WASHINGTON — A teen-age girl's gripping account Wednesday of being forced at age 10 to have sex in a hotel room with Branch Davidian cult leader David Koresh effectively muted criticism of federal law enforcement agents on the first day of congressional hearings into the tragic 1993 siege of the cult's compound near Waco, Tex.
Speaking in a soft yet determined voice, Kiri Jewell, now 14, recalled that she was about 7 when Koresh first notified her on a Southern California recreational outing that she would become one of his wives. Jewell said that she was taught how to place a gun inside her mouth to commit suicide.
Her testimony before a silent, jam-packed committee room on Capitol Hill instantly transformed a boisterous, rude proceeding filled with partisan bickering. Republicans, who had scheduled eight days of hearings to attack the government's decision to raid the Davidian compound in assaults that led to the deaths of more than 80 sect members and four federal agents, were stunned by Jewell's allegations against Koresh.
Democratic leaders, who earlier protested that the proceedings were politically tainted by the "surreptitious" involvement of the National Rifle Assn. in the preparation of testimony and witnesses, had called Jewell to testify.
"The Republicans made their own bed, equating David Koresh with federal law enforcement," said a clearly satisfied Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), ranking minority member of the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime. "And now they have to lay in it."
Republicans were frustrated by Jewell's testimony. They had hoped to focus the day's attention on the shortcomings of a legal affidavit used by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to obtain a warrant to search the Davidian complex for unlawful firearms and explosives. Among the criticisms raised during testimony was a listing in the affidavit of child abuse allegations--a crime outside the jurisdiction of the ATF.
"This is a sympathetic witness to an issue that has nothing to do with this hearing," said Rep. Steven H. Schiff (R-N.M.), who conceded in an interview that a disproportionate amount of attention had been drawn away from law enforcement's performance of its duties at Waco. He added: "So details about under-age sex are going to get more attention than a faulty search warrant."
Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) called the emphasis placed on child abuse allegations "a major distraction."
The hearing kicked off with a government prosecutor asserting that Koresh had scripted an apocalyptic theology that directly led to the deaths of sect members and government agents.
But the two House subcommittees jointly conducting the hearings also heard testimony that the government could have avoided a violent confrontation by accepting Koresh's invitation to inspect weapons at his Mount Carmel Center or by arresting him on at least three separate occasions when he left the compound in the weeks leading up to the initial raid on Feb. 28, 1993, that prompted the longest and deadliest standoff in U.S. law enforcement history.
The start of the hearings that will examine the conduct of the ATF, FBI and Justice Department during the 51-day siege erupted in bitter partisan bickering when Democrats claimed they had evidence that the NRA had paid explosive experts conducting research for the joint committee and that NRA lawyers were selected to testify without revealing their affiliation with the pro-gun lobby. In addition, a potential witness earlier had disclosed that she was interviewed by an NRA employee who identified herself as a committee staff member.
"This hearing is not for the American people," Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said in a prepared statement. "It is by, for and about the National Rifle Assn. This hearing is an attempt to repeal the assault weapons ban by tearing down the agencies that enforce that ban."
Republican leaders of the joint committee--composed of the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime and the Government Reform and Oversight subcommittee on national security, international affairs and criminal justice--refused a request by Democrats to fully investigate the NRA's role in the hearings.
More than two years after the Davidian complex burned to the ground, much remains in doubt about the events leading up to the siege.
The hearings are expected to focus on central questions such as:
* Why did ATF agents decline Koresh's offer to search the premises of the Davidian compound during their investigation into weapons violations?
* Did the ATF intentionally mislead the U.S. Army when it claimed that the Davidian complex contained a drug lab so that it could obtain the use of military equipment and personnel?
* Did ATF agents in helicopters fire on the Davidian complex?
* Why did the FBI cease to engage in good-faith negotiations with Koresh during the standoff?
* Did FBI officials mislead Atty. Gen. Janet Reno in seeking her approval to launch a tear gas assault on the residence?