ST. LOUIS, July 21 -- Former Sen. John Danforth Friday cleared the federal government of wrongdoing in the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and blamed the followers of cult leader David Koresh for starting the fire that killed about 80 people.
Following a 10-month investigation, Danforth released his preliminary conclusions at a St. Louis news conference.
Attorney General Janet Reno appointed the Missouri Republican to investigate the April 19, 1993, government assault on the Branch Davidian compound following years of charges that the FBI fired on the Davidians, igniting tear gas. The incident has become a rallying point for various militia groups and the alleged impetus for the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by Timothy McVeigh.
"Government agents did not start the fire at Waco," Danforth said in releasing his preliminary findings. He also concluded there was no misuse of the military and no coverup.
"There was no evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of Attorney General Reno, the present and former director of the FBI, other high officials of the United States," Danforth said.
"The Davidians set their place on fire. They spread fuel. They set it on fire," he said. "The other thing that happened was that they began shooting their own, including children. Five children were shot to death in the head, execution. One child under the age of four was stabbed to death."
In answer to a question, Danforth said his investigation placed the blame for the Waco tragedy "squarely" on the shoulders of Koresh and his followers, who refused to surrender.
He said the Davidians resisted a legitimate arrest warrant with gunfire and refused for 51 days to surrender to the FBI, setting the stage for the tear-gas assault by federal agents.
Deputy Assistant Attorney General Eric Holder issued a statement praising the report on behalf of the Justice Department. Holder directly supervises the FBI as part of his duties.
"We are pleased that Senator Danforth has determined that the responsibility for the tragedy at Waco rests with the Branch Davidians, not the government. It is a finding entirely consistent with the decision rendered by a jury in Waco just last week," Holder said.
"Today's independent review sheds further light on the truth, and discredits many of the unsubstantiated allegations that have skewed the public's perception of the events of April 19, 1993. The events at Waco led to the deaths of at least 80 Davidians and four ATF agents. We join Senator Danforth in wishing that this report begins the process of restoring the faith of the people in their government."
However, Danforth criticized the FBI for being less than open about the tragedy after it occurred and said that reluctance to disclose information fed public suspicion.
"There is no doubt in my mind about the conclusions of this report," Danforth said in the preface to the document. "Government agents did not start or spread the tragic fire of April 19, 1993, did not direct gunfire at the Branch Davidians and did not unlawfully employ the armed forces of the United States."
Danforth's report came after a federal jury in Waco issued an opinion that government agents were not responsible in a wrongful death civil suit brought by Davidian survivors and relatives.
The special counsel was blunt in his assessment.
"What is remarkable is the overwhelming evidence exonerating the government from the charges against it, and the lack of any real evidence to support the charges of bad acts," Danforth said. "This lack of evidence is particularly remarkable in light of the widespread and persistent public belief that the government engaged in bad acts at Waco. ...The readiness of so many of us to accept as true the dark theories about government actions at Waco deserves serious attention by all of us."
All Americans carry the images of Waco, he said.
"In the face of such calamity, we have a need to affix blame. Things like this just can't happen; they must be the government's fault," Danforth said in his report. "We are somehow able to ignore the contrary evidence -- never mind the fact that the FBI waited for 51 days without firing a shot, never mind the evidence that Davidians started the fire, never mind that FBI agents risked their own lives in their efforts to rescue the Davidians -- and we buy into the notion that the government would deliberately kill 80 people in a burning building."
Danforth said the only "antidote to public distrust is government openness and candor. Instead, and tragically, just the opposite occurred after Waco."
He said the government did "nothing evil" at the end of the siege, but "its failure to fully and openly disclose to the American public all that it did has fueled speculation that it actually committed bad acts on that day. Even in their dealings with this investigation, some government (FBI) officials have struggled to keep a close hold on information.
"More importantly," he added, the FBI did not disclose for six years that agents used three pyrotechnic tear gas devices several hours before the fire started.
"This non-disclosure is especially puzzling because the use of these pyrotechnics had nothing to do with the fire. They were used four hours before the fire began, 75 feet from the Branch Davidian residence, and in a manner that could cause no harm," he said.
Agreeing with Danforth, Holder said the FBI"s non-disclosure for six years of the use of three pyrotechnic tear gas rounds before the end of the siege "is especially puzzling because the use of these pyrotechnics had nothing to do with the fire."
Holder said the "overwhelming evidence demonstrates that the attorney general sought and received assurances (from the FBI) that pyrotechnic gas rounds would not be used. And, the evidence is equally conclusive that she received information that such rounds were not used."