The Wage Siege will be remembered for two tragic miscalculations,
51 days apart. The cause of the first one, in which four federal
agents were killed and 16 wounded, is even murkier than last week's
debacle and more likely to bring a massive upheaval at the agency
responsible: the 21-year-old Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
In the months leading up to the Feb. 28 raid, federal agents had
amassed plenty of justification for entering the Waco compound.
A neighbor had complained of hearing machine-gun fire. A United
Parcel Service deliveryman spoke of dropping off two cases of
"pineapple type" hand grenades and black gunpowder to
Ranch Apocalypse. Another source talked about the Branch Davidians
manufacturing live grenades and trying to develop a radio-controlled
aircraft to carry explosives. All told, according to documents
released last week by the ATF, David Koresh spent $199,715 on
weapons and ammunition in the 17 months before the Feb. 28 raid.
The arsenal included 123 M-16 rifles and parts necessary for
turning semiautomatic rifles into machine guns.
Yet the affidavits also show that the ATF had compelling evidence
that the Feb. 28 raid should have been called off. Testimony
from an ATF agent makes plaint that Koresh knew of the raid in
advance - and that top ATF officials were alerted to this before
it got under way. Top officials, who steadily maintained that
they had launched the raid unaware that Koresh had been forewarned,
are now shifting tack. "The element of surprise does not
mean they don't know you're coming. Only that they can't take
control," says ATF intelligence chief David Troy. That explanation
does not wash with the agents who anonymously charge that they
were knowingly sent into a deathtrap.
The newly unsealed documents recount how an ATF undercover agent
inside the compound, Robert Rodriguez, was talking with Koresh
on the morning of Feb. 28 when the cult leader was called away
by one of his disciples. When Koresh returned, he said, "Neither
ATF or the National Guard will ever get me. They got me once,
and they will never get me again They are coming. The time has
come" Rodriguez left the compound soon after and alerted
officials. Forty minutes elapsed before the ATF moved in.
Meanwhile word quickly spread through the compound that "the
Assyrians are coming." Koresh garbed himself in black and
grabbed an AR-15 rifle. By the time the 91 ATF agents pulled
up Double EE Ranch Road, most adults inside the compound were
armed. Brandishing a search warrant, an ATF agent approached
the open front door. By the ATF's account, a man slammed the
door and gunfire erupted from within. Koresh's attorney counters
that ATF agents fired first. Either way, the cult's barrage of
automatic fire so overwhelmed ATF agents that some nerve got off
In marked contrast to Attorney General Janet Reno's swift admission of FBI error in last week's raid, ATF director Stephen Higgins refuses to admit to flawed judgment. Last week members of congressional investigating committees suggested either closing down the ATF's law-enforcement operations or merging with the ATF, now a branch of the Treasury Department, with the Justice Department. Agency morale is devastated. Says Troy: "We have frustrated, hurt agents, involved in collective guilt. We're dealing with a highly traumatic situation."