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Reno Questioned on Decisions Before Branch Davidian Fire

March 29, 2000|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. Janet Reno submitted to two hours of questioning Tuesday from the Branch Davidians' lead attorney, revisiting decisions that led to one of the worst crises of her tenure when the cultists' compound burned near Waco, Texas, seven years ago.

The court-ordered deposition on the divisive episode, the only one that Reno has given, came six weeks before the trial is scheduled to start in a lawsuit by the Davidians in which the government is accused of effectively creating a "deathtrap" and contributing to the deaths of innocent people in the April 19, 1993, conflagration.

Emerging from the closed deposition, lead Davidian attorney Michael Caddell told reporters that he thought Reno was "less than candid" in denying that agents had any plan to demolish the compound.

But he added that other aspects of her deposition may have helped his case, buttressing evidence about a breakdown in the chain of command at the site of the siege.

Caddell said Reno acknowledged, for instance, that her subordinates did not tell her there would not be a plan for fighting a fire at the Mount Carmel site or that they might have to hold back firefighters because of safety concerns.

Reno is not expected to testify at the civil trial in Texas, which is scheduled to begin May 15. But her comments at Tuesday's deposition could be critical in the attempt by the Davidians' lawyers to establish that federal agents acted recklessly when they attacked the Davidian compound in a rush of tanks and tear gas on the final day of the 51-day siege.

Michael Bradford, U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Texas and one of five Justice Department lawyers who flanked Reno during the deposition, said that her answers were "consistent and forthright."

He refused to discuss her testimony in detail because he said it might violate restrictions imposed by the judge in the civil suit.

Davidian leader David Koresh and about 80 members of his religious following, including 19 children, died in the fire.

The Davidian group holed up inside the compound in a deadly standoff after federal agents raided it because of reports of stockpiled weapons. Four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were killed in the initial raid.

With federal resources wearing thin during the standoff, Reno and federal authorities ordered FBI agents to fire tear gas into the compound the morning of April 19 in an effort to chase the cultists outside.

According to the government's account, the cult members opted instead to set the building ablaze in a mass suicide, and some members shot other members.

The government's account came under sharp attack last year, however, after Justice Department officials admitted--after years of denials--that FBI agents had fired several pyrotechnic devices at a concrete bunker near the main compound.

The admission unleashed a firestorm of protest, particularly among conspiracy theorists who long had insisted that federal agents had killed the Davidians, and Reno appointed a special counsel.

That review, led by former Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), is continuing. Earlier this month, Danforth oversaw an elaborate re-creation of the siege's final hours, designed to determine whether agents had ever fired shots at the Davidians.

Reno testified that federal agents did not in fact "demolish" the building, as Caddell claims, and that any damage caused by them was "incidental" to their efforts to get tear gas inside, Caddell recounted. Reno said that, if agents had demolished the building, it would have been counter to the plan she had approved, according to Caddell.

Caddell said that he found Reno's comments on the demolition issue to be "less than candid, less than responsive." But he said that he does not believe Reno was personally liable for the events leading up to the Davidians' deaths.

Caddell said he believes that supervisors and agents in Texas that morning clearly did not follow what Reno said Tuesday was to be "a slow, incremental process" of infiltrating the compound with tear gas. "The conclusion is clear that they did exceed their authority," he said.

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