that a tortured yearlong congressional inquiry into the P.O.W. question firmly answered the question of the missing servicemen. But the government has never convincingly addressed the question of its own culpability in the Branch Davidian disaster, and its failure to do so has created a psychic void that is filled by paranoiac scenarios. Dr. Alan A. Stone, a professor of psychiatry and law at Harvard University, who was one of ten experts invited to review the Waco event, believes that the mistakes made at Waco will continue to fuel extremism until they are acknowledged. "The further I get away from Waco, the more I feel that the government stonewalled, " Stone says. "It would be better if the government would just say, 'Yes, we made mistakes, and we've done this, this, and that, so it won't happen again.' And, to my knowledge, they've never done it." McCain, among others, has called for congressional hearings into the handling of Waco, so that "when people say that the government plotted to go in and kill women and children, we can say, 'Wait a minute, here are the facts that came out in a congressional hearing.'" Representative Bill McCollum, Republican of Florida, has announced that the House Subcommittee on Crime will hold hearings. Robert Dole, the Senate Majority Leader, has said he wants the Senate to investigate as well. The media, including the Times, have also begun to take a second look.
The resurrection of Waco cannot be a welcome development for the one living person most closely associated with the tragedy--Attorney General Janet Reno, who approved the F.B.I plan to move in on the Davidian compound with Bradley tanks and tear gas. The event defined her publicly, for better or for worse, and privately it haunts her still. "I don't think she has put it behind her, and I don't think she ever will," says Sara Smith, an old friend of Reno's. "I think it is part of her soul." In the coarse, nasty world of the militant extremists, Reno has become an evil icon because of Waco and also because of her stout opposition to guns. The week before the Oklahoma City bombing, Reno's sister, Maggie Hurchalla, received a phone call from a friend who expressed alarm over a recorded telephone message disseminated by a local racist, which, to understate it, wished "Butch Reno" an unhappy demise.
Janet Reno's decision on Waco was made, it seems in retrospect, under impossibly difficult circumstances. The Davidian standoff--begun with the abortive February 28th raid by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms--had become a ripe crisis before Reno, an obscure local prosecutor from Miami, was even confirmed. That she was suddenly thrust into the position of resolving it was largely an accident of politics. After the election, Bill Clinton's campaign promise of diversity in his staff was transmuted by "Nannygate" into a premium on childlessness. Having lost his first two Attorney General nominees, Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, to domestic-help difficulties, Clinton reached down his list for a self-described "awkward old maid" who had been suggested to him by his brother-in-law over dinner. (In interviewing Reno, the White House vetting staff, twice burned, focussed on such questions as "Whom have you hired as domestic help?" and "Whom have you hired as a nanny?" and "Have you ever hired any other helping hands?")
From the moment Clinton introduced Reno to the nation in a Rose Garden press session, in February of 1993, she seemed a species apart from that which national politics naturally breeds. Tall (six feet two) and slightly slope-shouldered, and walking as if her feet hurt in shoes, she was as unglossed as raw timber, and as new. After living nearly all her fifty-four years at home in Florida with her mother, Reno came to Washington to live alone in an apartment where even the coffee-maker and the clock radio were rented. She was not a Friend of Bill, nor did she have close allies in the White House. She was close to no one in the top rank of the Justice Department she now headed, and her requests for two deputies she had met and admired during the confirmation process were denied. So in mid-April of 1993 Janet Reno was in a new job, in a new town, and was taking advice from a roomful of virtual strangers--Webster Hubbell, nominal assistant, was a Clinton crony from Arkansas--when she was obliged to make her first important decision as Attorney General, one of life-and-death consequence. Furthermore, evidence seems to suggest that a key misrepresentation and an omission by the F.B.I. played a part in winning her eventual approval of the plan it had devised for the ending of the siege.
