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FBI admits using flammable devices at Waco

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WASHINGTON — Attorney General Janet Reno pledged today to "get to the bottom" of why it took the FBI six years to admit that its agents may have fired potentially flammable tear gas canisters on the final day of their standoff with the Branch Davidian cult near Waco, Texas.

"I have no reason at this point to believe the FBI is responsible for the deaths of those people," Reno told her weekly news conference at the Justice Department. But she said she was "very, very frustrated" that six years after categorical denials by the FBI there were news reports about the possible use of flammable devices.

"It is absolutely critical that we do everything humanly possible to learn all the facts as accurately as possible and make them available to the Congress and public," said Reno, who, along with FBI Director Louis Freeh, has ordered a fresh investigation of what transpired on April 19, 1993, at the Branch Davidian compound.

Earlier, Reno and Freeh ordered 40 FBI agents led by an FBI inspector to re-interview everyone who was at the Waco scene. FBI spokesman John Collingwood said Wednesday night that the agents are to report "within weeks" on all aspects of the use of military-type tear gas and why it took so long to be admitted publicly.

Reno said she had gone over in her mind many times the events of that fiery day and had many times asked herself how the government might have handled it differently.

Had no stand been taken that day, she said, "We don't know if (cult leader) David Koresh would have done it two weeks later on his own, without any provocation, and the federal government would have been blamed for not acting sooner."

Meantime, the chairman of the Texas Department of Public Safety told The Dallas Morning News that federal officials need to explain why members of the Army's secret Delta Force anti-terrorism squad were at the scene the day the compound burned.

"Everyone involved knows they were there. If there is an issue, it was what was their role at the time," said James B. Francis of Dallas. "Some of the evidence that I have reviewed and been made aware of is very problematical as to the role of Delta Force at the siege."

Asked whether the new FBI investigation would address questions about the Delta Force, Reno replied: "We will pursue any issue in question."

The News cited a Defense Department document obtained under the Freedom of Information Act that confirms that the Special Forces unit was on the scene when the FBI hostage rescue unit used tanks to assault the compound with tear gas on April 19, 1993. The U.S. military is barred from domestic police work.

Republicans in Congress made clear they would reopen hearings into the 51-day siege. The standoff ended with the death of Koresh and about 80 followers during a fire that erupted after the tear gas assault on their wooden headquarters.

Reno today described herself as "very troubled" by the developments and said she had been consistently told that no incendiary devices were used at the compound.

"I will continue to pursue this matter to get to the truth," she told reporters. "I intend the results of the review to be made public and I will not stop until I get to the bottom of this."

She said she planned to discuss the issue with Freeh by phone later today and said it was likely they would discuss whether an outside investigation should be undertaken.

Asked if she thought the reversal of position had harmed her credibility, Reno replied, "I don't think it's very good for my credibility, and that's why I am going to pursue it until I get to the truth."

Later, she said of the turn of events: "I'm not embarrassed. I'm very, very upset. … If anybody says they've never relied on information that proves to be inaccurate, I'd like to meet them."

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said, "I am deeply concerned by these inconsistencies. … I intend for the committee to get to the bottom of this."

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who chairs a subcommittee that oversees the FBI, said, "This is a serious development in terms of further erosion of the FBI's credibility."

Collingwood said: "The FBI may have used a very limited number of military-type CS gas canisters on the morning of April 19 in an attempt to penetrate the roof of an underground bunker 30 to 40 yards away from the main Branch Davidian compound," he said.

Unlike the civilian tear gas used later, "the military canisters may have contained a substance that is designed to disperse the gas using a pyrotechnic mixture," Collingwood said.

Officials said two military tear gas canisters were fired just after 6 a.m., six hours before the fire began. The canisters bounced off the roof of the concrete bunker and landed in an open field, according to these officials, who requested anonymity.

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 there.

Two officials suggested word of the military canisters might not have been relayed to top FBI and Justice officials earlier because original inquiries focused on the fire in the main building and the military canisters had been fired almost 180 degrees away from that building and hours before the fire.

Independent investigators concluded the fire began simultaneously in three places. FBI bugs recorded Davidians discussing spreading fuel and planning a fire hours before the compound burned. Arson investigators found that gasoline, charcoal lighter fluid and camp stove fuel had been poured inside the compound.

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