The Dallas Morning News
Reno testifies on siege
She says tear gas was only acceptable option
WASHINGTON -- The FBI ultimately used tear gas against the Branch Davidians because there was nothing else it thought could be done, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno told the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday.
Options ranging from using the military's secret Delta Force to tunneling into the compound, knocking it down with tanks or water cannons or even dropping agents in by helicopter were rejected as too risky to federal agents and cult members inside, Ms. Reno and senior FBI officials told House members examining the tragic ending of the 51-day Branch Davidian siege.
Responding to sometimes harsh grilling, officials provided some new details of why the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms decided to raid the cult's rural compound Feb. 28, how the FBI managed the seven-week standoff that followed and why FBI officials decided to try to force an end to the siege on April 19.
They also admitted that they misjudged cult leader David Koresh, the devotion of his followers and the possibility that the Branch Davidians' response to any overt tactical operations would be mass suicide.
"Nobody will ever know what the right answer was,' Ms. Reno said.
"In the hindsight of the last 10 days or so,' she said, "nobody has given me an answer that would really address the problem.'
As many as 86 people were initially believed to have died when the cult's compound was set ablaze April 19, hours after FBI agents began injecting tear gas into the building in an effort to force cult members into peaceful surrender. Spokesmen for the Texas Rangers, who are conducting an investigation into the incident, say that they now believe that number is too high.
The fire ended a 51-day standoff that began Feb. 28, when four ATF agents and several cult members were killed during a raid by the federal agency which was trying to search the cult compound and arrest Mr. Koresh.
Wednesday's hearing, before a packed committee room, included some moments of high drama.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., elicited a steely response from Ms. Reno when he denounced the federal operation as a "profound disgrace' deserving Ms. Reno's offer of resignation, made after the fire.
"When in God's name is law enforcement at the federal level going to understand that these are very sensitive events, that you can't put guns, barbed wire, the FBI and the Secret Service around them, sending in sound 24 hours a day and then wonder why they do something unstable,' Mr. Conyers said.
After Mr. Conyers said he could not rationalize the deaths of 17 children believed killed inside the compound, Ms. Reno angrily responded: "I feel more strongly about it than you will ever know. . . . I will not engage in recrimination.'
Some other committee members said Mr. Conyers' comments were unwarranted, and many praised Ms. Reno's willingness to take responsibility for the failed operation.
Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., elicited another emotional response when he asked the attorney general whether President Clinton should have been more closely involved -- a line of questioning repeated by other committee Republicans.
Ms. Reno's voice cracked as she told how the president called her to offer support after she appeared on television news shows following the fire.
"I don't think I've ever been so lonely,' she said. "The first call I got was from my sister: 'at-a-girl. The second call was from the president of the United States: 'at-a-girl.'
Ms. Reno said she will ask outside experts to review an analysis by behavioral specialists both inside and outside the FBI that Mr. Koresh was not likely to commit suicide.
The U.S. Treasury Department is also launching an independent review of the ATF's actions in the Feb. 28 raid.
The most sustained criticism came in the afternoon, when the two agency directors appeared to explain their roles in what committee members repeatedly termed a complete fiasco.
The responses of FBI and ATF were markedly different. FBI officials unveiled photographs, charts and even a table-top scale model of the compound to demonstrate the difficulties they faced during the siege. FBI Director William Sessions was flanked by his agency's top directors and by FBI Agents Jeffrey Jamar of San Antonio and Bob Ricks of Oklahoma City, who helped manage the agency's efforts.
In contrast, ATF Director Stephen Higgins testified alone, often telling committee members "that's a fair question' -- but one that he couldn't answer because of pending investigations.
He refused to discuss how cult members might have been tipped or what an undercover agent overheard just before the ill-fated raid.
But he harshly denounced speculation that the raid might have been timed to coincide with the confirmation of a deputy treasury secretary or with the agency's congressional budget hearings.
"Anyone that would send someone into a dangerous, violent situation like this because they were trying to impress somebody or because they were trying to increase their budget . . . places a whole lot less value on human life than we do,' he said.
Commitee members pointedly questioned the FBI's decision not to wait any longer to try to force the cult out. They also questioned why FBI officials and the outside behavioral experts who consulted on the case were so confident that Mr. Koresh would not commit suicide.
Asked why the agency did not wait longer, Mr. Sessions said, "We do not normally in our crimimal justice system allow a criminal to set their own timetable on when they will submit to authority.'
He and Ms. Reno told the committee that a mass suicide could have occurred at any time and probably would have been impossible to avert.
FBI officials said they began considering using tear gas in late March, and they started briefing Ms. Reno the week of April 5, near the end of the sect's Passover observance. Mr. Koresh had promised to surrender after Passover but later reneged.
Ms. Reno said she repeatedly grilled FBI officials, asking them to bring in outside experts and even members of the military's elite anti-terrorism units to explore alternatives to tear gas.
She finally approved using tear gas, she said, because of compelling FBI arguments that the situation was becoming progressively more unstable. She said her decision also was motivated by the agency's contention that its 50-member hostage rescue team that was helping manage the crisis the compound was fatigued and could not be replaced.
