Suddenly, unaccountable one-man investigations are back in fashion in Washington. After months of decrying Ken Starr, Donald Smaltz, and other inconvenient busybodies, the Clinton administration has executed a stunning triple-lutz on its latest scandal and appointed former senator John Danforth as an independent investigator of possible FBI deception and coverup during and after the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in April 1993.
These acrobatics are all the more impressive because the Clinton administration has until now bitterly resisted any inquiry into the events at Waco beyond that conducted by its own officials. When congress-man William Clinger of Pennsylvania convened hearings into Waco in 1995, President Clinton blasted his actions as an attack on federal law-enforcement. That, however, was back in the days before Clinton found himself on the receiving end of federal law enforcement. Since 1998, Clinton has been more than eager to join in such attacks.
Carefully calibrated attacks, that is. What the Clinton administration is now ready to entertain are questions about the conduct of the FBI. What it is eager to shut off are questions about the conduct of the Department of Justice.
When Congress last looked at Waco, it concluded that the Branch Davidians did indeed gun down at least 19 of their own members and then set fire to their compound. But it also found that, in the words of the Clinger report, the "decision by Attorney General Janet Reno to approve the FBI's plan to end the standoff on April 19 was premature, wrong, and highly irresponsible. In authorizing the assault to proceed, Attorney General Reno was seriously negligent. She knew or should have known that the plan to end the standoff would endanger the lives of the Davidians inside the residence, including the children. The Attorney General knew or should have known that there was little risk to the FBI agents, society as a whole, or to the Davidians from continuing this standoff and that the possibility of a peaceful resolution continued to exist. . . . Following the FBI's April 19 assault on the Branch Davidian compound, Attorney General Reno offered her resignation. In light of her ultimate responsibility for the disastrous assault and its resulting deaths the President should have accepted it."
God only knows what Congress might conclude if it had another look at the record of the attorney general whom senator Phil Gramm accurately calls "always the last person to know."
Mysteriously, however, Congress seems to be falling in with the Clinton administration's views. While Sen. Gramm has endorsed new hearings, majority leader Trent Lott has opposed them, and the House leadership has not been heard from at all. Bruised and battered by the failure of the hearings chaired by senators D'Amato and Thompson to uncover the truth, and by the embarrassing fiasco of representative Dan Burton's work, congressional Republicans seem to have decided to quit the investigation business altogether. This is shirking, and it's dangerous. One of the ugly features of life in the Clinton years has been the spread of dark, mad suspicions and rumors across the American landscape: Vince Foster, TWA 800, Ron Brown, and so on. Conspiracy theories have always been with us, but in the shadows cast by the organized lying of the Clinton years, they have sprouted and grown. Nothing can dispel the shadows except truth told in public.
The appeal of the independent investigator is the hope that the task of uncovering the truth can be separated from the grubbiness of politics. But that hope is an illusory one, and it's especially illusory with Waco. The truth that America needs now is not so much what happened during the siege -- the discovery that the FBI may have fired incendiary gas at the Branch Davidian compound six hours before the fire burst out does not alter the facts of suicide established by the Clinger subcommittee -- but what happened in Washington before and after. The truth that's needed has to do with Janet Reno's Department of Justice (if it is Janet Reno's) and the senior leadership of the FBI. It's a truth that needs not just to be told, but to be aired. And (for better or worse) Congress is the nation's preeminent platform for airing.
A decade ago, somebody published a book about the constitution under the clever title A Machine That Would Go of Itself. Americans yearn for a mechanism of government that can chug effectively along without regard to the character of its drivers. Back in the 1950s, political scientists like David Truman taught that this was just what men like James Madison were trying to establish: a system so exquisitely balanced that it could not be much harmed by the inadequacies and weaknesses of the men seemingly in charge of it.
But governments do not go of themselves, and Madison knew it. "The aim of every political constitution," he wrote in Federalist 57, "is or ought to be first to obtain for rulers, men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good of society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous, whilst they continue to hold their public trust."
The harm done to American society by the Clinton administration's bad character was a political wrong. It can only be fixed politically, with the tools of politics. If a space shuttle crashes or a water purification plant backs up, those are technical problems that require the sort of expert evaluation that somebody from outside the political system can provide. But when 80 people die because a gullible attorney general is manipulated by her subordinates, and when evidence appears that this same gullible attorney general has continued to be deceived for years, that is a problem that no expert can fix. At least one of the people entrusted with America's police forces has proved unworthy of that trust, and ultimately the job of figuring out who that person is belongs not to an outside commissioner, no matter how distinguished, but to the electors, and thus the representatives who speak for them.
David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of a forthcoming history of life in the 1970s, How We Got Here (Basic).