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Slow Burn

Republicans in Congress are again on a Janet Reno witch hunt over Waco, but the real culprit is the insular, arrogant culture of the FBI.

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Were we commence once again on our descent into the survivalist swamps of deep Texas to examine, for the third and, let us pray, final time, what went down at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco.

The first encounter, of course, was the event itself, in April 1993, when about 80 more-or-less-innocent Americans, and one flagrantly un-innocent one, died. The second encounter came in 1995, when congressional Republicans tried to make off with Janet Reno's scalp and ended up getting scalped themselves. And now arrives round three, to be fought, no less, on three separate fronts: a Reno-ordered outside investigation of the mess, which may have been announced by the time you read these words; more congressional tub-thumping; and, finally, a wrongful-death suit brought against the government by relatives of some of the victims, which will commence in Texas in October.

David Koresh was clearly a wacked-out, child-molesting freak intent on leading his poor, rudderless followers down the inevitable path to judgment. But the authorities didn't need to help him take them there. The government -- Reno -- made indefensible decisions that resulted in a horrible tragedy.

So the search for answers is a legitimate one. But searching for answers isn't what Republican probes into Waco have ever been about, and if the past is at all prologue, Waco III will devolve into just one more ultrapoliticized attempt to nail Reno, when the place the GOPers should really be looking is exactly the place they don't want to look: inside Louis Freeh's FBI.

The cultural moment of the black-helicopters-are-coming brigade came and went about three years ago. But a reexamination of Waco has the potential to reignite it, because Waco the Saga is the purest expression of the way the Gingrich-era GOP let itself get spirited off into la-la land by some of its zanier elements. That right-wing survivalists should see evil conspiracy where there was only gross incompetence isn't alarming; that supposedly responsible members of Congress should accept that line of argument, and use our money to advance it, is. But that's precisely what happened in July 1995, when the House Judiciary and Government Reform and Oversight committees held their joint hearings on Waco.

Three former Democratic congressional staff members and investigators I spoke with last week recalled the circus. "The context was, the Republicans took control of Congress, and Waco was the big right-wing thing," says one. "They wanted to throw red meat to their constituency on the right. It wasn't about finding the truth." This person says the House GOP leaders made a decision at the time to have Florida Republican Bill McCollum, who chaired the relevant Judiciary subcommittee and who, in 1995, owned a pre-Monica reputation for reasonableness, share leadership of the hearings with New Hampshire's William Zeliff, an altogether more rabid fellow.

The result was a hearing that was more or less run by the National Rifle Association -- NRA and GOP staff mapped out strategy from a hotel room near the Capitol as the hearings progressed -- and that had three intensely political and scarcely disguised goals. "The Republicans saw this -- because it was taken over by the more radical part of the Republican Party -- as a way to do three things," says a second former staff member. "To attack the ATF, first and foremost, which was the NRA's sole objective. Then, to get the president. Then, Reno. It really was as crass as that. Real political, really targeted, really aimed right at them." The ATF, of course, would be the Treasury's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which played a role in Waco and which the NRA hates because it goes after guns.

To make a long story short, the gun barrels got turned around, as Bugs used to do to Elmer. The clincher came when the Democrats brought in one Kiri Jewell, whom Koresh had sexually assaulted when she was 10 years old. The Republicans saw her name on the witness list but had no idea what she was going to testify to. "We were able to embarrass them so much that the American public was able to see for the first time that they were really a little off the wall," says Don Goldberg, the Democratic staff member who brought Jewell in from the cold. "They ended up essentially having to defend this child molester. Not a good position to be in."

So the tent was folded up, for the time being. Meanwhile -- here's where Freeh enters the picture -- survivalism was alive on another front: Later in 1995, there were congressional hearings on Ruby Ridge, the 1992 Idaho standoff during which an FBI sniper shot the unarmed Vicki Weaver, wife of Randy. The man in charge of that disaster was Larry Potts. Freeh, in 1995, disciplined Potts. But shortly thereafter, Freeh turned around and made Potts his No. 2 -- made Potts's promotion a throw-down issue, in fact. New documents, unearthed after Potts's elevation, that stank of cover-ups forced Freeh to rescind the promotion.

The point? Freeh, in 1995, was finding himself in a position FBI directors are never in -- on the outs with congressional Republicans, who normally worship the bureau. It took him two years to overcome it, but boy, did he ever. When he dissented from Reno's decision in December 1997 not to appoint an independent counsel to look into Bill Clinton's and Al Gore's fund-raising calls, matters were restored to their normal order. And recall the circumstances: Reno had set a December 2 deadline for her announcement, which most people suspected at the time would be not to appoint a special prosecutor. On December 1 -- the day before she was to go before the cameras! -- our old friends "law-enforcement officials" made Freeh's dissent public. Freeh -- who has past Republican ties, once worked as a prosecutor here in New York for a man called Giuliani, and was nominated to the federal bench in 1991 by Al D'Amato -- has been the GOP's golden boy ever since. (Incidentally, last Wednesday's front-page Times article in which Freeh came out in support of an outside inquiry had a thunder-stealing odor about it that smelled awfully similar to the timing of his Reno dissent.)

This is not to suggest that Freeh has been some Republican mole in the Clinton administration. By most accounts, even those of my Democratic sources above, he's been a generally good or even excellent FBI director and worked to defeat the reactionary cronyism for which the bureau is well known. But it is to suggest that maybe some of his decisions haven't been entirely apolitical, either. Or, to put it another way, that he understands his history: that attorneys general, and even presidents, can't do a thing to FBI directors, and that congressional Republicans, who share the bureau's longstanding distaste for pinkos and other crybabies, are the ones who have always buttered his agency's bread.

The revelations that emerged from Texas two weeks ago about the use of incendiary devices in the Waco raid have produced the inevitable howls for Reno's head. Dan Burton, the all-but-certifiable Indiana Republican who vows to hold a new round of hearings, has made noises about seeking Reno's downfall, and the great newspapers and all the talk shows repeatedly and eagerly hand him the platform to do so.

But whatever mysteries remain to be unlocked about Waco probably don't lie with Reno. She has said publicly, and a source familiar with the situation reiterated to me, that she was in the dark about the devices, and reasonable people who understand anything about the difficult institutional relationship between the Justice Department and the FBI have no reason to suspect otherwise. It makes sense that the bureau would never tell the AG about such a discovery; after all, the bureau lied to her in the first place about the necessity of launching the attack. "Think of it this way," says one source. "She was in office for, what, a few weeks when Waco unfolded. The FBI comes to her and says, 'Here's what we want to do, and we want you to okay it.' What's she going to do? She knows if she says no she loses the FBI constituency, and they start going after her with the leaks and so forth. She's done. And she's just started on the job."

There probably was no cover-up -- just negligent stupidity all the way around. If there was, though, you could do worse than to bet that it was somewhere inside the FBI. If the Republicans want to turn over some of those rocks, more power to them. But chances are they'll just make us all sit through another boring episode of Get Janet, while the people from the bureau who made the mistakes on the ground skate away. It's the FBI story.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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