"Waco: More than Simple Blunders?"
- by Joe Rosenbloom III
- Wall Street Journal October 17, 1995
The sabotage of an Amtrak train in Arizona last week and the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in April have a common element: a Waco connection. "Remember Waco" is the subtext to these flagrant crimes, either as true terrorist motive or red herring.
Mistakes that the government made at Waco are likely to be long remembered. On Feb. 28, 1993, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms proceeded with their raid of the Branch Davidians' compound despite learning that David Koresh and his followers had been tipped off. Four ATF agents and five members of the religious sect died in a fierce gun battle. Fifty-one days later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation inserted tear gas into the compound despite a wind advisory issued by the National Weather Service for that day. When the forecast went unheeded, winds gusting to 31 miles an hour swept the tear gas out of the compound almost as fast as the FBI could inject it. The Branch Davidians dug in for six hours before lighting their compound on fire, killing 75 of the 84 people inside, including 25 children.
These serious and deplorable blunders by the ATF and the FBI smack of sloppiness and poor judgment. But a close reading of the Waco record raises deeply troubling questions about whether government officials' failure resulted merely from operational snafus or something more sinister. Two rounds of House committee hearings did not resolve this issue. Hearings scheduled by the Senate Judiciary Committee for Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 now offer the last best chance to unravel the nature of the government's conduct at Waco.
One key question is whether the architects of the ATF's Feb. 28 raid, the largest such operation in the agency's history, might have closed off their minds to less grandiose means of serving arrest and search warrants at Waco. Further legwork would have pointed to ample opportunities for nabbing Koresh outside the compound without mobilizing a small federal army to accomplish the task.
The Waco record does reveal that ATF had a keen interest in how its raid would play on the evening news. An ATF public affairs official followed orders in alerting Dallas TV stations the day before that something big was up. But documents that might elucidate how PR considerations figured into the ATF's decision-making are being withheld from the public. The Treasury Department, which oversees ATF, has ruled that pre-raid memos discussing media coverage are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
A second question is why the authorities failed to anticipate that the Branch Davidians might respond to the tear-gas assault by setting their compound on fire. Nowhere in the 568-page assault plan that the FBI prepared for Attorney General Janet Reno, which encompassed contingency plans for everything from medical evacuation to tear-gas decontamination, is there a reference to a fire plan. No wonder she never factored the risk of fire into her deliberations.
Yet the Branch Davidians' ramshackle compound depended, once the FBI cut-off its electricity, on candles and fuel-oil lanterns for light. Bales of hay lining the corridors as a defensive bulwark only aggravated the fire risk. The FBI knew this.
Moreover, in talking with FBI negotiators, Koresh and other members of his apocalyptic sect alluded time and again to fiery biblical denouements. "Flames Await" read a sign one FBI sniper spotted in a window of the compound the day before the tear-gas assault.
The record suggests that fervor within the FBI on behalf of its tear gas plan-a means to end the crisis and safely return the 250 agents who had been living on pizza for more than seven weeks to their homes-had reached such a point by the end of March 1993 as to blind the agency to the possibility of self-immolation by the Branch Davidians. Or there could be a darker explanation: that the FBI withheld the fire scenario from Ms. Reno so that she wouldn't squelch their plan.
The third unresolved question is the most corrosive: Why did Ms. Reno go from urging that the FBI hold off on its tear-gas plan-"Why now, why not wait?" she said on April 12- to endorsing it on April 16?
Ms. Reno divulged one rationale, referring in congressional testimony this summer to an escalating threat in April 1993 from armed groups converging on the Branch Davidians compound from around the country. But she could cite only one example, the so-called Unorganized Militia of the United States, which she said was enroute to Waco during the standoff "either to help Koresh or to attack him."
This story hardly squares with the interagency cable dispatched from the FBI's Indianapolis office in early April 1993, identifying the Unorganized Militia of the United States as just that--unorganized. It consisted of an Indianapolis attorney, according to the cable, who was planning to "drive a van with other people to Waco, Texas, and stage a protest in support of the constitutional right of assembly and to have weapons." The group would "have an assortment of shoulder weapons," the cable continued, but they "would be unloaded and used only as a form of protest." The cable is among the documents in a Waco briefing book that the FBI delivered to Ms. Reno on April 17, 1993, two days before the tear-gas assault.
The militia threat has supplanted Ms. Reno's earlier stated imperative for urgent action at Waco. She told TV reporters shortly after the fiery conclusion to the siege that she had authorized the FBI assault because "we had reports that [children] had been sexually abused, that babies had actually been beaten." The FBI quickly corrected her, saying that it never had evidence of child abuse during the 51-day standoff- a point she eventually conceded.
Yet during the critical five days in April 1993 before Ms. Reno flipped on the tear-gas plan, the FBI apparently represented to her that it did have such evidence. In her debriefing four months later, she emphatically recalled that "somebody told her that babies were being beaten, because she replied, 'You mean actually beaten?'"
Child abuse is a hot-button issue for Ms. Reno. As a prosecutor in Dade County, Fla., she made a reputation as a children's advocate. Did Ms. Reno misconstrue what the FBI told her? Or did the FBI, knowing the attorney general's pressure points, snooker her into believing that child abuse in the compound was going on when there was none?
When it convenes its Waco hearings, the Senate Judiciary Committee could best honor the memory of the victims in the Oklahoma City bombing and the Amtrak derailment by pursuing answers that will help all Americans determine to what extent their government acted malevolently at Waco or merely blundered.
Joe Rosenbloom is a FRONTLINE investigative reporter for "WACO-THE INSIDE STORY."