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Congress has duty to clear the smoke

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, July 18, 1995

As the U.S. House of Representatives begins hearings on “what happened in Waco”, hypocrisy is thick in the Washington air — not unlike the smoke over the Branch Davidian compound two years ago.

Democrats and the mainstream media are already charging the hearings are simply a cynical Republican ploy to embarrass the Clinton administration.

Republicans will shed few tears if the hearings produce revelations that cost Democrats votes. But nothing could be more cynical and disingenuous than to assert the hearings are being held only for cynical and disingenuous purposes.

Something very bad happened at Waco. Eighty Americans — 22 of them children — were killed there. Never before in the 20th century has an action initiated by federal law enforcement officers led to so many deaths. Many questions remain unanswered.

What caused the conflagration in which (most of) the Branch Davidians perished? Why didn’t the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attempt to arrest David Koresh on one of his (apparently frequent) trips outside the compound? Why did the ATF continue with the commando-style raid once it had learned the element of surprise had been lost? Was the raid staged primarily for public relations purposes to restore the image of an ATF besmirched by highly publicized charges of sexual harassment? Who fired the first shot?

Democrats and the mainstream media say merely asking these questions is harmful because it diminishes popular faith in federal law enforcement. But it wasn’t so long ago that they had a different view. Consider:

  • In the early 1970s, at the height of the Cold War, Congress and the news media virtually dismantled the counterintelligence capabilities of the CIA once it was learned the agency had been reading Americans’ mail. The “peoples’ right to know” was considered then to be more important than the reputation of the CLA or the harm that adverse publicity might do to its effectiveness.
  • In 1969 and 1970, during the height of the Vietnam War, Congress held extensive hearings into the My Lai massacre where 109 Vietnamese, many of them women and children were killed by a platoon led by Lt. William Calley. Learning the truth, and punishing Calley for his crimes, was considered then to be more important than whatever embarrassment the revelations might cause the Army.
  • And, of course, everyone remembers the investigation and consequences of the Watergate break-in and Iran-contra.
    Just as it was proper to investigate the CIA and the Army, it is not merely proper, but necessary, that we investigate the deaths of 80 American citizens at the hands of federal law enforcement officials.Congress is charged by the Constitution with the duty to oversee agencies of the executive branch. Congress has not merely the right but the duty to try to answer the unanswered questions about Waco. To do less would give credence to the wacko conspiracy theories that abound in America today — from the films of Oliver Stone to the war games of the Michigan militia.

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