Ex-FBI officials testify on destruction of Davidian compound

Waco Tribune-Herald, June 23, 2000
By Tommy Witherspoon

The premature partial destruction of the Branch Davidian compound with tanks deviated from the Washington-approved plan to end the 51-day siege at Mount Carmel, two former top FBI officials testified Thursday.

The fourth day of the multimillion dollar wrongful death trial against the government focused on the morning of April 19, 1993, and the FBI's plan to use tear gas on David Koresh and his followers and drive them from their sprawling home.

Danny O. Coulson, former deputy assistant FBI director, testifying by videotape, said he and his Justice Department colleagues in Washington were surprised as they watched on television as a tank plunged through a wall of the compound.

Coulson said an FBI official seated next to him uttered a shock-induced expletive, and he said, "I hope that's a bad camera angle," as the tank rammed through the wall.

"I was hoping it didn't go into the building as far as it looked," Coulson said.

Before playing the videotaped depositions of Coulson and former assistant FBI director Larry A. Potts, lead plaintiffs' attorney Mike Caddell of Houston distributed copies of the FBI's proposed operational plans to end the siege and Attorney General Janet Reno's briefing book to the seven-member advisory jury. Caddell told jurors the plan underwent at least five revisions before Reno approved it.

Coulson said the FBI's dismantling of the gym on the back side of the compound with modified tanks known as combat engineering vehicles was "inconsistent with what I understood the plan to be."

In response to questions from Caddell, Coulson said he "never contemplated" that under Reno's plan the gym would be demolished with the roof collapsed within the first five hours of the operation.

Potts said he, too, was surprised to see the tanks taking out huge chunks of the building.

"I thought, 'What are they doing going into the building? Is there an emergency? I wasn't sure what the reason was, absent an emergency," Potts said.

Caddell showed Potts a letter from the FBI on-site commanders in Waco that recommended a tank crew for the FBI Shield of Bravery. The letter says that the crew "slowly and methodically began dismantling the gymnasium in a very deliberate and surgical manner" at great personal risk to themselves.

Potts said he was surprised by the language in the letter of commendation, saying that the destruction of the gym was inconsistent with the approved plan of operation as he understood it "unless there were exigent circumstances."

Although tank crews reported taking heavy gunfire from Branch Davidians, Potts said he was not aware of any conditions that would have required the on-site commanders to change the plan without conferring with Justice Department officials in Washington.

In other videotaped testimony, former FBI director William Sessions and former deputy director Floyd I. Clarke both testified that FBI agents in charge at scenes are given wide latitude to use discretion when emergency situations arise.

"Once a plan is in place, the people at the scene have a tremendous amount of discretion," Clarke said. "I don't think there was a decision made to destroy the building," Clarke said. "If there was a decision to do that, I would expect notification from Waco."

However, Clarke acknowledged that in 30 years with the FBI, he never told an on-site commander that he could deviate from an approved plan without permission from Washington.

The plan approved by Reno called for the slow and deliberate introduction of tear gas through compound windows, if possible, using booms on the military vehicles. No weapons would be displayed by the agents and a loud speaker would announce that the moves were not meant to be threatening or constitute an assault.

Caddell asked several of the former FBI officials, including Sessions, if they couldn't see a conflict in announcing that the tear-gas operation was not an assault as a tank "is driving into your living room."

Sessions conceded that under those circumstances, "I would assume it was an assault."

The plan Reno approved called for the systematic destruction of the building only 48 hours after it was determined that the tear gas had failed. Koresh and 75 followers, including 21 children, died later than morning after a fire swept through the compound.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit also are alleging that the government failed to have a plan to fight the fire and held back firefighters once it began. Government attorneys have said that the Davidians started the fire and died in a fulfillment of Koresh's apocalyptic prophecies. The fire trucks were held back because of the Davidian gunfire earlier in the day, government officials have said.

Sessions disagreed with Caddell's characterization that the tanks had embarked on a course to intentionally destroy the building. He said some damage to the building was necessary to insert the gas and to create what the government thought would be escape routes for the Davidians.

"There is no way anybody contemplated anything other than to get those people out safely. It was not the beginning of the systematic destruction of the compound in a way that was not consistent with the plan," Sessions said. He said that FBI commander Jeffrey Jamar and other FBI officials in Waco had "implied authority" to order demolition of portions of the compound without higher approval if they thought that was necessary to the situation.

Caddell called FBI agent Joseph Servel Jr. to the stand in the afternoon session, a move that pleasantly surprised U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. after a day of videotaped deposition testimony.

"A live witness?" the judge asked.

Servel said he was the leader of a tank team that fired about 65 "ferret rounds" of tear gas into windows on the back side of Mount Carmel. While he later learned that some military pyrotechnic tear-gas devices were fired that morning, Servel said his crew fired only non-explosive ferret rounds.

Caddell presented a snippet of an April 7, 1993, video taken by an FBI SWAT team member. It captured a briefing by a supervisor who had spoken with negotiators and Jamar the day before. The supervisor noted that plans to punch holes in the building had been rejected.

"... The reason headquarters rejected that is because it would be perceived by the Davidians, the people inside, as an act of aggression or an attack," the supervisor said. "They're using that as a defense already, that they were attacked by the ATF. So for us to go in and punch holes in and throw gas in there, they're gonna perceive that as an attack and they will retaliate, with gunfire..."

The supervisor said instead a fence would be put around Mount Carmel and tear gas rounds would be lobbed into the building.

"They're accomplishing the same thing by getting gas in there ... in a less aggressive manner."

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