“Trump’s attack on the debate commission is an attack on the election itself,” blares the headline from today’s Washington Post op-ed page. That article was written by former senator John Danforth, who has been a member of the Commission on Presidential Debates since 1994. Danforth, an ordained Episcopal priest whose piety earned him the derisive nickname, “Saint Jack,” is one of Washington’s favorite useful idiots of Leviathan. It is no surprise that he would be a permanent fixture on a commission that appears determined to perpetuate the swamp.
Danforth wails in the Post that accusing the debate commission of favoritism “destroys public confidence in the most basic treasure of democracy, the conduct of fair elections” and “paves the way to violence in the streets.” Danforth warns that the “damage to our country is incalculable” if Americans lose faith in “the fairness of our presidential debates, and, in turn, the presidential election.”
The usual Twitter mob quickly affixed a halo over Danforth’s head for his proclamation. But few people remember how Danforth previously appointed himself as the nation’s political faith healer after the biggest federal law enforcement debacle in modern times.
On February 28, 1993, 70 federal Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agents launched an attack on the home of the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas. After the assault was rebuffed, the FBI arrived and, on April 19, 1993, sent in tanks that demolished much of the Davidians’ home before a fire broke out. Eighty corpses of men, women, and children were discovered in the wreckage.
Almost nobody in Washington cared about the Texas carnage. Attorney General Janet Reno, who approved the deadly final assault, was labeled a “folk hero” by the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post declared that she had “superstar status.” A few days after the fire, the opening of a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing had to be delayed so senators could have their pictures taken with Attorney General Janet Reno. Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, captured the sentiments of many congressmen when he declared in 1994 that the Davidians were “horrible people. Despicable people. Burning to death was too good for them.”
In 1995, Reno testified to Congress and shrugged off the FBI’s use of 54-ton tanks to assail the Davidians, declaring that the tanks were “not military weapons … I mean, it was like a good rent-a-car.” Media coverage of Reno’s showdown with congressional Republicans ignored her rent-a-tank absurdity, instead praising her toughness and demeanor.
In 1999, news leaked out that the FBI had lied when it used pyrotechnic grenades at Waco that might have started fires that killed scores of women and children. Thanks to those revelations, 57 percent of Americans believed that the FBI had carried out an “intentional cover-up” of Waco, according to an ABC News poll. Reno personally selected John Danforth, a “moderate” Republican who supported gun control and was a golfing buddy of President Bill Clinton, to re-investigate federal action at Waco. In July 2000, as he was rumored to be on the short list for George W. Bush’s vice presidential pick, Danforth rushed out a preliminary report. Danforth’s report was more pro-FBI than the FBI itself and revived discredited drug charges that the Justice Department abandoned six years earlier.
Danforth’s report began by stating that Koresh and the Davidians “shot and killed four [ATF] agents” and “wounded 20 others.” Since the Davidians had wrongfully killed and wounded dozens of federal agents, they presumably deserved whatever the feds subsequently did to them. Danforth tacitly accepted the notion that a massive federal no-knock assault was necessary to determine whether the Davidians had violated federal prohibitions on converting semi-automatic firearms into firing in fully automatic mode.
Danforth ignored the fact that, only nine days before the ATF attack, David Koresh had gone target shooting with three undercover ATF agents (whom he recognized as G-men). Koresh “provided the ammunition and the agents handed him their guns,” noted former federal lawyer David Hardy, whose research exposed the ATF memo detailing the target practice six years after the raid. After the raid, the ATF insisted that Koresh never went outside the “compound”—and thus the agency needed to launch a full-scale attack to get him. But Koresh could easily have been arrested while target shooting. Danforth also ignored the evidence that ATF agents shot first as they assaulted the Davidians’ home.
Danforth declared that one of the key topics for his investigation was “whether the military was wrongly used” in the assault on the Davidians’ home. Before the February 28 raid, ATF officials were told that it would be illegal for the U.S. military to assist them unless there was a “drug nexus” to the case. A few days later, the ATF notified military officials that they suspected the Davidians had a methamphetamine lab in their basement. ATF agents then received training in close-quarters combat and called in military helicopters from the Texas National Guard to assist in the assault.
Despite such extensive preparations, the drug charge vanished immediately after the raid, and federal prosecutors never raised the issue at the surviving Davidians’ 1994 trial. A 1996 congressional report concluded that the ATF’s actions during and after the raid made it “clear that the ATF believed that a methamphetamine lab did not exist.” The House report concluded that “the ATF intentionally misled Defense Department and military personnel” regarding the existence of the meth lab. Danforth is interested in none of this. But Danforth’s report noted that while “the Office of Special Counsel did not extensively investigate the basis for ATF’s assertion that there was a drug nexus … there is some evidence prior to February 28, 1993, connecting ‘drug activity’ with the complex which could form the basis of a drug nexus.” This is the same type of flimsy “drug link” that has been used to justify thousands of no-knock raids in the subsequent decades.