Ever since the Davidians' February shootout with the A.T.F., the F.B.I. had been on the scene outside Waco, trying to talk Koresh out. The Bureau's stated objective, endorsed by President Clinton, was peaceful resolution of the standoff, "no matter how long it took." Over the weeks, negotiations brought the release of twenty-one children and several adults, but the process was a slow and frustrating one. Complicating the effort was the fact that there were two camps among the F.B.I.'s forces at Waco--the Hostage Rescue Team and the negotiators. The rescue team comprised the F.B.I.'s elite tactics specialists, who by instinct and training were inclined toward action. (It was they who ultimately conceived and executed the tear-gas plan). The negotiators' approach was to build trust over time and then exploit it toward the desired end--getting people out of the compound without further loss of life to either side. At times throughout the impasse, the two factions were distinctly at odds. While negotiators were talking with Koresh and others in the Branch Davidian compound, the tactics team was increasing pressure, often without consultation. At one point in March, the negotiators successfully talked Koresh into allowing two people out, but that very night the tactics squad turned off the electricity to the compound, enraging Koresh. Several days later, the negotiators won the release of seven more people, but the tactics team bulldozed Davidian cars outside the compound and broadcast loud music into the night. As the standoff continued, the tactics-team maneuvers came to include the exploding of stun devices whenever a Davidian wandered past a certain boundary without permission.
The negotiators complained that the trust they'd built was being undermined. Among those who supported them in that view were some of their colleagues in the F.B.I. By the second week of the standoff, Peter Smerick and Mark Young, psychological profilers for the F.B.I., began to worry that the tactics people were "action-oriented" and inclined to move too quickly toward a tactical rather than a negotiated solution. They warned, too, that the tactical methods would drive the Davidians closer together in their faith in Koresh by demonstrating that the government agents were the enemy, just as Koresh claimed. The lack of progress in negotiations, which was cited as one justification for the tear-gassing, seems to have been at least partly attributable to the harassment from the tactics team.
As the plan for using tear gas began to advance within the F.B.I., officials rejected advice that escalating the pressure dramatically -as in tear-gas action-would provoke the very apocalypse that Koresh had hinted at. Smerick and Young said that the tactics people should move away from the compound and that tactical pressure "should be the absolute last option we should consider." Clinton Van Zandt, of the F.B.I.'s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime--the so-called "Silence of the Lambs" team--and Dr. Joseph Krofcheck, a psychiatrist, studied a letter given by Koresh to the F.B.I. on April 9th, which contained scriptural references to destruction by fire and explosion, and concluded that an F.B.I. confrontation with Koresh might "bring this matter to a 'magnificent' end, in his mind, a conclusion that could take the lives of all of his followers and as many of the authorities as possible."
Despite the impasse in talks with the Davidians, the majority of the negotiators were willing to continue their efforts, and at least some of them strongly believed that further negotiations would bring more adults or more children from the building. "I'll always, in my own mind, feel like maybe we could have gotten some more people out," one negotiator said in an interview several months after the event.
By the time the F.B.I. came to Reno for approval, on April 12th, its leaders were presenting a united front. A Justice Department report, compiled after the conflagration, offers no indication that Reno was ever informed of the dissension within the Bureau, or that she was told that some negotiators still hoped to talk more people out of the compound. Reno, on the job for just a month, had not yet built constituencies in the Justice Department, and had no cadre of confidants.
The report, which was made public in October of 1993, insists that "F.B.I. did not try to 'railroad' her," but a careful reading of the Department's own chronology strongly suggests that the senior Bureau officials who intensively briefed Reno in the week before the assault sought to eliminate her reservations to the gas plan by ruling out alternatives and by satisfying her doubts. And at least one F.B.I. official went beyond that.
During a briefing by the F.B.I. on April 12th, Reno was told that the plan was tentatively scheduled for April 14th. Reno asked the question that President Clinton would late ask her: "Why now?" The F.B.I. officials, led by then Director William Sessions (whose job was under attack, and who desperately needed to save his career), argued that Koresh's surrender seemed unlikely any time soon. Reno did not approve the plan.
On April 14th, Reno again met with Sessions and his deputies. This time, they brought along the current and former commanders of the United States Army's Delta Force commando squad. The Army people told her that the tear gas was safe, that it was used every year on United States soldiers during training, and, apparently, that it wouldn't catch fire. Dr. Harry Salem, an Army toxicologist, told Reno that the gas would likely not hurt the kids or pregnant women. Richard Rogers, the head of the Hostage Rescue Team, said his men would soon need to "stand down" for rest and retraining. Reno wanted to know why, if they needed relief, SWAT teams couldn't be sent in. She was told, according to the report, that the rescue team was "essential." So by the second meeting the F.B.I. had added a new element of urgency: the tactics guys, essential for controlling the scene, would soon have to withdraw if the plan wasn't approved.
