Waco: The Aftermath: America asks whom to blame: Washington is horrified but promises an inquest, writes Rupert Cornwell

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The Independent Online
AFTER the Apocalypse, the inquest. As a shocked Washington sought to come to terms with the gruesome climax to the Waco siege in which up to 86 people may have died, both the White House and Congress announced plans for investigations into the FBI's botched handling of the affair.

A House subcommittee will begin its own probe on Friday into what both Republican and Democratic legislators called 'the worst possible' outcome of the 51-day stand-off. President Bill Clinton meanwhile, acknowledging 'full responsibility for implementation of the decision,' announced a joint Justice Department-Treasury investigation.

But critics warned instantly this could merely produce an in- house whitewash, despite the President's promise that outside specialists would be brought in. Mr Clinton himself placed the ultimate blame for the Waco tragedy on cult leader David Koresh, who 'destroyed himself and murdered the others. He killed those he controlled'.

But the focus, inevitably, will fall on the FBI. On the basis of available evidence, the chain of command seems to have worked as normal. Attorney-General Janet Reno, as head of the Justice Department which oversees the Bureau, took copious expert advice before giving her blessing to the FBI plan. She in turn informed President Clinton, who after asking his own questions, raised no objection.

The flaws, as even Mr Clinton implicitly admitted, were in that plan itself. How did the Bureau's criminal psychologists so completely misread the suicidal, fire- obsessed mind of David Koresh - not to mention a string of belligerent messages from the compound? How could its strategists believe that sending in battering rams might be interpreted as merely 'an escalation' of pressure and, as FBI Special Agent Bob Ricks put it, 'not D-Day itself'?

Why were no fire-engines ready at hand? How was it that America's law enforcement agencies possessed only one hostage rescue team?

These issues will be at the heart of the inquiries both within the Administration and on Capitol Hill itself. There seems no question of the resignation of Ms Reno, whose forthright acceptance of responsibility for the botched attack has won wide sympathy.

The President, said a White House spokesman yesterday, 'supports her 1,000 per cent. He supports the decision made by the Justice Department and the FBI'.

Nor was there any sign that William Sessions, the FBI director already under fire for alleged ethics abuses, would immediately step down.

Indeed the Waco tragedy raises questions far beyond the competence of the FBI. America's lunatic laxity over gun control allowed David Koresh to amass an arsenal that held off an elite government assault force for more than seven weeks.

Meanwhile Justice Department officials said yesterday the nine Branch Davidians known to have survived may face criminal charges for the original shoot-out on 28 February.