The internal FBI documents, disclosed Monday, maintain that the agency did in fact tell Justice about the incendiary tear gas canisters that couldhave started the fire –- a sensitive disclosure that, it seems, the feds didn’t disclose very loudly. References to the canisters call them only "military" rounds, with none of the Texas Rangers’ gleeful profiling in their own report (which hit the Dallas Morning News Monday): "burns at 500 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, and is capable of igniting flammable items." Reno’s Justice Department even passed on the FBI’s description to Dan Burton’s congressional panel on the siege in 1995, and he–- the Hill’s reigning supersleuth –- never caught the significance. (Burton claims Justice purposely buried his committee in an avalanche of documents just days before hearings began.) Certainly the hunt for a Reno cover-up (and the attorney general’s hide) loses some of its vigor as a picture emerges of something much more Washingtonian: a bureaucratic tar pit. "Reno won’t quit unless she’s found to have lied to Congress or hidden something from the public," says TIME Justice correspondent Elaine Shannon. "Not if she simply wasn’t told what she should have been." With Reno’s job riding on the difference between a snafu and a cover-up, it’s not too surprising that would-be whistleblower Johnston was pulled off the case last Friday by Reno deputy Eric Holder. (The yanking was made public Tuesday.) In a Beltway bureaucracy, ignorance is as close to bliss as it gets.
At what point is Janet Reno’s innocence going to get embarrassing? In the ongoing wake of Waco, the attorney general bases her refusal to resign on the fact that she told Congress and the public all she knew about incendiary tear gas canisters, snipers and any other federal ham-handedness that might have contributed to the 80-odd deaths in the Branch Davidian compound that day in April 1993. The fire became a cause célèbre among conspiracy theorists everywhere, but six years later the real conspiracy looks more like one to keep Reno in the dark. "I have formed the belief that facts may have been kept from you," Assistant United States Attorney Bill Johnston in Waco wrote to Reno in a just-released Aug. 30 letter, "and quite possibly are being kept from you even now, by components of the department." The latest clue: That information about the use of combustible tear gas canisters in the siege –- much the same information that was such a revelation a few weeks ago –- has been sitting in the Justice Department's files for years, apparently unbeknownst to the head of the department.