The next day, April 15th, Reno again asked, "Why now?" Her advisers telephoned Byron Sage, who was one of the principal negotiators. He believed further negotiations would be fruitless. Koresh was being disingenuous in his discussions about such Davidians as the "Seven Seal," and Sage said he'd never seen such a total impasse. Besides, he said, agents on the ground were getting tired and their tempers were fraying. Hubbell related this conversation to Reno, who still did not approve the plan.
On April 16th, Hubbell reported a decision: Reno's answer to the F.B.I.'s gas plan was no. But, instead of accepting her decision, Sessions and his two top deputies, Floyd Clarke and Larry Potts, came to the Justice Building, and Sessions asked to see Reno personally. Reno, still unconvinced of the urgency, asked for a documented statement outlining the plan, the current state of negotiations, and the situation inside the compound. By the next day--a Saturday--Reno had received the documentation. She then reversed herself, and approved the plan. The tanks moved in on Monday.
What changed Reno's mind? The implication in the main body of the Justice Department report on Waco is that the documented statement Reno had requested from the F.B.I. somehow swayed her, because after receiving it she began discussing the rules of engagement with Sessions, Clarke, and Potts, but a footnote in the report notes that Reno "did not read the prepared statement carefully, nor did she read the supporting documentation provided along with her statement. She [merely] satisfied herself that 'the documentation was there.'" It subsequently became clear that Reno's decision to approve the plan was influenced by her belief that there was ongoing child abuse inside the Davidian compound. The F.B.I.'s briefing book on the Waco situation, which was compiled that final weekend, mentioned allegations by former Davidians and by psychiatrists of child abuse by Koresh--his belief that even girls in their early teens were potential "wives" and the Davidians' practice of corporal punishment--but there was no evidence of ongoing abuse. However, sometime during the week of meetings with Reno, in which F.B.I. officials were addressing her reservations about an assault, someone from the Bureau had told Reno that children inside the compound were being abused. The Justice chronology reports that "someone had made a comment in one of the meetings that Koresh was beating babies." Reno had pressed that official ("I double-checked it," she later said), and got "the clear impression that, at some point since the F.B.I. had assumed command and control for the situation, they had learned that the Branch Davidians were beating babies."
In fact, the Department report states the opposite conclusion, noting that, because Koresh had been wounded in the February 28th shootout, his mobility was so restricted during the standoff that he would have been unable to abuse children sexually or physically even if he had been so inclined. Dr. Bruce Perry, chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital, was the head of the crisis team that took charge of the twenty-one children released from the Davidian compound during the standoff, and therefore know as much as anyone on the outside about the likely condition of the children on the inside. During nearly two months of close evaluation of the children, Perry and his team probed for signs of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, and also for insights regarding life inside the compound which could be projected into assumptions about the possible outcome of the standoff. Perry found socialization problems with the children, but he concluded in his report that " the children released from Ranch Apocalypse do not appear to have been victims of sexual abuse" or of physical abuse severe enough to warrant state intervention.
Perplexed by Reno's insistence that the tear gas assault was necessary to save the children, Perry later told me he could only conclude that Reno had been strongly urged toward that conclusion: "The FBI maximized things they knew would ring a bell with her."
Reno had arrived in Washington with the reputation, perhaps unique among big-city prosecutors, of being a child advocate. As Dade County State Attorney, she was able to dictate policy on such difficult child-related crime issues as whether or not to recommend imprisonment for a drug addicted mother. Her answer was no, because imprisonment would separate the child from its mother and thus in Reno's view, accelerate the cycle of neglect and crime. In the mid-ninteen-eighties, Reno got so involved in the child-welfare issues created by the crack epidemic that she considered adopting a crack baby. (She decided her schedule was too demanding.) Her social-worker impulse led critics to nickname her Root Cause Reno, because of her insistence that crime was not committed by bad people but caused by dysfunctional homes. "She was more an advocate for juveniles than she was a traditional prosecutor," Seymour Gelber, her first boss in the Miami prosecutor's office recalls.
