The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Tracy Everbach

Siege prompts new media policy
Justice Department imposes limits on advance notice of action

With the ill-fated Branch Davidian raid in mind, the U.S. Justice Department has imposed new restrictions on giving advance information to the media about law enforcement operations.

The guidelines, obtained by The Dallas Morning News on Thursday and later confirmed by a Justice Department spokeswoman, mark the first change in the department's media policy since the end of the siege near Waco.

The directive to U.S. attorneys and federal agents says that in cases in which federal agents are serving search warrants or arrest warrants, "no advance information will be provided to the news media about actions to be taken by law enforcement personnel, nor shall media representatives be solicited or invited to be present.'

The directive also says:

Justice Department spokeswoman Gina Talamona in Washington said the department's new public affairs director, Carl Stern, a former reporter for NBC News, issued the order Monday.

"He reviewed our policies, looked at the old media guidelines and developed a new press policy,' Ms. Talamona said. She acknowledged that "he was mindful of Waco.'

Some members of Congress have questioned whether the Dallas office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms alerted reporters in advance to the bureau's Feb. 28 raid on the Branch Davidian cult compound outside Waco. On that day, heavily armed agents went to the compound to serve a search warrant and arrest cult leader David Koresh. They were met with a storm of gunfire, and four agents died.

The ATF has denied tipping off reporters, several of whom were at the Branch Davidian compound before the assault.

The raid led to a 51-day standoff that ended April 19, when the religious compound burned to the ground after FBI agents tried to force members of the cult out with tear gas. Seventy-two bodies have been found in the charred rubble.

Paul Watler, a Dallas lawyer and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a nonprofit research group on laws affecting journalists, said the new guidelilnes have the "potential to be a hinderance to information the public needs about events happening in thier area.

ATF spokesman Jack Killorin in Washington said Thursday that the guidelines came as no surprise.

"Those policy guidelines are what Attorney General Janet Reno said she preferred, in her testimony before the House Judiciary Committee,' he said.

The committee held hearings last week as part of its investigation into the raid and standoff.

Although the ATF is part of the Treasury Department, not the Justice Department, it likely will adopt the guidelines, Mr. Killorin said. "In general, we are guided by Department of Justice guidelines.'

He called the new rules "much stricter than before,' and said they are in the interest of public safety.

"Although I am a great admirer of the press, I have met very few reporters who are tactically trained,' said Mr. Killorin. "I consider it a reprehensible practice (for them) to go to a crime scene before law enforcement.'

Officials with the ATF have confirmed that their spokeswoman called two Dallas television stations a day before the raid to obtain contact telephone numbers. But they and executives with the TV stations have said she did not tell them that something was going to happen the next day.

Officials with a Waco television station that taped footage of the raid and gunbattle said a local tipster, not ATF, alerted them to the raid. A Waco Tribune-Herald reporter who also was at the raid has said the paper received two tips on the raid, but neither was from the ATF.

In Washington on Thursday, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen said the Clinton administration has no plans to abolish the ATF.

Several members of Congress have recommended that ATF be abolished or merged into the Justice Department, saying ATF jurisdiction often overlaps that of the FBI.

Also Thursday, U.S. District Judge Walter Smith established the first trial date for a cult member, a July 6 jury trial for Paul Fatta.

Mr. Fatta, 35, is charged with conspiracy to manufacture and possess unregistered machine guns. He was at an Austin gun show on Feb. 28 and turned himself in to authorities late last month.