President Clinton or Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen should reverse the boneheaded decision to keep secret portions of the investigation into the botched Feb. 28 raid on the Branch Davidians by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents.
Having survived several attempts to dismantle the agency, the ATF didn’t enjoy the best of reputations before the tragic assault on Mount Carmel. ATF actions leading up to, during and following the raid led to a Treasury Department investigation. The purpose of the investigation was to find out what went wrong and assure the public that there would be no cover-up of wrongdoing.
According to longtime ATF critics, the Treasury Department investigation into ATF actions involving the Branch Davidians was already suspect because the ATF is part of Treasury. But Treasury officials assured the public that a blue-ribbon panel of investigators would be impartial and the complete findings would be made public. The chips would fall where they may.
Therefore it is little wonder that Treasury officials were deluged by thousands of complaints over the decision to exempt some portions of the investigation from the public. Among those calling for a reversal of the secrecy decision were U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., and several media groups, including the national Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
The Treasury rules also would bar individuals from suing if the agency refuses to purge erroneous information it got from sources that prove to be unreliable. The Treasury rules got around the federal law that allows individuals to see what files the government has compiled on them and demand that any false information be removed and sue if the agency fails to delete the information.
In normal police investigations requests are routinely made to exempt from disclosure information that may reveal law enforcement techniques or information on pending criminal cases.
The ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound was far from a routine police investigation. Four ATF agents died in the raid and 86 Branch Davidians died either in the raid on the April 19 fire that ended the 51-day siege.
Both the agency’s and the government’s credibility are at stake. The decision to let the chips fall where they may was the correct one. There should be a full public disclosure of the investigation.