Judge seals film footage of Waco siege re-creation

Fort Hood experiment designed to look for gunfire

The Dallas Morning News, March 20, 2000
By Lee Hancock and David Jackson

KILLEEN, Texas - A federal judge unexpectedly banned both sides in the Branch Davidian case from releasing footage from a Sunday field test aimed at determining whether government agents fired at the sect's compound at the end of the 1993 siege.

His decision did not stop attorneys for the government and the sect from predicting that the experiment at a remote Fort Hood firing range Sunday will support their sharply opposing views of what happened near Waco on April 19, 1993.

U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford, one of the government's lead lawyers, said after the test that government officials were confident it would disprove "baseless allegations with no foundation that the FBI was out at the back of that compound shooting."

But Mike Caddell of Houston, lead lawyer in the Branch Davidians' wrongful-death lawsuit, voiced equal certainty that the results would show gunfire muzzle blasts similar to repeated flashes recorded by the FBI in 1993 with an airborne forward-looking-infrared (FLIR) camera.

"We're likely to get flashes today that will look like the flashes from the April 19 FLIR that will be generated by gunfire," he said.

While video from Sunday's test will not be made public immediately, both sides promised to discuss their initial assessments of test data by Monday morning. The supervisors of the test, British infrared experts chosen by Waco special counsel John C. Danforth and the federal court in Waco, released the raw data to both sides late Sunday after certifying the data's accuracy.

FBI officials have long maintained that their agents fired no shots on April 19 as government tanks bashed into the sect's home and injected tear gas to force an end to a 51-day standoff. But lawyers for the sect say that repeated government gunshots in the last hour of the assault kept women and children from fleeing when a fire engulfed their building. Their federal wrongful death lawsuit against the government alleges that repeated rhythmic flashes recorded by the FBI's infrared camera on April 19 were caused by government gunfire. While some independent experts have offered similar assessments of the video, experts for the government have said that the flashes on the tape lasted too long to be muzzle flashes. Theories tested

So both sides took their argument to Fort Hood, gathering on a breezy, cool and cloudless morning along with their scientists and a contingent of state, federal and congressional investigators. Also present were Mr. Danforth and the federal judge hearing the Branch Davidians' case, U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr.

For two hours, they watched as gunmen armed with weapons like those carried by both sides in Waco fired repeated volleys. Armored vehicles matching those used by the FBI in Waco also lumbered across a debris-strewn field as a British Royal Navy helicopter and an FBI aircraft took turns filming with infrared cameras.

In addition to blocking release of the film, Judge Smith surprised both sides with the announcement that the British experts overseeing Sunday's operation, Vector Data Systems Ltd., would give the court their own written analysis of the test within 30 days.

Mr. Bradford and Mr. Caddell said they believe the judge decided to seal the test data to give Vector Data time to prepare a formal report before the Fort Hood footage becomes public. Both attorneys acknowledged that the court's request for a full report could mean that Vector Data scientists will be deposed before the trial. That could mean the court will have to extend depositions and possibly delay the May 15 trial.

Even before the test, some government officials were cautioning that its results could fuel rather than resolve public debate over the flashes on the infrared video from the last day of the siege. Arguing begins

Minutes after the test ended, the arguing began. A handful of protesters who attended a joint post-test news conference berated lawyers for both sides, accusing them of covering up a mass government murder. Branch Davidian fire survivor Clive Doyle also came from Waco to complain after learning that Mr. Caddell had publicly criticized David Koresh, the sect's messianic leader.

Mr. Bradford told reporters that any gun flashes that appeared on the test recordings "are going to have to be analyzed. We're going to have to see how that compares to the April 19 video."

While Mr. Caddell predicted that evaluating the data would be relatively "easy," he reminded reporters that it would address only a portion of the allegations leveled against the government.

Also at issue, he said, is whether the FBI's commanders exceeded their authority in ordering tanks to begin driving deep into the building and demolishing its rear on April 19.

Mr. Caddell said he also expects to be able to prove government negligence in the FBI's decision not to try to fight a fire if one broke out at the compound. He said he also believes that he can convince a federal judge that the government's agents and tanks contributed to the fire in which Mr. Koresh and more than 80 followers died.

