When former Attorney General Janet Reno died last November, the media heaped praise on her as if she had been justice incarnate.
Reno had long enjoyed sainthood inside the Beltway; the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia even created a Janet Reno Torchbearer Award. But Reno’s record of deceit, brutality, and power grabs should not be forgotten by any American who cares about freedom.
Shortly after Reno became attorney general in 1993, she approved the FBI final assault on the Branch Davidians holed up in a rickety building outside of Waco, Texas. She went on Nightline the evening after 80 people died in a conflagration and announced, “I made the decision. I’m accountable. The buck stops with me.” Reno then asserted that the fiery end was all somebody else’s fault: “I don’t think anybody has ever dealt with a David Koresh, who would purposely set people afire in that number.” Nightline host Ted Koppel asked Reno why the feds used “tanks to ram the compound down.” Reno replied, “I think that what we were trying to do was to give everybody an opportunity to come out in the most unobtrusive way possible, not with a frontal assault.”
Reno masterminded a cover-up of the federal role at Waco. Americans did not learn until 1999 that the FBI had fired pyrotechnic grenades into the Davidians’ home, which could have started the fire that left 80 people dead. She also muzzled federal officials who had been involved at Waco. When she traveled to Oklahoma to hype Clinton’s crime bill in a speech in April 1994, FBI agent Bob Ricks, who had been the agency’s daily spokesman during the 51-day siege, told Reno that many people were still agitated by Waco and asked that the gag order be lifted on himself and other officials. Reno replied, “I don’t think the American people care about Waco anymore.”
The Oklahoma City bombing the following April showed otherwise. In a speech a few weeks later, Reno told federal law-enforcement agents, “There is much to be angry about when we talk about Waco — and the government’s conduct is not the reason. David Koresh is the reason.” She also revealed that the “first and foremost” reason for the tank and gas assault was that “law-enforcement agents on the ground concluded that the perimeter had become unstable and posed a risk both to them and to the surrounding homes and farms. Individuals sympathetic to Koresh were threatening to take matters into their own hands to end the stalemate, were at various times reportedly on the way.” This new “first and foremost” reason was a convenient ex post facto rationale after the Oklahoma City bombing. There was no evidence that FBI agents faced real threats from an uprising during the Waco siege. Previously, Reno had justified the final assault because she heard children were being abused.
That terrorist attack helped propel congressional hearings on Waco — the first time that Congress had seriously examined the carnage (thanks to the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 elections). Reno testified on August 1, 1995. In response to a specific question about why the FBI tanks began destroying the building before the fire, Reno responded, “I share your frustration when you have such a tragedy as this, and you try to figure out what to do in the future to avoid the recurrence of it, not in an experiment, but in a thoughtful way.”The confidential FBI report that Reno received before approving the attack stated that the impact of the CS gas on “infants and children cannot be ignored because gas masks are not available for infants and younger children.” When Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) presented Reno with a gas mask to illustrate the point that it could not have fit children, Reno casually tossed the gas mask onto the floor and announced that “it’s not very helpful, in terms of trying to understand what happened there, to just show gas masks. We’ve got to show the people what went into the process.” And Reno continued ensuring that damning information did not come out.The highlight of Reno’s testimony was her revelation that the 54-ton tanks that smashed through the Davidian ramshackle home should not be considered as military vehicles — instead, they were “like a good rent-a-car.” When she was challenged on this, she added, “These tanks were not armed. They were not military weapons. And I think it is important, Mr. Chairman, as you deal with this issue, not to make statements like that that can cause the confusion.” Reno later added that it would be wrong to focus on the “menacing quality” of the tanks, since “those tanks had been around. People [inside] knew about the tanks. I think they were very accustomed to the tanks, at that point.” But the Davidians were not accustomed to the tanks’ flattening their home.