Silent Treatment At Waco
Steve Hassan wants you to know that he could have stopped David Koresh from fulfilling his apocalyptic vision on that terrible morning two years ago, when 85 people died in the flames at Waco. With a missionary zeal that must have been invaluable during his days as a fund-raiser and recruiter for the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, Hassan bombards you with videotapes of talks he gave on Waco before and after the tragedy. With letters he sent to Bill Clinton and Janet Reno during the 51-day standoff. With messages to the FBI from US Representative Joe Kennedy, touting Hassan's credentials and urging that he be consulted. Hassan wants you to understand. He wants you to believe. He describes himself as "America's leading exit-counselor" on the cover of his 1988 book, Combatting Cult Mind Control (Park Street Press). For nearly 20 years, he's been working with people who want to leave cults, or who've already left and are struggling to regain control of their lives. Hassan, who lives in Somerville, says that some 400 people have paid to go through his three-day, one-on-one exit-counseling program, in which members of cults such as the Moon organization and the Church of Scientology learn how they were taken in by mind-control techniques and lied to about their leaders. He estimates that he's informally counseled thousands more. A recognized expert who occupies a spot in reporters' Rolodexes around the world, he pops up often on television as a commentator, from Channel 2's local talking-heads show, The Group, to Japan, where "Hassan-san" is a frequently consulted authority. For instance: In November 1993, NBC's Today show ran a piece on a young woman who'd dropped out of college after her freshman year to join the Moonies. The highlight: an in-studio debate in which Hassan went toe-to-toe with a top official of the Unification Church. Challenged Hassan: "I personally hope you'll intervene and see to it that she's sent home with her family." On October 5, 1994, Hassan was a guest on ABC's Nightline following the mass suicide in Switzerland and Quebec of followers of Luc Jouret, the leader of the Order of the Solar Temple. It was election time, and Hassan threw host Ted Koppel a curve ball: he compared Jouret to John-Roger, the leader of a cult whose ministers include Ariann Huffington, wife of California Republican Senate candidate Michael Huffington. When Koppel questioned him, Hassan accused the John-Roger group of "deception in recruitment and mind-control techniques to keep [followers] dependent and obedient." Hassan helped legitimize the cult issue, contributing to Huffington's narrow defeat at the hands of incumbent Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. * On April 16 of this year, Hassan appeared on CBS's 60 Minutes to explain Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult thought to be responsible for the Tokyo nerve-gas attack. Hassan said Japanese authorities were making the same mistakes in handling the cult and its members as the FBI did at Waco, "treating them like criminals or treating them like hostages instead of like members of a mind-control cult." Which brings us to the matter at hand. To Hassan, Koresh's Branch Davidians were victims of a destructive cult similar to the Moonies. What other than mind control, he asks, could explain Koresh's success at persuading men to turn over their wives, and mothers to turn over their underage daughters, to feed his voracious sexual appetite? Hassan believes that the FBI, by sending in tanks and assaulting the compound with bright spotlights and high-decibel tapes of the screams of rabbits being slaughtered, only succeeded in making the Davidians more dependent on Koresh. It seemed to Koresh's followers that his prophesies of doom were coming true. Hassan says the mass suicide that took place on April 19, 1993, when the FBI gassed the Texas compound and the Davidians burned themselves to death, was inevitable. "The whole mentality of the FBI was wrong," Hassan says. "They misassessed who they were dealing with." As much as Hassan thinks the government missed an opportunity at Waco, he fears it may miss an even greater opportunity now. On July 19, the US House of Representatives is to begin hearings on what led to the Waco fire and how such a catastrophe could be avoided in the future. Hassan has not been asked to testify, nor does he expect to. His worry is that his perspective will be ignored. In the 27 months since Koresh and his followers burned to death, Waco has become an obsession with right-wing militia groups, which believe the FBI itself deliberately started the fire. Such groups, distrustful of Washington, see Waco and an earlier raid on white supremacist Randy Weaver's home in Idaho as evidence that they have been targeted for elimination -- and that they should fight back. Government investigators strongly suspect that