Up in Flames at the Waco Hearings

The congressional hearings also play to the anarchist right--an emerging strain in the Republican ranks--which looks set to have a key role in the 1996 presidential race. Many of those who are drawn into the anarchist right are not only staunch gun lovers but also formed part of the key swing vote that sided with Ross Perot during the last election. This time, these voters are being wooed into the Republican fold. Whatever the political hay to be made out of Waco, the Treasury Department's own report demonstrates that the ATF's handling of the raid was a mind-boggling piece of incompetence. In late May 1992 Chief Deputy Sheriff Daniel Weyenberg of the McLennan County, Texas, Sheriff's Department informed the ATF in Austin that certain people at the Branch Davidian compound, known locally as Mount Carmel, had been receiving suspicious UPS deliveries. These deliveries, according to Weyenberg, included shipments of firearms worth more than $10,000, grenade casings, and a substantial quantity of black powder that could be used to make explosives. The sheriff's department had previously called the FBI with its concerns, but at the time, the feds were not actively pursuing an investigation. After seeking the advice of the U.S. Attorney's office, the ATF started making its own inquiries. Agent Davy Aguilera of the Austin office checked UPS delivery records and started interviewing various arms dealers. The sheriff's office passed along more information, including one story from a confidential informant who claimed to have heard a firearms dealer bragging about selling large numbers of AK-47s to Branch Davidian leader David Koresh. This was of special interest to the ATF as AK-47s are easily converted into machine guns. In addition, the sheriff's office reported hearing automatic weapons fire coming from the compound at night. The ATF agent subsequently traced the sale of various conversion kits to Koresh, enabling him to turn semiautomatic weapons into automatics. On the basis of this information the ATF initiated its case. Soon there were more reports of activity within the compound. A neighbor who had served in an army artillery unit said he had heard "spurts'' of gunfire coming from Mount Carmel, including .50-caliber and automatic weapons fire. Additionally, a deputy sheriff reported hearing a large explosion coming from the compound accompanied by a cloud of gray smoke. At this point Aguilera became concerned with another issue. In interviewing former cult members, he began to learn aspects of Davidian lifestyle--how members had to surrender all their assets to Koresh, who considered himself to be the new messiah, and how he had sex with all the female members of the cult, including young girls, and how he abused children. Aguilera also heard more stories about arms. There were reports of a hit list Koresh was putting together of former members he wanted to eliminate and accounts of Koresh watching violent movies as "training films'' for "the war to come.'' Among Aguilera's sources was Marc Breault, a former cult member living in Australia, who had already spoken with a reporter for the Waco Tribune-Herald about the repressive nature of the Branch Davidians, including Koresh's abuse of children, warlike statements, and armaments. Hearing of the sexual abuse, Aguilera got in touch with an investigator for the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services, which had been looking into Koresh independently but had come up with no hard evidence on which to base charges. Now, the ATF set about the process of getting search warrants and planning an enforcement action. It established an undercover house near the compound, sending an ATF agent underground. On the pretext of buying some equipment, the agent met Koresh and, becoming friendly with the cult leader, was invited to a Bible study and subsequently to shoot with him. In November 1992, the U.S. Attorney reviewed the evidence and concluded there was sufficient grounds to issue a search warrant. On December 4, ATF officers met to plan a tactical operation, trying to decide whether the best approach was to mount a siege like the one staged against the white supremacist Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord in Arkansas, or to conduct a swift raid on the compound, a "dynamic entry'' as the report calls it. The ATF put in a request for Bradley armored vehicles and asked the military for equipment to aid in aerial reconnaissance, but soon gave up on the idea of a siege because the geography offered little protection from .50-caliber fire, and agents thought it could turn into a long, involved operation that would place the bureau under pressure from the public. Given Koresh's apocalyptic nature, they also feared the situation might degenerate into a mass suicide. The best strategy, the ATF decided, was a quick and decisive