Seeking Clues by Simulating Davidian Siege

New York Times, March 18, 2000
By Jim Yardley And Ross E. Milloy

WACO, Tex., Mar. 17 -- Early this Sunday, a select group of government officials and private lawyers will meet at nearby Fort Hood, the nation's largest military base. For several hours, maybe longer, they will watch an extraordinary simulation intended to answer a question that has raged from Internet chat rooms to the halls of Congress:

Did federal agents fire gunshots into the Branch Davidian compound occupied by David Koresh and his followers shortly before it burned to the ground on April 19, 1993, claiming the lives of about 80 men, women and children? The exercise is intended to address one of the unresolved mysteries of the Branch Davidian standoff, an episode widely regarded as one of the most troubling in American law-enforcement history. On that final day, an infrared aerial surveillance video by the Federal Bureau of Investigation captured unexplained "flashes" near the compound just before the fire erupted.

Government officials have steadfastly denied that agents fired any weapons, but lawyers representing survivors and descendants of the Branch Davidians in a wrongful-death lawsuit claim that the flashes indicated gunfire. Since the fall, former Senator John C. Danforth has been leading an investigation into the episode near here, and Sunday's test could be important in his efforts to determine whether the government was truthful in its account of how it carried out the siege.

That such an exercise will occur is another reminder that the furor over the incident remains one of the most vexing issues still facing the Department of Justice in the waning months of the Clinton administration. Some experts question how far even Sunday's test will go in answering the most troubling questions.

Mr. Danforth's staff is overseeing the exercise, the first such major simulation involving the government since investigators re-enacted the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

"If we are right, and if we prove there is gunfire, the implications go far beyond the whole issue of just whether the Davidians were killed or not," said Michael Caddell, the lead lawyer for the Branch Davidians. The field test, which was ordered in December by Judge Walter S. Smith of United States District Court, who is presiding over the civil lawsuit, is a major logistical undertaking. The test could be postponed if the weather is bad. If not, an F.B.I. airplane and a British helicopter will be equipped with cameras similar to the Forward Looking Infrared, or FLIR, device used by the F.B.I. on April 19. On the ground, eight participants -- six postal inspectors and two Army soldiers -- will fire weapons from prone, kneeling and standing positions. Tanks and armored vehicles will rumble over a field of debris intended to replicate the Branch Davidian compound. There will be a rehearsal on Saturday.

Once completed, the new footage will be compared to the FLIR video account of the fire. Mr. Caddell believes that the staged gunfire will produce flashes similar to those recorded on the original video and confirm his contention that agents fired into the compound.

Various news organizations, including The New York Times, had sought access to the test, but Judge Smith denied it.

Mr. Caddell, however, said he planned to release copies of the video as soon as Monday so that the public can draw its own conclusions.

"The reality is that people are going to make up their own minds on this," Mr. Caddell said. "Do you have to have an expert tell you the difference between the sun and the moon?"

Mike Bradford, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Texas and one of the lead government lawyers in the case, said he was concerned that the experiment could simply create more confusion. Mr. Bradford said government lawyers initially opposed the test because they regarded it as a misguided and inauthentic effort to re-enact the final day of the standoff. But, he said, the protocol for Sunday is not a re-enactment, and he hopes the test will dispel the speculation that has surrounded the role of F.B.I. agents.

"These flashes do appear on the tape that seem to have created some doubts," Mr. Bradford said. "We are hopeful that maybe this test will make it clear that what you see on the tape of the 19th could not be agents moving and shooting."

The standoff began on Feb. 28, 1993, after a gun battle at the compound near Waco left four federal agents and six Branch Davidians dead. The agents had gone to the compound to serve an arrest warrant on Mr. Koresh on weapons charges. For 51 days thereafter, a standoff ensued until the morning of April 19, when government tanks poked holes in the building and began spreading tear gas. Within a short time, the building erupted in flames. Government officials describe Mr. Koresh as a madman. In past Congressional hearings, they have presented evidence that he ordered his followers to set the compound on fire as part of a suicide pact.

But the role played by federal agents has continued to draw scrutiny. In September, Attorney General Janet Reno appointed Mr. Danforth as a special counsel to re-examine the April 19 F.B.I. raid after disclosures that F.B.I. agents fired at least one flammable tear-gas canister at a concrete bunker near the Davidian building. The F.B.I. had previously maintained that it had not fired any device capable of starting a fire.

Since the fall, Mr. Danforth's 68-person staff has sifted through piles of evidence and examined weapons and bullet casings used by federal agents during the standoff and fire. In January, Mr. Danforth moved to perform toxicology test on the tissue and bones of those who died to determine if they were affected by the tear gas pumped into the compound. Mr. Danforth, who promised on the day of his appointment to answer "the dark questions," has not commented since.

"He has maintained a code of silence throughout the investigation," said Jan Diltz, a spokeswoman. "He is going to tell the American people at the conclusion what the facts are, and we'll just go with that." At Judge Smith's request, Mr. Danforth's staff has organized Sunday's field test, which will be conducted by a British company. In October, Mr. Caddell filed a motion seeking the test. His lawsuit contends that Federal agents fired gunshots from behind the compound. As a result Mr. Caddell contends, people were trapped inside when the fire erupted. Government lawyers have fiercely denied such an explanation, pointing out that there is no concrete evidence that any agents fired that day. This month Mr. Caddell dropped his action against one well-known government sniper, Lon Horiuchi, because ballistics tests failed to show he had fired his weapon.

Government lawyers initially tried to prevent the Sunday field test by telling the court that the FLIR camera used on April 19 no longer existed, a position they retracted after Mr. Danforth's staff located the device in England. When it became clear that both Mr. Danforth and Judge Smith favored the test, the government reversed course and agreed to participate. "It shows the court takes the case very seriously and is looking for every opportunity to let the parties get to the truth," said Bill Johnston, a former assistant United States attorney, who was intimately involved in the Branch Davidian case before he resigned earlier this year to enter private practice.

Danny Coulson, the deputy assistant director of the F.B.I. at the time of the standoff, acknowledged that the field test could further inflame speculation by conspiracy theorists and others critical of the government. Mr. Coulson himself disputes allegations that F.B.I. agents fired weapons. But he said the test was essential if the F.B.I. wanted to finally expunge any public doubts about the agency's role.

"If there were people out there shooting, we need to know that," said Mr. Coulson, who has retired from the F.B.I. and now works as an author and security consultant. "In order for the F.B.I. to have any credibility with certain segments of society, we need to resolve it. If the F.B.I. doesn't have any credibility, its ability to function is greatly diminished." He added, "It's crazy, but if we can put this to rest, I think that is good for the country."

In recent months, experts for Mr. Caddell and the government have offered conflicting opinions on whether the flashes on the original tape could have been gunfire. F.B.I. experts have suggested that the flashes came from reflections of standing water or other debris around the compound. The field of debris in Sunday's test is an effort to duplicate that condition. Mr. Caddell hired two experts, who determined that the flashes were gunfire. The civil trial in the wrongful-death suit is scheduled to begin May 15, and this week Mr. Caddell filed a motion claiming that the government had "lost, altered or tampered with" key evidence. Government lawyers have not yet responded.

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