New Waco probe ordered
August 26, 1999
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The FBI and the Justice Department plan a new investigation into the 1993 standoff with the Branch Davidian sect near Waco, Texas. The siege ended with a fire and the deaths of group leader David Koresh and more than 80 of his followers.
Attorney General Janet Reno pledged Thursday to "get to the bottom" of why it took the FBI six years to admit that its agents may have fired potentially flammable tear gas canisters near the main compound building on the final day of the 51-day confrontation.
"I have no reason at this point to believe the FBI is responsible for the deaths of those people," Reno told her weekly news conference at the Justice Department.
But she said she was "very, very troubled" that, six years after categorical denials by the FBI, there were new disclosures about the possible use of flammable devices.
"It is absolutely critical that we do everything humanly possible to learn all the facts as accurately as possible and make them available to the Congress and public," said Reno, who along with FBI Director Louis Freeh, has ordered a fresh investigation of what transpired on April 19, 1993, at the Branch Davidian compound.
They have ordered 40 FBI agents, led by an FBI inspector, to re-interview everyone who was at the Waco scene.
The siege of Koresh and his followers began following a February 28 shootout in which four agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were killed.
Reno's comments on Thursday came one day after the FBI confirmed a report that potentially flammable devices may have been fired in the vicinity of the main compound building.
But, in a statement, the bureau insisted that there is no evidence that the devices started the fire in the building, which was made of wood and quickly burned.
The issue of the fire's origin recently resurfaced following allegations made during a wrongful death lawsuit by surviving Branch Davidians and family members of victims. They charged that the FBI had used incendiary devices.
In a story published on Monday by The Dallas Morning News, former Deputy Assistant FBI Director Danny Coulson, revealing what had not been publicly disclosed for six years, said two pyrotechnic projectiles were fired several hours before the blaze began.
But, Coulson said, the devices were not to blame for the inferno later the same day. "The two projectiles," he told CNN, "were fired around 8 o'clock in the morning at what used to be David Koresh's swimming pool -- which the FBI referred to as 'the pit.'"
"The fire, we know, didn't start inside the compound until 12:07 (p.m.)," Coulson said, which "would make it impossible for those two devices to have caused that fire."
During that four-hour interval, he said, the devices could not have remained hot enough to have ignited a fire later on.
"One was found in a puddle of water," Coulson told CNN. "And the nature of the device, the way it is constructed, there is no way that thing could have simmered all those long hours."
Coulson was deputy assistant FBI director during the siege and helped supervise operations from Washington.
Asked why he hadn't disclosed the information sooner, Coulson said he hadn't learned the truth until recently and hinted the Justice Department was to blame. "I had believed, until last week, that we fired no pyrotechnic devices at Waco," Coulson told CNN.
"It was only after individuals brought to me some preliminary evidence that indicated we had (fired pyrotechnic devices), and I made some inquiries, that I found out that we were in error and I think that needed to be corrected."
He denied the FBI had attempted a cover-up. "The FBI agents that participated in the activity certainly reported it," Coulson said.
"Remember, the (original) inquiry was not done by the FBI," he said. "The investigation was conducted by the Department of Justice so, if things fell through the crack, then somebody probably would be held accountable over there."
Three U.S. Army soldiers assigned to the shadowy special operations unit known as Delta Force were present in an "observer role" during the final and fiery day of the Waco siege, Defense Department officials told CNN on Thursday.
But those soldiers did not participate in any "law enforcement functions," the officials said. Such participation by U.S. military personnel would require a presidential waiver.
Delta Force members are called on to rescue hostages overseas and defense officials said that was a primary reason for the soldiers observing the FBI attempt in Waco.
A once-secret Army memo dated May 13, 1993, that was obtained by CNN, stated:
"During the assault, the three (soldiers) observed from the HRT (hostage rescue team) forward command post and were cautioned not to video the operation. Prior to the deployment all (military personnel) were advised as to the legal restrictions on the nature and scope of assistance they could provide to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies."
The memo also said, "All support to the HRT was approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff."
Miltary gave advice on tear gas
Military assistance to the FBI also included advice given on the subject of the powerful tear gas known as "CS," and an assessment by Army commandos of the planned FBI assault on the compound.
According to the Army memo, a meeting took place in the FBI director's conference room five days before the assault.
The memo said the group included: Reno, then-FBI Director William Sessions, a scientific expert on the gas and two soldiers of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, of which Delta Force is a component.
According to the document, the panel discussed possible hazards of the gas, but the memo made no mention of the potentially incendiary characteristics of the tear gas canisters.
FBI admits it may have fired flammable devices in Waco siege
Federal Bureau of Investigation
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