revenge for Waco was at least part of the motive in the Oklahoma City bombing, which took the lives of 167 people. That attack occurred two years to the day after the blaze at Koresh's Ranch Apocalypse. Hassan offers a message of conciliation. He sees the Waco Davidians not as patriotic Americans freely practicing their religion, as Koresh's defenders do, nor as murderous criminals, as the government contends. Instead, he says, they were ordinary people rendered unable to make rational decisions because of Koresh's control over their behavior, thoughts, emotions, and access to information. If the militias could understand that, he says, perhaps they could accept the FBI's response as an appalling mistake, not as part of a conspiracy to wipe out unconventional groups. "The government should admit its errors and demonstrate that in the next situation it will act differently," he says. Hassan, 41, lives in an apartment that's packed with the weapons he employs in his anti-cult crusade: books on cults, video equipment, and his computer. He checks his phone messages. A member of the Cult Awareness Network, a leading anti-cult group that Hassan belongs to, says someone needs his help. A radio station in Seattle wants to know if he can do an interview. Hassan kicks off his cowboy boots and settles back. With his dark, slightly goofy good looks, his deep voice with the heavy accent of his native New York, and his ability to focus on you like you're the most important person in the world, he's easy to picture as a rising star in the Moon organization, which he left in 1976 after 27 months. Hassan's got charisma, no doubt about it. Says Marcia Rudin, director of the American Family Foundation's International Cult Education Program: "I respect Steve very much, and he's a very gutsy guy. His book has been incredibly influential."Hassan's views on Waco are not entirely original. It's widely conceded that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) botched its raid on Ranch Apocalypse on February 28, 1993, and that the FBI made matters worse with its aggressive tactics in the subsequent seven-week siege leading up to the mass suicide. In a report commissioned by the US Department of Justice, Harvard Law School professor Alan Stone concluded that the FBI received excellent advice during the siege but chose to ignore it. Stone, who's also a psychiatrist, wrote: "What went wrong at Waco was not that the FBI lacked in expertise in behavioral science or in the understanding of unconventional religious groups. Rather the commander on the ground and others committed to tactical-aggressive, traditional law enforcement practices disregarded those experts and tried to assert control and demonstrate to Koresh that they were in charge." Hassan thinks highly of Stone's report, but he's convinced that only he can explain to the nation how the government's inability to understand mind-control cults led to the debacle. Indeed, there's a righteous streak to Hassan, a righteousness that no doubt has grown in two decades of helping people leave cults, of media acclaim, of attacks and occasional death threats. "If Janet Reno was sincere when she appeared in the media and said, 'Yeah, we want to investigate this and contact cult experts so this tragedy can never happen again,' I'd like an explanation for why I haven't been contacted," he says. "I've been on most of the major television shows. I have a best-selling book that was reviewed by the American Journal of Psychiatry and the Lancet. I'm a very well-known person."Capitol punishment The congressional hearings will be run by a pair of conservative Republicans: Representative Bill Zeliff, of New Hampshire, chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Subcommittee on National Security, International Affairs, and Criminal Justice, and Representative Bill McCollum, of Florida, chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime. The hearings are supposed to last for eight days and wrap up before the August recess. "We're going to get to the bottom of it, and we're going to try to solicit all types of views," says Zeliff. Although he says the main purpose is to grill the government officials who were in charge at the time, he adds he would be interested in hearing from others as well. Zeliff says he would be willing to look at Hassan's argument that the government did not understand how to deal with a mind-control cult, or at any other evidence that would help explain what went wrong. "In the end," he says, "we want to be able to close the book." McCollum could not be reached for comment. Hassan, like most observers, believes the government blew it right from the beginning, when the BATF chose to raid Ranch Apocalypse even after it knew that Koresh had been tipped off. The result: an exchange of gunfire in which four BATF agents and six Davidians were killed. Although Hassan thinks government authorities had a