Former Attorney General Janet Reno died yesterday. The Washington press corps made her a saint after she sent in the tanks against the Branch Davidians on April 19, 1993. Her aura of sainthood continued for the rest of her career, regardless of the brazen scandals and abuses the Justice Department and FBI committed during her reign.
Following is a piece I did for Playboy on her record in 2000, followed by some other pieces shining the light in places most of the media ignored.
Playboy February 2000
by James Bovard
Last year, The Washingtonian revealed that Janet Reno had “much of the Justice Department” working on a document to chronicle what she considered to be her legacy as the nation’s attorney general. “It is to comprise 16 chapters that will summarize her accomplishments and spell out the challenges to her successor,” the magazine reported. “Attorneys working on the project say that she has urged them to ‘speed it up.'”
If Reno is in fact hoping to produce such a document, it’s hard to believe she could fill a page, let alone 16 chapters. Her record includes few accomplishments worthy of applause.
Within 36 days of taking office, Reno secured her place in history by green-lighting the FBI’s use of toxic gas on children. Scores of people died in the inferno.
Reno later asserted that the gas pumped into the Davidian compound was only an “irritant.” Yet the same type of gas was linked to the 1988 deaths of Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip.
In the summer of 1995, House Republicans held the first substantive hearings on Waco. The highlight of Reno’s testimony on August 1 was her revelation that the Bradley tanks that smashed through the complex should not be considered military vehicles. Instead, she said, they were “like a good rent-a-car.”
When evidence surfaced that the government had used incendiary devices at Waco, Reno appointed former senator John Danforth to investigate. He remarked: “Our country can survive bad judgment. But the thing that really undermines the integrity of government is whether there were bad acts-whether the government killed people.”
It is hard to recall an attorney general with less respect for the Second Amendment. Reno has supported every gun control bill floated by Congress. At the same time she has done everything to take guns out of the hands of the populace, she has overseen a huge arms buildup for police forces and SWAT teams. She is horrified by citizens who misuse guns (she keeps a photo in her office of one of the students slain at Columbine) but has a different attitude toward gun-toting government agents. In 1994 a Reno aide announced that no charges would be filed against an FBI sniper who killed Vicki Weaver as she held her baby in a doorway on Ruby Ridge. Reno later approved the promotion of Larry Potts, chief of the Ruby Ridge operation, to the number two post at the FBI.
When voters in California and Arizona supported the medicinal use of marijuana, Reno and drug czar Barry McCaffrey threatened to punish any doctor who recommended cannabis to patients.
Reno has championed the government’s power to confiscate private property, even when citizens have not been convicted of a crime. She has repeatedly derailed congressional efforts to reform forfeiture laws by promising to fix the problems internally, while her lackeys put forward legislation to give the government even more power to plunder.
Reno’s worst abuse of the independent counsel law was not what she did, but what she didn’t do. She unleashed seven independent prosecutors, and allowed Ken Starr to expand and extend his investigation to include Bill Clinton’s private life. That was bad. What was worse was not letting federal judges appoint an independent prosecutor to look into alleged Clinton-Gore campaign fund-raising violations.
THE FIRST AMENDMENT
Reno’s record on defending free speech is without honor. In 1996 Congress passed the Communications Decency Act. The measure would have effectively curtailed sexual expression on the Internet. A three-judge panel found the law “profoundly repugnant” to the First Amendment. Reno went out of her way to defend it.
In October 1993, Reno announced that there was too much violence on television and hinted darkly that Uncle Sam should control programming. “If immediate voluntary steps are not taken by television producers, the government should set those standards.”
Television survived the threat and created its own Reno legacy: “Janet Reno’s Dance Party,” a skit on Saturday Night Live. And Skinner, the brooding FBI boss on The X-Files, displays a photo of the attorney general above his desk.
