WASHINGTON — Branch Davidian cult members killed some of their own children and set the blazes that consumed their compound near Waco, Tex., last April, according to a Justice Department report released Friday. The report absolved the FBI of responsibility for the fiery finale to the 51-day standoff between authorities and cult members.
Independent arson investigators concluded that fires were set in three places inside the compound by cult members, not by armored vehicles sent in by the FBI to disperse tear gas, according to the report.
"The fire appears to be an act of mass suicide or an act of mass murder or a combination of the two," said Edward S. G. Dennis, a former senior Justice Department official who evaluated the department report, which was prepared by three federal prosecutors and three FBI inspectors.
Dennis said the FBI exercised restraint and did not fire a single shot during the entire standoff. He blamed the end of the tragedy on cult leader David Koresh, saying that he had laid plans for the blaze in advance and set out to "choreograph his own death and the deaths of his followers."
In grim detail, the report recounted events in Washington leading up to the decision to fire tear gas into the compound. It also reconstructed the last hours of the siege in Waco before it ended in an inferno on April 19 that left at least 75 cult members dead--25 of them children.
Most of the children were among 31 people who died inside a collapsed concrete bunker near the center of the compound.
Almost all of the victims suffocated. But in a chilling list of the dead--many burned beyond recognition and identified only by a number--the report said the bunker contained the bodies of a 3-year-old boy who had been stabbed, a 6-year-old girl shot in the chest and an infant shot in the head.
The Justice Department report was the result of one of two investigations ordered by President Clinton in the aftermath of the Waco disaster.
Last week, a Treasury Department report sharply criticized the actions of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms officials in planning and executing the abortive Feb. 28 raid that set the stage for the standoff.
Four ATF agents were killed and 20 were wounded in the shoot-out that followed a botched attempt to enter the compound by force and arrest Koresh on weapons charges. Several cult members also were killed.
Seven weeks later, the fire set after the FBI fired tear gas into the compound quickly engulfed the wooden structure.
The Justice Department analysis and the evaluation by Dennis, now a private attorney in Philadelphia, were far less critical of the performance of the FBI, which took over the operation from ATF officials on March 1.
Dennis said the FBI and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno considered all reasonable alternatives before deciding to try forcing out cult members with a tear-gas assault.
"An indefinite siege was not a realistic option," said Dennis, noting that cult members had provisions to hold out for a year.
If the standoff continued, authorities feared that cult members could engage the FBI in a gun battle, try a mass escape or that deteriorating health and sanitation in the compound could lead to widespread deaths, he said.
Reno told a news conference she did not consider the report a "whitewash" despite the contrast with the Treasury Department analysis, which led to the suspension of five officials.
"I go out to seek the truth, and that's what I've tried to do here," Reno said. "We want to find out what we can do to prevent this tragedy for the future."
Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose) criticized the report for failing to come up with tough recommendations to ensure that a Waco-type disaster is not repeated. He said proposals to double the size of the FBI's hostage rescue team and other recommendations do not go far enough.
"It seems to me to give us no assurance from the recommendations or the observations that, if a similar crisis took place today, we wouldn't have the same tragic outcome," said Edwards, who heads a House Judiciary subcommittee that oversees the FBI.
In addition to increasing the size of the hostage rescue team from 50 to 100, Deputy Atty. Gen. Philip B. Heymann, chief of the investigation, recommended giving the FBI tactical control when major hostage events occur--even when other federal agencies are involved first--and giving senior Justice Department officials more oversight on decisions made by field commanders during crises.
The only area of substantive criticism in the report dealt with a conflict between FBI negotiators and tactical agents over strategy.
"On several occasions tactical pressure was exerted on the Davidians either without consulting the negotiators or over the negotiators' objections," Dennis wrote in his review. "The negotiators believed the timing of these tactical activities disrupted the progress of the negotiations unnecessarily."