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21 September 1999

Our current howler (part II): Evidence optional

Synopsis: When Spence and Donaldson discussed the Waco disaster, a new rule held sway: "evidence optional."

FBI Tape Includes Tear Gas Decision
Edward Walsh and Richard Leiby, The Washington Post, 9/3/99

Commentary by Sam Donaldson, Gerry Spence, Cokie Roberts, Joseph diGenova
This Week, ABC, 9/5/99

What actually happened at Waco, and in its aftermath? At THE HOWLER, we simply don't know. Silly us—we thought that the Danforth and congressional probes were being mounted to try to find out! But around the media, a number of scribes felt free to declare what had happened. How were they able to tell us so quickly? They worked under a very cool New Rule: our public discourse was "evidence optional."

As we saw yesterday, Paul Craig Roberts simply declared (no evidence offered) that Janet Reno had lied about Waco. William Raspberry declared, without offering any evidence, that "the FBI" lied (whoever that is). But by Labor Day weekend, some reporters had offered evidence suggesting that oversight or error, rather than deception, may have been involved in the FBI's inaccurate statements. Walsh and Leiby, in the Washington Post:

WALSH AND LEIBY: [Richard M.] Rogers, the Hostage Rescue Team leader who approved use of the pyrotechnic military tear gas cartridges, was interviewed by FBI agents two days after the final assault on the Branch Davidian compound. A six-page account of the interview provides details of Rogers' actions that morning, but it deals exclusively with attempts to insert tear gas into the main compound structure and what Rogers did after the structure burst into flames. There is no mention in the account of an attempt to penetrate the underground shelter and it is not clear whether Rogers was asked about this by FBI investigators.

Did Rogers think the use of pyrotechnic canisters against the concrete bunker was relevant to any question he or Reno were asked? Little effort was made to examine the record to report what officials had actually been asked.

But excitement was growing in that part of the press that is only happy when it can say it's been lied to. On This Week, Sam Donaldson simply knew that a cover-up was now going on:

DONALDSON: Senator [Charles] Schumer, a moment ago you said one of the questions that should be answered is, Is there a cover-up. Is there a question that there's a cover-up? The question is by whom? How many people are involved? [Donaldson's emphasis]

Both Schumer and Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX) had stressed that they didn't know what had actually happened at Waco. (Gramm: "I don't know what happened at Waco. I'm not choosing sides. I'm not claiming that there's anything else we don't know.") But later, when Gramm seemed to change his mind, and asserted that the FBI and Justice had been lying, the "evidence optional" rule was once again in effect. No one asked him how he knew, or who in those agencies had actually lied. And when Gerry Spence raised the question later on in the show, evidence optional was still holding sway. Spence made this remarkable statement, which he was never asked to defend in any way:

SPENCE: Let's put it in context. Here we have 76 women and children, mostly women and children, burned on the spit like so many shrimp, you can hear their screams, you can smell their flesh burning, and Janet Reno and the FBI are called to task for it. And what do they say? They say, "Well, we didn't cause this fire, they caused this fire." They couldn't dare, they couldn't have under any circumstances have agreed that they in fact caused that fire...

Of course, the 1995 congressional probe accepted evidence indicating that the fire started from within. Was the evidence from that probe any good? Spence was never asked. Instead, this exchange quickly followed:

SPENCE: Suddenly Janet Reno says, "I didn't know." Do we really think Janet Reno didn't know? Freeh is saying, "Well, I'm surprised." Do you think Freeh was really surprised?

DONALDSON: What do you think? What do you think, Mr. Spence? Do you think Janet Reno knew? Do you think Louis Freeh knew?

SPENCE: Absolutely knew. They're not going to come up and say, "You know, we caused the death of all those babies. We caused the death of those innocent children. We shouldn't have done this." They're going to say, "They did it," and that's what they did say. [Spence's emphasis]

Spence's charges are surely remarkable. He seems to be saying that Reno and Freeh know that the FBI caused the fire, and have been lying about it all along. But nowhere in the course of this interview did anyone ask Spence to defend his claim—to produce evidence showing that his thrilling story had the added advantage of truth. Who replied to Spence's remarks? It was Cokie Roberts, and—remarkably—she said this:

ROBERTS: Mr. [Joseph] diGenova, given what Mr. Spence has just said, is there any investigation that could be conducted by any arm of the federal government that people would believe that said the Davidians caused the fire?

In a rational world, of course, that would depend on the evidence such a probe would bring forward. It would also depend on whether Mr. Spence could provide any evidence supporting his claim. But Roberts acted out the exciting new world in which evidence plays almost no part at all. Spence was never asked to give any evidence to show that his devastating charges were true; in the thoroughly novelized world of this crew, if you can think it, you're allowed to say it, and no one will ever ask if it's true. DiGenova, by the way, soon said this:

DIGENOVA: I do believe, by the way, that Louis Freeh and Janet Reno were completely surprised by the discovery of this evidence.

But no one ever asked him to defend that view, either. The very concept of evidence seemed foreign to this crew. In such settings, the world's most important public discourse becomes a swap of exciting tales. "Tell me a story" is a request made by children. Can't we expect more at the top of our discourse?


Tomorrow: FALN reporting showed a second New Rule. For best results, focus on motive.