The Senate voted 74 to 23 last Thursday to indefinitely postpone
hearings on federal government actions in Waco, Texas, in 1993 and in
the Ruby Ridge, Idaho (Randy Weaver) case in 1992. Sen. Arlen Specter
had urged the Senate to set a specific deadline for the hearings. But
Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Judiciary Committee chairman, declared that any
hearings on Waco should be postponed until after the Oklahoma City
bombers have been caught, tried and punished — which could take several
years. This is a grave error.
Attorney General Janet Reno declared on May 5: “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.” But public opinion polls
show that approval of the government’s action at Waco is plummeting –
down from 80% just after the final assault in April 1993 to barely 40%
now. There can be no justification for the terrorist attack last month
in Oklahoma City; but likewise there is no justification for delaying
asking serious questions about government misconduct. House Speaker Newt
Gingrich announced Thursday that the House would be having thorough
hearings on both cases by August, but no specific dates have been set.
The longer hearings are postponed, the greater the danger that the FBI
will repeat the same tragic mistakes that preceded scores of deaths at
Here are some of the issues that members of Congress must examine on
– Regarding the Feb. 28, 1993, attack on the compound by 100 Bureau
of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents: Who shot first? Rolland
Ballesteros, one of the first ATF agents out of the cattle trailer that
morning, told Texas Rangers investigating the case that the first shots
came from agents shooting the dogs. (He recanted at the Davidian trial
last year, insisting instead that the Davidians shot first.) The ATF
claimed to have a video proving that the Davidians shot first, but
refused to make it public. Congress should require all ATF videotapes of
the initial battle to be made public.
– Regarding the April 19, 1993, final FBI assault on the Davidians:
When and why did the FBI decide to demolish the compound with its tanks?
Even before the fire started, roughly 20% of the compound had collapsed
as a result of tank incursions. Amazingly, despite graphic videotapes of
54-ton FBI tanks smashing through the compound’s walls, Ms. Reno
declared this past April 30: “We didn’t attack. We tried to exercise
every restraint possible to avoid violence.”
– Did any of the government tank incursions at Waco kill innocent
women or children? Attorney General Reno declared on May 5, “It is
unfair, it is unreasonable, it is a lie, to spread the poison that the
government was responsible at Waco for the murder of innocents.”
However, Harvard Prof. Alan Stone, one of the outside experts the
Justice Department brought in, concluded: “Some of the government’s
actions may have killed people before the fire started. I cannot tell
whether the tanks knocked down places where people were already. I don’t
know if there were people in there crushed by the collapsing building
[as a result of FBI tanks plowing into the structure] before the fire
– What effect did the CS gas pumped into the compound for six hours
have on the women and children? While Reno recently characterized the
gas as a mere “irritant,” Technology Review noted in October 1988 that
CS gas is far more potent than another widely used tear gas. CS gas can
kill: United Nation officials estimated that the use of CS gas resulted
in 44 fatalities in the Gaza Strip in 1988, as well as more than 1,200
injuries and numerous miscarriages.
– What did the FBI hope to accomplish by gassing the Davidians? FBI
Deputy Director Floyd Clarke told Congress nine days after the fire that
the FBI’s plan was to “immediately and totally immerse the place in gas,
and throw in flash-bangs which would disorient them and cause people to
. . . think, if not rationally, at least instinctively, and perhaps give
them a way to come out.” Flash-bang grenades temporarily blind people
and, according to a U.S. Army Field Manual, “Generally, persons reacting
to CS are incapable of executing organized and concerted actions and
excessive exposure to CS may make them incapable of vacating the area.”
– What role might the government have had in starting or spreading
the fires in the compound? Federal officials after the fire insisted
that the CS gas was nonflammable. But, according to U.S. Army manuals,
there is a significant risk of flammability from the CS gas
particulates. U.S. Army Field Manual FM-21-27 states: “Warning: when
using the dry agent CS-1, do not discharge indoors. Accumulating dust
may explode when exposed to spark or open flame.” Retired Army Col. Rex
Applegate, one of the nation’s foremost experts on riot control agents,
declared in a recent interview, “Any flash bang will start fires.”
