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A Circus in D.C. That Has Few Laughing : Politics: Dead mice. An author on tour. Child molestation. The NRA. Are the hearings into the debacle at Waco about digging up the truth or burying one's opponents?

August 01, 1995|GLENN F. BUNTING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — On the opening day of testimony, before listening to a single witness, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) declared that congressional hearings into the debacle at Waco, Tex., "have gone from folly to farce."

Conyers' remarks came during more than an hour of partisan bickering between members of a special House committee. They argued about whether the hearings were really necessary (Republicans yea, Democrats nay), the not-so-hidden agenda of the National Rifle Assn. and the rules for questioning witnesses.

In an effort to cut off the verbal sparring, the committee's Republican chairman angrily slammed his gavel and ordered the showing of a three-minute CNN videotape summarizing the tragedy at the Branch Davidian headquarters in 1993. Democrats raised a ruckus, claiming there was no precedent for viewing a film clip without advance notice.

Oh, yeah? countered Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.). Not long ago when Democrats were in power, Mica recalled, he was forced to sit through a video of white mice scurrying on a piece of carpet taken from the House chambers. The little critters then rolled over on their backs and expired. The rug "supposedly killed the mice," cracked Mica, as the room erupted in laughter.

Welcome to the Waco Circus, live from Capitol Hill.

After nine endless days of testimony from 103 witnesses, the Waco hearings mostly lived down to Conyers' lament at the outset.

The committee aired half-baked conspiracy theories that undermined the credibility of law enforcement. Even the suicide of White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster was fair game.

Some witnesses brought little or no expertise to the proceeding. Poorly prepared lawmakers made fools of themselves by posing silly questions and popping off at one another. They seemed more interested in scoring political points than in unearthing new facts.

"For every member, you could see the political slant they were coming from," said Ramsey Clark, the former attorney general who is suing the government on behalf of Davidian survivors. After only a couple of hours, Clark left the expansive, wood-paneled committee room shaking his head in disgust. "It is predictable and it is shameless. I mean, you wouldn't know 90 people died."

*

Indeed, four federal agents and six Davidians were killed in a firefight Feb. 28, 1993, when an ill-conceived search for illegal weapons was executed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. On April 19, 1993, following a 51-day standoff, the FBI launched a tear-gas assault on the compound that led to the fiery deaths of about 80 religious sect members and their children.

It was the longest and deadliest siege in the history of American law enforcement.

Without a doubt, the hearings have yielded some disturbing discoveries. The ATF, for instance, missed key opportunities to avoid bloodshed by failing to nab cult leader David Koresh away from the compound and refusing to call off the raid once the element of surprise was lost. The FBI stormed the Davidian headquarters before a surrender plan agreed to by Koresh was given every chance to succeed.

But the evidence is overwhelming that Davidians fired first at ATF agents attempting to serve a court-approved search warrant and later deliberately set fires inside the compound in response to attacking FBI tanks.

The hearings conclude today with the much-awaited appearance of Atty. Gen. Janet Reno. If the question-and-answer session follows the form of previous exchanges, Reno will be coddled by loyal Democrats hoping to shield the Clinton Administration from further political embarrassment and grilled by combative Republicans seeking to assert that she hastily approved the tear-gas plan.

Don't expect Reno to get any mercy, not from a committee that stooped to exploiting a teen-ager's testimony that Koresh molested her in a Texas hotel room when she was only 10. Kiri Jewell, now 14, also described on the hearings' first day how Koresh spanked children with boat oars, prepared his followers for suicide and had sex with underage girls.

Democrats, who had arranged Kiri's appearance, gloated that her testimony supported their contention that the hearings' focus on the behavior of law enforcement was misplaced. Republicans howled that Kiri was being used as a "diversionary tactic" to prevent legitimate scrutiny of government misconduct. Somehow it seemed fitting that, while she was still a hot property, Kiri's father sold her story to "Inside Edition."

"I was ashamed of us yesterday," said freshman Rep. Frederick K. Heineman (R-N.C.) following Kiri's testimony. "We know that Koresh was a pervert. We're not here to make a point of that."

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