The easiest way to achieve sainthood in Washington is to cover up a federal atrocity. Thus, it is no surprise that former senator John Danforth continues to be treated by the Washington Post as a visionary statesman. The Post showcased Danforth’s attack on Donald Trump in October after Trump derided the Commission on Presidential Debates. Danforth, a permanent member of that commission, is one of the top five “useful idiots for Leviathan,” according to the revised rankings after the death of John McCain.
In the 1990s, Danforth received plaudits for being a “moderate” Republican who supported gun control. But his true claim to establishment fame arose from his contortions to suppress the truth about Waco. Danforth appointed himself as the nation’s political faith healer after the biggest federal law-enforcement debacle in modern times.
On February 28, 1993, 70 federal Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agents launched an attack on the home of the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas. After the assault was rebuffed, the FBI arrived and, on April 19, 1993, sent in tanks that demolished much of the Davidians’ home before a fire broke out. Eighty corpses of men, women, and children were discovered in the wreckage.
Almost nobody in Washington cared about the Texas carnage. Attorney General Janet Reno, who approved the deadly final assault, was labeled a “folk hero” by the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post declared that she had “superstar status.” A few days after the fire, the opening of a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing had to be delayed so senators could have their pictures taken with Reno. In 1995, she testified to Congress and shrugged off the FBI’s use of 54-ton tanks to assail the Davidians, declaring that the tanks were “not military weapons…. I mean, it was like a good rent-a-car.” Media coverage of Reno’s showdown with congressional Republicans ignored her rent-a-tank absurdity, instead praising her toughness and demeanor.
In 1999, news leaked out that the feds knowingly suppressed information about using pyrotechnics that might have started fires that killed scores of women and children. Reno personally selected Danforth, a golfing buddy of President Bill Clinton, to reinvestigate federal action at Waco. In July 2000, after he was rumored to be on the short list as George W. Bush’s vice presidential pick, Danforth rushed out a preliminary report. Danforth’s report was more pro-FBI than the FBI itself and revived discredited Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms charges that the Justice Department had abandoned six years earlier.
After the nation was struck by violent protests this summer after the death of George Floyd, it is worth looking back 20 years to see the system and excuses that were used to absolve law enforcement gone wild.
Danforth’s report began by stating that Koresh and the Davidians “shot and killed four [ATF] agents” and “wounded 20 others.” More than 70 agents rolled up to the Davidians’ home in two cattle cars and jumped out shouting “Showtime!” The plan was for one group of agents to break through the front door while a second group took ladders and smashed through the windows on the second floor. The ATF never attempted to present the search warrant. Several ATF agents said that the feds shot first. Danforth made no attempt to determine which side shot first, stating that that was “a matter outside the scope of the Attorney General’s Order to the Special Counsel.” Regardless, since the Davidians had killed and wounded federal agents, they deserved whatever the feds subsequently did to them. Danforth tacitly accepted the notion that a massive federal no-knock assault was necessary to determine whether the Davidians had violated federal prohibitions on converting semi-automatic firearms into firing in fully automatic mode.
But Danforth ignored that the premise of the massive ATF attack was itself a complete fraud. Only nine days before the ATF attack, David Koresh had gone target shooting with three undercover ATF agents (whom he recognized as G-men). Koresh “provided the ammunition and the agents handed him their guns,” noted former federal lawyer David Hardy, whose research exposed the ATF memo detailing the target practice six years after the raid. After the raid, the ATF insisted that Koresh never went outside the “compound” — and thus the agency needed to launch a full-scale attack to get him. But Koresh could easily have been arrested while target shooting. Danforth also ignored the evidence that ATF agents shot first as they assaulted the Davidians’ home.