– Congress should force the Justice Department and FBI to make
public all audio tapes from inside the compound at Waco and all
communications tapes between the tank operators and their commanders.
Ms. Reno told federal law enforcement officers on May 5 that the
Davidians’ “words were recorded while they were spreading the fuels to
ignite the fire.” However, controversy exists over the audio tapes from
inside the compound. At the trial last year, prosecutors presented a
transcript of tapes made from electronic listening devices inside the
compound, claiming that the tapes showed a Davidian suicide scheme.
However, after challenges from defense attorneys, the government’s audio
expert conceded that he altered the transcripts after meeting with
Justice Department officials.
As the New York Times reported: “Defense lawyer Mike DeGeurin
demonstrated that more than 100 hours of FBI tapes from the compound had
been reduced to an hour of excerpts by the prosecution’s audio expert.
‘We didn’t hear things today from the earlier transcripts, such as
people praying as tanks were bashing in their homes, or children calling
for their parents.”‘
– Why does Janet Reno keep changing her rationale for the
government’s final assault at Waco? Immediately after the fire, she
justified the assault as needed to stop David Koresh from beating
babies. (The FBI later admitted that it had no information to indicate
that such accusations against Koresh were valid.) But on May 5 of this
year Ms. Reno announced that the “first and foremost” reason for the
tank/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 [and] were at various times reportedly on the way.”
– How did Janet Reno lose 16 machine guns? The major justification
for the initial ATF raid was the allegation that the Davidians illegally
possessed machine guns. At the trial last year, the Justice Department
claimed that 48 machine guns were found at the Davidian compound after
the fire. Defense experts were prohibited from examining the weapons to
see if they had been tampered with by the government, as happened in at
least one other high-profile federal court case in recent years. On May
5, Ms. Reno said that the Davidians had only 32 machine guns. At this
rate, all the alleged machine guns will vanish by 1997.
– Why are President Clinton and Ms. Reno misrepresenting the jury
verdict as a vindication for the government? The jury verdict was
correctly characterized by the New York Times as a “stunning defeat” for
the federal government; a Los Angeles Times headline declared, “Outcome
Indicates Jurors Placed Most Blame on the Government.” Bill Johnston,
the lead federal attorney at Waco, burst into tears in bitter
disappointment at the verdict. The defendants received relatively light
sentences — until the Justice Department subsequently arm-twisted the
judge into reinstating charges that he had originally dismissed after
the jury verdict.
Mr. Clinton declared on April 23, “This is a freedom-loving democracy
because the rule of law has reigned for over 200 years now.” The
foundation of the rule of law is that government officials must obey the
same laws as private citizens. The ghosts of Waco will continue to haunt
the U.S. government until the truth is told about what the government
did and why.
— Mr. Bovard is the author of “Lost Rights: The Destruction of American
Liberty” (St. Martin’s Press).
The Washington Times
October 09, 2000, Monday, Final Edition
SECTION: PART A; COMMENTARY; Pg. A14
LENGTH: 985 words
HEADLINE: In the name of Justice
BYLINE: James Bovard
H.L. Mencken quipped in the 1920s that the name “Justice Department” was an
oxymoron. Attorney General Janet Reno has vindicated Mencken and given solace
to cynics across the land.
In July, controversy erupted over “Carnivore,” the FBI’s e-mail wiretap
software that reportedly can vacuum up vast amounts of private e-mail –
regardless of whether the feds have a search warrant. FBI officials “explained”
the program’s ominous name by stressing that they never thought the public
The Washington Times October 09, 2000, Monday, Final Edition
would learn of the program’s existence. Janet Reno took charge by announcing
she would require the FBI to change Carnivore’s name.
