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For more film reviews by Alan Stone, click here or choose from a list of

Sifting Waco's Ashes

A new film raises disturbing questions about the government's conduct both during the stand-off and after its fiery end.

Alan A. Stone

A few months ago, William Gazecki, the director/editor of Waco: The Rules of Engagement, phoned my office in near-desperation imploring me to help him promote his film. Gazecki was calling on me not in my role as a film reviewer (of which he was unaware) but as the only member of the Justice Department's panel appointed after the tragedy at Waco who had been openly critical both of the federal agencies involved and of the subsequent government investigation. As a reward I have been taken up by right-wing fanatics, pilloried by the liberal Democrats to whose campaigns I contribute, and assured by knowledgeable colleagues that my services will never again be needed in Washington. I have also earned a part in Gazecki's film as one of the talking heads. (From a film reviewer's perspective, it is obvious that I should not give up my day job.)

Waco: The Rules of Engagement humanizes David Koresh and his Branch Davidian followers, and provides a scathing and, if true, damning indictment of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). It premiered at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival to very positive reviews. Critics in San Francisco and Boston, where it played at independent theaters to small audiences, agreed that the film raised serious questions and was worth seeing. Still, Gazecki found commercial distributors and everyone else in Hollywood singularly uninterested and unhelpful. Like other independent documentary film-makers he had poured his assets and months of his life into the project; his film, unlike many, had won critical acclaim. But by the time he approached me, the whole effort was about to go down the tubes. He was feeling ill-used and indignant: if a parade of such Hollywood notables as Steven Spielberg was prepared to sign full-page ads in major newspapers condemning the German government as Nazi-like for its legal discrimination against the Church of Scientology, a few limousine liberals should be willing to support his critique of the American government for destroying the Branch Davidian church and its members. Gazecki was so deeply and egocentrically involved in his project he had quite lost touch with the American public's response to Waco. He seemed not to realize that in the jungle of Waco the liberal establishment was his natural enemy.


Fires and tanks make great television, and on April 19, 1993, Americans sat stunned in front of their sets as they watched a war-like scene with US Army tanks smashing into the Waco compound. The tanks injected tear gas--more precisely, CS gas, a fine powder which on contact with human tissue burns the skin and inflames all mucus membranes. Though CS is supposed to be used outdoors to disperse mobs, the FBI's plan was to keep injecting it until the Branch Davidians were driven out of their compound. Instead, the 51-day stand-off at Waco ended in a fireball. News cameras were kept at a sanitized distance and observers could barely see any sign of human life. More than twenty young children, most too young to be protected by gas masks, were subjected to six hours of CS gas and died in the fire. But neither their innocent faces nor their ghastly corpses were ever viewed by the American public who, as the news media discovered, rapidly lost interest in the tragedy and showed little sympathy for the unseen victims. As standard "journalistic" practice, television stations now poll their viewers to give them the kind of news they want. Within weeks, Waco had dropped to the bottom of those polls, even in Texas. The American public had seen and heard enough, and their verdict was the "Waco Wackos" had brought it on themselves.

The public's lack of interest came as a great relief to the Clinton administration. Though the ATF plan to raid the Davidian compound was put together during the Bush administration, the go-ahead was given by Clinton's new appointees. The ATF's February 28, 1993 raid, which led to the 51-day standoff, was a nightmare of incompetence; four agents and six Branch Davidians were killed. Secretary of Treasury Lloyd Bentsen, newly responsible for the ATF, escaped without criticism. He may not even have been told about the raid before it happened. Janet Reno, the first woman Attorney General, was to take the hits for the Clinton administration on Waco. She had reluctantly given her consent to the FBI's gas attack, which was supposed to end the standoff.

In the congressional hearings held immediately after the disaster, Michigan Democrat John Conyers blasted Reno for her role in the tragedy. Conyers was vociferous about the many children who lost their lives. Only days into her job, Reno looked the Congressman straight in the eye and, choking with emotion, promised she would remember the children every day of her life. She took full responsibility but acknowledged no mistakes. Perhaps because government officials so rarely have the courage to take responsibility for any negative result, Reno became the most recognizable and well-liked member of the Clinton cabinet. Indeed, every time the Attorney General has since been challenged about Waco, her stock with the American people has gone up and their conviction that the Branch Davidians brought it on themselves has been reinforced. Surely Janet Reno is not the person to blame for the decisions made at Waco: indeed, her first impulse was to say no to the plan. The lead official at Justice who was most involved in Waco decision-making was then-Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell. He talked directly to the agents on the ground at Waco, and became convinced that the gas plan was necessary. FBI agent Larry Potts, who played a central role in the FBI's stand-off with Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, had a similar function in Waco. Janet Reno may have been in charge, but these men were calling the shots in the Washington command room. Still, if even a fraction of this documentary's claims are true, Reno helped circle the wagons and bury the truth after the fact.