Danforth declared that one of the key topics for his investigation was “whether the military was wrongly used” in the assault on the Davidians’ home. Before the February 28 raid, ATF officials were told that it would be illegal for the U.S. military to assist them unless there was a “drug nexus” to the case. A few days later, the ATF notified military officials that — voilà! — they suspected the Davidians had a methamphetamine lab in their basement. ATF agents had zero credible evidence but that didn’t matter. ATF agents then received training in close-quarters combat and called in military helicopters from the Texas National Guard to assist in the assault. (Surviving Davidians alleged that the helicopters fired into their home while ATF agents attacked the front of their building.)
Despite the massive assistance the ATF received, the drug charge vanished immediately after the raid, and federal prosecutors never raised the issue at the surviving Davidians’ 1994 trial. A 1996 congressional report concluded that the ATF’s actions during and after the raid made it “clear that the ATF believed that a methamphetamine lab did not exist.” The House report concluded that “the ATF intentionally misled Defense Department and military personnel” regarding the existence of the meth lab.
It didn’t matter. Instead, Danforth’s report noted that while “the Office of Special Counsel did not extensively investigate the basis for ATF’s assertion that there was a drug nexus … there is some evidence prior to February 28, 1993, connecting ‘drug activity’ with the complex which could form the basis of a drug nexus.” Danforth’s investigation spent $12 million, didn’t bother investigating whether or not there was any viable evidence of a meth lab, but dredged up the “could form the basis” hokum. This is the same type of flimsy “drug link” that has been used to justify thousands of no-knock raids in subsequent decades. Danforth’s ludicrous revival of the drug charge sufficed to whitewash the militarization of law enforcement.
Danforth’s report minimizes or comically misrepresents the amount of force the feds used against the Davidians. FBI agents repeatedly threw flash-bang grenades at Davidians who tried to leave the residence and may have thrown them inside the Davidians’ residence. When Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) asked Danforth about that at a hearing, Danforth replied that flash-bangs are “in the nature, as I understand it, of, you know, firecrackers. They make a flash and they make a bang. And they don’t cause injury, as a general rule.” A 2019 federal appeals court decision noted that flash-bang grenades are “four times louder than a 12-gauge shotgun blast” with “a powerful enough concussive effect to break windows and put holes in walls.” Flash-bangs burn hotter than lava and have started more than a hundred fires across the nation.
Some of the section headings in Danforth’s report made Waco sound like a huge law-enforcement success — such as the description of the origins of the FBI tank–gas assault: “The FBI Develops a Tactical Solution to the Standoff.” Tell that to the Marines.
After the FBI had gassed the Davidians for more than four hours and exhausted almost its entire gas supply, FBI tank drivers were ordered to demolish the building, even though scores of women and children remained inside. In the next hour, tanks smashed into the residence eight times and collapsed at least one-quarter of the Davidians’ home. The Dallas Morning News summarized government documents on the tank assault: “Just before noon, [FBI on-scene commander Richard] Rogers ordered tanks in front to drive deep [into the building] toward the compound tower. At its base was a concrete room where officials believed the ‘hostiles’ were hiding, records show.” FBI Deputy Director Floyd Clarke admitted in 1995 congressional testimony that “the destruction of the building was part of the ultimate plan” to bring the siege to an end.
Despite all this evidence, Danforth concluded that FBI agents never intended to demolish the building. Ignoring the 1993 memo, Danforth accepted at face value the 1995 testimony of FBI on-scene commanders Jeffrey Jamar and Richard Rogers, who insisted that the tanks were not attempting to bring the building down. In the report’s jaw-dropping words, the Office of Special Counsel “is confident the quoted language [in the 1993 memo] is simply incorrect.”
Danforth was dismissive not only of written evidence but of convincing visual evidence. Waco: Rules of Engagement, a movie that won an Emmy and was nominated for an Academy Award, shows lengthy footage of FBI tanks repeatedly and systematically demolishing much of the building. Harvard Prof. Alan Stone, one of the outside experts the Justice Department tapped in 1993 to examine the incident, concluded, “Some of the government’s actions may have killed people before the fire started. I cannot tell whether the tanks knocked down places where people were already. I don’t know if there were people in there crushed by the collapsing building [as a result of FBI tanks plowing into the structure] before the fire started.”
