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Jewish World ReviewSept. 17, 1999 /7 Tishrei, 5760

David Corn

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Waco Whiplash -- WHY DO REPUBLICANS hate Attorney General Janet Reno so much? The recent revelations about the Waco debacle—exploding tear gas canisters, it turns out, were used by the FBI during the siege’s violent finale, although the FBI and Justice Dept. had said they were not—have led to a frenzied attack on Reno. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott called on Reno to resign, blasting her for being incompetent. Sen. Orrin Hatch declared that “the Justice Dept. is in shambles.” Rep. Dan Burton, the ethics-challenged Republican who screwed up the House hearings on campaign finance abuses and who has pursued Vince Foster conspiracy theories, rushed forward to announce he would hold hearings on Waco.

None of these gentlemen criticized FBI chief Louis Freeh and his Bureau. True, Freeh wasn’t on the job when the Waco incident occurred and some 80 people were killed, including about two dozen children. But it was FBI agents—not Reno advisers—who fired the pyrotechnic canisters, and it was the FBI—under Freeh—that had failed to reveal that they had been deployed. (All the chest-pounding aside, it appears unlikely that these canisters, launched by the FBI away from the compound and hours before the final fire began, sparked the flames that destroyed the Branch Davidian compound.) Has Freeh disciplined anyone in the Bureau for not coming clean? Not so far. Yet Republicans and conservatives on the Hill and on the tube aimed their hostile fire at Reno. National Review’s Kate O’Beirne took a typical line: “Ultimately, Janet Reno bears more responsibility for learning this so late... Ultimately, it underscores her stonewalling.” If the FBI stonewalled the information, why is Reno “ultimately” the fall-gal?

Reno hasn’t been such a bad attorney general for the Republicans. She’s requested independent counsels to investigate several of her fellow Cabinet members, including Bruce Babbitt, Henry Cisneros, Ronald Brown, Mike Espy and Alexis Herman. She authorized Kenneth Starr’s expansion of his Whitewater inquiry to include the Monica matter. Republicans remain pissed that she said no to an independent counsel investigation of Clinton’s fundraising practices. But had she taken the advice of Common Cause and asked for an independent counsel to probe the shady finances of both parties in the 1996 campaign, the GOP would have been quite inconvenienced. The Bob Dole campaign engaged in many of the same (arguably illegal) soft-money abuses as did the Clinton campaign, and the Republican National Committee, under the auspices of chairman Haley Barbour, brought in Asian money in a scheme that was legally suspect.

By letting Clinton off, she handed a pass to Republicans as well. Last week, she chose Sen. John Danforth, a well-regarded Republican perhaps best known publicly for his defense of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during Thomas’ contentious Senate hearings in 1991, to helm the Waco probe.

Reno should have resigned over Waco long ago, yet there may have been no easy way out for her. David Koresh may have been set on torching himself and his followers, but as someone who visited the site of the Branch Davidian compound after the standoff, I find it hard to believe that there was no way to deal with Koresh other than with tanks. Following the disaster, Reno said she was taking full responsibility, but what did that mean? She got to keep her job. In many European nations, if a minister made a decision that ended up with such tragic consequences, he or she would resign. Reno paid no price for being responsible.

Six years later, though, it’s amusing to see Republicans and conservatives blowing on the embers of two or three canisters, pathetically attempting to spark a conflagration that’ll burn Reno at the stake. Maybe it’s progress that Republicans are spouting rhetoric about law enforcement abuses—even if they ignore the FBI (which conducted the raid and sat on the tear gas information). By making Reno their sole target, they show their concerns to be mostly political. After all, how many of these Republicans now in an uproar over Waco have worried aloud about law enforcement violence—such as the police killings in New York—that is not linked to a Democratic political appointee?

Compassion, Texas-Style

Texas Gov. George W. Bush packages his presidential campaign message into two words: “compassionate conservatism.” When this caring soul was in South Carolina last week, he was asked about the efforts of the NAACP to remove the Confederate flag from the top of the statehouse. Did Bush empathize with his fellow citizens offended by South Carolina’s embrace of a symbol of slavery? No: “My advice is for people who don’t live in South Carolina to butt out of the issue, said Bush. “The people of South Carolina can make that decision.” Sure is a funny way of showing compassion.

JWR contributor David Corn, Washington Editor of The Nation, writes the "Loyal Opposition" column for The New York Press.

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