One infuriated segment of the American public refused to forget Waco or to forgive Janet Reno: Clinton haters, the National Rifle Association, right-wing militia fanatics, conservative talkmeisters and their audiences. Across America there was a steady stream of talk show callers who kept insisting that Waco, just like Ruby Ridge, was an example of federal law enforcement at war with the American people. Wild claims about conspiracies and about tanks using flame throwers to set the compound on fire accompanied sensible claims about the ATF's and FBI's reckless and incompetent military tactics. But the rest of America was not listening. Reno had ordered the Justice Department to investigate itself and the FBI. The supposedly independent investigator, Edward Dennis, an assistant attorney general during the Reagan administration, based his report on that less than searching self-examination. The result was a total whitewash: Dennis proclaimed the operation a success even though all the patients died. He determined that the Branch Davidians had started the fire themselves in a mass suicide and that the FBI had never fired a single shot into the compound. Dennis concluded: "Under the circumstances, the FBI exhibited extraordinary restraint and handled this crisis with great professionalism."

Only by comparison was there a more aggressive investigation of the ATF, which had planned the original, military-style "dynamic entry" into the compound. The ATF's independent investigators, unlike the Justice Department's, laid out the evidence so that a fair-minded person could reach an independent judgment. But the report is written as if to protect the agency. The authors demonize the Branch Davidians and give the agents the benefit of every doubt. Most troubling to me was the report's uninformed and unwarranted portrayal of the Branch Davidians as cold-blooded killers: "On February 28, Koresh and his followers knew ATF agents were coming and decided to kill them"; they "prepare[d] a deadly ambush." Despite these distortions, the report singled out for sanctions the two agents who were in charge of the dynamic entry, and they were forced out of the ATF. The Branch Davidians insisted throughout the stand-off that these men should go to prison and the report certainly did not exonerate them. Still, they were able to appeal the sanctions, and were later restored to their previous standing.

On the Branch Davidians' side, in addition to the six killed in the ATF raid and the more than eighty dead in the fire, several of the survivors were convicted of federal offenses involving firearms and sentenced to long prison terms. The authorities bulldozed the ruins of the Waco compound and quite literally covered it up; there could be no further possibility of physical evidence turning up that would raise new questions about the alleged wrongdoings of federal agents at Waco. Case closed.

Then, exactly two years later, came the enormity of Oklahoma City, home-grown American terrorism--Timothy McVeigh's Turner Diaries revenge, memorializing the anniversary of Waco with a new and even greater horror. The tragedy forced America to look back at Waco just as McVeigh intended. The moment was perfect for Gazecki's documentary; unfortunately, he was still filming. By the time he was finished, the soul-searching was over, the McVeigh trial had begun, and the Waco justification was now rubbing salt in the wounds of Oklahoma City. If Gazecki thought the McVeigh trial would help his documentary, he seriously misjudged the mood of Americans.

Stephen Jones, McVeigh's lawyer, seems to have similarly miscalculated. He thought an American jury contemplating the death penalty would sympathize with McVeigh if they knew his motive was retaliation for Waco. Like Gazecki, Jones also called to enlist my support. He had read my report and wanted me to testify about Waco at the capital sentencing phase of the McVeigh trial. His words were, "you owe it to your country." The argument was dramatic but unconvincing. Unlike Waco conspiracy theorists, I believe the tragedy at Waco was the result of incompetence and over-reaching: bad judgment and bad decisions, not intentional wrongdoing and a plot against the people. Nor do I believe there was a government conspiracy to cover up these failings. Instead, law enforcement agents closed ranks out of self-interest and group solidarity, and the subsequent investigations turned into bureaucratic damage control. On no moral calculus does the government's incompetence at Waco justify or mitigate the intentional slaughter of 168 innocent victims in Oklahoma City.

If Gazecki is right, however, Waco was much more than a case of government incompetence. According to his film, federal agents acting under color of law behaved like outlaws, rogue agents murdered Branch Davidians, and the responsible authorities covered up.


The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building produced a spate of media attention and a new round of congressional hearings--sponsored, it is said, by the National Rifle Association's lobby. Members of the NRA could empathize with the Branch Davidians, whose large private armory was the original target of the ATF. Politics "makes strange bed-fellows," we are told, and after Waco, as I can personally attest, sleeping arrangements could not have been more perverse.

Left-wingers, liberal democrats, and minorities have traditionally been the critics of federal law enforcement agencies that overstep their authority, and conservative Republicans have traditionally been the defenders of law and order who support law enforcement even when it over-reaches. Waco produced a role reversal. The Gingrich Republicans were now in control of Congress and they decided to reopen Waco.

Congressman Conyers, now on the minority side of the aisle, was again in the spotlight during the second round of partisan congressional hearings, though this time as a defender of Janet Reno and federal law enforcement. A frequent critic of police brutality, as in the Rodney King case, he burst out laughing as he incredulously read a statement prepared for him by his own staff which extolled the virtues of the Los Angeles Police Department's SWAT team, whose former chief was testifying on behalf of the FBI. But the Democrats had a better strategy than praising law enforcement.

During the stand-off at Waco, President Clinton had charged David Koresh with sexual abuse of the Branch Davidians' children. Reno made similar claims about child abuse to justify her own decisions to approve the gas-attack. These allegations profoundly influenced public opinion against Koresh and the Branch Davidians. On that basis alone, many Americans were convinced that Koresh was evil and that was enough to close their minds about possible over-reaching and wrongdoings by federal authorities.

