Why Reno Sent the U.S. Marshals Over to the FBI

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Janet Reno wants you to know she is peeved. It’s not exactly every day that the attorney general sends U.S. Marshals around to seize evidence being held at FBI headquarters. And by doing just that on Wednesday Reno signaled her anger that the bureau had kept her in the dark over the existence of tapes proving that federal agents had fired potentially incendiary CS gas canisters into the Branch Davidian compound at Waco. The tapes, which reportedly contain the voices of agents asking their field commanders for — and being granted — permission to fire the ordnance into the compound several hours before the outbreak of the blaze that left 80 people dead, have been held by the FBI for six years. Of course, the dramatic seizure of the tapes may have been purely theatrical, since it was the FBI that drew Ms. Reno’s attention to their existence last week following the revelation that — counter to FBI denials — such ordnance had been used at Waco.

Reno’s public slap-down of the FBI is most likely an attempt to inoculate the Justice Department from the growing political fallout over the government’s misrepresentation of events at Waco. The high-profile nature of the move is meant to emphasize that Justice hadn’t been properly briefed by the FBI and thus was not culpable for the six-year delay. But it won't mean the end of the Justice Department's troubles. Even though the attorney general is reportedly in the process of establishing an independent investigation, she’ll have plenty of competition from probes by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee and a congressional über-inquiry proposed by House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde. In addition, the Texas Rangers are about to complete their own inquiry, which may also challenge aspects of the federal government’s official story. Six years after the tragedy, the fires of Waco are burning again — and this time, Washington may get burned.