Considering the political constraints involved — any new Waco
investigator would have to be well known and acceptable to Beltway
denizens of both major parties — former Missouri Republican Senator
John Danforth was probably as decent a choice as was realistically
available. But while Sen. Danforth has some admirable qualities, it
would probably be a mistake to expect that his investigation will get
all the way to the bottom of the Waco massacre.
An ordained Episcopal priest and a former attorney general of
Missouri, Danforth has an apparently well deserved — at least insofar
as somebody on the other side of the country can judge — reputation for
independence and personal integrity. He certainly displayed some
personal fortitude during the confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence
Thomas, whom he took under his senatorial wing after having worked with
him in the Missouri attorney general’s office. When the proceedings
turned ugly, Danforth, who probably didn’t agree with every aspect of
Thomas’ judicial philosophy but had a high regard for him as a person,
stood firm without stooping to anything scurrilous.
Whether those qualities will be enough to deal with the ugliness that
is certain to show up during any new Waco investigation is an open
question. Justice Thomas’ wife, Ginni, spoke to the Associated Press of
Danforth as “a man who can restore trust when an institution’s
credibility is in question.”
But something more fundamental than restoring the credibility of an
institution is needed here.
The very notion that somebody in some government institution still
has the capacity to look at Waco with unflinching honesty is at stake,
and to restore that level of credibility it might be necessary to
destroy — or at least seriously criticize and reform, a process many
inside the Beltway would equate with destruction or siding with crazed
conspiracy theorists — certain government institutions. The difference
between restoring credibility in an institution and restoring
credibility in any government entity’s capacity to be honest is a subtle
but important distinction that could make all the difference.
Stuart Wright, a sociology professor at Lamar University in Beaumont
who has studied new or marginal religions and edited a book called
“Armageddon in Waco” (published by the University of Chicago Press and
available at Amazon.com), told me he is
withholding judgment on Danforth but “I have little confidence that
anybody in Washington can or will get to the bottom of Waco.” Even with
all the partisanship and backbiting, there’s an identification with
government as an institution that makes most people in Washington
reticent about really going after or believing the worst about
fundamental institutions like the FBI or Department of Justice.
The fact that even after some severely critical reports not a single
government employee has been prosecuted over anything that happened at
Waco is hardly an encouraging sign.
Writing for MSNBC, Boston
attorney Daniel Small, who spent 10 years as a federal prosecutor, makes
another point. The FBI is a huge bureaucracy, replete with turf wars and
secrets no outsider will ever know. “Penetrating that vast bureaucracy
and its self-protective wall of silence will be an enormous challenge,”
he notes. Later he acknowledges that “it is hardly Danforth’s fault that
he has never been in a position to earn the FBI’s respect or fear, or
both, but that lack of experience will seriously affect his ability to
carry out this new position.” Small also points out that Janet Reno has
tied the hands of the investigation in an important way because she “has
determined that the investigators will be paid as temporary DOJ
employees, and that therefore they cannot have any pending cases against
DOJ. … Thus, in one broad stroke, people knowledgeable with these
agencies — people who know what they are doing — have been
Anyone for holding a telethon to raise money to pay for the
investigation? Then maybe Mike McNulty could be named as chief
investigator or at least as a key consultant.
Stuart Wright (who has consulted with the attorneys) thinks that “any
really good new evidence is more likely to come through the civil
lawsuit filed by survivors and Branch Davidian relatives.” He has a
point. The civil lawsuit was actually the main catalyst behind the
current imbroglio. Once the judge let it be known that he wasn’t simply
going to be a stooge for the government, the Texas Rangers decided to
turn the two rooms of evidence they had been storing for two years over
to him. That was when information about some of the evidence began to be
There’s one more potential problem with the Danforth investigation.
In his initial remarks to the press yesterday, Danforth indicated he
will focus almost exclusively on the events of April 19, the final day
of the 51-day standoff between the Davidians and the army of federal
agents that surrounded the house. “Was there a cover-up? Did the
government kill people? How did the fire start? And was there
shooting?” Danforth asked. “Those are questions that go to the basic
integrity of government, not judgment calls.”
True enough, and it will be helpful to have answers that command a
certain degree of respect. The fact that the government brought in
bulldozers and destroyed or disturbed so much of the evidence almost
immediately (why???) might make it difficult to arrive at a definitive
answer, but the more information that is made public the better. But
while the horror of the final day is seared in so many memories, it
wasn’t the only questionable government action in connection with the
Branch Davidian siege.
Why did the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms decide to launch
a military-style “dynamic entry” on the Davidians’ home instead of
making a quiet arrest? Who fired first on the first day? What happened
to the front door that might offer evidence on the matter? Did the BATF
have a good warrant for the arrest? What was their motivation? Why did
the FBI, once the siege began, rebuff the efforts of religious leaders
and experts in marginal religions to offer mediation?
Who began and continued the systematic campaign of demonization of
David Koresh and the Branch Davidians that most of the media swallowed
so gullibly? Why did the feds deny access to the “compound” to the
media (and why did the media accept the restrictions so supinely)?
Was Waco, as many believe, a symbol of the uncontrolled and almost
unaccountable growth of federal law enforcement agencies over the last
20 years or so, accompanied by an increasing fascination with
military-style tactics buttressed by advice from the military? If so,
should the growth be halted or reversed? Should policies be changed and
jurisdictions limited? Should charges be filed against any government
employees for any of the multiple outrages committed during the assault
and siege of Waco?
Those are only a few of the relevant questions. Perhaps Sen.
Danforth’s investigation will be supplemented by congressional
investigations and hearings that delve into aspects of this shameful
episode he chooses not to pursue. But reporters and citizens might do
well to pay especially close attention to the civil trial. There’s a
chance something resembling the truth will come out of all these
efforts, but it’s by no means automatic.