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Reno says she never OK'd tanks, Davidians' lawyers say

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Lawyers for Branch Davidians who are suing the government over the 1993 Waco siege say Attorney General Janet Reno has testified that she never gave approval for the FBI to use tanks to demolish the sect members' compound.

During a two-hour deposition Tuesday, the attorneys said, Reno also indicated she does not believe the FBI intentionally destroyed the building during a tear-gassing operation designed to end the 51-day siege.They said she described the damage caused by tanks punching through the building's thin wooden walls as a function of the tear-gassing.

The Justice Department declined to discuss details of Reno's testimony at the deposition.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs, whose wrongful-death suit goes to trial in mid-May, also say Reno was less than forthcoming in discussing whether the FBI acted deliberately to dismantle the complex.

One attorney for the religious sect, James Brannon of Houston, described Reno as an "an artful dodger" who turned aside questions by saying she wasn't familiar with all the facts.

"We expected her, quite frankly, to be a lot more familiar with the details of this case," Brannon said.

The plaintiffs' lead attorney, Michael Caddell, said Reno was "less than candid" on one issue, the demolition.

"The problem that she's got is she testified to Congress in 1995 that the damage done to the building was the result of tear-gas insertion," Caddell said outside the Justice Department.

"And I think it's very difficult for her to back off of that testimony."

Michael Bradford, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, disputed Caddell's claim. "We would strongly disagree with his interpretation," he said.

"She was forthcoming and candid and answered all the questions," said Bradford, one of the government's chief defenders in the Davidian suit.

"Her testimony will speak for itself, but it was consistent throughout the deposition with her past testimony."

Davidian leader David Koresh and some 80 followers died April 19, 1993, when fire raced through their building several hours into the tear-gassing. The government says the Davidians died by their own hand, whether by fire or gunfire.

Reno acknowledged Tuesday that the plan she approved did not authorize the use of pyrotechnic tear gas, flash-bang devices inside the Davidians' Mount Carmel compound or building demolition, Caddell said.

"She also testified she was never told ... that there would be no plan to fight a fire at Mount Carmel should one develop," he said.

The plaintiffs contend the FBI's on-scene commanders ordered the dismantling of the Davidians' compound several hours into the operation -- in defiance of a Reno-approved plan that permitted such destruction only after 48 hours if the tear-gassing proved unsuccessful.

While Reno refused to acknowledge deliberate demolition occurred, Caddell said, she did concede that the on-scene commanders would have been required to consult with FBI leadership before speeding up the plan -- which didn't occur.

Bradford declined to discuss Reno's testimony, saying the federal district judge presiding over the case ordered depositions sealed for 30 days.

"The judge has expressed a fairly strong preference that we not get into a public debate over depositions," he said.

Caddell said he will release both Reno's deposition and a videotape of the proceeding in 30 days.

The attorney said he does not hold Reno responsible for any negligence at Waco.

But he is using his depositions with Reno and high-ranking FBI officials to buttress his contention that the FBI's on-scene commanders -- special agent in charge Jeffrey Jamar and hostage rescue team leader Richard Rogers -- deviated from the approved plan by escalating the tear-gas insertion and destroying the building.

Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Walter Smith granted a request from the plaintiffs to dismiss their case against FBI sharpshooter Lon Horiuchi. Caddell said an analysis of spent shell casings indicated Horiuchi was not among those who started the gun battle that sparked the siege.