WASHINGTON - U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno wants former Sen. John Danforth to lead an independent investigation into the FBI's disastrous 1993 assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, Justice Department officials said on Wednesday.
They said Reno was resolving final details that would allow Danforth, a 63-year-old Missouri Republican, to investigate how the FBI handled the 51-day siege, an issue that has escalated into a major political controversy.
The appointment of Danforth, a moderate conservative with a reputation as a principled politician, appeared calculated as a way to answer the growing criticism from Republicans in Congress who have called for Reno's resignation over the Waco debacle.
``He's her choice, and it is virtually a done deal,'' one official said, adding that Reno's announcement could come later on Wednesday.
The investigation will focus on the recent discovery that FBI agents fired potentially flammable tear gas canisters at a concrete bunker hours before the compound went up in flames, killing cult leader David Koresh and about 80 followers.
The disclosure did not change Reno's long-held position that the evidence overwhelming showed the members of the religious sect, and not the FBI, were responsible for setting the fires that engulfed the compound.
The recent revelations about the potentially incendiary devices hurt the credibility of Reno and the FBI and raised questions about why it took six years to find the evidence and whether it was overlooked or covered up.
Danforth, an Episcopal priest who served in the U.S. Senate from 1977 until 1995 and who previously had been Missouri's attorney general for eight years, will be given a mandate by Reno to get to the bottom of what happened at Waco.
Danforth practices law at a firm in St. Louis.
Danforth was known as Justice Clarence Thomas's sponsor and chief Senate defender during Thomas's bruising Supreme Court confirmation battle in 1991.
Thomas, who worked for Danforth when he was state attorney general and when he was a senator, ran into trouble in the Senate after he was accused of sexually harassing a female aide, Anita Hill, in the early 1980s.
Danforth, the heir to the Ralston Purina Co. fortune, was among the wealthiest and most patrician members of the Senate.
After graduating from Princeton University, he received law and divinity degrees at Yale University and then joined a Wall Street law firm before seeking his first elective office as Missouri attorney general in 1968.
An influential moderate in the Senate, Danforth typically adopted conservative positions on economic issues, but was progressive on many social issues, such as civil rights.
Besides the investigation to be done by Danforth, Sen. Orrin Hatch, the judiciary committee chairman and a Republican presidential candidate, has said he plans to hold hearings on the Waco revelations.
The House Government Reform Committee, chaired by Representative Dan Burton, a Republican from Indiana and a longtime Reno critic, also has begun a separate investigation.
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