Fiery Questions In Waco's Wake

CBS News Correspondent Rita Braver reflects on the recent disclosures about the government's handling of the standoff with the Branch Davidians. An archive of The Braver Line is available. Rita Braver's email address is

Was it a deliberate lie, or just a clumsy, but innocent oversight? ThatÂ's the key question about the FBIÂ's recent admission that agents had indeed fired incendiary devices at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993.

For more than six years the FBI has insisted that only nonburning tear gas was used at the compound. But now the Texas Rangers, which ended up as the custodian of all the evidence from the site, say that during a recent survey it found remains of two canisters containing flammable material. Oops.

According to a high-ranking official, when the bureau was closing in on the Branch Davidians, the decision was made to try to use tear gas to keep residents from scampering into an underground compound beneath a concrete pit, 40 to 50 yards from the main wooden compound structure.

Two agents moved their armed vehicle close to the pit. They tried firing nonincendiary canisters, but were unable to pierce the structure.

One agent then asked permission from the team leader to use so-called military rounds, which apparently were incendiary. The team leader radioed to the second in command at the site, who gave permission.

An agent in a helicopter hovering over the compound heard the radio traffic, and was therefore another witness to the event. Permission was granted; the canisters were fired.

The bureau insists that neither cannister was effective, and in fact, one rolled off into a field. So why wasnÂ't this information previously disclosed?

FBI Assistant Director John Collingwood says that neither the shooter nor any of the other parties to the case was ever asked about it.

What? It seems, Collingwood claims, that all through the course of congressional hearings and a Justice Department review, the many, many questions about the use of flammable material involved only the main wooden structure where the Davidians lived.

This is so hard to believe that Collingwood (who, it should be pointed out here, has always seemed like a decent and intelligent man) has the good grace to acknowledge that "it appears like misleading." Youbetcha.

Given the level of public controversy over the government raid on the Branch Davidians, if agents were NOT engaged in a coverup, mere common sense should have told SOMEONE to come forward without waiting for the magic question to be broached. But the FBI culture has always been guarded, insular and not given to volunteering anything.

And as further evidence it now appears that there is a videotape that reportedly shows FBI agents asking for and receiving permission to fire incendiary devices that was never reviously revealed.

Attorney General Janet Reno has long acknowledged that Waco continues to haunt her. Last week she said that the latest disclosures have undermined her credibility. While itÂ's true that she bears ultimate responsibility for the bureauÂ's conduct, FBI Director Louis Freeh is more correct in his statement that itÂ's the FBIÂ's reputation thatÂ's on the line here.

The new disclosure has legitimately reopened the entire operation to a new round of scrutiny. It now appears that there will be an independent review of the FBIÂ's conduct at Waco. It canÂ't happen too fast.

©1999 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved