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December 14, 1999
Waco: A Bipartisan Mess

By Mollie Dickenson

At the beginning of the film, “Rules of Engagement,” a Davidian child is heard on an FBI tape heart-breakingly asking an FBI agent: "Are you going to come in here and kill me?"

"No,” the agent assures the child. “We're not coming in there."

On April 19, 1993, however, a frustrated FBI did mount an assault on the Branch Davidian compound, known as Mount Carmel, near Waco, Texas.

Specially equipped tanks punched holes in the walls of the buildings and pumped in CS gas. The FBI had expressed confidence that the CS gas would force the Davidians to surrender and end a 51-day siege.

Instead, no Davidians came out and the FBI resumed the assault in the afternoon. The tanks battered more walls and inserted more CS gas. Suddenly, a fire erupted. Whipped by high winds, the flames spread quickly through the compound, destroying the buildings.

By the time the fire burned itself out, some 76 people were dead, including 22 children. Only nine Branch Davidians, who ran out of the burning buildings, survived.

Since that day, the participants in the fateful decisions -- and many Clinton administration critics -- have pointed fingers and cast blame.

In the aftermath, Attorney General Janet Reno took responsibility, but accused the Branch Davidians of setting the fire as a last act of defiance. Reno’s claim was based on bugged conversations of Branch Davidians apparently discussing plans for a fire.

But critics countered that the FBI tanks probably touched off the blaze by knocking over kerosene lanterns. Critics noted, too, that pressurized CS gas can be flammable.

Beyond the factual case, politics also intruded on Waco. Perhaps inevitably, the case was caught up in the hatred many on the Right feel toward President Clinton and the supposed intrusions of big government.

On the second anniversary of the Waco fire, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma City federal building, killing 168 people, including 19 children in a day-care center.

Now, nearly seven years after the Waco confrontation, the issue of blame is back at center stage in Washington. The latest controversy erupted in September when the Justice Department reversed earlier denials and acknowledged that two tear-gas cannisters with pyrotechnical triggers were fired by the FBI on the day of the final assault.

The significance of the admission was that Reno repeatedly had assured Congress that no such devices were used. She was furious to find out otherwise and even dispatched U.S. Marshals to FBI headquarters to seize evidence.

Congressional Republicans fumed, too, about the possibility of an administration coverup. After tempers cooled, however, the Justice Department discovered that the information about the cannisters was in their files all along, although Reno apparently had not seen it. The documents had been sent to Capitol Hill committees, too.

In addition, the potential link between the tear-gas cannisters and the fire seemed tenuous, since the two devices were fired in the early morning at an underground storage bunker 100 feet from the main house where the fire started in the early afternoon.

Still, to quiet the controversy that she had helped revive, Reno appointed former Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., to examine the Waco case and its unanswered questions one more time.

One question before Danforth is whether federal agents fired at the Branch Davidian compound during the final assault. The FBI has denied any shooting, but some overhead video appears to show flashes coming from FBI positions.

Concern has centered on the role of Lon Tomohisa Horiuchi, an FBI sharpshooter who was at Waco in 1993 after firing a shot that killed Randy Weaver’s wife during a similar standoff at Weaver’s house in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, on Aug. 22, 1992.

The FBI agent in charge of Waco, Larry Potts, also was the commander of the Ruby Ridge standoff. Some critics suggest that Potts, who has since retired, and Horiuchi personify an aggressive approach to confrontations.

Another question for Danforth is: what role did the U.S. Army's top-secret Delta Force play? It is illegal for the U.S. military to participate in police activities inside the United States, but a Texas state safety official, James Francis, has claimed that Delta may have joined in the operation. [NYT, Sept. 2, 1999]

But Francis’s involvement as a source of new Waco allegations has raised some eyebrows because he is an appointee of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, whose presidential campaign stands to benefit from negative publicity about the Clinton administration.

Still, the core issue of Waco remains: who was to blame for the deaths of 76 Americans?

Our own examination of the case found reasons to fault nearly everyone involved in the tragedy:

--The Bush administration officials who planned the original raid.

--David Koresh and other Branch Davidian leaders who ambushed federal agents when they arrived with a warrant to search Mount Carmel.

--The FBI officials who then demonized Koresh, hardening positions with emotional charges of child abuse.

--Journalists who covered the siege and uncritically repeated the government’s propaganda.

--Reno, Clinton and other new administration officials who failed to keep adequate control over the FBI.

--Koresh who prolonged the stand-off with his insistence that he be allowed to finish a writing project while leaving children in harm’s way.

--The FBI officials who continued the final assault even after the CS gas showed no sign of dislodging the Branch Davidians.

In short, the Waco tragedy was a bipartisan mess with plenty of blame to go around, a case where incompetence, intransigence and inexperience blended into an explosive and ultimately catastrophic mix.

