B ECAUSE Waco has become the battle cry of the militias and Timothy McVeigh, it is hardly possible to discuss in rational terms the bombing of the Branch Davidian compound. Critics tend to speak not of a tragic mistake by the government, but of a criminal conspiracy. When the House subcommittee on crime holds its hearings on Waco beginning July 19, it can help to illuminate what went wrong with the governmental process if it manages to insulate itself from some of the passion that surrounds the issue.
In April 1993, Attorney General Janet Reno was new to her job and unfamiliar with the principal players. She had grave doubts about the wisdom of the plan to storm the compound with tanks and a gas banned by international treaty. She lay awake at night, she later said, asking, ''Oh my God, what if it blows the place up?''
So how, under the influence of officials and advisers pursuing their own interests and prejudices, did she finally decide to go ahead? What failed was governmental process, and here are some of the questions that have not yet been satisfactorily answered:
What was the role in the decision of the FBI under director William Sessions, himself then on the skids? Why did he advise Ms. Reno that there was child abuse going on in the compound - something never corroborated? Why did Mr. Sessions and his assistants - including Larry Potts, since promoted to deputy director - push so single-mindedly for the attack? Were they worried about their positions and about the damage of the standoff to FBI morale and prestige?
A sub-question there is: What was the role of the FBI's psychological advisers? Why did the FBI seem to lean so heavily on consultants with strong anti-cult sympathies and discount those more versed in the pathology of religious cults? Why did the FBI ignore the advice that David Koresh was looking for a way out?
What was the role of presidential advisers? President Clinton's friend, Webster Hubbell, was No. 2 in the Justice Department. Also sitting in on the meetings with the FBI was White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster, who committed suicide three months after the April 19 attack. His suicide note had a cryptic line, ''FBI lied in their report to the AG (Attorney General).'' The subject of the report was not mentioned. Foster's widow, Lisa, told the FBI in an interview, according to the Washington Times, that Waco had caused her husband ''a great deal of stress,'' that he was ''horrified by the destruction of the compound,'' and that he felt that ''everything was his fault.''
And that leads to the final question: What was the role of the president?
Reno said she briefed Mr. Clinton on the eve of the attack, but did not ask for his approval and she took full responsibility. But was that his sole involvement? If the president was so far removed from the decisionmaking, then why did Foster, the president's lawyer monitoring the planning sessions for the White House, feel that it was his own fault?
These are questions that go to the heart of how government agencies and the White House function in a grave and delicate situation. Whether the cops got advice from the right people in dealing with pathologies they know little about. Whether the FBI is too action-oriented in situations that may call for great restraint. Whether the president, who stands over all this, can afford not to be involved. If the House committee can illuminate some of these questions, it will have performed a service.