Attorney General Janet Reno erred in initially citing ongoing child abuse as a reason for storming the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, the Justice Department's review of events concluded in a report released Friday.
The report said Reno made an "inaccurate statement" during television interviews regarding ongoing child abuse at the Mount Carmel compound.FBI evidence showed only that physical and sexual abuse had occurred before the Feb. 28 raid on the compound by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents - not that it was continuing during the 51-day standoff.
Justice Department officials have estimated 25 children died in the fiery finale in Waco. But the report issued Friday said a number of children died not from the fire but from gunshot wounds to the head. It said one child was apparently stabbed to death.
While the report cited evidence of unsanitary conditions in the compound during the standoff that could have been "potentially life-threatening" to children, it could not find confirmation of child abuse.
"There was no direct evidence indicating that Koresh engaged in any physical or sexual abuse of children during the standoff," the report stated. "Given that Koresh had been shot and wounded on Feb. 28, he probably lacked the physical ability to continue his abuse."
Reno acknowledged Friday that she had misunderstood officials who briefed her about the child-abuse situation.
"It was my understanding from what was told to me that the child abuse was ongoing," she said. "I now understand that nobody in the bureau told me that it was ongoing. We were briefed and I misunderstood."
The report said that Reno launched an investigation into the child-abuse issue after then-FBI director William Sessions contradicted the attorney general and claimed the FBI had developed no direct evidence of ongoing child abuse. The report added that Reno corrected herself in April 28 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.
But the report defended the actions of the attorney general and the FBI, saying the child-abuse issue was one of several factors that persuaded officials to proceed with a tear gas attack on the compound that led to the cult members setting fire to the area.
The report also chronicles Reno's concern about the children even as she approved the FBI plan to employ tear gas at the compound.
"She said that she made it clear that if children were endangered, if they were held up to windows and threatened to be shot, the FBI was to "back off," the report said.
The report concluded that while one FBI representative "made one misstatement indicating that Koresh was continuing to beat the children during the standoff, that misstatement did not materially influence the attorney general's decision."
The final briefing book prepared for Reno on the weekend before the assault on the compound included only historical evidence of child abuse, according to the report.
"The FBI did not exaggerate the child-abuse issue when it presented the tear gas option to the attorney general," the report stated.