The roots of the tragedy go back to May 1992, when President Bush’s Treasury Department began plans for a search warrant to look for illegal drugs allegedly stored at Mount Carmel.

The operation moved forward during the tricky period of transition, with the Bush administration leaving and the Clinton administration arriving.

By February 1993, the plan was to execute the warrant as primarily a search for illegal weapons. Davidian supporters acknowledge that members of the sect stored weapons at Mount Carmel but insisted that the guns were part of a legal gun-trading business.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms [ATF] was already under criticism from gun enthusiasts who saw the ATF as a threat. The National Rifle Association was stepping up its rhetoric, calling the ATF "jack booted thugs."

In hindsight, some Clinton administration insiders believe that the ATF was hoping to make a big splash with their Davidian gun search to show just how valuable the agency was.

During the transition, however, there appeared to be no oversight of the operation either by senior Bush officials or Clinton officials. Reno had just been appointed, but not yet confirmed as attorney general.

The ATF’s director, Stephen Higgins, testified that he was never required to get clearance from top Treasury officials. He had only notified John Simpson, a career bureacucrat and acting assistant secretary, on Feb. 26, two days before the planned raid.

Higgins also said the notification was only a courtesy because the raid would take place in Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen's home state of Texas. (Bentsen himself was in London for an economic conference.)

After hearing from Higgins, Simpson phoned Ronald Noble, Clinton's designated assistant Treasury secretary. Simpson and Noble wondered whether the ATF was amassing excessive force for serving a search warrant.

Recontacting the ATF’s Higgins, Simpson said that he and Noble believed the operation should be called off. But Higgins assured Simpson that the ATF would not go forward if there was any suspicion that the Davidians had been forewarned. With that understanding, Simpson acquiesced.

The next day in Texas, however, the ATF's public relations officer alerted the news media that something was going to take place at Mount Carmel the following day, Feb. 28.

Fatefully, a member of the media tipped off, apparently inadvertently, a member of the Davidians that "something big" was about to happen there.

On Feb. 28, heavily armed ATF agents prepared to advance on Mount Carmel to conduct the search. But inside the compound, an ATF undercover agent, Robert Rodriguez, learned that the Davidians had been alerted.

Rodriguez later testified before Congress that he frantically phoned Chuck Sarabyn, the second in command of the operation, and told him that Koresh knew the ATF was coming.

Sarabyn said he passed Rodriguez's news along to his superior Phillip Chojnacki, the agent in charge, but that Chojnacki appeared to ignore the report or to discount it.

Heavily armed, the ATF arrived at Mount Carmel. The Davidians responded with a gun battle. Four agents and six Davidians were killed. The most memorable pictures taken that day were of ATF agents being shot on the roof of the house as they broke a window.

After two hours, a truce was called and the ATF retreated. Besides the dead, 18 agents and Davidians were wounded, including Koresh who knew that he and other Davidians would be charged with murder if they surrendered.

Writing in his 1997 book, Friends in High Places, former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell recalled that Clinton was "furious at the ATF for allowing the media to alert Koresh about the raid and devastated over the loss of lives.”

Clinton asked acting U.S. Attorney General Stuart Gerson, a Bush holdover, and the FBI “to take over surveillance of the compound" the next day, on March 1, Hubbell wrote. Clinton “wanted to be advised if there was any change in status other than negotiation by the FBI."

Over the next 50 days, the FBI failed to lure Koresh out. Some sect members did surrender, but more than 80, including children, remained inside.

Federal authorities also stepped up the rhetorical war against Koresh, depicting him as a dangerous cult leader. The news media likened Koresh to Jim Jones, the messianic leader of the Jonestown cult that ended in a mass suicide of some 900 people.

According to one Davidian survivor, David Thibodeau, the inhabitants of Mount Carmel were most disturbed by allegations that “we were engaging in child abuse. ... Yes, occasionally kids were paddled for misbehaving, but the strict rule was they could never be paddled in anger.” [Salon, Sept. 9, 1999]

But Koresh apparently did engage in sexual relations with Mount Carmel’s females, including girls as young as 14. “All I knew for sure was that David was the only male who was allowed a sex life and that he had a number of ‘wives,’ some of whom were legally married to other men,” wrote Thibodeau in his book, A Place Called Waco.

“At times I suspected David might just have conned everyone into allowing him an exclusive harem, so to speak.”

As the siege wore on, the FBI stepped up the pressure, cutting off electricity and blaring disturbing sound effects, such as the bleating of butchered lambs.

According to Thibodeau, Koresh offered to surrender but only after he completed his “Seven Seals” manuscript. He would then accept arrest by the Texas Rangers.

The FBI concluded that Koresh was stalling. Thibodeau wrote that Koresh had finished two of the seven commentaries and was working on the third.

