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 uswe 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
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
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
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
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 claimto produce
evidence showing that his thrilling story had the added advantage
of truth. Who replied to Spence's remarks? It was Cokie Roberts,
andremarkablyshe 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.