This child motif, which has characterized Reno's public identity, grew out of rough, deeply felt experiences in her own childhood in the wild country at the edge of the Everglades. In fact, her family lived a ninteen-forties version of what might now be considered a crank survivalists' life style. Her father, Henry Reno, had been a legendary crime reporter at the Miami Herald . Her mother, Jane, was a lawyer's daughter who refused to become a Southern belle and, in rebelling against her family's expectations, opted for the bohemian literary life. She was genuinely eccentric. "I can still see Jane with Janet in her lap and a cigarette and a highball, saying, 'Now don't upset mother's gin,'"an old newspaper friend named Jack E. Anderson recalled before his death last year. "She drank too much, and she would get argumentative. And she'd throw her shoes off and get down!" In the early years of the marriage, the couple's home became a sort of salon for the young Miami newspaper set and assorted writers and artists. (One of Janet's most vivid early memories is of her mother sobbing beneath a banyan tree on the day of F.D.R.'s death. "Stories of Roosevelt were part and parcel of our upbringing," she recalled when I spoke with her in the fall of 1993.)
After the war, Janet and Henry bought twenty one acres of land at the edge of the Everglades-a place so remote that the nearest store was five miles away. Jane decided to build a home, literally. She drew the plans, dug the foundation, and did much of the construction on a cracker-style house, which came to be known as Reno Ranch. The project took several years, and in the meantime the family lived in a small, ramshackle place that blended with its environment."It was character-building," Janet's sister, Maggy, recalls. "There was no heat except for a smelly old kerosene stove. The wind blew through the cracks. You couldn't keep the mice out." In a time that for most kids was an era of rigid conventionality, the Reno's lives were utterly without it. As television was bringing images of idealized, "Donna Reed" housewives presiding over pristine homes, theirs was handmade and permanently unfinished. (In its physical primativeness, Reno Ranch had something in common with Ranch Apocalypse.) There were no doors to the bathrooms, and one day Jane just stopped working on the ceiling, leaving a section of it open to the rafters. Jane didn't believe in housework, and the place usually showed it. The few school friends who made the trek out to Reno Ranch were sometimes rudely treated. When the children were still in grade school, Henry suddenly began to withdraw. He had often stayed out late, working or drinking, but increasingly he was not coming home at all. "I think he had a slight stroke," Janet recalled. "We've never been quite sure.... And that's when I was about in the fifth grade, and I think he started drinking more heavily after that. And he became more removed from about the time I was eleven."
After Henry Reno's departure, the children lived in a world created and ruled by Jane Reno. In most respects, she was a remarkably creative and devoted dictator. But Maggy, asked about stories suggesting that life with Jane could be somewhat difficult, responds, after prolonged laughter, "My mother was not 'somewhat difficult.' My mother could be extremely difficult!" Some of the ways in which Jane showed her individuality were plainly embarrassing: she swore; she didn't wear makeup or a bra; she didn't fix her hair or attend to her teeth, which eventually went bad and came out(not to be replaced by bridgework); and she drank. On one mortifyingly memorable occasion, the kids were called in the the middle of the night by the Coral Gables Police Department, which had Jane in custody. She had passed out on the sidewalk. "She had walked away from a party," Maggy recalls, "and decided it was too late to bother the friend that she was going to see, so she curled up on the sidewalk and went to sleep. Whereupon she was awakened by a very huffy policeman and taken to the Coral Gables jail, where she proceeded to play 'Shave and a Haircut' on the plumbing until we came to get her."
The children sometimes felt the lash of Jane's sharp tongue, and often she gave her disapproval physical expression. She spanked her children, apparently quite hard, when they provoked her wrath; sometimes she used her hand, sometimes a switch, and sometimes she whipped them with a pony bridle.
When Janet was fourteen, she told her mother that she meant to become a lawyer one day. Her mother forbade it. But when Janet wanted to go to Cornell Jane sold off a piece of land to pay for her years there, and when Janet was accepted at Harvard Law School Jane "wept with joy," Janet recalled. Theirs was a powerful and complicated bond, and when Janet finished law school she returned home to live with her mother. Jane had not mellowed with age. Sara Smith remembers an incident that exemplified the value of forbearance regarding Jane. She and another friend went with Jane and Janet to see "The Belle of Amherst," the play about Emily Dickinson, who was Jane's favorite poet. "And at some point they had Julie Harris up there simpering into her handkerchief, and Jane, at the top of her lungs, said, 'Goddam it to hell! Emily Dickinson never simpered once in her entire life!' And, of course, every head ahead of me turned, except Janet's. Janet knew exactly where the outburst came from, knew exactly who it was. Now, Janet would not have apologized for her. Jane was Jane, and you handled it."