raid. Based on interviews with former members, agents were confident they knew where the guns were stored and believed they could sweep in and arrest people in the compound before they could open fire. But the ATF already had a problem--it had become involved with the press. All that fall, the Tribune-Herald had been preparing a series of articles on the Branch Davidians, focusing especially on their lifestyle, sexual practices, and alleged abuse of children. By January 1993, the paper was preparing to print the articles. Although the ATF had been gathering its evidence and preparing its enforcement activity in apparent secrecy, reporters for the newspaper knew as far back as October 1992, following a conversation with the U.S. Attorney's office, that the ATF were investigating the Davidians. In December 1992, Agent Aguilera asked one of his sources, who he knew had also been a source for the Tribune-Herald, to quit talking to the paper. Within the ATF there was discussion about what to do about the newspaper; finally, the bureau decided to try to persuade the paper to lay off the story until after its raid. The two groups came together when Tribune-Herald executives, worried about the Davidian's possible response to the articles, approached the U.S. Attorney for advice. At that point, the U.S. attorney stated the ATF concerns over the newspaper's involvement. On February 1, several editors and ATF agents met and the agency asked for a postponement of the Tribune-Herald series. The ATF offered the newspaper "front-row seats'' to the raid if there was a postponement. What's more, the ATF actually invited representatives of the Tribune-Herald to observe training sessions for the raid. When the paper's editors and the ATF leaders met again, the Herald-Tribune refused to delay publication. Furious, ATF command leaders decided to move the raid to the day before the story came out. At this point, the operation quickly slipped into chaos. The Tribune-Herald's court reporter heard of the raid being moved up. He told a TV cameraman friend, who, in turn, told his TV station. The TV station checked with an ambulance company, and discovered ambulances had been put on standby. The morning of the February 28 raid, a newspaper reporter ran into a mailman, David Jones, on the road outside the compound and told him something big was about to happen. Jones was the son of a cult member, and he quickly rushed to the compound. At the time, Koresh was meeting with the undercover ATF agent who had been sent to gauge the effects of the newspaper story. Called out of the room by the Jones' father, Koresh reentered in an agitated and incoherent manner. According to the report, Koresh "said something about the Kingdom of God," and proclaimed, 'Neither the ATF nor the National Guard will ever get me. They got me once and they'll never get me again.' Koresh then walked to the window and looked out, saying, 'They're coming, Robert. The time has come.' He turned, looked at Rodriguez (the undercover agent), and repeated, 'They're coming Robert. They're coming.''' Immediately, the agent rushed from the compound to alert his superiors, who were starting to mount the raid. On learning that Koresh knew a raid was about to take place, the ATF commanders crouched on the tarmac beneath the whirling rotors of their helicopters and conferred. They agreed, that even without the element of surprise, the raid still might work if they moved fast. Without further consideration, the ATF went into action. An agent opened the gate in the wall and another sprayed a fire extinguisher at the guard dogs. Koresh appeared in the front door, yelling, "What's going on?'' The agents identified themselves, and yelled "freeze'' and "get down.'' Koresh slammed the door before the agents could reach it, and the Branch Davidians opened up with everything they had. Firepower poured through the front door with such intensity that it buckled outward. Gunfire erupted from virtually every window in the front of the compound. Four agents were killed, and 22 wounded in the shoot-out. Six Davidians also died and four were wounded. After the raid, the ATF still had a siege on its hands. Aside from its short-term political implications, the Waco raid, along with 1992 ATF siege of Randy Weaver's home at Ruby Ridge--also set to be the subject of Congressional hearings in the fall--have more subtle connotations. Both raids targeted individuals with strongly held Christian religious beliefs, and, as far apart as Koresh's Branch Davidians and Weaver's Christian Identity beliefs may be, both groups consider themselves foot soldiers in God's army. The federal government's attacks on these religious groups only serve to unite Christian right lobbies in Congress, and to forge a nationwide coalition that can use Christianity to undermine federal authority.

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