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Waco Review Puts Federal Lawmen Under Microscope

TOMORROW, Congress launches its long-awaited probe of the Waco debacle. Lawmakers say the future of key federal law agencies and officials could hang in the balance.

IN a confidential memorandum written two days before the raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, Christopher Cuyler of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) predicted that the operation would attract ''considerable media attention.''

He was right.

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Nearly 2-1/2 years later, the events at the Waco compound are still capturing headlines, though probably not the type Mr. Cuyler envisioned.

The raid, the standoff, and its fiery aftermath - which took the lives of four agents and more than 80 Branch Davidians - remains a dark spot on the record of federal law enforcement. It also has served as a rallying cry for groups that view Washington as a sinister camp.

This week, two House committees will revisit Waco in a series of joint hearings.

Supporters say the hearings will finally hold the ATF, along with the FBI, accountable for their incompetence and brutality at Waco. Critics call them a Republican ploy to embarrass the Clinton administration and erode public support for gun-control laws.

Either way, the stakes are high. The hearings could either restore public confidence in federal law enforcement, and in the government's ability to police itself, or erode confidence to a dangerous point.

''The main focus of these hearings is to let it all hang out,'' says Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. ''We want to draw a map of what happened that will ... change the attitude that some things have been hidden.''

If the hearings lead to some not-so-flattering revelations about the agencies involved, Representative McCollum says, ''so be it.''

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Most observers agree the hearings could have a dramatic impact on the future of the ATF, especially in the wake of recent reports that several of its agents participated in a racist gathering in Tennessee.

Robert Sanders, a former ATF assistant director who now practices law in Washington, says the hearings will reveal an organization whose management in the last 12 to 15 years has been ''abysmal.''

According to Mr. Sanders, the ATF's law-enforcement side and its compliance side are a mismatch. The bureau's duties include everything from tracing firearms and conducting arson investigations to collecting excise taxes from alcohol- and cigarette-makers.

Over the years, a handful of government- review panels have come to this conclusion, recommending that some or all of the ATF's functions should be absorbed into other agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service, the Secret Service, or the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In each case, however, the ATF has managed to maintain its independence.

But in the months preceding the Waco raid, the TV news magazine ''60 Minutes'' accused the ATF of widespread sexual harassment.

Sanders says after the ''60 Minutes'' segment, agents told him that ATF officials, worried about the agency's image, had instructed them to look for cases that were ''media attractive.'' In their opinion, he says, Waco was ''a publicity stunt.''

Indeed, ATF officials contacted as many as 11 media outlets before the raid, Treasury Department records show, and camera crews were at the scene to record it.

''It was a half-time show,'' Sanders says. ''There was no evidence of anybody's life being in danger there.'' If the ATF wanted to serve its search- and arrest-warrants for David Koresh, he says, ''they should have walked up to the door'' and knocked.

''The question is, why were they doing something such as Waco in the first place?'' he asks. ''This was a military assault on men, women, and children for what? To serve a search warrant?''

In hearings held shortly after the fire that killed Koresh and 80 of his followers, Congress held hearings on the operation, and the Department of Justice and the Treasury Department conducted investigations.

The Treasury report, which has been widely praised, found the ATF negligent in many ways, among them proceeding with the raid even after learning the cultists had been tipped off. The report also concluded that ''numerous officials were less than truthful'' in subsequent testimony.

ATF director Stephen Higgins was removed after the report was released, and two case officers were demoted for lying. (On Friday, FBI deputy director Larry Potts was demoted after criticism mounted for his role in leading the final phase of the Waco siege, and for leading the deadly 1992 raid on white supremacist Randy Weaver in Ruby Ridge, Idaho.)

But ATF supporters argue that much of the criticism ignores the fact that Koresh had a stockpile of fully automatic (and illegal) weapons, an apocalyptic worldview, and a history of armed conflict dating back to a shootout at the compound in 1987.

According to the Treasury report, the ATF's 91-agent ''dynamic raid'' was justified, because simply knocking on the door would have been ''foolhardy and irresponsible.''

''Whether or not people believe the raid was well planned, people in the compound had no right to open fire on agents in cold blood,'' says Victor Oboyski, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. If Koresh came out with his hands up, nobody would have been shot.''

Robert Louden, director of the Center for Criminal Justice at John Jay University in New York, says that at best, the hearings will shed light on some endemic, and correctable problems with federal law enforcement, and lay to rest many of the conspiracy theories surrounding the Waco raid.

At worst, he says, the hearings could ignore the illegality of the Branch Davidians' weapons stockpiling and devolve into a dog and pony show orchestrated by the National Rifle Association.

In a letter sent to major newspapers early this month, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin expressed concern that gun-lobby supporters could use the hearings to undermine gun-control laws by eroding public confidence in the agents who enforce them. Congressional committees are using firearms experts whose services are paid for by the National Rifle Association to rebut ATF claims.

Mr. Rubin insists that the hearings will ''set the record straight'' about the real lessons of Waco. ''The danger in Waco to public safety originated from the Davidians' illegal arsenal, not from ATF,'' he writes. ''David Koresh was not the victim in this tragedy, he was the villain.''

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