right to investigate reports that Koresh was amassing a huge, illegal stockpile of weapons, and that child abuse was taking place, he agrees with critics who say Koresh could have been taken into custody during one of his frequent jaunts into downtown Waco. Once the siege was under way, Hassan says, the FBI, which took over from the BATF, made a crucial error: its leaders decided to handle the situation as a hostage crisis and to treat Koresh as a hostage-taker. The government plunged the compound into isolation, cutting off electricity and most communication, and threatened Koresh by dispatching tanks to crush cars and other objects on the property. Such actions, Hassan says, served only to strengthen the members' loyalty to Koresh, and to convince Koresh that the end was at hand. The FBI should have sought to break the isolation, not reinforce it, Hassan says. Relatives should have been allowed to visit. Ex-Davidians should have been brought in to tell members that there was life beyond Ranch Apocalypse. One of the FBI's few attempts to deal with Koresh as someone other than a criminal suspect was to bring in a biblical expert to debate religion with him, which Hassan says was a big mistake: Koresh believed only he could interpret the Bible. Hassan says authorities instead should have tried to appeal to Koresh's pre-cult identity, Vernon Howell. (He changed his name in 1990.) Koresh was obsessed with rock music and Madonna, Hassan points out; perhaps if Madonna or an impersonator had been dispatched to ask Koresh to write songs for her and play guitar in her band, Koresh would have come out and surrendered. As for the final act, Hassan remains incredulous that the FBI could hurl sometimes-lethal CS gas into a building whose occupants included some 20 infants and young children. And though he thinks it's possible the feds accidentally started the fire, he believes Koresh intended to go down in flames in any case: drawings by Davidian children who were released before the fire, he notes, were mainly of the compound being consumed in an inferno. The crux of Hassan's case is that the errors he accuses the government of making could have been avoided had officials consulted a cult expert. Yet such an expert was present in Waco: Rick Ross, a Phoenix, Arizona-based exit counselor who says his recommendations were strikingly similar to Hassan's, but who adds he was ignored. Ross says he was consulted even before the BATF raid, telling officials what he knew about the Davidians and arranging for a meeting with an ex-member. He adds he opposed the raid, which he did not know about in advance, and argued against the FBI's aggressive stance in the subsequent siege. Hassan, though, says he called Ross during the standoff to complain about what the FBI was doing. Ross's response, according to Hassan: "They know what they're doing. You shouldn't criticize them. So shut up." Ross denies telling Hassan anything like that. Yet the Waco Tribune-Herald of March 16, 1993, includes a quote that would make it appear that Ross supported the government's approach. Among other things, Ross described Koresh as "bending under the pressure" and "starving for attention" thanks to the FBI's tactics. Does it matter whose version is more accurate? In a word, yes. For if Ross, a cult expert with specific knowledge of the Koresh group, was telling authorities that they were doing the right thing, or was at least not raising any strong objections, then it calls into question Alan Stone's finding that the FBI was ignoring its behavioral experts. The Reverend Buddy Martin, minister of the University Church of Christ, in San Marcos, Texas, and an occasional associate of Hassan's, spoke with Ross during the standoff and recalls that Ross seemed to be trying to keep Hassan out of the picture. Asked whether Ross should be called by the Zeliff-McCollum committee, Martin replied simply: "I think he needs to testify, because he was on the scene."Persecution complex A month after the Waco conflagration, Leon Wieseltier wrote in the New Republic: "It is said that the Davidians were incapable of helping themselves, that they had surrendered their wills and allowed their minds to be controlled by their leader. I do not doubt that the Davidians were terrifically under Koresh's influence. But one man's control is another man's obedience; and there are many kind of control and many kinds of obedience." Wieseltier's view is not an uncommon one. Liberals and libertarians value religious freedom, and in some circles Hassan's contention that Koresh's followers were not acting of their own free will is unpopular, even mocked. Gene Guerrero, an official in the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office, says of the victims: "Clearly the fact that they had different religious beliefs worked to the disadvantage of the Davidians, there's no question about that." Guerrero cites the Reverend Dean