An independent investigation will be the best way to find out why Americans were misled about what happened at the Branch Davidian compound in 1993.
The focus of any new investigation into the events surrounding the FBI siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, should be on whether the agency acted as a renegade police force that deliberately misled Attorney General Janet Reno and the public about its role in the assault.
Nearly 80 people died at the Davidian compound after it erupted in flames on April 19, 1993. During congressional investigations into the tragedy, Reno and other senior officials assured members of Congress that the fire was started by the Branch Davidians and not by anything the FBI or other federal agents did. After six years of denials, the FBI recently acknowledged that its agents did hurl two heat-generating tear gas canisters at the compound, although there is no evidence the tear gas caused the fire.
This week, Reno got another surprise. She was informed by the FBI that it had discovered at least two videotapes made the day of the fire. In one, there's a conversation between two FBI officials in which explicit permission is granted to use heat-generating tear gas. These tapes are valuable evidence in piecing together the events of the day. Yet, they were not turned over to Congress or the Justice Department's investigators during the initial Waco investigations. Instead, the FBI had denied that any such tapes existed.
Reno was apparently kept in the dark about all of this. The FBI let her take responsibility after the botched siege became the deadliest federal law enforcement operation in history, but the agency failed to give her the full story.
On the 51st day of the standoff, Reno may have given the go-ahead to charge the compound based on false or misleading information. The FBI told her children were being abused inside the cult's living quarters and she had to act for their protection. The abuse allegations were never proved, and questions remain as to whether they were overblown to pressure Reno into approving an attack.
While members of Congress are eager to launch their own investigations into the FBI's duplicity, the best course of action is an independent investigation that will get at the truth without the spin of partisan politics. Reno has announced that she will soon appoint a lead investigator for an independent probe, and speculation has former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, a Missouri Republican, as a top contender for the job.
He would be a good choice.
Danforth, who retired from the Senate in 1994 and now practices law in St. Louis, has all the right credentials. A Republican known for his integrity, Danforth would be seen as even-handed yet thorough. He is capable of leading an unbiased investigation that could not be viewed as either a witch hunt or a whitewash.
Regardless of the person chosen to lead the investigation, however, the focus should be on why Reno, Congress and the public were misled by the FBI and who in the agency participated in the lies and coverup. Then some heads should roll.