What Is the FBI Trying to Tell Us About Waco?

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Is the government trying to tell us something? Six years after the 51-day siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco ended in flames, former FBI agent Danny Coulson –- founding commander of the agency’s hostage-rescue team, and, in retirement, one of its most prominent voices –- pipes up to the Dallas Morning News. The message: Contrary to six years of official denials, agents on the scene actually did fire tear gas canisters into the compound, canisters that burn hot and could have set something ablaze. Except that they didn’t cause the conflagration, says Coulson –- they were fired hours before the blaze started and couldn’t have been responsible. Guess what? Admission/denials like that don’t satisfy anyone (just ask George W. Bush), and the Waco conspiracy-theory factory, long dormant, was up and running again. TIME Justice correspondent Elaine Shannon says she has no reason to believe that the new version, in which the feds shot two pyrotechnic devices that bounced away harmlessly hours before the blaze started, is false. But for skeptics, the big question –- why, after six years, are we just now hearing about this? –- is irresistible.

Those skeptics include the lawyers bringing a wrongful-death suit against the government, backwoods militia types (who love to talk about a tape that supposedly shows the FBI using a flamethrower on the compound) and of course Republicans. Thursday, with Republican supersleuth Dan Burton champing at the bit in the House, and Senate FBI watchdog Charles Grassley calling Coulson’s admission "a serious development in terms of further erosion of the FBI's credibility," a suitably peeved Attorney General Janet Reno hurried to get the official ducks back in a row. "The important thing is to keep going until you get to the truth," she told reporters –- and it’s apparently just as important that the next definitive version come out of her office. Reno and FBI chief Louis Freeh have ordered one of those famous "internal investigations" and promise fresh answers within only a few weeks. The conspiracy machine, naturally, isn’t waiting. James B. Francis, the chairman of the Texas Department of Public Safety, wants to know what the Army's secret Delta Force antiterrorism squad was doing at the scene. "Everyone involved knows they were there," he said, and well, Army ops are verboten on domestic soil. Hardly the sort of thing that should put antigovernment types’ fears to rest. But then again, maybe all this –- which Coulson says he started because "we were in error" about whether tear gas was used –- is the FBI’s way of letting the truth out in small, non-incendiary batches.