In the second round of congressional hearings, the Democrats deployed the same strategy. At the outset of the hearings a young adolescent girl, under New York Congressman Charles Schumer's gentle questioning, testified in an entirely believable manner about David Koresh forcing her to submit to sexual intercourse. It was Oprah-style television and the most genuinely gripping moment during the long, tedious, and unproductive hearings that followed. The Democrats put a human face on Waco and the battle for public opinion was lost: before the Republicans got started, they found themselves defending a child-molester. Because these allegations have played such an important part in the American public's moral judgments about the Branch Davidians and the events at Waco, one might have expected a documentary to clarify this matter, or at least face up to it with candor. Instead the issue is fudged. Here and in other places Gazecki's long documentary is not long enough to encompass the complex background of the Waco tragedy. As the title advertises, his documentary is primarily about the misdeeds of federal agents and their violations of the "rules of engagement."

Before considering those misdeeds it is worth confronting the allegations of sexual and child abuse lodged against Koresh. The film deals with them briefly and gingerly. Gazecki includes some footage of the young teenage girl testifying before Congress; one of Koresh's lawyers then undermines her testimony by referring to similar claims the girl made in a custody dispute. Gazecki leaves us with the impression that she might be lying. This portrayal is irresponsible and misleading. Koresh had convinced his followers that he was the Lamb of God prophesied in the Bible. He possessed the good seed and his offspring would occupy a special place in the Kingdom of Heaven. Koresh apparently had memorized many passages in the Bible and could quote relevant scripture to support his claim. You may think this is madness, but Koresh's followers, many of them well-educated and deeply religious, had faith in his special powers. Husbands practiced abstinence while they allowed Koresh to cohabit with their wives. Parents permitted Koresh to have sex with their pubescent daughters. Many of the children who died in the compound were Koresh's biological offspring. Though the children were subject to strict physical discipline, lengthy religious instruction, and a diet free of artificial ingredients, caffeine, and candy, there was never any evidence of child abuse in the sense of neglect or battering that concerned Janet Reno. Nor is there evidence that Koresh molested prepubescent girls. Instead, girls who had reached menarche were induced to have intercourse with Koresh in expectation that his "brides" would have the privilege of bearing his special children. Koresh and the Branch Davidians certainly knew that outsiders would disapprove of these sexual practices and downplayed them in public. Still, the secular state apparently had sufficient evidence to charge Koresh with statutory rape. But despite complaints by outsider parents who were not believers, Koresh was never prosecuted.

The only "apologists" for Koresh's behavior seem to be academic religionists whose studies show that such practices are common in the early stages of new religious sects. They also defend the Branch Davidians--a branch of an earlier apocalyptic branch of the Seventh Day Adventists--as a religious sect, not a mind-controlling cult. To understand what happened at Waco, you must appreciate that his diverse followers, who came from as far away as Australia, Great Britain, and Israel, believed that Koresh was the Lamb of God who would reveal the secrets of the Seven Seals. They called their compound "Mount Carmel," and like other millennial believers expected the world was coming to an end. Everyone who has carefully studied the Branch Davidians, and that should include Gazecki, agrees that Koresh, justifying his behavior by scripture, had sexual intercourse with legally underage females.

A documentary of this kind, which aims to set the record straight, has a truth-telling obligation. And since Gazecki's film is essentially an indictment of federal law enforcement agencies, his cause might have been better served by eliminating this issue from the film rather than undermining his own bona fides by equivocating. Statutory rape is a crime, and so is the possession of illegal weapons, but neither of these offenses justifies the ATF's initial life-threatening, commando-style raid on a compound full of women and children.


Gazecki constructs his film through a series of juxtapositions that powerfully carry his argument about official misconduct and distortion. We see liberal Democratic congressman Tom Lantos of California belligerently asserting that David Koresh was a madman with fanatic followers and that anyone who thinks differently must also be mad. Then we are shown scenes of a calm and sensible Koresh explaining scripture and talking reasonably to his followers, who look like ordinary church-goers. As a result, the usually clear-thinking Lantos looks like the madman. In this fashion virtually all of the government officials from Attorney General Reno on down are made to look like fools or hypocrites. Trying to explain how it came about that the FBI was using tanks, Reno maladroitly compares the arrangement to renting a car: this, after we have watched the "rented" tanks demolishing the compound's walls. ATF and FBI spokesmen appear constantly in these juxtapositions to be dissembling, deceiving, or misleading in their communications to the media, Congress, and the American people.

Gazecki also uses juxtaposition to support critics of the government's handling of Waco. In my report, I had suggested that the FBI's psychological warfare strategy had nothing to do with the psychology of Koresh or the Branch Davidians, that it was instead a function of the FBI's own group psychology--that agents were determined to show Koresh that they were in control. The film shows me reiterating this interpretation, and then cuts to an FBI spokesman in a press conference who is explaining the FBI's new aggressive tactics during the stand-off. The agent, obviously hot under the collar and fed up, is shown walking off the podium and stating: "We are going to show them that we control the compound and they are impotent." I had never seen that footage before, but could not have invented a more perfect illustration of what I had written.

Gazecki's editorial juxtapositions suggest a pervasive pattern of misinformation by the Justice Department, FBI, and ATF to mislead the American people, cover up misdeeds, and demonize the Branch Davidians. Interviewed after Oklahoma City, President Clinton unfairly dismissed the Branch Davidians as common criminals. The film should correct that unfortunate verdict, which is apparently shared by most Americans. The Branch Davidians may have been misguided religious extremists, but they were also decent human beings seeking a place in heaven and they believed Koresh could show them the way.

