FORT HOOD, Texas -- A federal judge has barred release of the tape from a field test conducted as part of the probe into the federal government's 1993 assault on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas. More than 80 members of the Davidians died in the April 19, 1993, blaze after FBI agents fired tear gas for several hours to flush them from their holdout.
Sunday's test of the Forward Looking Infrared Camera at Fort Hood Army base is intended to determine the reasons behind flashes of light on FBI infrared surveillance footage taken during the final moments of the siege. Infrared experts hired by survivors who have filed a wrongful death suit against the government contend the flashes represent gunfire from government positions and a smattering of return fire from the Davidians.
The Davidians allege that during the final hours of the 51-day siege, FBI agents fired guns into the blazing compound, cutting off the sect members' only avenue of escape. The FBI says its agents never fired guns at the Davidians during the siege.
FBI officials say the Davidians died by their own hands. They have suggested that the flashes came from sunlight glinting off pools of water, metal or other debris.
Sunday's field test of the infrared camera is meant to show how gunfire, debris and people appear during weather and terrain conditions similar to those during the assault. During the test, aircraft with infrared cameras flew over Fort Hood while gunmen in combat garb fired weapons similar to those carried by federal agents and Davidians alike. Michael Caddell, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in the suit, told a news conference after the test that U.S. District Judge Walter Smith had on Sunday morning ordered that no portions of the tape be released for the time being.
The tape was expected to be ready either later on Sunday evening or sometime on Monday, Caddell said. Copies will be released to the FBI, the Justice Department and to the attorneys for the plaintiffs. The test was orchestrated by Vector Data Research. The company will issue an independent report on the test within 30 days, and that will be made publicly quickly, the judge said.
The results of the test, in which tanks, a helicopter and camouflaged gunmen took part, are considered crucial for the plaintiffs. The case is scheduled for trial in mid-May.
Caddell, who was allowed to witness the test, said it appeared to go smoothly. "There were individuals moving from position to position; they had a debris field set up, we saw the test conducted." U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford, one of the government's lead lawyers, also said the test went smoothly. "But we're really kind of limited right now as to what we can share with you," he said. Temperatures during the test were cooler -- about 69 by its conclusion -- than those on the final day of the Waco siege, which reached the mid-80s. Caddell said he considered the temperatures to be "within acceptable limits. "When you think about coordinating weather, equipment, personnel, I think we're all pleased that we got it done and that all of those things came together today," Caddell said.
The test, some 40 miles southwest of Waco, was ordered by Smith at the request of special counsel John Danforth, appointed by Attorney General Janet Reno to re-investigate the Waco controversy.
Asked about the independence of the inquiry, Caddell said, "I don't think they have any preconceived notions as to how this test should come out. "I just know that, based on what I've seen and what I know that they've been told, I think they will issue an honest report, a fair report, and I think it will be critical in many respects."
"What we're trying to do here is answer a particular allegation and a lawsuit and try to get this issue hopefully put to rest so the American public will not continue to hear a baseless allegation with no foundation that the FBI was in the back of that compound shooting. It didn't happen." Caddell said, "The government doesn't want to talk about whether you get flashes from debris, which is the only explanation the government has offered for these flashes. They know they're not going to get flashes from debris" that look like the April 19 flashes.
The government says shots cannot be fired without shooters, but the plaintiffs argue that the agents weren't detected because the temperature of their clothing was similar to that of the soil.
Before the test began, tanks disturbed the soil and crushed glass, aluminum and other debris to help reproduce conditions from 1993. Two aircraft equipped with infrared cameras circled over the test site: The FBI Night Stalker plane used at Waco, with its since-upgraded infrared camera; and a Lynx helicopter on loan from the British navy. The helicopter's infrared camera is much like the one used in 1993.
While the aircraft hovered, Danforth's investigators and military personnel fired an array of weaponry, including rifles, pistols and grenade launchers with nonburning tear gas rounds and military-issue gas grenades. Danforth's office declined to comment on the cost of the test or who will pay for it.
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