By early April, the frazzled FBI wanted to bring the siege to an end. FBI director William Sessions and two top agents proposed that they break the impasse by shooting CS gas -- a highly potent form of tear gas -- into the compound to force the Davidians out.

Besides the FBI team’s exhaustion, Sessions worried about intervention by extremist groups. "CS gas was just a strong irritant," Sessions told Hubbell and Reno. Still, they resisted.

“My God, I thought,” wrote Hubbell, “what had happened to cause such an abrupt shift in strategy?”

On Friday, April 16, according to Hubbell, the FBI pressured Reno and him again. The FBI wanted to know by the next day "about the gas ... so they could begin deployment for a Monday go. Monday would be April 19."

The FBI negotiator also told Reno and Hubbell that Koresh considered the women and pubescent girls his wives and would never let them leave. In raising alleged child abuse, the FBI touched a raw nerve with Reno who had made child protection a major issue during her years as a Florida prosecutor.

Hubbell wanted an opinion from the military about CS gas. An Army general told Reno and Hubbell that "exposure to the gas is so irritating that you just have to get away from it. Even with a mask on, it'll drive you crazy."

Reno wanted to know about its long-term effects and possible harm to children. She also was nervous about possible explosions, wrote Hubbell, who added: "My judgment told me we didn't want to gas those people. I felt it would touch off a disaster."

On Saturday morning, April 17, Reno and Hubbell were still in agreement. "Neither of us wanted to go with the FBI proposal,” Hubbell wrote. “So it was settled, it seemed. We would continue negotiations."

But later that morning, Sessions made "a passionate plea" to Reno. "Good men have died trying to arrest David Koresh. We have to go in," Sessions argued.

After going over the plan again, there was "the inevitable moment of pregnant silence," wrote Hubbell. "Go or no-go. It was her call."
"Okay," she said. "Let's go ahead."

Hubbell was surprised at the turnaround, "but I understood."

Clinton was informed and called Reno. It was clear from listening to her side of the conversation, wrote Hubbell, "that Clinton knew how tough a decision she had to make here, and he trusted her judgment."

The next morning, the tanks "inserted" the gas, but strong winds appeared to blow it right back out and no one left the compound.

In an effort to appear unfazed, Reno decided to keep a speaking date in Baltimore, and Hubbell walked back and forth between Justice and the FBI building, monitoring the situation.

When the Davidians didn't come out, he recalled the general's prediction: "They will come flying out of the building. No one can withstand CS gas.'"

More gas was inserted. The Davidians hung a sheet out a window lettered, “RECONNECT THE PHONE.” Evidently, the tanks had severed the telephone line between Koresh and the FBI.

Believing the FBI was going to pull back, possibly negotiate and and let the gas work, Hubbell returned to his office. On television, to his surprise, he saw the tanks were going in again.

By the time Hubbell got back across the street to the FBI situation room, the tanks were pushing down the walls of the compound -- to open an escape route, Sessions told Hubbell.

But the Davidians weren't coming out, and suddenly there were flames, then more flames. Then the entire building was on fire. Only nine Davidians ultimately escaped.

Many of the facts, however, remain in dispute. The disturbing film, "Rules of Engagement," claims filmed evidence shows gun fire directed from several FBI positions into the house. The FBI insists that "not a single shot was fired."

The film's narrator reports that one tank rolled completely through the house and inserted gas into an airless vault where women and children had retreated with only wet towels and blankets for protection from the gas.

Thibodeaux said the tanks destroyed a staircase he tried to use to exit. He said he miraculously escaped by running through a wall of flames. Seventy-six others were not as lucky.

As Danforth decides who to fault for the catastrophe, he will have plenty of choices.

The initial plan for a grandiose raid on a remote religious compound was an invitation for trouble. Once the plan was compromised, the decision to press ahead appears to have been reckless.

Nevertheless, the evidence that Koresh knew about the raid in advance negates an argument that the Branch Davidians fired out of panic. It appears that Koresh ambushed law-enforcement officers in cold blood. Whatever Koresh thought about the warrant, killing federal agents cannot be excused.

Once the siege began, the Branch Davidian adults should have made sure that all the children -- not just some -- exited the compound. Koresh’s explanation that he wanted to finish his manuscript before surrendering did not justify putting children in danger.

The FBI’s campaign to demonize the Branch Davidians also appears to have been counter-productive, hardening positions of both sides. The news media’s parroting of the propaganda only heightened paranoia within the compound and increased public pressure for government action.

As President Kennedy learned at the Bay of Pigs, the Clinton administration discovered that assurances from experts can often go terribly awry. Clinton and Reno simply did not keep adequate oversight of the FBI operation.

But it remains doubtful that Danforth’s conclusions will end the angry recriminations about the Waco tragedy, a controversy that is likely to simmer for many years.

Mollie Dickenson is author of Thumbs Up, a biography of Jim Brady.

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