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Waco secrecy damaged public trust, report finds

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  1. Freedom of Information
From the Summer 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 23.

From the Summer 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 23.

Although the government had committed no “evil acts” in its handling of the 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, its failure to be candid with the public caused untold damage to the public’s confidence in government, according to Special Counsel John Danforth’s interim report on his investigation.

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Government secrecy about the use of pyrotechnic devices at Waco has cost the country $12 million and an immeasurable amount of damage to the public’s confidence in the U.S. government, Special Counsel John Danforth said in a July report.

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno appointed the former U.S. Senator from Missouri to investigate allegations of government wrongdoing in the 1993 Branch Davidian siege at Waco, Texas. Two million pages of documents, 849 interviews, thousands of pounds of physical evidence, and 10 months down the road, Danforth issued an interim report July 21 which concluded that the government wronged nobody in the siege operation but wronged the public in its ensuing unwillingness to say what had happened.

Earlier investigations into the allegations, particularly the 1993 inquiries by U.S. Attorney Richard Scruggs, actually encouraged nondisclosure, Danforth said. In a report issued six months after the Davidian complex burned, Scruggs said that tear gas used by the FBI was non-incendiary.

But the public did not stop asking questions. More investigations, inquiries and lawsuits followed. Six years later in August 1999, Reno announced her discovery that the FBI had used pyrotechnic devices. Reno had apparently been misled.

A poll taken by Time magazine the day of this disclosure suggested that the public thought it was still being misled. It reported that 61 percent of Americans polled said they believed that federal law enforcement officials started the fire.

Danforth expressed sympathy with the public’s perception. “The natural public reaction was that, if the government lied about one thing, it lied about everything,” he wrote.

The devices were detonated four hours before the complex burned and 75 feet from the building, and could not have caused or promoted the blaze, Danforth found. Furthermore, Danforth concluded, the government did not direct gunfire at the complex or improperly employ the military.

In his report, Danforth questioned how Scruggs’ team overlooked the use of the devices, and why it would want to, when the truth appears to show innocence.

Danforth’s 152-page report offered no solid answer to why it took six years for these facts to be known. But he speculated that government officials react to exposés, investigations and lawsuits with a “bunker mentality” and protect rather than disclose information. He said he hopes to have better answers to that question when he issues a final report later this year.

The Scruggs investigation was doomed from the beginning, he suggested, because it assumed from the outset that the Davidians, not the FBI, started the fire. “They did not make efforts to determine or challenge the veracity of the statements of witnesses, nor did they test or challenge the FBI’s widely publicized contention that it did not fire guns or use pyrotechnics during the standoff,” he wrote.

No response from Scruggs was available through the Department of Justice’s Office of Public Affairs or through Scruggs’ Miami office.

Rescue team commander Richard Rogers — who authorized the use of pyrotechnic tear gas — was singled out for criticism for his actions when he accompanied Reno for her testimony to Congress in April 1993. Reno testified that she had sought and received assurances that no pyrotechnic devices would be used. Rogers sat silently behind her. He also attended the testimony of then FBI Director William Sessions, who gave similar testimony, and said nothing to refute the testimony.

Asked why he had not offered what he knew to anyone, Rogers claimed he was not paying attention when Reno was speaking and did not even hear the statement. Danforth was critical of Rogers’ explanation. “Rogers attended the congressional hearings precisely to ensure that Congress was provided with accurate information,” Danforth wrote, describing Rogers’ omissions as reprehensible but not illegal.

Danforth also found fault with the FBI’s six-year delay in turning over a tape recording of Rogers’ authorization of the pyrotechnic devices. The FBI, which handed over the tape last September, had previously denied such a tape even existed.

Danforth wrote that as the investigation began to collect evidence, senior representatives of the Justice Department asked him to help delay the ongoing civil proceedings brought by the Davidians against the government so his report could be used as evidence at trial. Danforth rejected the recommendation, saying that his investigation was criminal and thus poor grounds to delay a civil trial.

The goal of the investigation, he emphasized, was not to determine if the government had exercised bad judgment in the handling of the siege, but only to determine whether it had committed “bad acts.”

In the preface to the report, Danforth wrote that indications in the Time poll suggest that the public has believed that the government did indeed commit bad acts at Waco. “When 61 percent of the people believe that the government not only fails to ensure ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ but also intentionally murders people by fire, the existence of public consent, the very basis of government, is imperilled,” he wrote.

Danforth’s Interim Report to the Deputy Attorney General can be viewed on the Internet at http://osc-waco.org.