A former top FBI official has acknowledged that sending tanks into the Branch Davidian compound was inconsistent with the Washington-approved plan for ending the 51-day siege, the sect's lead lawyer said Wednesday. Former deputy assistant FBI director Danny Coulson also testified in a deposition on Tuesday that he and other senior FBI leaders were stunned when they saw live network TV images of FBI tanks ramming deep into the sect's compound on April 19, 1993, said Houston attorney Michael Caddell.
Mr. Coulson is the first top FBI official involved in the 1993 incident to be questioned under oath in the Branch Davidians' wrongful-death lawsuit. The founding commander of the FBI's hostage rescue team and one of its most experienced tactical experts, Mr. Coulson was one of the bureau's key decision-makers in drafting the detailed gassing-operation plan that Attorney General Janet Reno ultimately approved.
That plan called for demolition of the sect's building only after tear gas had been sprayed in for 48 hours. If Branch Davidians began firing guns at the tanks, the plan allowed FBI agents to begin a large-scale insertion of tear gas.
But early proposals that called for using tanks in the initial stages of the operation to demolish the building were removed from the final plan approved in Washington, FBI and Justice Department records show. On April 19, however, FBI tanks began demolishing the rear of the building less than five hours after the gas operation began. A fire consumed the compound less than an hour later.
"Mr. Coulson made it clear that the penetrations of the tanks into the building were deviations, were inconsistent with the plan approved by the attorney general," Mr. Caddell said.
Mr. Coulson, now retired and living in the Dallas area, declined to comment Wednesday.
Mr. Caddell said the former official's testimony will bolster his argument that the two former FBI officials who led the Waco operation, Jeffrey Jamar and hostage rescue team commander Dick Rogers, should be held legally liable for the tragedy. U.S. District Judge Walter Smith dismissed the two men as defendants last summer, but lawyers for the sect filed a motion earlier this month arguing that they should be reinstated. "It's completely understandable from Mr. Coulson's testimony that on April 19, Rogers and Jamar decided to jettison the plans that had been approved in Washington," Mr. Caddell said.
Lawyers for the government declined to comment on Wednesday. Both Mr. Rogers and Mr. Jamar have declined interview requests. FBI stance
The FBI's lawyers have contended in legal pleadings that the two FBI officials did nothing that would justify lifting the strict legal restrictions on bringing civil lawsuits against federal officials or agencies.
One Justice Department official said that Mr. Coulson's testimony may be of limited importance because he acknowledged that he was not in the FBI command center that kept direct communications with FBI leaders in Waco. "He wasn't in a position to know if there were authorized modifications to the plan," the official said. "He also said that it was his experience that the people on the ground have some discretion." FBI lawyers also have argued that federal law prohibits using lawsuits to "second-guess" judgment calls of federal officials, even if they have tragic results.
In a Feb. 10 pleading, they also contended that federal law would prohibit suing the bureau's Waco commanders even if the plaintiffs prove that agents under the commanders' supervision fired guns at the compound on April 19. The FBI pleading stated that the Branch Davidians have offered no evidence that either commander ordered agents to shoot. But it added that "if government officials were to have fired into the compound, such gunfire would not be 'unprovoked,' nor inconsistent with the FBI's deadly force policy."
"Government lawyers are moving away from an absolute position that there was no government gunfire on April 19," he said. "Those are the first cracks in the stone wall."
Questions about government gunfire and the way the FBI used tanks on April 19 are central issues in the Branch Davidians' lawsuit. Judge Smith has set a trial for mid-May on several major questions: Did federal agents use excessive force in the raid that began the 1993 standoff, which left four agents and several Branch Davidians dead? Did federal agents shoot at the sect and prevent members' escape when the compound burned during the FBI's gas assault? Did the FBI's use of tanks contribute to the fire that consumed the compound?
And was the FBI negligent in failing to prepare for a fire? More than 80 sect members died about six hours after the tear-gas assault began.
Government officials have noted that government arson investigators ruled that Branch Davidians deliberately set the blaze. They have also contended that it would have been impossible to fight the fire without jeopardizing the lives of FBI agents and firefighters.
Local firefighters were kept away for almost 45 minutes after they responded to the blaze. Mr. Jamar later said he could not let them near the compound sooner for fear that sect members could have shot them. But Mr. Caddell said Wednesday that Mr. Coulson's testimony could strengthen the sect's claims about government negligence in failing to prepare adequately for a fire.
"He acknowledged that the attorney general had instructed them to ensure that adequate firefighting equipment was there and told them that cost was not an issue," Mr. Caddell said. "The FBI had acknowledged investigating the use of armored firefighting equipment, but for reasons unknown to Mr. Coulson, they didn't have any."
Instead, draft plans for the tear-gassing indicate, FBI officials decided to rely on the closest nearby civilian fire department. That largely volunteer department then had only three paid employees, FBI records indicate.
Some of those concerns were outlined in an annotated statement that Justice and FBI officials prepared at Ms. Reno's request before she approved the gas plan.
"While it is conceivable to demolish the compound through the use of tanks . . . such an effort would necessarily pose great risk of harming children within the compound. The presence of these innocent children and our ability to minimize the risk of harm to them continues to be a major influence on all tactical considerations," the Attorney General's document stated. Other FBI documents show that senior bureau negotiators and behavioral experts warned that sending in tanks guaranteed violence and loss of life. Mr. Coulson has previously said that he did not know of another FBI operation in which armored vehicles were used to assault a barricaded building. He vetoed use of tanks in the 1992 standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, when Mr. Rogers asked to use armored vehicles to demolish the building where white supremacist Randy Weaver was holed up.
Mr. Coulson told Congress that he rejected that proposal because tanks would cause panic and loss of life.
When Mr. Coulson told The Dallas Morning News last August that bureau agents had fired pyrotechnic tear gas rounds during the Waco assault, his acknowledgment drew attention back to government actions at the siege. Ms. Reno had explicitly ordered the FBI not to use anything that might spark a fire that day.
That admission led Ms. Reno to appoint former Missouri Sen. John Danforth as a special counsel to re-examine the Branch Davidian incident. It also prompted the reopening of investigations into the Waco tragedy in both houses of Congress.
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