The Waco Siege: Cult suicide could damage Clinton: As the Branch Davidian stand-off ends in tragedy the authorities face questions about their handling of the cult

THE horrifying end to the Branch Davidian siege in Waco seems certain to have unsettling political repercussions here. And although their precise nature cannot be predicted, President Bill Clinton is unlikely to be among the beneficiaries.

First in the firing line, of course, will be the troubled Justice Department, its morale already damaged by charges of incompetence or worse in the BCCI and 'Iraqgate' affairs, the ethics abuse allegations swirling around the head of the FBI Director, William Sessions, and Mr Clinton's long search for an Attorney General.

All along, the FBI and the Justice Department under whose aegis it operates had made clear that their paramount goal was to avoid a mass suicide similar to the infamous ending of the Jonestown affair in Guyana in 1978. Although the exact circumstances of the conflagration which destroyed Mount Carmel are unknown, a mass suicide is in effect what occurred yesterday.

It was Janet Reno, the third choice for Attorney-General and in office only a few weeks, who had the unpleasant task last night of defending the Clinton administration's handling of the Waco siege. Courageously, she took full responsibility for the decision to send the FBI in to end the seven week stand-off. 'I made the decision, I'm accountable, the buck stops with me,' she said.

Possibly though, the buck may move into the White House. In Ms Reno's account, she merely informed Mr Clinton of the options, and told him that she had thoroughly reviewed the FBI's proposals and agreed it was the best way to proceed. 'His statement to me was, 'Well, OK'. ' Against that, however, must be set strong suggestions that until a week or so ago at least, the White House had been 'micromanaging' the Waco crisis.

Whatever else, a full-scale congressional investigation of what happened is wellnigh certain and heads may have to roll.

For Mr Clinton, the tragic denouement to the siege could hardly have happened at a worse moment. He is under much fire for his alleged indecisiveness over Bosnia, while Republican opposition to his stalled economic stimulus package, if anything, is growing. Fairly or otherwise, the tragic events in central Texas will only add to doubts over the professionalism and authority of his administration.

(Photograph omitted)

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