Indeed, during the long stand-off the Branch Davidians realized they were being smeared, and made a video to show their human faces to the American people. Men, women, and teenagers (many of them persons of color) explain why they came to Waco and why they are remaining in the compound. They believed God was on their side and--seen from their perspective--one begins to recognize that the Branch Davidians were subjected to great injustices. The ATF investigation concedes that after the raid, in an effort to cover up mistakes, the ATF hierarchy provided the public with "misleading or wrong" information. The Branch Davidians express their indignation about all this in their video. But the FBI prevented the release of that video for months after the tragedy. Parts of it are presented in the documentary, and they will come as a startling revelation. If Americans had seen the video, the Waco tragedy would have left us all with a guilty conscience; perhaps the final tragedy would not even have happened. Ironically, the Justice Department's Dennis Report specifically notes the FBI's concern "that if the tape were released to the media Koresh would gain much sympathy." The FBI waged a misguided public relations campaign to keep Americans from sympathizing with the Branch Davidians. The American media bought it and pressured the FBI to take more aggressive measures against the "Waco Wackos."

If Waco: The Rules of Engagement had done no more than show Americans that we had once more fallen into the trap of dehumanizing and demonizing our victims it would have served a useful purpose. But Gazecki goes further: he seems almost determined to dehumanize and demonize the ATF and FBI. Some of the documentary's allegations about federal agents seem reasonable, and correspond to what I learned from my own efforts to understand what happened at Waco. Other allegations push the envelope of credibility and some strain credulity to the breaking point. There is, however, enough in the documentary to shake up anyone's preconceived notions. As someone deeply critical of law enforcement's behavior at Waco, the film made me worry that I had not been critical enough. Even if the documentary does not provide definitive answers, it raises serious questions both about the ATF's February 28 raid and the FBI's conduct on April 19.

Gazecki's film argues that ATF agents fired the first shots, and that they directed automatic gunfire from their helicopters into the compound. These assertions directly contradict the official ATF investigation. If they are accurate, the ATF violated the "rules of engagement," successfully covered up this violation, and then lied under oath before Congress. More startling, Gazecki assembles evidence to argue that federal agents (presumably the FBI) on the final day of the conflagration were firing automatic weapons into the side of the compound hidden from the TV cameras, and that those tanks we saw on television were not just injecting gas but intentionally smashing sections of the compound and crushing the inhabitants. Footage in the film shows one of these tanks becoming disabled because something red is caught in its tracks. The narrator suggests that this may be part of the body of a Branch Davidian and his red coat. To support allegations about automatic weapon fire, Gazecki shows heat-sensitive film made by the government's own surveillance aircraft, and his assertions are supported in the film by knowledgeable experts. All this is in direct contradiction of the FBI's repeated claims, backed up by the Justice Department's investigation and the Dennis Report, that their purpose on April 19 was to get the Branch Davidians out safely, that the tanks were not attacking, and that they never fired a shot.

What is one to make of these allegations? Let us begin with the ATF raid. The ATF had been gathering intelligence for months and knew that there were many women and children in the compound whose lives would be at risk in a fire-fight. They believed that the Branch Davidians had powerful weapons, thought the end of the world was at hand, and might resist an armed assault by the ATF--the modern day soldiers of Assyria, according to Koresh.

Nonetheless, the ATF planned the largest armed raid in the bureau's history. The bureau received military training from the US Army at Fort Hood to prepare agents who had never before participated in such an effort. The ATF clearly misled Texas's then-Governor Ann Richards by falsely claiming that illegal drugs were involved. (The Branch Davidians, like the Seventh Day Adventists, reject all such drugs as a matter of religious tenet.) The illegal drug story was required under federal statute for the ATF to obtain the use of the Texas National Guard's military helicopters. Those helicopters were supposed to arrive first at the compound to create the diversion and surprise necessary for a "dynamic entry": diversion and surprise would allow ATF agents to put up ladders and invade the compound through the second floor window--beyond which, according to their faulty intelligence, lay the locked armory to which only David Koresh had the key. The ATF plan was to get there before Koresh could unlock it. If the timing failed, the plan put at risk the lives of 80 federal agents and more than 100 Branch Davidians. Given the alleged offense--violations of an illegal-firearms statute--the entire project seems ill-conceived. Indeed, many commentators later suggested that a single agent could have peacefully served a warrant. Even at the time, the acting Assistant Treasury Secretary in charge of law enforcement thought the plan was unwise and unnecessary when it was laid out to him just hours before the operation started. His first response, like Janet Reno's, was to say no. But he was misled by the agents in charge who convinced him that the Branch Davidians posed a real threat of violence to their neighbors. The official investigatory report concedes that the plan was inept if not irrational. But it maintains that the Branch Davidians were violent and ignores the possibility that the ATF raid was a dangerous provocation.

As is now well known, the ATF had an agent, Robert Rodriguez, inside the compound on the day of the raid. Rodriguez was pretending to be interested in the Branch Davidians' faith in order to gather intelligence. David Koresh knew all along that Rodriguez was an ATF agent; in fact, many days earlier Koresh had learned from his neighbors that the ATF had the compound under surveillance. Still, Koresh tried to proselytize Rodriguez. On the morning of the raid, when Koresh learned that the ATF was coming, he told Rodriguez that the Branch Davidians knew he was an agent and that they had been informed of the impending raid. Permitted to beat a hasty retreat (by these supposed killers), the agent informed his superiors that they had lost the essential element of surprise. Everyone in the ATF had agreed that if the element of surprise was lost they would call the operation off: because the main objective was to seize the locked armory before Koresh could distribute weapons to his followers, any other decision was completely irrational. Yet the ATF pushed ahead.