"I asked, "Well, isn't there another team?' and was advised no, except for the Delta Force,' she said. "We explored the provisions . . . and became convinced that you could not use Delta Force in a civilian situation.'
She said she ultimately mulled tactics straight out of spy novels: tunneling, putting cult members to sleep with special gases or even dropping agents in by air.
She even proposed building a concrete fence and waiting the cult out. "I kept thinking that we could create our own prison.'
The FBI told her that posed an unacceptable threat because federal agents would remain vulnerable to a massive cult arsenal that included .50-caliber weapons, which had "A killing range of 3,000 yards, a distance that would reach from the U.S. Capitol to the White House.'
After approving the tear gas operation, she said, she ordered that it be halted if agents perceived any threat to the children inside.
"I gave specific instructions that they were not to expose the children to further danger. Just pull back and decide what to do next,' she said.
The Dallas Morning News
Autopsies so far show gunshots killed 5 cultists
Number in fire appears smaller than first thought
WACO -- At least five of the first 12 Branch Davidians on whom autopsies have been performed died of gunshot wounds, not from the fire that leveled the compound last week, authorities said Wednesday. Also, they said, it now appears fewer people were in the fire than previous reports indicated.
The gunshot wounds -- two of which were in the head -- could be evidence that some in the cult killed themselves or were killed by their colleagues, rather than having been willing participants in a mass immolation, medical investigators have said.
Among the seven others, five died of smoke inhalation and the cause of death of two has not been determined, said Mike Cox, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The Texas Rangers expect to complete their search by Friday for bodies amid the ashen debris of what was once the sanctuary of David Koresh and his religious followers, Mr. Cox said.
By late afternoon Wednesday, 58 bodies had been accounted for.
"We're near the end on discovering bodies,' Mr. Cox said.
Mr. Koresh, during his 51-day standoff with federal authorities, had said that 95 people -- counting himself and including 17 small children -- remained inside. Nine people escaped from the fire that burned the compound to the ground April 19, leading authorities to presume that as many as 86 were killed.
That estimate now appears to have been lofty, Mr. Cox said, without offering a new overall tally. He said that although more bodies will almost surely be discovered in the next two days, "no one that I've talked to thinks that we're going to reach the 85 or so that's been the figure. That was strictly based on what David Koresh had said.'
Fifty-three bodies have been pulled from the ruins and sent to Fort Worth, where Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani is supervising autopsies. Waco's McLennan County, like many less-populous Texas counties, has no medical examiner.
The FBI and an arson investigator brought in by the federal government have said the fire that destroyed the compound was deliberately set by those inside, as FBI agents were trying to flush Mr. Koresh and his followers out with tear gas.
It is unclear why or how the five cult members were shot.
The wounds could have occurred when the fire ignited some of the millions of rounds of ammunition that authorities said the Branch Davidians had stockpiled in their compound east of Waco. There were repeated, fiery explosions during the blaze, and bullets continued to discharge spontaneously from the embers for more than a day after the fire.
At least two gunshot victims were shot in the head. Mr. Cox said he didn't know the location of the others' wounds.
If, however, it turned out that they also were shot in the head -- or if many others from the compound are later found to have similar wounds -- the consistent location of the gunshots would seem to belie the possibility that they were caused by hot ammunition randomly exploding.
The FBI has ruled out the possibility that its agents killed any of those inside during the tear-gas attack. Although cult members fired on agents, FBI commanders have said, gunfire was not returned.
Eight other autopsies were completed by late Wednesday, but Mr. Cox said he had no details on their findings.
Telephone calls to the Tarrant County medical examiner's office and the offices of the McLennan County justices of the peace, who are responsible for making legal determination of causes of death, were not returned.
It is not publicly known how many bodies removed from the compound are those of children.
In addition to the 53 bodies taken to Fort Worth, the Rangers have located a grave containing the remains of five Branch Davidians believed to have been killed in the Feb. 28 shootout that began the siege, Mr. Cox said.
Four agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and six cult members were killed in that gunbattle, which erupted as the ATF tried to serve search and arrest warrants alleging weapons violations by Mr. Koresh.
Mr. Cox said the Texas Rangers -- called in by the FBI to serve as independent investigators of the fire scene -- are nearly through searching a cinderblock storeroom, where more bodies are believed to be buried under mounds of ammunition described as "thigh-high.' The cinderblock room, Mr. Koresh's lair, was the only part of the mostly wooden compound not leveled by the fire.
In addition, Mr. Cox said, there is evidence that some bodies are in the compound's system of underground passages. However, Rangers have been unable to get into those tunnels because some are filled with water and must be pumped out, he said.
No remains have been identified as those of Mr. Koresh, said Laureen Chernow, a DPS spokeswoman.
Three victims have been identified. They are David Jones, 38, Shari Doyle, 18, and, on Wednesday, James Loyle Riddle Jr., who would have turned 33 last Sunday.
If the weather stays dry, Mr. Cox said, the Rangers hope to complete their search for bodies by the end of the week.
He reiterated, however, that some in the compound, especially small children, may have been so badly burned in the raging fire that no remains will ever be found.
"We may never know down to the last person,' he said.