Report to the Deputy Attorney General on the Events at Waco, Texas/Role of the White House
X. Role of the White HouseEdit
As discussed above, from the very beginning of the standoff the Justice Department (first through Acting Attorney General Gerson, then through Attorney General Reno) kept the White, House-informed of events at Waco. As discussed, the President requested that he be apprised if the FBI were considering any tactical moves against the compound. The President had prior experience with a standoff-type situation at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas during his days as Governor, and he was familiar with the FBI's procedures in hostage/barricade situations.
Throughout the standoff the White House situation room monitored events at Waco. In addition, the President's senior advisors kept informed on developments in Waco. For example, on February 28, 1993, the day of the ATF shootout, then-Communications Director George Stephanopolous spoke twice to the President to inform him of events transpiring in Waco. Stephanopolous received a briefing from FBI Assistant Director Potts at approximately 7:20 p.m. (Eastern Time) on the evening of February 28. The President also spoke to the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of the Treasury on February 28 to receive their reports on the events in Waco.
Presidential Adviser Bruce Lindsey and White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum also monitored events during the first few days of the standoff at Waco. On March 2 or 3, Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman met with Nussbaum and Lindsey to brief them on a trip Altman had taken to Waco following the ATF shootout of February 28.
Acting Attorney General Gerson stayed in contact with the President, George Stephanopoulos, with Chief of Staff Thomas McLarty, and with the White House Counsel's office during the period from February 28 through March 12. McLarty described two parallel lines of communication -- one from Gerson to him, and the other from Gerson to White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum. Senior advisor Bruce Lindsey also kept informed on developments in Waco.
McLarty recalls that he spoke with the President on April 11, 1993 and discussed the Waco standoff. During that conversation, the President mentioned a similar incident [Fort Chaffee] that had been resolved successfully through negotiations while he was the Governor of Arkansas.
During the week of April 12, 1993, while preparations for the tear gas plan were being made and debated at the FBI and the Justice Department, Hubbell attended a meeting at the White House, in Nussbaum's office, to discuss the plan. The most likely date of that meeting was Tuesday, April 13, although none of the participants has a firm recollection of the date. The meeting lasted approximately 45 minutes, and it had been arranged for the purpose of discussing Waco, and advising the White House of the FBI's plan to change tactics through the use of tear gas. Participating in the meeting were Nussbaum, Hubbell, Lindsey, and the late White House Deputy Counsel, Vince Foster. Hubbell explained the outline of the FBI's plan, and noted that the Attorney General had not yet made a final decision whether to approve the plan. Lindsey asked why the FBI had "changed its mind" about negotiating until the Davidians surrendered. Hubbell explained that the FBI had only one Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) and that the FBI would have to pull the HRT back for training exercises if the standoff continued indefinitely. Hubbell also indicated that negotiations were not making progress and were unlikely to make progress in the future.
Lindsey also suggested that the military should be consulted, because the President would want to know that the military had an opportunity to review the plan. Lindsey indicated that the President had mentioned that the military had some involvement in the Fort Chaffee incident in Arkansas. Hubbell noted that plans were underway to meet with the military. (In fact, the Attorney General met with the current and former commanders of the Delta Force the following day, April 14). None of the White House participants in the meeting raised any objection to the proposal to use tear gas. Hubbell reported to the Attorney General after he returned to the Justice Department from the White House meeting.
After the meeting with Hubbell, Nussbaum told the President. that the FBI had recommended a change in strategy. Nussbaum told the President that the handling of the standoff was "a Department of Justice call, not a White House call." President Clinton responded that he had great confidence in the Attorney General and the FBI.
On Sunday, April 18, Hubbell called Lindsey to inform him that the Attorney General had decided to approve the FBI tear gas plan. Lindsey told Hubbell to tell the Attorney General to call the President to inform him directly of her decision. Lindsey then told the President that the Attorney General was prepared "to make a decision on Waco" and that the Attorney General would call the President after "she got done with a meeting."