As Gazecki demonstrates, Koresh's warning resulted in part from the ATF's own inept attempts to get media attention. We see an agent lamely explaining that she called the local television stations only to make sure she had their weekend telephone numbers so she could contact them after the raid. In another remarkable failure of security, uniformed ATF agents were seen in Waco hotels, restaurants, and cocktail lounges the night before the raid. As a result of these gaffes, local TV stations had crews out looking for the compound long before the raid; when they explained what they were doing and asked a Branch Davidian for directions, he was able to warn Koresh.

Gazecki's documentary shows ATF agent Rodriguez weeping as he testifies before Congress about how he told his superiors, how they ignored his warning, and how those superiors had been lying to Congress. Gazecki has him nicely juxtaposed with one of the superiors who in bureaucratic "double speak" is explaining to Congress why a warning is not a warning. The ATF leaders must have learned something from Rodriguez as they hurriedly decided to advance the time of their assault. But because of the ATF's almost-unbelievable incompetence in failing to coordinate radio wave bands, the helicopters did not learn of the changes, kept to the original plan, arrived late, and failed to serve their diversionary function. With neither diversion nor surprise, tragedy was inevitable.

Why on earth did the ATF go ahead? The most realistic answer I have heard is that the ATF was worried about its own morale and standing. The ATF has had many critics over the years and been the object of scorn and ridicule by other law enforcement agencies. (Competition and bad blood among federal law enforcement agencies is well-known inside the Beltway.) It has frequently been suggested that the ATF be dismantled and its functions assigned to the FBI. The ATF wanted to pull off a bold military-style coup that would be widely publicized on television and allow it to display a huge collection of illegal weapons confiscated by its competent and courageous agents. Such a coup, it was thought, would strengthen and protect the ATF, impress Congress, enhance the agency's prestige, perhaps even increase its budget allocation.

The idea that the ATF acted out of bureaucratic self-interest and was looking for a public relations coup may seem ridiculous, but it is the only credible explanation of its conduct. Several years earlier the ATF had laid siege to a right-wing stronghold. The stand-off was resolved by the FBI and third-party negotiators, but the illegal weapons were all dismantled before the surrender and the ATF lost all the evidence it was hoping to obtain. The ATF had invested an extraordinary amount of time, energy, and resources in the Waco plan, as agents, many of them without previous SWAT-team or incident-response experience, prepared for their commando mission. Gazecki's film captures the "children-playing-soldier" mood of the ATF in video footage the agents made of themselves as they prepared for their escapade. Indeed, the momentum was so great it obviously overwhelmed the rational judgment of leaders who discounted their own agent's warning.

Though the agency's conduct does not constitute a government conspiracy, it is equally preposterous to describe what transpired at the compound as an "ambush," as the ATF report does. Having been warned, and expecting to be attacked, the Branch Davidians had more than enough time to open their armory and distribute weapons. Whether illegal automatics or legal semiautomatics, their weapons had enormous killing power. Military experts who have examined Waco agree that if the Branch Davidians had decided to kill the agents, as the ATF report claims, they could easily have slaughtered them. They had time to station themselves in strategic positions, including a tower that rose above the compound. Armed with automatic weapons, two or three of them could have fired on the cattle cars in which the agents arrived at the compound (the ATF's idea of Texas camouflage)--had there been a real ambush, most of the agents would have been killed before they even dismounted from the cattle cars, and many more as they jumped down. Even after the ATF took cover, the Branch Davidians' strategic firing positions in the tower made the agents visible targets.

The four agents who were killed were among those who went ahead with the planned dynamic entry from the roof of the compound, whose whole purpose was to get to the locked second-floor armory. But as the element of surprise had been lost, the armory had already been opened and the weapons disbursed. As soon as gunfire was exchanged--whoever started it--the ATF had to realize that no purpose could be served by mounting the roof. What we witnessed on television, then, was a tragic exercise in futility. The ATF leaders had put their own agents in a situation where there was nothing to be gained and where lives could be and were lost. Viewers of Gazecki's film will see again those desperate moments on the compound roof, as one of the agents goes through the window. But the narrator says nothing about the insanity of what is taking place before our eyes. Federal agents killing and being killed for no reason!

Both Gazecki's documentary and the ATF's official investigation are misleading about all this. The ATF investigation constructed a narrative in which federal agents were caught in a killing ambush and fired in self-defense. Gazecki's film, by focusing particularly on the helicopters, makes the ATF out to be the killers. But ATF agents are not killers, and neither were the Branch Davidians. The agents were desperately trying to follow the ill-conceived and futile plan conceived by their superiors. The Branch Davidians were defending their holy ground in the face of violent provocation. Both sides had weapons and were firing them. Indeed, the extraordinary thing, missed by both narratives, is how few lives were lost in this huge display of firepower.