Danforth repeatedly minimizes or comically misrepresents the amount of force the feds used against the Davidians. FBI agents repeatedly threw flash-bang grenades at Davidians who tried to leave the residence and may have thrown them inside the Davidians’ residence. When Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) asked Danforth about this at a hearing, Danforth replied that flash-bangs are “in the nature, as I understand it, of, you know, firecrackers. They make a flash and they make a bang. And they don’t cause injury, as a general rule.” A 2019 federal appeals court decision noted that flash-bang grenades are “four times louder than a 12-gauge shotgun blast” with “a powerful enough concussive effect to break windows and put holes in walls.” Flash bangs burn hotter than lava and have started more than a hundred fires across the nation.
Some of the section headings in Danforth’s report made it appear that Waco was a huge law enforcement success—such as the description of the origins of the FBI tank-gas assault: “The FBI Develops a Tactical Solution to the Standoff.” After the FBI had gassed the Davidians for more than four hours and exhausted almost its entire gas supply, FBI tank drivers were ordered to demolish the building. In the next hour, tanks smashed into the residence eight times and collapsed at least one-quarter of the Davidians’ home. The Dallas Morning News summarized government documents on the tank assault: “Just before noon, [FBI on-scene commander Richard] Rogers ordered tanks in front to drive deep [into the building] toward the compound tower. At its base was a concrete room where officials believed the ‘hostiles’ were hiding, records show.” As FBI Deputy Director Floyd Clarke admitted in 1995 congressional testimony, “the destruction of the building was part of the ultimate plan” to bring the siege to an end.
Despite all this evidence, Danforth accepted at face value 1995 testimony of FBI on-scene commanders Jeffrey Jamar and Richard Rogers, who insisted that the tanks were not attempting to bring the building down. Danforth dismissed not only written evidence but stunning visual evidence. Waco: Rules of Engagement, a movie that won an Emmy and was nominated for an Academy Award, shows lengthy footage of FBI tanks repeatedly and systematically demolishing much of the building. Harvard Prof. Alan Stone, one of the outside experts the Justice Department tapped in 1993 to examine the incident, concluded: “Some of the government’s actions may have killed people before the fire started. I cannot tell whether the tanks knocked down places where people were already. I don’t know if there were people in there crushed by the collapsing building [as a result of FBI tanks plowing into the structure] before the fire started.”
The FBI’s pyrotechnic devices were the hottest item in Danforth’s investigation. Reno had sworn to a congressional committee in 1995 that the FBI used no pyrotechnic devices at Waco. Yet Danforth told a Senate committee that “the use of the pyrotechnics, itself, under these circumstances was not a big thing.” Danforth also assured the senators: “I don’t think that there’s been anybody that I know of connected with the government who has ever believed that the use of pyrotechnics, in this case, had anything to do with the fire.” And what was his proof? The FBI told him so. Regardless of how often the FBI changed its story, its latest version was sacrosanct.
Danforth’s report noted several cases where federal officials either made false statements or wrongfully withheld key evidence on Waco. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch headline perfectly summarized his report: “Officials Had Nothing to Hide—But Hid Some Things Anyway.”
In the report’s preface, Danforth bizarrely absolved lying federal officials: “In today’s world, it is perhaps understandable that government officials are reluctant to make full disclosures of information for fear that the result of candor will be personal or professional ruin. Any misstep yields howls of indignation, calls for resignations, and still more investigations.” Danforth vehemently opposed any prosecution of any federal official who misled investigators on Waco from 1993 onwards.
Even though numerous agency and congressional investigations had found federal misconduct regarding Waco, Danforth lamented “a nearly universal readiness to believe that the government must have done something wrong. Breaking this vicious circle of distrust and recrimination is essential if we are to rebuild the consent of the governed on which our system depends.” Danforth championed a “move along, nothing to see here” version of “consent of the governed” in which citizens are obliged to swallow unlimited federal malarkey.
The lesson of Waco, according to Danforth, was that the burden is on “all of us” to “be more skeptical of those who make sensational accusations of evil acts by government.” Danforth declared that he hoped his report would “begin the process of restoring the faith of the people in their government and the faith of the government in the people.” Danforth believed government officials have been wrongfully victimized by public distrust. That phrase about “restoring … the faith of the government in the people” should have been ridiculed from coast to coast. Instead, it may have helped spurred PBS NewsHour host Jim Lehrer to gush to Danforth: “You did tremendous investigating.” At least Danforth didn’t require the 57% of Americans who believed in an FBI coverup to write personal apology letters to FBI boss Louis Freeh.
Danforth talked as if blind trust in Washington is the key to the “good government.” Citizens provided almost boundless trust after the 9/11 attacks, and the result was a disastrous war in Iraq, a worldwide torture regime, and the National Security Agency ravaging Americans’ privacy. And the FBI agents that Danforth exonerated created an endless series of scandals, entrapments, and debacles, culminating (perhaps) in their effort to take down President Donald Trump. The same nonchalance about law enforcement abuses by politicians of both parties in recent decades led to the George Floyd killing and the violent protests that rocked this nation.
Despite it all, Americans are still supposed to bow to the sacred word “bipartisan”—as if that was “close enough for government work” to politicians actually obeying the Constitution and the law. Former senator Bob Dole recently complained that none of the Republicans on the Commission on Presidential Debates supported Trump. But the hollow absurdities and blatant biases of the debates are irrelevant as long as “Saint Jack” and his cohorts can continue preening. As for the malcontents who recognize the charade: “Move along, nothing to see here.”