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Questions keep coming in Waco investigation

How far will the seemingly endless revelations about the FBI's role in Waco go?

Disclosures this week confirm that the FBI used flammable tear gas against the Branch Davidians in the hours before the fiery end to the 51-day standoff - something the bureau has denied for six years.

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A videotape containing audio transmissions between FBI operatives and on-the-ground supervisors is being examined at the Justice Department this week, and officials in Washington are asking, "What next?"

"Looks as though the Department of Justice can't tell the truth," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah.

So far, the tape proves only that military-style tear gas was used on April 19, 1993. It does not back any of the other accusations about the FBI's use of force, including the use of flame throwers.

Some experts see the efforts to conduct an independent investigation and more congressional hearings as little more than political gamesmanship. But it does raise important questions about how the FBI does its job.

"The important question is: How do we handle hostage situations in the future?" says Lawrence Sherman, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

"The rest of this is footnotes to history," says Mr. Sherman, who is critical of actions of the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms at Waco.

Nevertheless, scrutiny of the FBI is set to begin in earnest in the coming weeks.

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Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana is issuing a ream of subpoenas to the Texas Rangers. And US Attorney General Janet Reno is sorting through a short list in her bid to name an outside, impartial investigator to revisit the matter.

While the move to investigate the FBI was already set, it was ensured with the discovery of the tape last week. In a dramatic rebuke, US Marshals seized the tape from FBI custody at the command of Attorney General Reno.

The action was "unusual and unprecedented but reasonable given its importance," says Viet Dihn, who served on the Republican side of the Senate's Whitewater Investigator.

The tape was shot from a surveillance aircraft early on the final day. At the time, nonflammable tear-gas canisters were being fired at the roof of an underground shelter set apart from the main Davidian compound.

According to reports, a supervisor can be heard granting permission to use the flammable tear-gas canisters.

As the investigation effort proceeds, some see more bombshells to come.

According to those that have investigated and followed the Waco tragedy closely, the cautionary lessons need to be codified. They come at the expense of the FBI's credibility.

"When law enforcement want to play soldier or conduct a commando using tanks and tear gas ... at those moments, somebody should say wait a minute," says Alan Stone, a professor of law and psychiatry at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

"It should have to be approved at the highest levels and the people who make the decisions ought to make it in writing," he says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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