Attorney General Janet Reno's choice of former U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth, a Missouri Republican, to head an independent probe of the FBI assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, is a good one.
Regardless of whether the bureau used incendiary devices to end the 1993 standoff, or fired them anytime during the final day of the siege, Waco and the fiery end of cult-leader David Koresh and about 80 followers, children included, is a shameful chapter in America's law-enforcement history. The episode has become a battle cry for anti-government critics, gun-rights crusaders and assorted extremists, including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
A Justice Department inquiry earlier concluded there was overwhelming evidence that Koresh and his people were responsible for the fire that consumed their ramshackle home. But the FBI last month acknowledged -- after six years of denials -- that agents fired "a very limited number" of potentially incendiary tear gas cartridges on the last morning of the 51-day siege.
Two videotapes also have turned up with recorded radio chatter among agents. The transmissions confirm the use of potentially flammable tear gas canisters early in the morning of the Davidians' last day. The flammable canisters supposedly were used to attempt to penetrate a bunker some distance from the main building.
Those developments, Danforth said, raise "dark questions." He's right. Was there a coverup? Did the government kill people? How did the fire start? If the FBI lied, or neglected to come clean on one detail, why should we believe the rest of its story?
Ms. Reno said Danforth, who will function as a "special counsel" in the Justice Department, also will look into any illegal use of the armed forces in the final assault on the Branch Davidians.
If anyone can conduct a thorough, honest investigation and produce credible results, Danforth seems to be the man.
He is a well-respected Republican probing a Democratic mess. He has a "Mr. Clean" reputation, is known to be fiercely independent and has a long-standing commitment to public service. He also has law-enforcement experience, having served as attorney general of Missouri for eight years before going to the Senate for three terms. On top of all that, Danforth is an Episcopal priest whose public service has been marked by his high moral code.
If you can't trust a guy like that, who can you trust?