President Bill Clinton and top administration officials yesterday took the offensive against the Republican-run hearings in Congress on the Waco tragedy, arguing that the FBI had been justified in its final assault on the Branch Davidian compound, and accusing the National Rifle Association (NRA) of manipulating proceedings for its own ends.
Federal agents made mistakes at Waco, Mr Clinton said in a speech to senior law enforcement officers here. But it was wrong to suggest, as some had implied at the hearings, that the behaviour of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) was on a par with that of David Koresh, who along with over 80 of his followers perished in the conflagration of 19 April 1993.
"There is no moral equivalency between the disgusting acts which took place inside that compound and the efforts law enforcement officers made to protect the lives of innocent people," the President declared, adding that the federal government had already taken "appropriate" action against those responsible for the mistakes, after an exhaustive investigation.
His forthright words reflect a new sense among Democrats that the hearings, conceived by the Republicans with the enthusiastic backing of the NRA to embarrass the White House, could backfire against their instigators - casting the Republicans, normally the "law and order" party, as unfair critics of the police, and defenders of the indefensible.
The new mood is a direct result of Wednesday's harrowing testimony by 14-year-old Kiri Jewell, who recounted before a hushed and appalled committee how at the age of 10 she was sexually molested and "initiated" into the cult by Koresh when she lived at the compound, until shortly before the original ATF raid of 28 February 1993, when four ATF men and six Branch Davidians died in a firefight.
Ms Jewell told too how Davidians talked about using cyanide to commit mass suicide for their religion. If a gun was the only weapon to hand, "it was accepted that the best way ... was to put the gun into your mouth, back to the soft spot above your throat, before pulling the trigger".
As Mr Clinton acknowledged, the raid of 28 February was hopelessly bungled: not only had Koresh been inadvertently tipped off in advance, but the ATF knew he had been tipped off, yet went ahead anyway. But evidence of such "depravity" - to use the President's expression - supports Attorney General Janet Reno's insistence that she approved the final assault because of fears of child abuse, as well as the massive illegal stockpiling of weapons inside the Mount Carmel complex.
Ms Reno, who is due to be grilled on the eighth and final day of the House hearings, yesterday brushed off Republican threats to "humiliate" her. Instead, she suggested the proceedings were being held for the benefit of "one special interest group" - the NRA, though she did not mention it by name.
Working through the anti-gun control faction in Congress which it lavishly finances, the NRA has promoted the hearings, in the hope that they will bear out its thesis that the ATF agents are, as a recent NRA fund-raising letter claimed, "jackbooted thugs" and a menace to ordinary gun-loving citizens. But that strategy began to unravel when it emerged that several "independent experts" hired by committee staffers were in fact on the NRA payroll.Reuse content