Big Government. Small Missteps. Big Consequences?

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The historical evidence says there are many more conspiracy theories than actual conspiracies, ongoing work on the JFK assassination(s) notwithstanding. But the amateur sleuths –- indeed, the entire societies of them that imagine the U.S. government to be far more insidious than incompetent –- do not thrive on paranoia alone. They require scraps –- gaps in the narrative, a hitch or two in the official version of things, plenty of questions unanswered, and, of course, a tragic ending, hopefully brought about by a showy use of government force. Waco has all of these, and a built-in audience: the antigovernment militia types who consider their inalienable rights to be under constant siege from the same government that's supposedly sworn to protect them. Whether you call this contingent patriots or terrorists, conflagrations like Waco are their spiritual grist. And the feds are just making it worse.

"I don't think it's very good for my credibility," Janet Reno told reporters Thursday of the latest flare-up, the revelation by former FBI deputy director Danny Coulson that two pyrotechnic devices had indeed been fired at the compound on the day of the standoff’s fiery climax. After six years, an important part of the official line on the big question –- that the government had never used incendiary devices and therefore could not possibly be responsible for the fire –- had been reversed, and Reno was certainly right. But there is more than credibility at stake. When Reno’s internal investigation is completed, the likely finding will be that Coulson was right –- the two forgotten devices were fired, and bounced away harmlessly six hours before the blaze erupted. The mainstream press, well accustomed to the big and small incompetencies of the Washington bureaucracies, will likely believe it. A significant slice of the republic will not. And some of them –- self-styled neo-minutemen with a serious beef against King Sam and the arsenal to back it up –- may well lock, load and decide to do something about it.

"This is definitely raw meat for these types," says TIME Denver bureau chief Richard Woodbury. "They’ve been hearing for years that no incendiary devices were used, and now there’s the reversal. It’s another instance of what they view as the deception and skullduggery of the government." A recent Justice Department assessment (if you can believe it) found that "they" are not an organized rebellion-in-training, but rather remain pockets of the like-minded, connected not in structure but certainly in spirit. Typically, they are deeply rooted into the fertile conspiracy-theory ground of the Internet, and to them the mainstream press is about as trustworthy as Tokyo Rose. When it comes to the jack-booted FBI thugs and their Washington overlords, there are no government missteps, just cover-ups. Not when the "patriots" are enemies to their own government.

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