"David Koresh bears part of that responsibility," Mr. Caddell said. "And what our lawsuit is about, I think, is that the government needs to accept its share of responsibility as well." Looking for gunmen

In arguing against the idea of government gunfire, FBI officials point out that no gunmen are visible anywhere near the repeated flashes on the April 19 infrared video. In contrast, they predicted that shooters would clearly be visible in the tapes of the test conducted Sunday.

But Mr. Caddell said gunmen would be more likely to show up in Sunday's test because Sunday's weather was between 15 and 20 degrees colder than in 1993. Temperatures reached 85 in Waco on April 19 in the final hour before the compound burned.

"If there's a match between the gunfire on April 19 and gunfire at Fort Hood, people are going to overcome questions about seeing bodies," he said. "I think the bodies are a secondary issue."

He said that an FBI still camera in another bureau plane captured a photo of agents standing outside their tanks several hundred feet away from the rear of the compound on April 19. In a motion last week in federal court, Mr. Caddell stated that his comparison of FBI still and infrared photos pegged that image as having been taken at 11:35 a.m.

Mr. Caddell said those elongated dark shapes of men on the ground look remarkably similar to shapes that appeared in a courtyard at the rear of the compound at 11:43 a.m. on the infrared video.

The April 19 video shows repeated white flashes emanating just after 11:43 a.m. from the same area of the courtyard where the dark shapes appeared on the still picture, Mr. Caddell.

"We're really focusing on this because of their effort to prove their argument by saying you can't see bodies on the April 19 tape," Mr. Caddell said. "There are times when you can see bodies. . . . The bodies are hard to find. They clearly are taking cover. But if you look, you can see bodies." Asked about the 11:43 a.m. photograph, FBI officials repeated their long-held position that no agents left the protection of their armored vehicles anywhere near the compound until after it caught fire.

"Why would they go there? Why would they do that? What would they accomplish? They would be completely open to Davidian gunfire," one official said of the shapes in the courtyard picture. "There's just no common-sense explanation of why anyone would go right into the open fully exposed to Davidian gunfire."

FBI officials added that determining what the shapes might be would require far more sophisticated analysis, noting that they appear to the naked eye to be shorter than the black shapes of men photographed earlier near the FBI tanks.

A federal investigator involved in re-examining the incident said the shapes could also conceivably be the shadowy figures of Branch Davidians. Test conditions

Media organizations had sought access to the test. But Judge Smith barred reporters at Mr. Danforth's request.

The lawyers, their scientists and other observers gathered just before 9 a.m. at the U.S. Army's III Corps headquarters building and were driven by bus to a remote, heavily guarded firing range.

The test got under way about 11 a.m., after temperatures rose to 59 degrees. By the time it ended at 2 p.m., the temperature was about 69.

The British helicopter and the FBI plane recorded the test gun shots and other ground maneuvers from an altitude of 4,000 feet and then filmed again at 6,000 feet. The Waco infrared footage was shot at roughly 4,500 feet.

In addition to the gunshots, the cameras took footage of men maneuvering in different types of camouflage gear. At issue is how the heat-sensing camera's ability to detect body heat from humans might be diminished by different kinds of camouflage clothing or body armor.

Armored vehicles matching those used by the FBI in Waco were filmed driving over fields of aluminum, glass and other debris, and the cameras also shot footage of pools of standing water and a family-sized dome tent specially rigged with reflective aluminum coated "space" blankets.

Government officials requested that the aluminum-covered tent be included in the test to guarantee that at least some flashes on the test recordings would be generated from sunlight reflections.

The British aircraft was borrowed and flown in from England late last week because its infrared camera, a GEC-Marconi Sea Owl, is near-identical to the FBI's Waco camera.

Both sides agreed that camera would provide official test results, because the FBI's camera from 1993 has been upgraded. That camera, mounted in the same "Nightstalker" aircraft used at Waco, was to provide backup test data at Fort Hood.

Representatives from Mr. Danforth's office flew in both aircraft to observe the operation of the infrared cameras. Under previously agreed protocols, each camera was set to specific NATO infrared standards used by U.S. and European military forces.

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