FBI photograph apparently undermines claims that government forces fired on Branch Davidians


St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 12, 2000
By Terry Ganey and William H. Freivogel

A newly released FBI photograph appears to undercut claims that government forces opened fire on Branch Davidians during the assault on the compound outside Waco in 1993.

The photograph, which was obtained by the Post-Dispatch, is part of a batch of photos the government recently turned over to Special Counsel John C. Danforth and to U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith, who is presiding over a wrongful-death suit filed by Branch Davidian survivors.

If accurate, the photo could help Danforth determine whether agents fired shots, which is also one of the key claims in the separate civil suit in Waco.

The FBI surveillance photo appears to have been snapped on April 19, 1993, within seconds of the time when a flash appears on a separate infrared tape at 11:24 a.m. The Branch Davidians and their experts claim that flashes on the infrared film at that time are the muzzle blasts from the guns of government agents. The surveillance photo shows no one in the vicinity of the flash.

The flashes on the infrared tape have been the strongest evidence to date that government forces fired on the Branch Davidians. Danforth thinks the flashes are important; at his request, the judge has ordered a court-supervised test by an independent expert to determine if small arms fire shows up as flashes on infrared tape. Fort Hood, Texas, is under consideration as the site for the test.

The FBI has always said its agents did not fire any guns during the siege on the complex. In answers to recent questions from investigators and plaintiffs' lawyers, FBI agents have continued to say they did not fire guns at Waco. The FBI has said it cannot explain the cause of the flashes on the infrared tape.

Mike Caddell, the lead lawyer for the Branch Davidians, said he had not seen the photograph the Post-Dispatch had obtained for the comparison. He said a fair comparison required seeing all the photographs, which he has requested but not yet received.

"Seeing one or two or 10 photographs doesn't tell you a whole lot," Caddell said.

Two FBI planes were flying over the Branch Davidian complex on the day of the assault. One, an FBI Nightstalker, was circling at about 9,000 feet taking infrared tape of the scene. This plane was using Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR) technology on which hot items appear white and cold items appear dark.

Meanwhile, a second plane, flying lower over the complex, was snapping still photographs, including the batch that has now been turned over to Danforth and Judge Smith. Thousands of government photographs of the Waco events have been in the FBI files for years, and some of them have been shared with Congress and were used in a 1994 criminal trial. Until recently, they have not been compared to the Nightstalker's FLIR tapes.

One key comparison is about 11:30 a.m., when FBI agents driving a tank began destroying the back wall of the gymnasium at the rear of the Branch Davidian complex. The FLIR tapes record the tank plowing into the back of the gym and backing out. When the tank enters the structure at 11:24:31, a flash is observed on the FLIR tape off the right rear corner of the tank.

The surveillance photographs do not have time signatures, but one photo appears to have been taken at about 11:24 a.m. but from a slightly different angle. The time comparison can be estimated by comparing the level of damage to the gym shown in the surveillance photo with what is depicted on the FLIR tape.

The surveillance photo shows the tank partially in the gym, either driving into it or backing out. If the picture was made as the tank was driving into the gym, it might have been made at the moment of the flash. If it came when the tank was backing out, it was shot about 35 seconds later. In either event, no figures can be observed in the surveillance photo in the area off the right rear of the tank.

Edward Allard, the Branch Davidians' FLIR expert, has pointed to the flashes at 11:24 a.m. as evidence of automatic weapons fire. Allard, who read FLIR tapes for the Pentagon's night vision lab, has said the gunfire appeared to be directed toward the complex's dining room where many of the Branch Davidians had gathered.

Caddell, the Branch Davidian lawyer, was not impressed by the comparison of the surveillance photo with the FLIR.

"There were a lot of times when that tank went in and out of the building," he said. "Being able to identify what time it is and whatever the precise moment when someone was firing from the rear of the tank is very suspect unless you've got a complete roll of film and you can see the entire sequence."

No figures appear in the FLIR tape at the time of the 11:24 flash. Allard has said that black blobs appearing off the right rear of the tank are the people firing the guns. However, humans seen in other parts of the tape appear as shadow figures with arms and legs. The blobs do not appear on the surveillance photo.

Allard also has said that when the tank backs over the black blobs the agents may be getting back into a hatch at the bottom of the tank. But the FBI's clearest version of the FLIR tapes -- a digitized version of the originals -- appears to show the tank tracks running directly over the blobs as the tank backs over them five times.

Other investigators who have been trying to determine if the blobs are people say they tend to think they are not. "Allard may have made a mistake on that," said one investigator who believes there may have been gunfire.

The FBI's copy of the tapes also has an interesting portion about 11:28 a.m. The FLIR shows the tank knocking down a big door or a wall on one end of the gym. Seconds later a few flashes appear nearby, fueling speculation that the flashes may somehow have resulted from the destruction of the building. But the FBI, whose previous explanations of the flashes have not held up to scrutiny, says it does not know what caused the flashes.

Previously unpublished photographs from the FBI

A comparison of two photographs casts doubt on the Branch Davidians' claim that government agents fired on the Branch Davidians during the 1993 siege. These two photographs were shot at about the same time. The top photo appears to show that no government agents were standing in the place where the Branch Davidians claim the government opened fire. It seems to contradict the interpretation that experts for the Branch Davidians put on the infrared shot below. Those experts say that the flash (see arrow) is the hot muzzle gases of a gunshot. The bright spot near the flash is the tank exhaust (see arrow), which shows the tank was in about the same position when the top and bottom photographs were taken. That shows that the pictures were taken within seconds of one another.


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