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PERSPECTIVE ON FEDERAL LAW ENFORCEMENT : Revisiting the Tragedy in Waco

April 26, 1995

I n the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, there have been suggestions that the act was retaliation for the April 19, 1993, destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex., in which four federal officers and more than 80 members of the cult perished.

Edwin O. Guthman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and former Times national editor, now a professor of journalism at USC and a member of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, was a member of a federal panel that investigated the government's role in the Waco tragedy. He spoke with JIM BLAIR. Question: Is it credible to justify the Oklahoma City bombing as retaliation for the Waco incident?

Answer: Those who would excuse or "understand" the bombing as retaliation simply don't know what they're talking about. The people whom I've seen quoted as saying that (Waco) was some government plot, some kind of harsh, totalitarian attack on a group of innocent people, carried out in a ruthless, lawless manner--that's just not what happened. It isn't true and people should know that. It was a law-enforcement action (undertaken with) court-approved search and arrest warrants.

Q: What did your investigation cover and what were your resources?

A: Only the ATF (the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) phase. We did not have anything to do with the FBI investigation. I'll let the FBI report speak for itself. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen wanted a thorough, uncompromising investigation and that's what he got.

A team of 30 investigators from the Internal Revenue Service, the Secret Service and the Customs Service interviewed more than 300 persons involved in the Waco operation. We acted as independent reviewers of everything they did and had the assistance of six experts in tactical law-enforcement operations. We started in April, 1993, and Bentsen made our 528-page report public Sept. 30.

Q: And the report found . . . ?

A: In late May, 1992, the Sheriff's office in McLennan County, Tex., informed the Austin office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that suspicious deliveries of firearms, ammunition, inert grenade casings and substantial quantities of black powder were being made to the Branch Davidian compound. An ATF agent began to monitor these shipments, which were coming in from all over the country.

Anyone has to wonder when any group amasses excessive weaponry--including automatic weapons, explosives and .50-caliber machine guns--and clearly the ATF had a responsibility to investigate.

The ATF interviewed former Branch Davidians and learned about sect leader David Koresh's biblical prophecy that the destiny of the Branch Davidians was to perish in a fiery Armageddon.

Q: A rush to judgment has been one theme of some critics of the ATF action. When did the bureau's investigation reach the point that action was taken?

A: Not until Feb. 25, 1993, when a U.S. magistrate issued a search warrant and an arrest warrant for Koresh for violating federal firearms laws.

The choice the raid commanders had was to serve the warrant or lay siege to the compound. The latter, ultimately, was rejected because of what former cult members told agents about Koresh's ability to withstand a siege and the danger that he would resort to mass suicide. There were about 70 people estimated to be in the compound, including a large number of children.

Agents arrived at the compound in force. The plan had some agents with fire extinguishers--the Davidians had dogs in front--and they thought they had to hold them at bay.

One agent opened the gate and another sprayed a fire extinguisher. Simultaneously, as the agents began to pour out of two trailers, Koresh appeared at the door. The agents identified themselves, stated that they had a warrant and yelled, "Freeze!" and "Get down!"

But, according to our investigation, Koresh slammed the door before the agents could reach it. Gunfire from inside the house burst through the door and a fire fight was on in which four agents were killed and 16 wounded. Six Davidians were killed--three by the ATF and three by other cult members--and at least four people inside the compound were wounded, includingKoresh.

Q: The ATF made mistakes?

A: Yes. Our key findings were that the top ATF officials were negligent in overseeing the operation; that the raid commanders, having not served in the military nor had SWAT team training, did not have the tactical experience to lead the operation, which involved more than 100 agents and was the largest the ATF had ever undertaken; that the raid commanders knew they had lost the crucial element of surprise before the raid began and should have aborted the mission, and that they did not adequately explore the possibility of arresting Koresh away from the compound.

A tragic series of things happened, but it must be said that the agents on the scene performed courageously.

Q: And the Davidians' responsibility?

A: It seems quite clear they were given every opportunity to come out, to save the lives of other people there, and it didn't happen.

Q: What was the investigation's ultimate value?

A: It's always valuable to critique a tactical operation, not to cast blame, but to examine what took place and learn from it. In this case, I believe every law-enforcement agency could benefit from the report. The ATF very definitely has.

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