Commentary

Back to Waco: The Waco case ought to reopen

This article appeared in the National Review Online on April 18, 2001.

Last week, the Cato Institute released “No Confidence: An Unofficial Account of the Waco Incident.” Timothy Lynch, author of the study, talked to NRO earlier this week.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why revisit Waco now?

Timothy Lynch: The Special Prosecutor, John Danforth, officially closed his office in February, 2001. We concluded that his report was so inadequate that it should not be the final word about the Waco incident. If we failed to respond to Danforth’s report, too many people would have drawn the conclusion that his findings were accepted by everybody.

Lopez: Should there be more hearings?

Lynch: Yes, there should be more hearings. Waco represents the worst disaster in the history of federal law enforcement. And yet, we still don’t have all the facts with respect to what happened. If Congress cannot get to the bottom of what happened at Waco, what confidence can we have about smaller incidents involving federal law enforcement agencies?

We now know that the FBI withheld information from Congress as it was preparing for the 1995 hearings into Waco. If Congress ignores that obstruction and simply “moves on,” we’ll know that congressional “oversight” is far more lax than we ever imagined.

Lopez: Who, ultimately, should be held accountable?

Lynch: There ought to be an aggressive and thorough investigation into the Waco incident. Any government agent who broke the law ought to be prosecuted. Any agent who misled the public or who knew about those crimes and did not come forward should lose his job. In my view, it is misguided to try to pin the blame on a single individual. There are many people involved — and varying levels of culpability. The wrongdoers should be punished accordingly.

Lopez: The Texas Rangers did an investigation of their own and recommended that two ATF agents be indicted and prosecuted. Were they ignored? Why?

Lynch: Yes, they were ignored. The Rangers were deputized as U.S. Marshals and they conducted an investigation. The ATF raid commanders lied to the Rangers about what happened on the day of the ATF raid. Because lying to a federal investigator is a federal offense (for which ordinary citizens go to jail), the Rangers recommended that those agents be prosecuted. The Department of Justice took no action.

I do not know why the Rangers were ignored. Some have speculated that the ATF agents threatened to “spill the beans” on other agents if they were indicted. That may or may not be true.

Lopez: In your estimation, why did John Danforth do a “soft and incomplete job” investigating Waco?

Lynch: Mr. Danforth is the only person who can answer that question.

Most Americans want to know two things: (1) Did federal agents commit crimes at Waco?; and (2) Were those crimes covered up? Unfortunately, the answer to both of those questions is yes. I invite the public to read the Cato Institute report and to come to their own conclusions.

Lopez: There have been a lot of differing accounts about what actually happened, in what order, at the Branch Davidian compound. Is there a definitive version of events to be relied on? Is there any likelihood there will ever be one?

Lynch: There is no question that finding the full truth has been — and will continue to be — very difficult. Many of the Davidian witnesses are dead. They cannot report what they know. On the other side, we have the famous blue wall of silence — by which the police circle the wagons to protect their own. Those are formidable obstacles — but we should resist the idea that the truth will never be known and give up. Every week detectives around the country piece together bits of evidence to build cases to be presented in court. Does that mean they are able to discover “everything that happened”? Of course not. We must pursue the truth to the extent that we are able.

Lopez: Do you have any reason to believe there will be prosecutions?

Lynch: At this juncture, my answer is no. But I hasten to add that this case has had many twists and turns. The federal government has been proclaiming “case closed” since 1993 — only to have the case reopened because of some damaging revelation. The case may reopen again. It certainly ought to reopen again — because too much has been swept underneath the rug.

Timothy Lynch is director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute and editor of After Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century (Cato Institute, 2000).