The FBI’s pyrotechnic devices were the hottest item in Danforth’s investigation. Reno had sworn to a congressional committee in 1995 that the FBI used no pyrotechnic devices at Waco. Yet Danforth told a Senate committee that “the use of the pyrotechnics, itself, under these circumstances was not a big thing.” Danforth also assured the senators, “I don’t think that there’s been anybody that I know of connected with the government who has ever believed that the use of pyrotechnics, in this case, had anything to do with the fire.” And what was his proof? The FBI told him so. Regardless of how often the FBI changed its story, its latest version was sacrosanct.
Faith in government
Danforth’s report noted several cases where federal officials either made false statements or wrongfully withheld key evidence. None of that troubled Danforth. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch headline perfectly summarized his report: “Officials Had Nothing to Hide — But Hid Some Things Anyway.”
In the report’s preface, Danforth made bizarre excuses for lying federal officials: “In today’s world, it is perhaps understandable that government officials are reluctant to make full disclosures of information for fear that the result of candor will be personal or professional ruin. Any misstep yields howls of indignation, calls for resignations, and still more investigations.” Danforth vehemently opposed any prosecution of any federal official who misled investigators on Waco from 1993 onwards.
Even though numerous agency and congressional investigations had found federal misconduct regarding Waco, Danforth lamented “a nearly universal readiness to believe that the government must have done something wrong. Breaking this vicious circle of distrust and recrimination is essential if we are to rebuild the consent of the governed on which our system depends.” Danforth championed a “move along, nothing to see here” version of “consent of the governed” in which citizens are obliged to swallow unlimited federal malarkey.
The lesson of Waco, according to Danforth, was that the burden is on “all of us” to “be more skeptical of those who make sensational accusations of evil acts by government.” Danforth declared that he hoped his report would “begin the process of restoring the faith of the people in their government and the faith of the government in the people.” Danforth believed government officials had been wrongfully victimized by public distrust. That phrase about “restoring … the faith of the government in the people” should have been ridiculed from coast to coast.
Danforth masterminded the first investigation into a cover-up that justified the cover-up. That was not surprising, since his goal was not to determine what government did so much as to correct the public’s bad attitude toward the use of tanks against civilians.
The Powers That Be hailed Danforth’s report as the ultimate absolution on Waco. FBI Director Louis Freeh declared, “Seven years of absorbing unproven allegations and unfounded criticisms has [sic] levied a heavy burden on the agents who were at Waco and their families as well. This report brings great solace to them in that its findings re-affirm that which we have always believed — they did their best and for all the right reasons.” Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder declared, “We join Senator Danforth in wishing that this report begins the process of restoring the faith of the people in their government.” PBS NewsHour host Jim Lehrer gushed to Danforth on national television, “You did tremendous investigating.”
Danforth talked as if blind trust in Washington is the key to “good government.” Citizens provided almost boundless trust after the 9/11 attacks, and the result was a disastrous war in Iraq, a worldwide torture regime, and the National Security Agency’s ravaging Americans’ privacy. And the FBI agents that Danforth exonerated created an endless series of scandals, entrapments, and debacles, culminating (perhaps) in their effort to take down President Donald Trump.
In his Washington Post oped in October, Danforth wailed that Trump’s accusing the Commission on Presidential Debates of favoritism “destroys public confidence in the most basic treasure of democracy, the conduct of fair elections” and “paves the way to violence in the streets.” But for many Americans, “government under the law” is the basic treasure of democracy. And Danforth’s yapping about the peril of “violence in the streets” rings hollow after he whitewashed a federal assault that left 80 people dead. Americans are sick and tired of the “move along, nothing to see here” version of democracy that Danforth offered.
This article was originally published in the January 2021 edition of Future of Freedom.