If not a result of conspiracy or ambush, why were the first shots fired? The answer may be painfully banal. The complex ATF plan (of which there was never a written copy) called for the first agents who dismounted to use fire extinguishers to fend off the Branch Davidians' watch-dogs. As this began, Koresh, who said he had stationed his people to defend the compound, came to the door unarmed to confront the ATF. The ATF report incredibly has the Branch Davidians greeting the cattle cars with a hail of bullets and grenades while Koresh comes to the open door unarmed. It is impossible to believe that these events happened simultaneously as described. Koresh consistently maintained that he could not believe that ATF agents in full battle gear would assault the compound if they knew there were women and children inside. He came to the door to try to explain the situation to them. The first gun shots were then fired by agents at the dogs when their fire extinguishers failed to control them. One of Koresh's bodyguards, on his own initiative, then fired at those agents; agents responded by opening fire on the compound. The agent closest to Koresh, who was still at the open door, dropped to the ground and shot the unarmed Koresh through the pelvis and wrist. The door closed and gunfire broke out on all sides leading to the battle already described.

In short, the ATF did not go to the compound intending to shoot first and serve warrants later, as Gazecki suggests. Nor did the Branch Davidians intend an ambush to maximize their kill of federal agents, as the ATF's official report insists. Indeed, when the firing began, Wayne Martin, a Branch Davidian and an African-American graduate of Harvard Law School, called 911. Portions of the tapes can be heard in Gazecki's documentary. Martin's spontaneous reactions do not suggest a man participating in an ambush. A trained lawyer and minister, Martin was obviously shocked that armed troops were firing on women and children.

As to Gazecki's charges that the ATF's borrowed helicopters fired on the compound, he has presented convincing circumstantial evidence. Three helicopters arrived late on the scene as the fire-fight began. The occupants of the helicopters could not communicate with the leaders on the ground because of the radio-band problem. The agents in the helicopters with automatic weapons had no idea what was happening, and may well have joined in the fire-fight. Gazecki has compelling audiotape of the exchange between ATF agent Cavanaugh and the Branch Davidians during those exact moments. Early in the raid, the two sides had no way to communicate; Martin had reached the local police on their 911 line but they could not contact the ATF. On the tape, telephone communication has been established and we hear a Branch Davidian desperately telling Cavanaugh that the helicopters are shooting automatic weapons into the compound. Cavanaugh denies this. Koresh, though he had already been wounded, comes on and tells the agent they are not going to talk any longer if Cavanaugh refuses to acknowledge the reality that the compound is taking automatic weapon fire from the helicopters. Koresh had no reason to invent this complaint at that time, and Cavanaugh had no way of knowing what was going on in the helicopters. Cavanaugh ingeniously resolves this dispute over the phone by saying he intended only to deny that the helicopters had mounted automatic weapons. Subsequently, the ATF denied that agents ever fired from helicopters. Before Congress, Cavanaugh wept and swore that it was impossible for anyone to think that ATF agents would fire from helicopters. If he believed that they had, he claimed, he would throw away his badge. Gazecki's film contains a convincing refutation of Cavanaugh's testimony about the helicopters. Regrettably, Congress never heard it, as no member of Congress confronted or cross-examined him.

Gazecki is less than objective in failing to emphasize that the Branch Davidians fired on the helicopters. This is yet another example of the adversarial style on both sides. In the film, one actually seems to hear the Branch Davidians taking automatic weapon fire from the demonic ATF. In the ATF report we are shown the unarmed helicopters and the bullet holes caused by demonic Branch Davidians.


The ATF raid left dead and dying on both sides and led to a cease-fire agreement. Even the ATF official report acknowledges "chaos at the command post" after the shoot-out. A complex negotiation between the ATF and the FBI followed, resulting in the FBI's own 51-day siege.

When the FBI replaced the ATF at Waco, their initial strategy of negotiating with the Brach Davidians soon shifted to a declaration of all-out psychological warfare. Most behavioral scientists who have studied the events have questioned the FBI's decision. Because of the Branch Davidians' religious beliefs, end-of-the-world expectations, and acceptance of Koresh as the Lamb of God, such tactics might have driven members to mass suicide. When I and the other panelists appointed by the Justice Department met with representatives of the FBI's behavioral science group for briefings on July 1, 1993, we were told in no uncertain terms that they had decided Koresh was a sociopath who had conned his followers. Their spokesman opined that, when push comes to shove, common criminals such as Koresh, who have antisocial personality disorders, act in their own self-interest. This was presented to us as the behavioral science input into FBI decision-making. These views suggested to the panelists an astonishing ignorance of religious beliefs and of individual and group psychology. But as it turned out this initial part of our briefing was misleading.

