The tragedy at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, seven years ago will continue to be one of the darkest episodes in the history of US law enforcement. It should not, however, be recorded as a terrible example of reckless behavior by federal agents.
The report just issued by former US Sen. John Danforth (R) of Missouri, acting as a special counsel appointed by Attorney General Janet Reno, directly counters the widespread public perception of police misconduct at Waco. Mr. Danforth's investigative team found no evidence that FBI or ATF agents fired at the Davidian compound or ignited the blaze that consumed the buildings and those in them.
The Danforth report comes on the heels of a jury verdict in a wrongful death suit brought by surviving Davidians. The jury, acting in an advisory capacity to the judge who will make a final ruling, said the government was not negligent in its handling of the affair.
These findings should help dispel the all-too-easy assumption that the awful climax of the 51-day standoff in itself implicated the government. Danforth concluded, reasonably, that responsibility for the 80 deaths at Waco lay primarily with the Davidians themselves, who set the fires and shot the guns that day, and particularly with their leader David Koresh.
But the report doesn't excuse the dishonesty of some government officials who withheld information from earlier congressional investigators and their own superiors. The failure to disclose that pyrotechnic devices had been used by the FBI was, after all, the issue that led to Danforth's appointment as special counsel last year.
A few agents and lawyers within the FBI lied about those devices, presumably out of the concern that blame for the fire could be shifted to the government. That, of course, was exactly what happened when the story finally came out.
Danforth, however, found that the pyrotechnic canisters were used hours before the conflagration began, and that they were aimed at a target separated from the main buildings. He points out that the attempted deception just compounded the tragedy, further eroding many people's faith in their government.
Now Americans have an opportunity to look again, and recognize that federal agents were not trigger-happy. That the government did not act with reckless disregard for life. And that the attorney general did not act to deceive Congress or the public - but was herself deceived.
All questions are not answered, however. Was there a way to handle that situation, which started with illegal-firearms allegations, to avoid a final blowup? Was the psychology of the Davidians really understood and taken into account?
The lessons from Waco, including the need for absolute openness with the public, have to be learned.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society