The Justice Department also promised to appoint independent experts to
evaluate the program and to issue a report showing it posed no threat to
privacy. Several top academics snubbed the feds, doubting the review could be
bona fide. Late last month, the Justice Department proudly announced that a
team affiliated with the Illinois Institute of Technology would conduct a
thorough evaluation of Carnivore. The Justice Department is scheduled to
release this independent expert report exonerating the Carnivore system in
But glitches happen. The Justice Department posted an information file,
including the contract proposal, on the project on its Website. Key parts of
the researchers’ resumes were blacked out – or so the Justice Department
thought. Computer buffs at www.cryptome.org easily opened the documents and
learned that among the “independent” experts is a top adviser to Mr. Clinton’s
1992-93 transition team who performed several studies for federal agencies in
recent years, a former Justice Department lawyer, some consultants for the
Internal Revenue Service, and others who had top security clearances from the
National Security Agency and the Pentagon. The proposal promised that two of its
key experts would “be of special assistance in the public comment phase of the
The Washington Times October 09, 2000, Monday, Final Edition
project. . . . to help the public overcome popular myths and understand the
limitations associated with Carnivore.”
Declan McCullagh, Wired News’ ace reporter, noted “the irony of public
disclosure of personal information, by the very people who are in the midst of
claiming they can be trusted to protect it.” On the other hand, perhaps the
hefty list of the Carnivore reviewers’ government connections merely proves they
are “independent enough for Clinton administration work.”
The same charade occurred with the “independent” company hired to evaluate
the film footage of the re-enactment of the FBI’s final assault at Waco held
earlier this year at Fort Hood, Texas. The Justice Department endlessly
repeated that the Vector Data Systems is an independent British company.
However, Vector is actually owned by Anteon, a large American corporation whose
web page brags of its contracts with 50 federal agencies – including the White
House Communications Agency, the Pentagon and the Justice Department. Perhaps
the Justice Department assumes the best measure of the independence of a company
is how many federal contracts they have snared – and hope to receive in the
future. Not surprisingly, Vector provided the correct answers -thus seeking to
absolve the FBI of some of the most serious charges against it at Waco.
The Washington Times October 09, 2000, Monday, Final Edition
The recent “independence scams” should be no surprise. The Justice
Department has no concerns about conflict of interest because the government is
presumed to be incapable of committing any wrong. In a 1996 speech to
government prosecutors, Miss Reno declared: “All of you public lawyers are but
little lower than the angels, and I salute you.” Miss Reno showed her belief in
angels in 1994 when she decreed that federal prosecutors would no longer be
bound by the ethics guidelines of state bar associations. Miss Reno’s power
grab for federal prosecutors was unanimously condemned by the Conference of
Chief Justices, representing all the state supreme courts.
The longer Miss Reno clings to office, the more convinced she becomes that
she personifies justice. Consider her flip-flop on the independent counsel law.
Miss Reno urged Congress in 1993 to renew the independent counsel law because
“there is an inherent conflict whenever senior executive branch officials are to
be investigated by the department and its appointed head, the attorney general.”
But the longer she served as attorney general, the more contemptuous she became
of public confidence in the justice system. Last year, she flipped and told
Congress that the existing law should be replaced with a system that gave any
attorney general unfettered authority to veto any indictments and to fire any
special counsel at any time on any pretext, thereby perpetually politicizing
investigations of wrongdoing by high-ranking government officials. Miss Reno
illustrated how the new system works with her choice of Clinton golfing buddy
The Washington Times October 09, 2000, Monday, Final Edition
John Danforth to head the most recent federal Waco whitewash.
Miss Reno and the Justice Department have rarely gone wrong overestimating
the gullibility of the American public and media. If George W. Bush wins next
month, Americans will have a better chance of finding the hidden skeletons in
the Justice Department’s closet.
But the biggest mistake would be to expect the Justice Department to become
instantly trustworthy with Miss Reno’s departure. Folks who go around giving
the name “Carnivore” to programs designed to stomp the hell out of privacy
cannot be trusted regardless of who is attorney general. The only sure way to
make the Justice Department respect justice is to dramatically reduce its size
and radically curtail its arbitrary power. Indeed, “Carnivore” should be a
wake-up jolt to any American who still believes governments are not predators.
James Bovard is the author of the just published “Feeling Your Pain: The
Explosion & Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years” (St. Martin’s