The arrangements of the Justice Department for its investigation of Waco in my opinion were not designed to produce a searching inquiry. The panelists were briefed by law enforcement officials who had not been directly involved in Waco, and we were asked to prepare individual reports suggesting improvements in federal law enforcement for the future without a detailed understanding of what happened at Waco. Career Justice Department lawyers were to conduct the separate factual investigation; the so-called independent investigator, Edward Dennis, was to prepare his report based on the Justice Department's self-examination, and we were instructed not to ask questions about this ongoing investigation. My objection to these arrangements was considered an aberration, indicative of some personal psychopathology. And my subsequent criticism of the process and its findings was taken as a further proof of my bad judgment and "paranoia." At one point, it seemed as though the Justice Department had removed me from the panel. Eventually it was agreed that I would delay my own report until I had studied the factual report and could pursue any unanswered questions with Justice Department lawyers or the FBI. During this subsequent process I discovered that Peter Smerik, the agent who actually provided behavioral science input at Waco, had submitted two remarkably contradictory memoranda to his superiors. In the first, with impressive psychological insight and prescience, he had noted that Koresh was a religious fanatic, not a con-man sociopath, and that his followers were true religious adherents. He warned his superiors that psychological warfare might drive the Branch Davidians to collective suicide. Twenty-four hours later, he sent a memo advising the FBI to press ahead with psychological warfare. According to the Dennis Report, this psychological warfare memo was the last submitted at Waco by the behavioral science group. Neither the Justice Department's investigators nor the Dennis Report delved into these strange circumstances.

In the fall of 1993, I asked Smerik about his 180? turnabout. His response, clear and unmistakable, was: "my superior told me I was tying his hands." He had caved into the pressure and had provided his superiors the advice they wanted to hear. During the congressional hearings in 1995, I sat behind him and heard him testify under oath that no one had actually said those words to him, that no one had pressured him. He testified that it was all in his own head: he had pressured himself. None of the members of Congress present seemed to recognize that Smerik was recanting and had closed ranks with his fellow agents. Smerik's original story had been the linch-pin of my understanding about what went wrong in the FBI's management of the stand-off at Waco, and it had been confirmed by several other FBI sources.

There were two warring psychological camps inside the FBI at Waco. The first was the tactical forces, consisting of hostage rescue team members, SWAT-team trained marksmen, and other Green Beret types whose imperative is immediate action. The second camp consisted of negotiators and behavioral scientists, who were prepared to talk the thing through indefinitely to avoid loss of life. Friction between the two camps increased as the stand-off dragged on. The tactical forces pressed for more aggressive and harassing measures, at times even acting independently and undercutting ongoing FBI negotiations. Smerik's turnabout was only one symptom of this pathology of divided camps. Eventually, the tactical forces were calling all the shots and acting on their plan to tighten a noose of tanks around the compound and then inject the CS gas to drive the Davidians out. As one of my informants told me, by the time the plan was presented to Janet Reno, there were three options: gas, gas, or gas. The FBI's choice of strategy was not based on insufficient appreciation of apocalyptic religious beliefs or inadequate behavioral science. It was based on the action imperative of tactical law enforcement.

Gazecki compellingly substantiates this conflict inside the FBI. He presents excerpts culled from the reels of negotiation tape in which the negotiator apologizes for behavior by the tactical forces that violated promises made to the Branch Davidians. These tapes indicate that federal agents at times behaved not like professionals but like hooligans--for example, pulling down their pants and mooning the people in the compound. The film also substantiates my opinion, shared by many commentators, that third-party negotiation should have been utilized. On the tapes we hear the Branch Davidians insisting that negotiation with the FBI has reached a dead end and asking for third-party negotiators.


Though it supports all the criticisms contained in my report, and which I reiterate as a talking head on-screen, the documentary suggests that my ultimate conclusion about the Branch Davidians being inadvertently driven to mass suicide is entirely mistaken. Gazecki claims to show us something far more despicable. He believes that on the day of the gas attack some of the FBI's tactical forces began shooting their automatic weapons into the compound and crushing Branch Davidians under the tanks. According to the autopsy reports at least 20 corpses had bullet holes in them and some of the bodies were maimed. The Justice Department's explanation of the bullet holes was that fanatic leaders had shot church members; it gave no explanation of the maimed bodies. Until I saw Gazecki's film I had accepted this explanation, with the proviso that these shootings may have been suicides or mercy killings of people who were dying in agony. Koresh's own corpse had been shot between the eyes, and I do not believe any Branch Davidian still in the compound would have done that to the "Lamb of God" in malice. Gazecki forces us to ask whether some of those bullet holes were made by federal agents and whether some of the strangely mutilated corpses were the result of tank treads.

When the panelists were assembled on the first day at the Justice Department we were told that we would be given information about the final conflagration that had been gathered through top-secret technology. We were informed that all such information would be redacted from the published investigation under a federal statute--it was--and we were sworn to secrecy. Though the London Times shortly thereafter published photographs of the listening devices used at Waco and described how they had been deployed, I honored the secrecy request until I testified before Congress two years later and was told to reveal what the panel had been told. Gazecki's documentary has been profoundly disturbing to me on this very matter.

The panel was told that the FBI's top-secret listening devices picked up all sorts of extraneous noise and conversation, making it impossible to decipher meaningful information as it was recorded. We were also told that well after the fire FBI experts had deciphered a conversation in which the Branch Davidians' inner circle reported that on the night of the final day Koresh had decided it would end with them "stepping out onto the surface of the sun." Obviously, we were told, if the FBI had heard that information in real time, they would have taken a different course the next morning. But here was the convincing but secret evidence that the Branch Davidians had committed mass suicide. The FBI never played that tape for the panel nor were we ever given a transcript. Nonetheless, I accepted this oral information as the basic factual premise of my report and concluded that the FBI had inadvertently driven the Branch Davidians to this extremity. To my knowledge this "secret" information convinced the other panelists as well that Waco had ended in mass suicide.

