Attorney General Janet Reno angrily rejected suggestions Wednesday she tried to "rationalize" the deaths of some two dozen children who perished in the blaze that destroyed the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas.
Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, Reno said she saw no realistic expectation the standoff with the cult would have been peacefully resolved if the FBI continued to take no action.But Reno and the other law enforcement officials involved in the incident were strongly criticized by one member of the committee, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who said he would not "rationalize the death of two dozen children."
"I haven't tried to rationalize the death of children, congressman," Reno angrily responded, her jaw set and her voice hard. "I feel more strongly about it than you will ever know.
"I will not walk away from a compound where (federal) agents have been killed by people who knew they were agents, and leave them unsurrounded."
In Waco, five more corpses were pulled Tuesday from a bunker heaped with ammunition in the ruins of the compound.
"As they remove boxes of ammunition, it's exposing more bodies and more body parts," said Mike Cox, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety.
So far, 18 of the 86 Branch Davidians believed dead have been found inside or on top of the cinder-block, ground-floor room.
Explaining her decision to approve the use of tear gas against the cult's compound, Reno said the situation "suggested to me that time would only increase the risk to public safety, to the safety of government agents and to those within the compound without any realistic expectation that the matter would be resolved peacefully if we did nothing."
Rep. Jack Brooks, D-Texas, committee chairman cautioned fellow committee members that while "weighty questions" should be posed to Reno and her colleagues at the FBI and the ATF, "it may well be that the answers to many of our questions will have to await the results of forensic examinations."
"We're not here to second-guess and we're not here to micro-man-age either of these agencies," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. "Nobody on this committee holds anyone but David Koresh responsible for the tragedy."
There has been considerable discussion over Reno's concern that the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team was tired and needed a break after some 50 days on alert status.
Reno said Wednesday that she shared the FBI headquarter's concerns over agent fatigue after discussing the matter with leaders of Delta Force, the Army's equivalent to the Hostage Rescue Team.
The Justice Department explored the possibility of invoking a seldom-used statute to permit the military to be used for domestic problems but found there was no way to use the Delta Force to relieve the Hostage Rescue Team.
FBI Director William Sessions, in testimony prepared for delivery at Wednesday's hearing, said the FBI did not understand Koresh and that agents probably should have moved earlier to use tear gas.
"Maybe we should have taken this step sooner," Sessions said of the decision to use tear gas. "Perhaps, even with all the expert advice, we never fully understood the mind of a man who would willingly burn up his own children."
The committee was also to hear from Stephen Higgins, head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which made the initial raid against the cult's compound.