FBI readies reversal on use of inflammatory devices at Waco
Wednesday, August 25th 1999, 12:00 am
News On 6
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The FBI sought to craft a statement Wednesday
that officials said would publicly reverse a 6-year-old course and
admit agents fired potentially inflammatory tear gas canisters on
the final day of the 1993 standoff with the Branch Davidian cult
near Waco, Texas.
The federal law enforcement officials maintained, however, that
the two canisters could not have started the fire in the wood main
building that took many lives among the followers of David Koresh.
The government consistently has disputed the idea that the FBI
started the fire, and one official said "the bottom line" remains
that the Davidians set the fire.
Officials said the two military tear gas canisters, labeled
pyrotechnic because of their ability to cause a spark, were fired
just after 6 a.m. on April 19, 1993, six hours before the fire
began. The canisters were fired not at the wood main structure but
at a concrete bunker some yards away, bounced off its roof and
landed in an open field, according to these officials, who spoke
only on condition of anonymity.
The canisters were tried because other, nonpyrotechnic tear gas
canisters had not penetrated the bunker, which was linked to the
main building by tunnels, the officials said. The FBI wanted to
clear out anyone hiding in the bunker.
The tear gas canisters inserted in the wooden, main building by
FBI tanks during the final assault later that day were not
flammable because of concern about causing a fire, these officials
For six years, the FBI and top Justice Department officials have
categorically insisted no incendiary devices were used by the FBI
on April 19, when it mounted the assault that ended the 51-day
siege by federal agents trying to serve a warrant for Koresh's
arrest on firearms and explosives charges.
For two days, since a former assistant deputy FBI director,
Danny Coulson, acknowledged for the first time to the Dallas
Morning News that the two canisters were fired, FBI officials have
struggled to issue a public statement.
Several draft versions were reviewed inside the FBI and by
Justice Department officials, who privately expressed anger that
the FBI had allowed Attorney General Janet Reno and other officials
to issue public denials. Some said the incident would harm the
credibility of federal law enforcement even if the devices had no
role in the fire.
Officials were attempting to be certain any new statement would
be complete and accurate and not have to be revised later. They
also were proceeding carefully because the issue has been raised in
a lawsuit against the government by Waco survivors.
An inquiry was begun to determine why the information about the
two pyrotechnic canisters was not provided earlier to Reno, FBI
Director Louis Freeh or Congress, officials said.
One official suggested the information might have been
considered irrelevant since the canisters were fired long before
the fire broke out and were fired away from the building that
Coulson, who was founding commander of the FBI's hostage rescue
team, also told the newspaper the incendiary canisters were fired
hours before the blaze began and played no role in starting it.
"We're aware of the reports and we're trying to get to the
bottom of it as quickly as we can," Justice Department spokesman
Myron Marlin said. In July when a documentary filmmaker raised
allegations the FBI used flammable devices during the final
assault, Marlin had called them "nonsense."
"We know of no evidence to support that any incendiary device
was fired into the compound on April 19, 1993," Marlin said then.
The issue of whether the FBI used pyrotechnic devices has been a
major focus of an inquiry by the Texas Rangers and a key allegation
in a pending wrongful-death lawsuit against the government by
surviving Davidians and families of those who died.
The federal government consistently has disputed accusations
that the FBI started the fire. Independent investigators concluded
the fire began simultaneously in three separate places.
FBI bugs recorded Davidians discussing spreading fuel and
planning a fire hours before the compound burned. Arson
investigators also found evidence that gasoline, charcoal lighter
fluid and camp stove fuel had been poured inside the compound.