Gun lobby puts law enforcers in dock over Waco

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Never underestimate the National Rifle Association. Only three months after being tarred with the Oklahoma City bombing, America's leading pro- gun group has helped to engineer Congressional hearings next week which will heap further discomfort on the NRA's arch-foe, the federal Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The comeback is remarkable. The outrage in Oklahoma on 19 April turned an unflattering glare on the far-right militias and the NRA-promoted gun culture which obsessed them. Now the tables have been turned.

In the hot seat on Capitol Hill will not be weapons-wielding eccentrics from the militias, but top officials from the ATF, FBI and Justice Department, called to account again for the botched raid on David Koresh's Branch Davidian cult in April 1993.

No one is disputing the connection between the events. Indeed, the government is partly basing its case against Timothy McVeigh, who faces the death penalty if convicted of carrying out the bombing, on the belief he acted out of a desire to "avenge" Waco, in which some 90 of Koresh's followers died.

Nor do critics of the planned hearings by two House Committees deny that Waco was a tragically bungled piece of law-enforcement that deserves further examination. But, they say, holding the inquiry now only risks fuelling the paranoia which produced Oklahoma City.

However, the NRA's desire to have Congress investigate purported abuses of power by the BATF, whose agents it has called "jackbooted government thugs", has prevailed. The NRA has even helped the Republicans to prepare the hearings. After much equivocation, Bill Zeliff, the New Hampshire Republican chairing the session, has admitted consultants who accompanied committee members on an evidence-finding trip to Texaswere paid by the association.

Whatever the new evidence elicited by the eight days of hearings, the one sure loser is the BATF. Efforts by the agency's new leadership to rebuild its image since Waco have just been dealt two blows - the first a lawsuit by black agents claiming racial discrimination; the second: whites-only gatherings of agents replete with racist behaviour.

According to accounts of the "Good Ol' Boy Round-Up" in Tennessee, attended by over 300 past and present BATF members in May, participants yelled racial abuse and bought T-shirts showing OJ Simpson hanging from a gibbet.

The BATF director, John Magaw, has promised the "strongest possible discipline" and some Republicans are urging hearings to deal with these new allegations.

Meanwhile, the deputy FBI director, Larry Potts, was demoted yesterday amid new controversy over his role in an FBI siege in Idaho in 1992. Mr Potts was in charge of the operation, during which the wife of the white separatist Randy Weaver was shot dead. He also supervised the final raid on Waco.