Wednesday, Sept. 1, 1999 Missoulian editorial
We're in for another round of hearings and investigations into one of the great law enforcement fiascoes of our time, the deadly 1993 siege on a cult compound at Waco, Texas. New information has surfaced to suggest military commandos may have been on hand for the final tear-gas assault on the compound, and that - contrary to past assurances - at least some of the tear gas canisters used were of a type capable of igniting fires.
David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidian sect, and more than 80 of his followers died in a fire that leveled the compound hours after the assault by federal agents.
The April 19, 1993, conflagration was the tragic climax of a 51-day siege that began after four agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were killed in a shootout. The agents went to the compound to serve search warrants issued based on evidence the Branch Davidians had accumulated illegal weapons.
The Dallas Morning News reported last week that commandos from the Pentagon's Delta Force anti-terrorism unit were at the scene when federal agents launched their final assault. Military personnel may also have been involved in planning for the BATF's original raid on the compound. It's not clear whether military personnel served as observers, advisers or participants - or whether the degree of participation makes any difference.
Federal law prohibits use of the military against civilians without a presidential decree.
Was there illegal military involvement? Or was the military's involvement authorized by President Clinton but not publicly disclosed? And did the tear gas canisters used in the attack ignite the fatal fire? These are important questions that deserve answers.
The timing of the new Waco revelations may have something to do with a wrongful death lawsuit, set to go to trial in October, filed by relatives of people killed in the fire. Coincidentally, the revelations surface as politicians gear up for the 2000 elections. The potential for new investigations into Waco to be politicized makes us shudder.
Waco will long be remembered as a law enforcement disaster and an example of overkill by federal authorities. Nothing will change that fact. But there is much benefit that can come from understanding all aspects of the tragedy - both for accountability and to avert such disasters in the future. But it's also a subject that must be handled responsibly. Waco proved to be a catalyzing event for America's extremist fringe. Recall that Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City in retaliation for Waco. In getting to the bottom of Waco, politicians shouldn't ignore the potential of inflaming anti-government passions to dangerous levels.