GOP wants Waco task force, possibly led by Reno nemesis

Wednesday, September 22nd 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A former antagonist to Attorney General Janet
Reno is being considered to head a Senate probe of the 1993 Waco
standoff and, perhaps, the Justice Department's handling of
controversies such as alleged Chinese nuclear espionage and
Democratic fund-raising abuses.

But even as the Senate Waco probe was taking shape Tuesday, a
turf battle erupted. The outside investigator probing the
government's use of force during the 51-day standoff with Branch
Davidians near Waco, Texas, cautioned senators not to undermine his

Former Sen. John Danforth, the special counsel appointed by Reno
to look into a possible government cover-up at Waco, complained
that investigators for Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who would lead
the proposed Senate probe, traveled to Waco earlier this month
"without even troubling to give me a call."

Danforth and congressional Republicans want to interview
survivors, relatives and lawyers involved in a wrongful-death
lawsuit against the government as a result of the 1993 FBI assault
on the Davidians' compound. During the assault the compound burned
to the ground and about 80 members of the cult died; some died in
the fire and some had been shot.

The 51-day siege had begun when agents of the Bureau of Alcohol,
Tobacco and Firearms tried to arrest several cult members on
weapons charges. Four ATF agents and six cult members were killed
in the February shootout.

"I thought we had agreed that we would work together so that I
can fulfill my mission as special counsel," Danforth wrote to the
panel in a Sept. 17 letter obtained by The Associated Press.

The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch,
R-Utah, told reporters Tuesday that the investigators traveled to
Texas at Specter's direction and "not with full committee
authorization." He pledged to cooperate as much as possible with
Danforth, who is investigating whether the government covered up
its use of potentially incendiary tear gas grenades at the end of
the standoff and whether federal agents fired any shots in the
final hours, among other issues.

Republicans and Democrats on Tuesday held the first formal talks
about the size and the scope of their Waco investigation. But the
discussions were overshadowed by the Danforth complaint and word
that Specter may hire Charles LaBella to head the investigation.

LaBella left the Justice Department earlier this year over
Reno's refusal to seek an independent counsel for 1996 campaign
fund raising.

In a private meeting, senior GOP leaders proposed that Specter
chair a five-member task force that would probe "whether or not
the Justice Department is serving the American people" in its
handling of several matters, such as 1996 fund raising, Waco and
the alleged theft of U.S. nuclear secrets by China, according to

Specter's consideration of LaBella was not discussed, according
to those present. But Specter told Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa,
that he was thinking of hiring the former Reno aide, Grassley said
in an interview.

Grassley, who also would sit on the task force, voiced concern
that LaBella's hiring could taint an inquiry that would focus
largely on Reno's stewardship of the Justice Department.

"On the positive side, he knows where all the skeletons are,"
Grassley said. "On the negative side, it could send a signal that
there is a preconceived notion about the FBI and the Justice

Specter and LaBella declined to comment. But two senior
Republican aides close to the task force talks said no other
senators so far were advocating LaBella's hiring.

The task force would move forward only if Senate Democratic
leader Tom Daschle and the Judiciary Committee's top Democrat, Sen.
Patrick Leahy of Vermont, agree by Thursday, Hatch said. Absent
their support, the proceedings would take place in the
Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee.

Leahy and Daschle expressed concern over the scope and likely
cost of such proceedings.

"Many would treat this as a way of getting at Janet Reno rather
than who in the FBI withheld information" during earlier Waco
investigations, Leahy told reporters after the meeting.

Danforth, meanwhile, was pressing ahead with his own

He visited the Texas site on Monday and wants his staff to meet
within two weeks with lawyers pressing the wrongful-death lawsuit
against the government.

In a letter to the lawyers Monday, obtained by The Associated
Press, Danforth requested the attorneys' views on the FBI's use of
pyrotechnic tear gas canisters, the "allegedly improper use of the
U.S. armed forces," and the way certain evidence and testimony was
presented to Congress.

Michael Caddell, the Houston lawyer who is lead counsel in the
wrongful-death suit, said he would cooperate with Danforth.