Gazecki's film argues that I got it wrong, as has everyone else who believed the Justice Department's investigation and the Dennis Report. The film presents three kinds of evidence about that final day. First, there is a still photograph, apparently taken by authorities after the tragedy, of a ferret round of CS gas that was fired into the compound. A Branch Davidian survivor has testified that many such rounds were fired and that they sounded like mortar fire. This information is confirmed by the Dennis Report, which describes the ferret rounds as "non-burning." Gazecki's film, however, claims that they are pyrotechnic devices that explode to deliver the gas, and further argues that these devices, not the Branch Davidians, set fire to the compound. Ferret rounds are either pyrotechnic or not: that question can easily be resolved. However, as the CS gas is in fact a powder that must be dispersed, it is not inconceivable that the canister includes some mechanism for that purpose. The Dennis Report's description of these rounds as "non-burning" seems evasive rather than definitive. And as the compound was filled with highly volatile fumes, pyrotechnic devices could have sparked the fire.

The documentary's second kind of evidence consists of films, presented at the congressional hearings, that show a tank ramming back and forth repeatedly through a section of the compound until it collapses. The panelists were never told that this was part of the FBI's "not an assault" plan. Yet Gazecki also has tape of an FBI spokesman saying that they knew in advance that the women and children might be placed in a bunker near the kitchen, and so intentionally rammed the tank through the wall to deposit gas in the bunker area. The Justice Department has consistently argued that tanks were used only to inject gas or to create exits so that the Branch Davidians could escape. But the Dennis Report reveals that one of the tanks was ordered to clear a path through the compound to the main tower so that another tank could insert CS gas in that area; that during that "endeavor" a portion of the roof collapsed; and that "an apparent deviation from the approved plan began that involved . . . dismantl[ing] the building."

These uses of the tanks could not have occurred without risk of injury to the occupants. Did Attorney General Reno know the tanks would be used in this risky destructive fashion when she approved the plan? On the day of the tank assault Reno was scheduled to give a talk in Baltimore. She testified that the FBI advised her to go ahead with the talk so as not to create unwarranted concern. She was therefore not in the Washington situation room when the tanks began demolishing the walls of the compound. The documentary argues that the maimed bodies described at autopsy were in fact mangled by the tanks. We see film of the disabled tank being towed away and a Congressman at the hearing complains that after two years there has still been no report of what caused the tread to come off. Gazecki leaves viewers with the impression that a Branch Davidian's body may have been caught in the tread and that the truth has been covered up.

Because I was very concerned about the lethal risks to small children of prolonged exposure to CS gas, I asked many questions about the tank plan. Not until Gazecki's film, however, did I learn that the FBI intended to deposit the noxious substance directly on the bunker where they believed the children would be. Nor was I informed that tanks would push down walls to reach that location. The FBI plan in fact imposed much greater risk of loss of life than I was told or had imagined. Gazecki may therefore be correct in believing that some Branch Davidians were crushed by tanks. I had never before considered that possibility.

The documentary's third kind of evidence is based entirely on heat-sensitive film and an expert's interpretation of it. The expert repeatedly points to flashing lights on the film which he claims are bursts of heat that do not occur in nature and can only be made by automatic weapons. He asserts that those weapons are firing into the compound on the side away from the television cameras. There has already been enough discussion of this heat-sensitive evidence in the media to suggest that Gazecki's expert has given a plausible but not irrefutable opinion. If it is true, then many FBI agents knew about it and there was a massive cover-up.

Gazecki seems to want us to believe that FBI agents intentionally crushed Branch Davidians with their tanks and slaughtered them with their automatic weapons. Again, this is a mirror image account of the FBI's description of the Branch Davidians killing their own people rather than letting them escape the mass suicide. Surely the human truth lies somewhere between these extremes. There is no doubt in my mind that the FBI's plan for the last day went awry, just as the ATF's did on the first day. Some of the FBI agents obviously did not follow the established plan. Even the Dennis Report acknowledges this much. The FBI may have circled their wagons after the fact, honoring the law enforcement code of silence. They would not be the first or last law enforcement group to do so. But the Justice Department's job was to dig out the truth; that was what the Attorney General promised the American people.


One might naively think that the highest priority after a tragedy like Waco would be for everyone involved to consider what went wrong and what they would now do differently. The ATF conceded errors but never acknowledged that the raid was tragically unnecessary. Neither the FBI nor the Justice Department conceded any errors. The government's self-investigation glossed over the evidence of conflict within the FBI at Waco; it denied the lethal risk of CS gas to infants; it never explained the "apparent deviation" in the tank plan; it never described how decisions were made at Justice or who made them; it never offered convincing reasons for its failure to use third-party negotiations; and it never questioned the wisdom or the practical consequences of demonizing the Branch Davidians. The film documents each of these failings, and Gazecki builds the viewers' sense of moral outrage by his method of juxtaposition. Because much of what he shows us does seem to be true, his further allegations of extreme wrongdoing become more believable.

Gazecki stops short of suggesting that Waco was a government conspiracy, but he gives conspiracy theorists all the ammunition they will need. Unfortunately, the responsible officials did such an inadequate job of investigating Waco that most viewers will have almost no realistic basis against which to measure Gazecki's film. Waco: The Rules of Engagement will be another reason for people to distrust their government.


Also see: Alan Stone's original report to the Justice Department.

Originally published in the October/ November 1997 issue of Boston Review

 



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