Burned by Waco

Burned by Waco

On July 26 I sat for almost fourteen hours in a hearing room waiting to testify before Congress on the tragedy at Waco, and watched a dismal performance.


On July 26 I sat for almost fourteen hours in a hearing room waiting to testify before Congress on the tragedy at Waco, and watched a dismal performance. The full story of Waco is complicated, and its details have never fully been grasped by most Americans. Yet none of the Representatives seemed committed to a searching inquiry into what went wrong, and the committee’s working rules seemed designed to achieve gridlock. Each of the thirty members was allocated five minutes on every round of questioning, but rather than use their time to ask probing questions or confront evasive answers, most of them postured for the TV cameras and read statements prepared by their staffs. As the day progressed, I had the sinking feeling that Waco would end the way it had begun: with government officials grandstanding before the American people but demonstrating only their ineptitude.

As a member of the Justice Department’s 1993 panel appointed to make recommendations in the aftermath of Waco, I had become convinced that the Branch Davidian disaster was caused largely by law-enforcement bungling. The military-style raid by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which set off the disaster, has never been justified. Sexual abuse of children is a crime that does not come under the jurisdiction of the A.T.F.; that issue had already been investigated by the proper Texas authorities. Even if the A.T.F. had probable cause to serve search warrants for illegal firearms, there was never any reason to do so in the form of an assault on a compound filled with women and children, risking an all-out firefight.

Of course the Branch Davidians had no legal or moral justification for shooting federal agents. But the agents knew that the Branch Davidians believed that Justice Day was at hand and that, as the Bible prophesied, the true believers were to die in battle with the evils forces of government. In fact, David Koresh had taught them that they must die in battle so they could be resurrected in glory.

During the day I sat in the hearing room, an A.T.F. agent wept as he gave his version of the first day’s events: that the agents were victims of a firefight in which the other side had bigger guns and shot first. He praised the gallantry of his fellow agents and said nothing about the recklessness and over-reaching of the law-enforcement operation. None of the Representatives challenged his version of what happened.

The F.B.I. agents who took over at Waco and who planned the final tank and C.S. gas (as tear gas is known) attack on the Branch Davidian compound also testified that day. Like the A.T.F. agent, they came with lawyers and handlers. But they had no need to consult them; they were easily able to evade the occasional sticky question. I had spoken with these agents when I was preparing my report in 1993, and now I watched as they closed ranks and put the best face on everything. None of the Representatives noticed when the serious disagreements between tactical forces and negotiators, previously acknowledged, were papered over. The crucial question of whether the F.B.I.’s aggressive siege tactics had pushed the Branch Davidians to mass suicide was never really addressed.

My own panel finally testified late in the day and long into the evening. It included experts addressing Janet Reno’s to use C.S. gas for forty-eight hours despite the presence of babies, who cannot be protected by gas masks. The Attorney General maintained that she had been assured that C.S. gas would not cause permanent harm to babies, but the available medical literature contained convincing evidence of life-threatening risk. The experts on both sides made statements that could and should have been challenged, but the committee never got to the bottom of this or any other difficult question.

I was not present when Attorney General Reno testified, taking full responsibility for the tragedy. Unfortunately, the vexing questions about Waco have little to do with such political accountability. We still need to know what went wrong so that we can make sure it will not happen again. For example, does law enforcement need special rules of engagement for dealing with unconventional groups like the Branch Davidians? Does it make sense to treat religious zealots like regular criminals? Will law enforcement continue to use C.S. gas in enclosed spaces where children are present? The hearing process, instead of being a careful inquiry into such questions, was political theater of the absurd. If right-wing extremists find it difficult to believe that Waco was the result of ineptitude, incompetence and grandstanding by government officials, they need only study the tapes of the Waco hearings.

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