Later that day (Sunday, April 18) the Attorney General called the President. Lindsey was with the President during the phone call. The Attorney General informed the President that she had decided to approve the FBI's request to use tear gas at Waco. The President asked the Attorney General if she felt she had received all the information she needed to make that decision. The President asked several questions about insuring the safety of the children inside the compound. The President told the Attorney General "it is your decision."
The tear gas operation began at approximately 7:00 a.m. (Eastern Time) on April 19, 1993. The Attorney General and her senior advisors, as well as the FBI leadership, gathered at the FBI SIOC to monitor the progress of the operation. At approximately 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time, the Attorney General spoke with the President (a fact she forgot to mention during her appearance on Night-line some 12-1/2 hours later) and told him that everything appeared to be going well at Waco, and that she was going to leave Washington to attend a previously arranged judicial conference in Baltimore.
Hubbell also spoke by phone on the afternoon of April 19 with Chief of Staff McLarty at the White House. Following her late-night appearance on Night-line, the Attorney General spoke again to the President by telephone, at approximately 1:10 a.m. Eastern Time. The President asked about the possibility that any children or adults may have survived the fire.
Thus, the only Justice Department official who spoke with the President on April 19 was Attorney General Reno. Contrary to information disseminated in the media, Hubbell did not speak with the President on April 19.
Stephanopolous kept the President informed of events at Waco on April 19, serving as a conduit of information received from outside sources and passing the pertinent details to the President.
In connection with this inquiry the President provided the following statement:
"This is in response to your inquiry regarding my knowledge and participation with respect to the Waco matter. While I was not advised of the ATF raid on the Koresh compound on February 28, 1993, before it occurred, I believe I was fully advised of developments and consulted with respect to events subsequent to that date.
"Initially, I relied upon Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen and Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Roger Altman. As the stand-off proceeded and the FBI was brought in, I relied upon Acting Attorney General Stuart Gerson, and then Attorney General Janet Reno, among others. Within the White House, I relied principally upon Chief of Staff Mack McLarty, Counsel to the President Bernard Nussbaum, Deputy Counsel Vince Foster, Senior Advisor Bruce Lindsey, and then-Director of Communications George Stephanopoulos.
"On Sunday, April 18, 193, Attorney General Reno advised me that the FBI believed that it was time to take new steps with respect to the standoff in Waco. She explained that the FBI wanted to use tear gas launched from armored vehicles in an attempt to dislodge the people from the compound. She said that the tear gas had been tested and would not cause permanent damage to adults or children, but that it would make it difficult to stay in the building.
"I asked Attorney General Reno several questions, the first being: "Why are we taking this action now, after seven weeks?" The Attorney General gave several reasons in response. First, there was a limit on the length of time the federal authorities could maintain the quality and intensity of the coverage of the scene. Resources were limited, and the experts might be needed in other parts of the country. Second, the people who had reviewed the situation had concluded that no progress had been made recently and that, in their opinion, no progress would be made using normal means of getting Koresh and the other cult members to come out. Third, it was felt that the danger of their doing something to themselves or to others was likely to increase with the passage of time. Fourth, there were reasons to believe that the children who were still at the compound were being abused and were being forced to live in unsanitary and unsafe conditions.
"I then asked the Attorney General whether they had considered all of the things that could go wrong and evaluated them against what might happen that was good. She replied that the FBI personnel on the scene and those working with them were convinced that the chances of bad things happening would only increase with the passage of time.
"I asked whether the military had been consulted. I had previously asked that the military be consulted because, based upon my experience as Governor of Arkansas in dealing with a similar type situation in northwest Arkansas, I found that the military had a valuable perspective on how to deal with situations of this type. Attorney General Reno stated that the military had been consulted and that they were in basic agreement with the FBI recommendation. She explained that there was a minor technical difference of opinion, that both the FBI and the military agreed that it was not of overwhelming significance.
"After asking these questions and receiving those answers, I said that if she thought it was the right thing to do, s he should proceed; and I would support the decision.
"I spoke again with Attorney General Reno on the morning of April 19, 1993, before the fire started. She gave me an update on the situation. I then spoke with her that evening and told her that she had done a very good job under tough circumstances and that she should get some sleep."