Friends sometimes cringe when Janet tells them about the whippings and Jane's other unpleasant behavior, and more than one acquaintance has characterized it as abuse. Janet, however, doesn't see it that way. "Mother loved us hard and she spanked us hard," she has often said, and when Jane died, in December, 1992, her eldest daughter conveyed in her eulogy the mixed passions that Jane inspired. "She could say 'I love you' better than anyone I know," Janet Reno said. "Even in the last days, as we came onto her porch she would say, "Hello, my darling. I love you!'" But later in the eulogy Reno also noted, "I take some small comfort today in knowing that Mother will not insult anyone or embarrass the family. She was responsible for the most excruciating moments of my life."
From this intense and complicated growing up, Reno may have derived an impulse (said to be common among children of drinkers) to step into the breach. "Despite being a strong person who's very opposed to crime and injustice of all sorts," Janet Mc Aliley, and old friend, says, "Janet is a rescuer." Waco wasn't the first time Reno's concern for children may have affected her judgement. When she became state attorney in Dade County, her office became known for its prosecutions of cases involving ritualistic sexual abuse of children in day care. Reno's office enlisted the services of two outside child-abuse specialists to question the children, using interview techniques that aimed at prompting disclosure. Although many of the children seemed reluctant to "disclose" the abuse, the interviewers eventually elicited from them horrifying tales of bizarre ritualistic abuses. Charges were brought, and convictions were obtained. One Satanic-ritual-abuse case involved a fourteen-year-old boy, Bobby Fijnje, who worked as a babysitter at a church. Again, specialists helped children "disclose," and a good number of the children at the church told tales of Bobby killing and eating babies, and leading naked dances around a campfire, witches flying, and eerie journeys to a cemetery where, one child said, Freddy Krueger came out of a grave. Much of this was said to have occurred during daytime services at a Presbyterian church in an affluent suburban neighborhood.
The jury in that case found Bobby Fijnje innocent, and he was freed, having spent a year and eight months in jail. Since then, of course, the whole phenomenon of ritual-abuse cases has been cast into doubt by developmental research experts who have discovered that merely questioning a child repeatedly about an alleged incident can convince the child that the incident occurred. Stephen Ceci, of Cornell University, who has studied this syndrome, called "confirmatory bias," says that it is often exhibited by child advocates whose willingness to believe in child abuse hinders objective analysis. It seems clear that in at least some child abuse investigations the chief problems the children face are those created by the insistence of well-meaning rescuers.
The "rescue" attempted with Bradley tanks and tear gas near Waco came to the apocalyptic end that David Koresh had predicted. A monumental policy failure that bore Janet Reno's signature, it might well have ended her career. Instead, oddly, it made her a national hero.
The Clinton Presidency had by then revealed its essentially equivocal nature, and enabled Reno to distinguish herself merely by refusing to dodge. Just hours after the raid, Reno held a televised press conference in which she declared, "I made the decision. I am accountable . The buck stops here." She repeated that mantra over and over--on "MacNeil/Lehrer," "Larry King Live," and "Nightline"--and the effect was transcendent. Before the site of the Davidians' incineration had cooled enough to allow body count, Reno was well into a remarkable metamorphosis from "awkward old maid" to political heroine. There was something so unlikely, so unexpected, about the way Reno welcomed responsibility for Waco that in claiming the tragic failure she achieved a stunning success; overnight, she became by far the most popular member of the Clinton Administration. Reno's non-style style betokened substance, and created a kind of anti-slick vogue. She mispronounced Ted Koppel's name, and the Beltway crowd chuckled approvingly. She refused the ministrations of television makeup artists, and feminists lauded a new role model. Barbra Streisand stopped by for lunch. There was even speculation about her future on a national ticket.
