Semantic Difficulties in Danforth Report on Waco
by Stuart A. Wright (Associate Director of Graduate Studies and Professor of
Sociology at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. He is editor of Armageddon
in Waco (University of Chicago Press, 1995) and he testified in the 1995
Congressional hearings on Waco.)
Was anyone else confused by the inconsistencies between the Special Counsel's
conclusions and the substantive discussions of material in the report on
Waco? On Friday, July 21, Special Counsel John Danforth absolved the
government of wrongdoing and concluded that there was no cover-up in the Waco
disaster. A 152-page Interim Report was issued to the press and can be
downloaded over the internet (www.osc-waco.org). Curiously, much of the
report is spent discussing missing or concealed evidence (audio tapes, FLIR
tapes, expended pyrotechnic projectiles, incriminating page from FBI
evidentiary lab report), FBI misstatements to the Attorney General, Congress
and the public, the failure of government prosecutors to turn over
exculpatory evidence in the 1994 Davidian criminal trial, withholding key
evidence of incendiary devices in the civil case by an FBI attorney, the
failure by officials who authored the Justice report to discover and document
use of pyrotechnic devices, and various other instances of miscommunication,
negligence and vital omissions.
No cover-up? The authoritative Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary
defines cover-up as "something used for hiding one's real activities,
intentions, etc.." The report even chides government personnel for
"non-disclosure," suggesting that these individuals might have sought to
conceal information for fear of "personal or professional ruin." How does the
Office of Special Counsel (OSC) define "cover-up?"
The answer lies on p.44 of the report. It states: "Whether or not there was a
cover-up is in many respects dependent upon nuances in terminology." Nuances
A central issue in the Danforth investigation has been the use of incendiary
devices by the FBI during the April 19 CS insertion. For six years, the FBI
denied using incendiary devices that might have started the fire that killed
74 Davidians. These denials were relayed to the Attorney General immediately
after the tragic conflagration. Indeed, the AG asked for and received
assurances that no incendiary devices would be used prior to the April 19
assault as a condition of her approval for the gassing plan. These denials
were repeated in the 1994 criminal trial of the Davidians in San Antonio, as
prosecutors failed to disclose evidence of pyrotechnic rounds in their Brady
v. Maryland submission to defense attorneys . They were repeated in the 1995
Congressional hearings to members of the subcommittees who specifically
requested "a listing of all pyrotechnic and incendiary devices" used at the
Davidian complex. And finally, they were repeated in responses to requests
for FBI documents in the civil case.
For the semantically challenged, the report explains that there is an
important, though subtle, difference between "pyrotechnic" and "incendiary"
devices. The purpose of an incendiary device, we learn, is designed to cause
a fire. Technically, therefore, a pyrotechnic tear gas round is not
incendiary, presumably because a pyrotechnic round may cause a fire but is
not intended to do so. Incredibly, the Danforth report concludes that the FBI
(mis)statements to the AG, the Justice Department, to Congress and the
American public that "they never used any incendiary devices" were
"technically true," excluding, of course, the failure to disclose to
Congressional subcommittees who asked for a list of both pyrotechnic and
incendiary devices. In the latter case, the federal prosecutor, Ray Jahn,
admitted to making a false statement, claiming he was merely "negligent."
Further complicating matters was that different terms were used for
pyrotechnics rounds by different personnel. Pyrotechnic rounds were variously
referred to as "military rounds," "bubbleheads," and "cupcake rounds." Who
could know that these terms all referred to pyrotechnic devices in the
absence of a government linguist or translator?
Another complication, we are told, was that HRT commander Dick Rogers, who
authorized the use of pyrotechnic rounds, claimed that the AG's prohibition
against pyrotechnics applied only to its use at the living quarters of the
Davidians and not the concrete construction pit where they were apparently
fired. Never mind that Attorney General Reno believes her exact words
prohibited pyrotechnics at the compound, "which...included the concrete
construction pit." Apparently, Rogers did not share this belief, "so there
was no meeting of the minds."
