Washington’s Skewed Scoring for Congressional Hearings

I was chasing other rabbits today and did not closely follow Hillary Clinton’s testimony on Benghazi.  I followed some of the high points on Twitter and read a few news stories on the hubbub.    But I am reminded of how the Washington media 20 years ago scored the testimony of Attorney General Janet Reno before a House committee hearing on Waco.  The journalists heaped praise on Reno for “holding her ground,” “hanging tough,” and similar posturing.  The fact that Reno emitted a heap of absurdities and some falsehoods was simply ignored — in part because much of the media was biased in her favor, and also because many of the journalists were poorly informed on Waco.

But — “The highlight of Attorney General Reno’s testimony yesterday was her assertion that the 54-ton tank that smashed through the Davidian compound should not be considered a military vehicle — instead it was just ‘like a good rent-a-car.'”  Almost all of the media coverage of her testimony ignored that line – except for the Wall Street Journal oped reposted below.

How the heck Reno’s reputation could survive that assertion — well, she benefitted immensely from “Washington scoring.”  And I expect Hillary will benefit from the same bias in the coming days and months. I will be curious to see if Hillary gets hammered for her claim about losing so much sleep over Benghazi. But that did not deter the Washington Post from summarizing the hearings in this headline: “Amid shouting at Benghazi hearing, Republicans land no solid punches.”

On the other hand, from an epistemological perspective, I have never had much faith in congressional hearings as a method to reveal truth.

The Wall Street Journal

Wednesday, August 2, 1995
Hearings Show Waco Defense is Wacky
]] By James Bovard

The Waco hearings, which ended yesterday with testimony by Attorney General Janet Reno, were  marked by administration obfuscation, Democratic pettifogging and far too much feeble, half-  hearted questioning from Republicans. But enough new information has come out to make  mincemeat of the Clinton administration’s Waco story.

Within 36 hours after the Feb. 28, 1993, initial assault on the Branch Davidian compound, the  federal government abandoned routine law enforcement to avoid gathering evidence that might  embarrass the government. A Sept. 17, 1993, Treasury Department confidential memo to
Assistant Treasury Secretary Ronald Noble stated that on March 1, the Bureau of Alcohol,  Tobacco and Firearms initiated a shooting review and “immediately determined that these stories  [of agents involved] did not add up.” Justice Department attorney Bill Johnston “at this point
advised [ATF supervisor Dan] Hartnett to stop the ATF shooting review because ATF was  creating” exculpatory material that might undermine the government prosecution of the Davidians.

The coverup continued on April 14, 1993. That day, the Treasury Department assistant general  counsel, Robert McNamara, sent a memo to several top-ranking Treasury officials stating that the  Justice Department “does not want Treasury to conduct any interviews or have discussions with  any of the participants who may be potential witnesses” because of fear of creating exculpatory  material. The memo noted, “While we may be able to wait for some of [the witnesses] to have  testified in the criminal trial, the passage of time will dim memories.”

The Justice Department also warned the Treasury Department not to contact outside experts to  analyze the original raid: “DOJ does not want us to generate gratuitous ‘expert witness’ materials;  the prosecutors are concerned that these people won’t have all the facts upon which to base a  thoughtful opinion and could play into defense hands.”

Regarding the FBI’s April 19, 1993, gassing of the Davidians, the Justice Department official  report on Waco stressed that the FBI intended to gas the compound incrementally over a 48-hour  period. A few minutes after the FBI gas attack began, the Davidians fired upon the tank that was  injecting gas into the compound. The FBI, following its official plan, greatly accelerated its  gassing — effectively injecting all the gas it planned to use over two days over a three-hour period.  While the official report portrayed the speed-up of the assault as a regrettable reaction to the  Davidians’ gun shots, FBI commander Jeffrey Jamar told the House committee that he believed  before the final assault that the chances of the Davidians firing on the tanks was 99% — thus  making the speedup of the gassing and subsequent demolition a virtual certainty.

Congressional Democrats, ]who spent the first days of the hearings denouncing David Koresh for  child abuse, strove mightily to claim that the CS gas the FBI used on the 21 children and 60-plus  adults at Waco was as innocuous as a Flintstone vitamin. But Bill Marcus, a senior science
advisor at the Environmental Protection Agency, pointed out that the CS would effect children  between eight and 20 times as harshly as it affected adults. Mr. Marcus observed: “The FBI failed  to read and follow the label directions” on the CS gas and the methylene chloride that agents  mixed it with.

Regarding the methylene chloride that the FBI inserted into the compound, former ATF fire  expert Rick Sherrow testified, “The Dow Chemical Corporation Materials Safety Data Sheet  specifically states that this chemical forms flammable vapor air mixtures [and] ‘[i]n confined or
poorly ventilated areas, vapors can readily accumulate and cause unconsciousness and death.”‘  Rep. John Mica (R., Fla.) observed that even if the children didn’t die directly from the CS gas,  “we sure as hell tortured them for six hours before they died.”

The briefing book the FBI gave Attorney General Reno on April 12, 1993, contained false  information on the effects of the CS gas. The document stated, “Experience with the effects of CS  on children including infants has been extensively investigated. Available reports indicate that,  even in high concentrations or enclosed areas, long term complications from CS exposures is  extremely rare.” However, Defense Department toxicologist Harry Shaw testified that only two  studies were available on the effects on children. One study showed that an infant exposed to CS  for a few hours had to be hospitalized for 28 days; the FBI intended to gas the children in the  Waco compound for 48 hours.

Rep. John Shadegg (R., Ariz.) made a painfully short presentation on July 28 showing the massive  portions of the Davidian compound destroyed by FBI tanks before the fire began. Under vigorous  questioning, the FBI’s Floyd Clarke admitted, “The destruction of the building was part of the ultimate plan which was included” in the briefing book given to Attorney General Reno on April  12. Yet, though FBI officials admitted that they were far along in the process of destroying the  building before the fire started, the official FBI statement to the hearing still bragged, “The FBI  agents demonstrated remarkable restraint and did not fire a single shot during the entire standoff.”

And, while Mr. Clarke stated that the assault was intended to destroy the compound, former FBI  commander Jamar insisted: “The intent was to hopefully get their attention to where they would  engage in serious negotiations.” Destroying their home was an excellent means of getting the  Davidians’ attention but was not the kind of good-faith gesture that could have advanced negotiations.

The highlight of Attorney General Reno’s testimony yesterday was her assertion that the 54-ton tank that smashed through the Davidian compound should not be considered a military vehicle — instead it was just “like a good rent-a-car.” Such an observation does not inspire confidence in the Justice Department’s moderation in its future operation.

The evidence of a coverup and gross federal misconduct is far stronger in the Waco hearings than  in the Whitewater investigation. The Republican leadership in Congress should seize upon the  recent revelations to demand a special counsel to be appointed to investigate possible federal  crimes and coverups regarding Waco.

Mr. Bovard writes often on public policy.

On Twitter @jimbovard


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