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A TRUE BAPTISM BY FIRE : The Waco Legacy

April 25, 1993|Susan Estrich | Susan Estrich, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a law professor at USC. She served as campaign manager for Michael S. Dukakis in 1988

In approving Monday's assault in Waco, Tex., Atty. Gen. Janet Reno made an error in judgment. She listened too well to experts who turned out to know less than they claimed. It is a mistake she is unlikely to make again. In stepping forward on Monday afternoon, however, she demonstrated how good her judgment can be. By accepting responsibility for her error, and pointing fingers of blame at no one, Reno made clear that she understands not only the demands of politics, but also the requirements of leadership.

When the Central Intelligence Agency came to President Dwight D. Eisenhower with proposals on how to deal with Cuba, he repeatedly sent them back to the drawing board for retooling. When they came to John F. Kennedy in the early days of his term, the new President, unaccustomed to distrusting the experts, approved of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Reno seems to have made a similar mistake in approving the FBI's assault on the Branch Davidian compound. The experts told her that a mass suicide was extremely unlikely, and they were wrong. Perhaps, Reno deferred too much to the experts this time because, like Kennedy, she was new to her job, or because she trusted their expertise too much, or because she was eager to prove her own toughness.

Whatever the reason, the FBI will doubtless face a far more skeptical audience the next time around. That is surely one of the lessons Reno--and America--takes from Waco. Next time, particularly if time is on the government's side, as it was here, Reno may send the experts back to the drawing board, demand more and insist on evidence.

The fact that the attorney general said on Monday that she had approved the plan because of the continuing abuse of the children, only to have the embattled FBI director announce on Wednesday that there was no evidence of continuing abuse, demonstrates only too clearly how much more could have, and should have, been demanded before any such assault was mounted. Disasters so early in a term are not easily forgotten. Kennedy demanded far more from the CIA after the Bay of Pigs.

But the ultimate responsibility for what went wrong in Waco belongs not to the FBI, but to Reno and her boss, President Bill Clinton. That lesson on leadership may prove, in the long run, to be Waco's most important legacy, at least for the President and the attorney general.

It is the FBI's responsibility to offer plans and alternatives and to assess what is feasible. There will, understandably, be much second guessing of how they performed those responsibilities. But there is no special expertise that one learns in law-enforcement training that tells you how much a child's life is worth, or when it is worth risking, or how certain you must be when children's lives are at stake. That, ultimately, is what we elect Presidents for, and what they must select attorney generals for. It is the decision that cannot be delegated to experts. It is the question of judgment.

The decision to tear-gas the compound was, inevitably, a decision to risk the lives of children. David Koresh is, of course, the chief culprit for the deaths on Monday. But the children in that compound did not choose him as their leader. If he didn't care about their lives--as he apparently did not--and if their parents were ready to sacrifice them--as apparently they were--then all that stood between the children and their death was the wisdom of our government.

For most Americans, the children inside the Branch Davidian compound were largely anonymous. For many of us, they were no more real in life than they were in death. That may have made it too easy for Reno and the President to put their faith in the FBI, too easy for America to view this as a debate about tactics and experts rather than about judgments and leaders.

But if Reno's judgment was flawed before Monday, it has been nearly flawless in the days since. In her handling of the disaster after the fact, the attorney general has demonstrated not only considerable political skills, but a sophisticated understanding of her job and her responsibilities.

The attorney general did not, as she put it, do the "spin thing." Instead, she moved out front immediately and took the blame. She acknowledged, with admirable candor, that had she known the tear-gas attack might lead to a mass suicide, she would never have approved it. But she did not blame the FBI for misadvising her, nor did she shift the blame to her own boss for approving her decision. She did not even seem bothered by the apparent efforts of some of the President's advisers to distance him from the disaster--efforts that, in contrast to Reno's approach, were doomed to failure and that left Clinton, on Tuesday, denying that he had ever attempted to avoid responsibility.

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