Kelley, a retired counselor on religious liberty for the National Council on Churches, as the sort of cult expert from whom the Zeliff-McCollum committee ought to hear. Kelley recently wrote an article in the neoconservative journal First Things in which he characterized the Davidians as victims of bigotry. In an interview with the Boston Phoenix, Kelley denied there is any such thing as mind control. "Use a little common sense," he says. "If anyone had discovered the secret of mind control, they wouldn't have to content themselves with a rickety little religious group. They could run the world." Asked about the work of Hassan, Ross, and other cult experts, Kelley replied: "Many of them have a strong financial interest in hyping so-called cults without being able to define them. It's generally a religious group that they don't like." Both Hassan and Ross say Kelley is a notorious apologist for cults. Indeed, Kelley is listed as a resource in a recent "special report" in Freedom, a publication of the Church of Scientology. Says Kelley: "I have no connection with the Church of Scientology." (The Freedom cover features a strapping young man being smothered by a gigantic green snake. The headline reads cult awareness network: the serpent of hatred, intolerance, violence and death. Inside, Hassan and Ross are accused of engaging in kidnapping and violence in their exit-programming work. Both say the charges are fabricated.) Steve Hassan is frustrated by the free-will argument offered by the likes of Wieseltier, Guerrero, and Kelley, saying it shows a lack of understanding of how cults are able to break down that free will. "The ACLU," he says, "has got their head up their rear end on the issue of mind control." Indeed, Hassan believes cults are a worldwide problem. He estimates that five million to 10 million Americans have been involved in cults. His definition of a cult is expansive, to say the least. The Moonies, the Scientologists, and est would probably be on most people's lists. But Hassan thinks the biggest cult in the US is the Jehovah's Witnesses, usually thought of as a legitimate, if peculiar, religion. "I didn't think of them as a destructive cult when I first wrote my book," he says, "but after it came out, former members contacted me and said you've described it to a 't'." But Hassan doesn't stop there. He says the former Soviet Union was essentially a cult, controlling people's behavior, thoughts, emotions, and access to information, and instilling a deep fear of what would happen to them if they were to lose the paternalistic protection of communism. One of his strangest experiences, he says, was lecturing in Moscow to the Komsomol, the communist youth organization, about mind control during the dying days of communism, knowing full well that he was describing the very techniques used on Komsomol members. Today, he adds, Russians "are functioning as former cult members. They don't know what to believe. They're not used to making their own decisions." Islamic terrorists, possibly the most serious external threat facing post-Cold War Western society, are victims of mind control, he says, citing the indoctrination they undergo at special schools. The right-wing militias that are so obsessed with Waco appear to be cults, in his estimation. He points to the troubled life of a typical unemployed Vietnam veteran: "Somebody comes along and says, 'There's a conspiracy to defraud America. There's a UN conspiracy. Come to our lecture.' And there are other Vietnam vets there and such. There's an influence process that's going on." Timothy McVeigh, the lead suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing, who has been described as robot-like around the time of the attack, was subjected to mind-control techniques when he was in the military, Hassan says. "From a psychological point of view, you're changing someone's sense of identity," he says. "Repetitive drills create altered states of consciousness. You make them a soldier, and they're going to follow orders involving killing strangers who didn't mean to do any harm to them necessarily." Then again, he adds, all of us are victimized every time we turn on the television.It's a fascinating, alternative way of looking at how the world works -- even if, after a while, Hassan's rap starts to remind you of the adage that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Certainly Hassan makes an overwhelming case for his argument that Koresh used mind control to keep his followers in line. The hours of biblical preaching that had a hypnotic effect, breaking down their normal psychological barriers. The sleep deprivation that took away their ability to analyze. The "phobia indoctrination" used to induce deathly fear at the mere thought of leaving. If government officials had understood any of those concepts, Hassan says, they would have approached the Davidians as confused people whose better