Rogers also failed to correct false statements given to Congress by the FBI
in 1993 and the Attorney General in 1995 even though "Rogers attended the
congressional hearings precisely to ensure that Congress was provided with
accurate information." The OSC downplayed the actions as merely "a
FBI attorney Jacqueline Brown twice failed to disclose key evidence of
military rounds in the civil case brought by the Davidians against the
government. She also attempted to conceal her actions to the OSC. "Brown
repeatedly made inconsistent, self-serving, misleading, and false statements
to the Office of Special Counsel," the report states. Her punishment? Barring
additional evidence, the OSC declined to pursue criminal prosecution.
What appears as nuanced terminology to the OSC may seem more like a rather
straightforward case of cover-up to government outsiders. The Danforth team
expends a lot of energy apologizing for government misdeeds by attributing
the problem to "semantic difficulties."
While the Special Counsel's findings that the government did not start the
fire at Mt. Carmel or shoot at sect members trying to escape are a welcome
relief, the correlative claim that no cover-up took place suffers semantic
difficulties of its own. A careful reading of the report, in conjunction with
other evidence, suggests that government officials in the FBI and DOJ were
fearful of disclosing the use of pyrotechnic devices for obvious reasons.
Waco is a touchstone of antigovernment sentiment and a black mark on federal
law enforcement. While the government was cleared of these specific charges,
there are plenty of other things they did wrong at Waco which neither the OSC
investigation or the civil trial addressed. Let's be honest.
The failure to disclose evidence, whether by intent, omission, or negligence,
was an exercise in damage control to preserve the already beleaguered image
of federal law enforcement. Or perhaps in some cases, an effort to avoid
"personal or professional ruin." The OSC should takes its own advice;
government has a responsibility to be open and candid to the American people
so as to restore confidence in public officials.
Counterpoint: Who should decide what the public needs to know?
by Karen Foss ("St. Louis Post-Dispatch," August 26, 2000)
I am writing not as a representative of the news organization for which I
work, but rather as a concerned, individual journalist.
I commend former Sen. John Danforth for his service to our country, but I
disagree with his expectations of the news media as outlined in his Aug. 22
letter to the editor.
His comments raised many questions for me. Danforth suggests that the media
have not learned the "lessons" of Waco, and he points to follow-up reports on
the tragic killing of police officer Robert Stanze as evidence of an
irresponsible media. Danforth asserts that news organizations erred by
reporting on a news conference called by the family of the man charged with
murdering the officer.
First of all, I object to Danforth's disdainful characterization of the
"curbside" news conference. As a reporter, I can testify that cosseting a
speaker in a wood-paneled conference room does not guarantee his credibility.
Second, I take exception to his broadbrush characterization of the "media."
In so doing, he perpetuates the myth that news organizations act as a pack
and conspire to inflame public opinion. In reality, the competitive nature of
daily news coverage -- and varying concepts of what warrants attention --
will lead to differing degrees of scrutiny paid to any event by various media
But my greatest concern is with his assertion that news organizations should
not bestow "public credence" by reporting on unofficial claims. Danforth
acknowledges that the Post-Dispatch report (and I would add News Channel 5's
reports as well) included not only the family's claims of brutality, but also
their lack of documentation, as well as denials of abuse from the police and
sheriff's department and the hospital.
In other words, the reports were textbook good journalism. They were balanced
and inclusive, giving the reader or viewer information from which to draw
conclusions. Many of whom, no doubt, came to the same conclusions as Danforth.
I would ask him to consider what would have happened if the "media" had
docilely accepted the official explanations regarding the Watergate break-in?
Would he have liked us to accept the theory that Monica Lewinsky was a
deluded young White House intern with an overactive imagination? Would he
accept the denials from New York City police officers, later convicted, of a
savage sexual assault on suspect Abner Louima?
Finally, who would Danforth like to charge with the responsibility of making
those decisions about what the public needs to know? Surely he would not have
journalists pre-judge which claims are "sensational but baseless." Would he
truly want us to limit the scope of public discourse and report only the
unchallenged official positions on controversial issues? Danforth seems to
regard open, inquiring media as a "nuisance."
He shows little confidence in the abilities of the men and women of this
region to process conflicting accounts and arrive at sensible conclusions.
Who better -- I would ask -- to draw those conclusions than an informed
citizenry, armed with all the information available, thanks to a
constitutionally guaranteed free press?
Karen Foss is a news anchor at KSDK, Channel 5.