KILLEEN, Tex., March 19 -- Gathered deep inside the nation's largest military base, a group of government officials, special investigators and private lawyers watched an unusual simulation today that was intended to help determine whether the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been truthful about its role in the fatal Branch Davidian standoff in 1993.
The exercise, which was ordered by a federal judge and carried out at Fort Hood, was designed to examine unproven allegations that F.B.I. agents fired into the Branch Davidian's Mount Carmel compound before it burned to the ground on April 19, 1993. About 80 men, women and children died that day, including the leader of the religious sect, David Koresh.
Initially, the special infrared videos taken of today's simulation were supposed to have been released to the public. But this morning United States District Judge Walter S. Smith, presiding over a wrongful death lawsuit brought against the government by survivors and descendants of the Branch Davidians, sealed the videos, precluding any public viewing. The simulation was supervised by former Senator John C. Danforth, who was appointed by United States Attorney General Janet Reno to lead an investigation into the F.B.I.'s role in the standoff.
Early this evening, F.B.I. officials said that agency experts had conducted a preliminary review of the videos, and said they vindicated their position that agents had never fired on April 19. Michael Caddell, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in the wrongful death lawsuit, was scheduled to hold a news conference on Monday morning in Houston after his experts had concluded reviewing the videos.
The lack of public access has created the possibility that both sides in the case would offer conflicting opinions without any public review of the videos. An independent analysis of the videos by the British company that conducted today's simulation could be turned over to the court within 30 days and then possibly released to the public.
At a news conference after the simulation, Mr. Caddell and one of the lead lawyers for the government relayed Judge Smith's action to reporters, saying they had not anticipated the judge's action. "That was the court's decision," said United States Attorney Mike Bradford, one of the main lawyers for the government in the civil case. "I don't think either side really solicited it."
For years, controversy has surrounded aerial infrared videos taken by the F.B.I. on the day of the fire that showed unexplained "flashes." Mr. Caddell and other government critics have contended that the flashes were from F.B.I. agents firing into the compound. He has argued that the gunfire trapped Davidians inside when the fire broke out. Government officials have presented evidence that Mr. Koresh ordered that the fires be started as part of a suicide pact.
Today's simulation was designed to capture gunfire on a similar infrared video and then determine if the shots created similar flashes. The exercise began at about 11 a.m. and lasted about three hours. In addition to Mr. Danforth and Judge Smith, the group of about 20 observers included representatives from the Department of Justice, the F.B.I., the Texas Rangers and private lawyers representing the plaintiffs. They watched a series of drills performed by six postal inspectors and two Army soldiers dressed in uniforms similar to those worn by F.B.I. agents on the day of the fire.
First, the eight participants fired different weapons from prone and kneeling positions. Then, they slowly advanced to a prescribed firing line where they fired a series of single shots followed by shorts bursts and long bursts of automatic gunfire. They repeated the exercise four times as the F.B.I. Nightstalker airplane and a British Navy helicopter took turns filming from different altitudes.
In addition, an armored vehicle was driven beside a field littered with debris like twisted aluminum, broken glass and pools of water. Each aspect of the exercise -- the gunfire and the armored vehicle -- was intended to test the conflicting theories about the flashes. Mr. Caddell said he thought the staged gunfire would create identical flashes on the infrared tape put forth by the plaintiffs and by the government. Mr. Caddell has contended that the flashes were gunfire while the government had said the flashes, or "glints," were merely reflections from debris scattered around the Mount Carmel compound.
Mr. Caddell said secrecy and security was at a premium. The observers were driven by bus for nearly an hour to a location within Fort Hood. For security, he said, several military vehicles were positioned nearby. Judge Smith denied a motion by several news media organizations, including The New York Times, to witness the test. There had been concerns that cold weather might force a postponement or possibly skew today's results. But the temperatures eventually pushed above the agreed upon minimum of 65 degrees. On the day of the fire at Mount Carmel, temperatures reached 85 degrees.
Last December, Judge Smith granted a plaintiffs' motion to hold the demonstration and ordered that Mr. Danforth's staff supervise the exercise. Initially, government lawyers had fought against the motion, contending that similar Forward Looking Infrared, or FLIR, technology no longer existed. But Mr. Danforth's staff located such a device in Britain.
When it became clear that both the judge and Mr. Danforth favored the exercise, the government reversed itself and consented.
Regardless of the results of the exercise, the Waco controversy seems likely to rage on, particularly for those who believe the Davidians were innocent victims. Clive Doyle, a surviving Branch Davidian not represented by Mr. Caddell, criticized Mr. Caddell as not taking a hard enough line against the government. Mr. Doyle and other survivors are represented by Ramsey Clark, the former United States Attorney General, while Mr. Caddell represents many descendants of those who died in the fire. Judge Smith appointed Mr. Caddell as the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in the civil case.
Mr. Doyle said he had "no confidence in the test because I believe the test is being done to try to justify and prove the government line rather than the plaintiffs'."
Early this morning, before the test, Mr. Caddell signaled his likely approach to the civil trial when he told reporters that he did not believe the deaths of the Branch Davidians resulted from an overarching government conspiracy but rather from the improper actions of supervisory agents at the scene.
"I know that may disappoint some people," he said. "But this is not a big conspiracy, it's a small conspiracy. There were a handful of people on April 19 who took matters into their own hands and disobeyed the orders of the Attorney General and the F.B.I. leadership. Those people have to be held accountable."
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