Ten months after he was asked to investigate the role of federal agents during the 1993 Branch Davidian siege near Waco, former Sen. John Danforth released his investigation's preliminary conclusions about the incident that claimed more than 80 lives.
"The tragedy at Waco rests with certain Branch Davidians and their leader David Koresh who shot and killed four (government) agents, wounded 20 others, shot at FBI agents trying to insert tear gas into the complex, burned down the complex, and shot at least 20 of their own people, including five children," Danforth's report said.
In the interim report, which contains conclusions relating to about 95 percent of the subjects under investigation, Danforth wrote, "I have always felt that is was important to answer these dark questions for the American people."
He then rattled off the four main conclusions of his report:
- Government agents did not start the fire at Waco on April 19, 1993.
- Government agents did not shoot at the Branch Davidians during the last day of the standoff.
- The U.S. government did not improperly use the military during the siege.
- The government did not engage in a massive conspiracy and cover-up of the initial Justice Department investigation.
"This is not a report that is in any way equivocal. These (conclusions) are stated with very, very great certainty," said Danforth during a Friday afternoon news conference on the release of the findings. "We went in to this with totally open minds. We went into every detail" added the former senator, appointed by Attorney General Janet Reno in September.
The investigation - conducted in secret - and full report were requested by the Justice Department following revelations that the FBI, contradicting a position it had taken for six years, used potentially incendiary devices on the last day of the standoff.
On that day, April 19, 1993, Davidian leader David Koresh and about 80 followers died, some from a fire that consumed the compound and others from gunshot wounds.
The government has long contended that the Davidians themselves set fire to the retreat and caused their own deaths, whether by fire or gunshots. The FBI and Reno, who was interviewed by Danforth, have denied any wrongdoing.
Last week, a Texas jury said the government was not negligent in its handling of the siege. U.S. District Judge Walter Smith, who doesn't have to follow the jury's advice in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Davidian survivors and relatives, will make a final ruling after considering whether federal agents shot at Davidians as the siege ended.
The former Republican senator from Missouri promised to try to get to the bottom of four issues: whether government agents shot into the complex, the origin of the fire, the extent of the military's involvement and whether there was a cover-up.
Danforth, an ordained Episcopal priest and an heir to the Ralston-Purina fortune, hired a British firm to stage a simulation of events that happened on the final day of the siege.
He declined comment after the firm, Vector Data Systems, issued its final report that said flashes seen on a videotape of the siege's final day were sunlight reflecting off debris, not government gunfire.
In its report, which was submitted in the wrongful death case, Vector compared results from the simulation to the video and concluded, "We were unable to identify any gunfire, either from government forces or from Davidians."
The FBI said the report vindicated agents accused of shooting into the compound, but an attorney for Davidian survivors and relatives, Jim Brannon, has called Vector's analysis "fatally flawed."
Danforth's budget indicated that he did not use Justice Department investigators to avoid a conflict of interest, since the actions of FBI agents were under scrutiny. Most of the work was done by a staff of 17 lawyers - including Danforth - and 32 postal investigators, who were not paid through Danforth's budget.
He is the first person to wield powers spelled out in a new set of Justice Department regulations adopted after the expiration of the independent counsel statute. If necessary, he is authorized to prosecute for federal crimes arising from his investigation. He can also call a grand jury.
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