Americans are divided in their evaluations of the government's handling of the standoff and siege that resulted in 80 deaths at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas in April 1993.
According to a CBS News poll, most doubt the Federal Bureau of Investigation told the truth about its role in those events to Attorney General Janet Reno then, and believe there has been a government cover-up to keep the public from learning the truth.
But despite these doubts about the government's actions at Waco, Americans are more likely to blame the Davidians themselves, along with their leader David Koresh, than they are to blame the FBI or Reno for the standoff and the deaths of the Branch Davidians.
While Janet Reno's favorable ratings have dropped in the last year, relatively few Americans want her to resign.
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED IN WACO
A poll conducted immediately after the events near Waco in 1993 found 70 percent of the public approving of the actions of the FBI and other government authorities.
But two years later, after the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City on Waco's second anniversary, approval of the government and the FBI's role in Waco dropped to 42 percent, while 40 percent disapproved.
The public continues to be divided. Now approval of the government's actions in the events in Waco six years ago is down to 38 percent, and 43 percent disapprove.
FBI'S ACTIONS AT WACO
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This increased distrust of the government's actions in the years following the events near Waco have fueled charges of an official government cover-up of its role there. Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that a cover-up has occurred. Only 25 percent reject the notion of a cover-up.
WAS THERE A GOVERNMENT COVER-UP?
Belief in a Waco cover-up is only somewhat less widespread than the long-term public feeling that an official government cover-up occurred after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Seventy-four percent think there was a government cover-up of the truth about JFK's death.
WHO'S TELLING THE TRUTH?
By two to one, the public says the FBI did NOT tell Attorney General Janet Reno the truth about its role in the events during the standoff at the Branch Davidian compound. As for the FBI's openness on the use of flammable tear gas canisters before the fire in the compound that eventually killed many of the Branch Davidians, the public takes Janet Reno's side. Forty-six percent say she is telling the truth when she says she did not know that the FBI used those canisters, and 36 percent think she is not telling the truth about what she knew.
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On the subject of the Branch Davidian siege, 56 percent say they have heard or read a lot about these events.
WHO'S TO BLAME?
Even though the public has doubts about the government's role, most think that in the end David Koresh and the Branch Davidians themselves are more to blame for the events in Waco than are either the FBI or Janet Reno. In fact, by 52 percent to 38 percent, Americans say the situation would have come to a violent end sooner or later, no matter how it was handled by the authorities.
When asked directly who they blame for the events in their own words, 43 percent volunteer that they blamed the cult itself, while a total of 21 percent cited the FBI, the ATF, or Janet Reno.
WHO IS MOST TO BLAME FOR WHAT HAPPENED?
The level of blame attributed individually to each of the main actors in the siege echo those unprompted answers, and armost negative about the role of David Koresh, the Branch Davidians' leader. Seventy percent give him a lot of the responsibility for what happened, nearly twice as many as give a lot of the blame to any one else involved. Only three in ten think the FBI has a lot of responsibility for those events.
HOW MUCH RESPONSIBILITY FOR WHAT HAPPENED?
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When asked specifically abouthe DEATHS in the compound, 59 percent blame the Branch Davidians for refusing to surrender, while 24 percent blame the FBI for using too much force. And the public's overall assessment of the FBI is favorable: 43 percent have a favorable opinion of the FBI overall, while 18 percent are unfavorable.
WHAT TO DO NOW
By 60 percent to 33 percent, Americans applaud the appointment of an independent investigator to look into the siege near Waco, but they are divided on whether or not Congress needs to hold hearings. Fifty percent say Congress should be holding hearings about Waco, while 45 percent say Congressional hearings are not necessary.
Part of the hesitation about Congressional hearings may stem from the low approval ratings the public currently gives Congress. Only 38 percent approve of the way Congress is handling its job, the lowest number since late in 1997, at the end of a less-than-productive session. But another reason for the hesitation may be that the public does not think such hearings would be productive. Half the public say the truth about the events at the Branch Davidian compound can never be found out, and 43 percent think the truth will come out.
THE IMPACT ON RENO
As for Janet Reno, although her favorable ratings declined in the past year, only 20 percent think she should resign. Two-thirds do NOT. But the toll on public opinion about Reno is clear. In February 1998, 35 percent held a favorable opinion of her. Just 22 percent were unfavorable. Now, as many are unfavorable towards her as are favorable.
OPINION OF JANET RENO
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Even more striking is that nearly all of the change in opinion about Reno has come from men. What had been in February 1998 a 37 percent to 27 percent FAVORABLE assessment of Reno from men has now become a 41 percent to 26 percent UNFAVORABLE rating. The change among women has been minimal.
OPINION OF JANET RENO: GENDER DIFFERENCES
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There are other significant gender differences in this poll beyond the ones over the Attorney General. Men clearly disapprove (50 percent to 39 percent) of the government's actions at Waco, while women are evenly divided. Men are more willing than women to blame the FBI, though both genders put major blame on David Koresh. However, nearly half of men say they believe the deaths at the compound could have been avoided if the government had acted differently.
This oll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 871 adults, interviewed by telephone October 3 - 4, 1999. The error due to sampling could be plus or minus three percentage points based on the entire sample. The sampling error for subgroups is higher. For full question wording and poll findings, please contact the CBS Election and Survey Unit at 212-975-5554.