One of the effects of Reno's sudden popularity was that the national appetite for serious inquiry into Waco became blunted. Representative Patricia Schroeder, Democrat of Colorado, voiced the prevailing sentiment in Washington when she told Reno, "You've raised the responsibility and accountability of public service to an incredibly high level in a way we've never seen before." Democrats, then in control of Congress, were not eager to launch a probe that might embarrass the Administration, and Senator McCain notes, "Frankly, I never heard any groundswell Republican demand for a hearing, either...I think you could make a case that both parties in Congress, especially in the Senate, may have been somewhat derelict in their duties."
The Administration ordered the Justice Department investigation, which produced a three-hundred-and-forty-eight-page report on Waco that managed to find no fault on the part of any Justice employee, from Reno on down through the ranks of the F.B.I. Among the questions that remained unanswered, however, were some that implied serious malfeasance. Who told the Attorney General that there was ongoing child abuse? And was the misrepresentation intentional? ("I remember it specifically," Webb Hubbell told me, "but I can't remember who said it.") Reno herself told me that she didn't remember who the person was. The F.B.I. pumped tear gas into the compund periodically during the first hours of the assault--until the supply of gas was exhausted. Then agents sent to Houston for more, and exhausted that supply, too. Was the Attorney General informed that the gas put children at the risk of, as Dr. Alan Stone discovered on his own, "fulminating chemical pneumonia and death?" Or that infants do not have the lung capacity to use gas masks? Was Reno aware, in approving the plan to save the children, that gas packets, fired from a grenade launcher, could penetrate wooden doors and explode inside? Did Reno really mean to present the Davidians with the choice of surrendering or watching their children die? The plan that Reno is alleged to have approved was to have been "passive"; that is, the agents were to have inserted gas into a portion of the compound and then retreated and awaited evacuees before approaching again. This restrained approach was supposed to have been followed for as long as three days, but it lasted just twelve minutes. The operation then escalated: walls were breached and the door was knocked down. Was the deviation from the plan warranted? Or was it an overreaction?
By the time the Justice Department report appeared, in the fall of 1993, attention had long since turned from Waco to Whitewater, health care, and other issues. Meanwhile, Waco festered. "People like the militia have a whole bunch of crazy ideas," Dr. Stone says. "However, they have two pieces of truth in all the craziness. One is 'Look at what happened at Waco. And the government hid its mistakes and concealed its misdeeds.' And the other piece of truth is that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms made this attack on Waco because Koresh's followers had guns. And the militas have guns. So the militias have these two kernels of truth in all their craziness about our government: Waco, and the fear that the government will come after them because they have guns."
Although the mainstream media quickly forgot Waco, the event was kept alive in the eddies outside the mainstream--the fax networks, talk radio, C-SPAN call-in shows, and the Internet. That is how Senator McCain began to realize that the issue was gaining its own, potenitally monstrous life: "I can tell you that we have had a lot of mail, a lot of phone calls, and a lot of times when I've been on talk shows and people have brought that up, and it has surprised me--the legs that this story has."
In the days following the Waco event, Reno termed it "one of the great tragedies of our time." When we talked about it in the late fall of that year, she was still clearly pained by the results of the miscalculation she had endorsed. "One of the tragedies is that we'll never know," she said. "What was the right thing to do?" She told me she still didn't beleive she had been misled. Privately, however, she appears to have harbored suspicions.
"I don't think Janet would ever publicly criticize agencies," says Sandy D'Alemberte, one of Reno's early Florida mentors and a close friend. "But I think she learned something of the perils of dealing with people who may not always give you full assessments. She took responsibility for the decisions, but, boy, she just felt awful about those kids."
That is Reno's lasting share of the Waco tragedy, whose horror is still unspooling in unimagined ways two years later. When authorities arrested Francisco Duran last fall for spraying gunfire at the White House, they found a bumper sticker on his truck the read "Fire Butch Reno." Timothy McVeigh (who is being held in an Oklahoma town called, as it happens, El Reno), was, of course, a Waco pilgrim, and ever since the Oklahoma bombing overt threats on Reno's life have markedly increased. Both Reno and President Clinton have denied any rational connection between Waco and Oklahoma, and they are right; the connection is not rational. But it is real, and the echo from Waco heard in Oklahoma can only heighten the personal tragedy of the devoted child advocate who once sent tanks and tear gas on a mission to save the children.