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HEARINGS PROVE THERE'S PLENTY OF BLAME TO GO AROUND

Congressional Republicans on the Waco hearings panel wanted to blame President Clinton for the deadly outcome of government siege. But Attorney General Janet Reno says the government is blameless.

Reno testified that Branch Davidian leader David Koresh was solely responsible for the deaths of his followers. Reno and other government officials describe the fiery end to the Branch Davidians as a mass suicide. Seventeen of the 80 Davidians who died in the April 19, 1993 inferno were found dead of gun shots.Reno and the FBI tactical agents decided on a course of action that FBI's psychologists warned against. Behavioral experts urged FBI operations planners to back off and not push Koresh because their actions could cause a mass suicide.

Ignoring the warnings that provocations could cause mass suicide, the FBI's tactical bosses, with Reno's blessings, started pushing holes in the Davidians' compound with tanks. Within hours all but a few of the Davidians were dead due to what now is described as mass suicide. And no one is to blame.

The internal investigation into the FBI's handling of the siege produced a massive three-volume, 1,000-page report. Filled with praise, no one in the Justice Department or the FBI received any blame for the flawed judgment and decisions that led to the tragic ending. The New York Times called the report a whitewash.

Why was no one in government blamed? "People should get blamed if they did something wrong," Reno has said. There is logic to that. If everyone in the Justice Department and the FBI is blameless, then it certainly makes no sense to blame anyone.

Reno repeatedly has said that the entire effort by the FBI was to save human life.

But if the entire effort was directed toward saving lives, and if that effort was a thoroughgoing failure, then is it really logical to conclude that no one did anything wrong?

To her credit, Reno is willing to shoulder the blame. Right after the FBI's tragically botched attempt to save lives with a tank and tear gas assault, Reno said: "I made the decision. I'm accountable. The buck stops with me." That's fine, except she concluded that neither she nor anyone else in government did anything wrong.

Ronald K. Noble, Treasury's undersecretary for law enforcement who oversees the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, has admitted that ATF officials did a few things wrong during their original assault on the compound that resulted in four dead ATF agents, six dead Davidians and the 51-day siege.

"What was absolutely clear in Washington in Treasury and in Washington in ATF was that no raid should proceed once the element of surprise was lost," Noble has said.

But then the raid planners who made the mistake that Noble said cost the lives of the ATF agents were either allowed to retire with no penalties or were immediately rehired with full back pay and no cut in salaries.

Certainly Koresh was not blameless. Koresh committed crimes and deserved to be brought to justice. But the stated purpose of the hearings was to clear the air conspiracy theories, instill confidence in federal law enforcement and ensure the public that government is accountable for its actions. It didn't come out that way.