natures -- whose former identities -- could be appealed to through reason, not as criminals who needed to be driven out. "People in cults are not bad people," Hassan says. "They're not stupid. They're bright, talented, creative, idealistic. Yes, they may have been at a vulnerable point in their lives. Yes, they may have been ignorant about cults and mind control. But none of them, including David Koresh, did anything that justified their deaths."Sidebar: Cults 101 Steven Hassan was lured into the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church when he was a 19-year-old student at Queens College, in New York City. As he describes it in his book, Combatting Cult Mind Control , he'd just broken up with his girlfriend. He was depressed, confused, and looking for answers. Hassan says he fell into a trap the Moonies set for him the same way most of their victims do: he was befriended by a group of young people who urged him to come with them for a weekend of lectures, and who never mentioned their ties to the Unification Church. After two weekends of being subjected to mind-control techniques such as sleep deprivation and hours-long hectoring intended to induce a trance like state, Hassan was hooked. He dropped out of college and became a full-time fund-raiser and organizer, meeting personally with Moon at a number of leadership sessions. More than two years later, Hassan was seriously injured in a car accident; he was sent home to recover, removing him from the Moonies' clutches for the first time since he'd joined. His parents confronted him with ex-Moonies in a "deprogramming" session that began with his being held involuntarily, but in which he later agreed to participate to prove he hadn't been brainwashed. The key moment for Hassan, he recalls, was when he blurted out to his deprogrammers, "I don't care if Moon is like Hitler. I've chosen to follow him, and I'll follow him to the end." Before becoming a Moonie, Hassan had been a practicing Jew who'd studied the Holocaust extensively. So his impulsive remark about Hitler led him to realize the error of his ways. After leaving the Moonies, Hassan returned to school, earning a bachelor's degree at Yale and a master's in education at Boston University. He's a licensed mental-health counselor. He travels extensively throughout the U.S., Japan, Europe, and Australia to speak out against cults. During his rare moments of relaxation he plays basketball, writes poetry, and goes to concerts. His personal life has been touched by tragedy: in 1991 his ex-wife drowned while attempting to rescue her dog. Hassan says that just the day before they had talked about attempting a reconciliation. Early in his career of helping people leave cults, Hassan participated in several involuntary "deprogramming" sessions, although he denies claims by the Scientologists that he ever kidnapped anyone or used physical force. Nevertheless, because of legal-liability issues and his own moral qualms about holding someone against his or her will, he stopped participating in involuntary sessions in 1977. Hassan claims he's helped thousands of people leave cults such as Scientology, the Moon organization, and a host of smaller groups such as the Boston Church of Christ, through procedures ranging from a three-day program to a conversation on the phone. His book has sold about 40,000 copies in the U.S. and 130,000 in Japan, which has wrestled with cult problems for years. Hassan defines a destructive cult as "a pyramid-structured, authoritarian organization that has someone at the top or some group at the top that has dictatorial power, and that claims to have spiritual powers that nobody else has. A destructive cult uses deception in recruitment and systematic manipulation to keep members involved. And they use mind-control techniques to keep people dependent and obedient to the group."Hassan has identified four principal techniques: *Behavior control. The group controls its members' sleeping and eating patterns and who they may associate with. *Information control. Members are subjected to deception and the withholding of important information, and are forbidden to talk to ex-members. *Thought control. The cult claims to know the absolute truth, and often inculcates its members with what Hassan calls "thought stopping": members are instructed to chant, meditate, or pray to drive out negative thoughts about the organization. *Emotional control. The main example of this is "phobia indoctrination," by which members are instilled with an irrational fear of what will happen to them if they leave the group. "The good thing," Hassan says, "is that phobias are one of the easiest mental-health problems to deal with. They're fast to learn, but they're fast to cure." Hassan keeps an extensive database on destructive cults, and recently moved much of it onto the Internet's World-Wide Web. It can be found at http://virtumall.com/mindcontrol/.