WASHINGTON — An FBI tape recorded at the Branch Davidian disaster six years ago revealed Thursday that the special agent in charge gave the go-ahead to fire pyrotechnic munitions at a concrete bunker.
Federal authorities released the audio-video tape in an effort to calm the growing controversy over why the FBI falsely denied for six years that it had used pyrotechnic devices on the final day of the 51-day siege of the cult's compound near Waco, Texas. But the tape--which indicates that a senior FBI official made the decision to use "hot" tear gas canisters--seems likely only to trigger questions about what higher authorities knew about that day's deadly events.
The special agent, Richard M. Rogers, later sat behind William S. Sessions, then director of the FBI, as he testified before Congress that no flammable munitions had been used that day.
"It's definitely one more thing we want to look at. And we want to find out whether [the decision] goes even higher," said a Senate Republican source.
Indeed, even as Justice Department officials confirmed that Atty. Gen. Janet Reno plans to appoint an outside investigator to pursue the matter, Republican lawmakers stepped up their demands for full congressional hearings. A House committee on Thursday issued subpoenas to the White House, the FBI and the Justice Department, among others, demanding access to all material related to the Branch Davidian tragedy.
The controversy over the disaster--which claimed the lives of nearly 80 people on April 19, 1993--resurfaced as a political controversy last week when the FBI first acknowledged that its agents may have used pyrotechnic devices several hours before the compound went up in flames.
The acknowledgment has damaged the credibility of Reno and other senior law enforcement officials, who have denied for six years that agents used any flammable materials that day. And it has bolstered the cause of activists in Texas and elsewhere who have charged for years that government agents were responsible for starting the blaze in which cult leader David Koresh and many of his followers died.
Law enforcement officials said Thursday that the newly released tape, including aerial shots of the compound, should confirm that the tear gas canisters fired by the FBI did not start the fire that broke out about four hours later.
"Everyone realizes the urgency in getting this information out there so the public can see what it shows--and what it doesn't show, which is just as important," said one law enforcement official who asked not to be identified. "The tear gas had nothing to do with the fire."
The aerial footage includes audio from radio transmissions between FBI supervisors on the ground on the morning of April 19. The key portion released Thursday centers on the decision to fire military tear gas canisters at a concrete bunker a few dozen yards from Koresh's wooden compound, which later erupted in flames. The FBI wanted to use tear gas in the underground bunker to prevent Koresh or any of his followers from using it as an escape route.
Reno has said she was assured when she approved the use of tear gas against Koresh and his followers that no incendiary devices would be used. She did not want to start fires that would endanger the lives of the several dozen children inside the compound.
But the recording details the decision to use pyrotechnic munitions, as two FBI agents--Rogers, special agent in charge of the hostage rescue team, and Stephen P. McGavin, a supervisor for the team--discuss ways of getting gas canisters inside the bunker.
About 7:48 a.m., Rogers asked McGavin if an agent could penetrate the bunker, according to an FBI transcript.
"Ten-four. He thinks he can get into position with relative safety utilizing the track for cover and attempt to penetrate it with military rounds," McGavin answered, referring to the pyrotechnic tear gas devices.
"Roger. Of course, if there's water underneath, that's just going to extinguish [the tear gas canisters], but you can try it," Rogers said.
"Ten-four. Copy. He can try it?" McGavin asked.
"Yeah, that's affirmative," Rogers answered.
Rogers could not be reached for comment Thursday. He is no longer with the FBI.
He was removed as head of the agency's hostage team because of his role in the controversial 1992 siege of a white separatist's cabin at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. He was one of the officials who authorized a change during that operation in the FBI's standard policy of not shooting to kill unless fired upon.
One of three people slain in the Ruby Ridge siege was an unarmed woman shot by an FBI sniper.
FBI spokesman John Collingwood said that the decision to use the pyrotechnic canisters at the Branch Davidian compound appears to have been "outside the clear understanding that the attorney general had."
The "$64,000 question," as one FBI official said, is determining who knew that pyrotechnics were used and why that information has come to light only in the last week.