Sect could have been coaxed out, FBI figure told officials

Reno said agency leaders wanted her to 'butt out'

The Dallas Morning News, June 23, 2000
By Lee Hancock

WACO - FBI tactical commander Richard Rogers told investigators soon after the 1993 Branch Davidian siege that negotiators could have coaxed sect members from their barricaded compound if given enough time, according to documents obtained by The Dallas Morning News.

"I have never commented to any investigators concerning negotiations because I don't view it as having a lot to do with [the] outcome at Waco," Mr. Rogers, former head of the FBI's Hostage Rescue team, told Justice Department interviewers in a confidential September 1993 interview. "I think given enough time, any negotiator could get them out if [there was] no suicide, but what is enough time?"

Attorney General Janet Reno told the same investigators preparing the Justice Department's 1993 review of the Waco tragedy that senior FBI leaders told her to "butt out" after she agreed to let them tear-gas the compound. The records of those interviews had never been made public, and Mr. Rogers' statement represents his first known acknowledgment that more Branch Davidians might have eventually been talked into surrendering.

Congressional investigators were only told early this year that the documents existed, despite exhaustive requests for internal government records from the 1993 tragedy. Government lawyers also did not disclose the records to attorneys for the Branch Davidians until this month - less than two weeks before the start of the trial in their wrongful-death lawsuit against the federal government.

Their case, which completes its first week of testimony Friday, alleges that FBI negligence and violations of a Washington-approved tear-gas plan contributed to the start of a fire that consumed the compound April 19, 1993. Mr. Rogers is expected to testify early next week, and both sides expect his testimony to be pivotal in the $675 million negligence lawsuit.

More than 80 Davidians died in the fire, which erupted six hours after the FBI began ramming the compound with tanks and spraying in tear gas.

Government lawyers have maintained that the Davidians set the fire, and that FBI actions played no role in the outcome of the deadliest law enforcement incident in U.S. history.

Lawyers for the sect say they are particularly angry that they were not told that the detailed statements by Ms. Reno and Mr. Rogers existed before they questioned the two officials in separate March depositions. The lawyers noted that the documents came to them not only on the eve of trial but also more than three months after the court's deadline for producing documents in the case.

Records to be introduced

Michael Caddell, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, said he will introduce the records to jurors Friday. He said he believes that the account of Ms. Reno's 1993 interview statements will damage her recent deposition testimony, which he also plans to present Friday.

Ms. Reno said in her March 23 deposition that she believed Mr. Rogers and the FBI's Waco supervisors acted properly on April 19, 1993.

"The contents are amazing. ... There are direct contradictions to the FBI's version of events that they have been spouting for seven years," Mr. Caddell said. "These interviews were conducted in August and September of 1993 - seven years ago. It's inexcusable that we didn't have them."

He added that the 1993 statements show that FBI leaders, not Ms. Reno, were making the key decisions on the final day of the siege.

"Janet Reno has nothing to do with what actually happened on April 19," he said. "The truth is, she was out of the loop."

But lawyers for the government say they acted properly in turning over all relevant government documents to their opponents. They add that the government has made "a good faith effort" to produce all documents required by court discovery rules while struggling to keep track of the millions of government records relating to Waco as they prepared their defense.

"There wasn't any effort to hold those back," U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford said. He said the Justice Department did not obtain them until late February, after congressional investigators learned from Philadelphia lawyer Edward S. Dennis, who supervised the 1993 Justice Review, that he had some internal memos from his Waco inquiry in his private files. He added that

Justice officials in Washington did not submit them to the Waco trial team until April 20, and the government's lawyers then had to review them before turning them over to lawyers for the sect.

Mr. Bradford added that he found little "significant" in them.

Reno not in picture

The documents included Ms. Reno's statement that the FBI had been fair and forthcoming in trying to persuade her to use tear gas in April 1993 but told her in plain terms that they would be in charge once she approved.

"They told me I should butt out after giving okay. Can't call back. Not law enforcement official. Not on scene," stated hand-written notes of her interview with FBI agents and lawyers asked by the Justice Department to oversee their 1993 Waco review.

"Didn't find FBI to be know it all, we know bests. Felt they kept an open mind," she later added. "[The] only thing was: [they said that] when we get in, we're in charge of tactics."

The attorney general also told investigators that she would not have approved the gas plan if she detected even a 40 percent chance that it might lead to Davidian suicides.

"If they had told me there was a very high - 40% - chance of mass suicide, [I] wouldn't have done it. If food supply would run out in three months or if we could cut off water, would wait. Went though [the] variables. Better to let him abuse children if there was high chance he'd take them all with him. I was told [the] outside limit was one year to wait them out."

But many of the FBI's top negotiators and behavioral experts had warned their superiors repeatedly that the Davidians might engage the FBI to force a mass "suicide by cop" if they kept ratcheting up pressure. They also complained that Mr. Rogers' aggressive tactics in Waco killed negotiations and kept many Davidians from leaving.

The top negotiators also warned weeks before the gas assault that tear gas alone might lead to panic and violence in the compound and that moving tanks close to the building guaranteed it.

Opposition to tear gas

In his September 1993 interview, Mr. Rogers admitted that tactical actions during the 51-day siege drove Davidians closer to their leader, David Koresh, just as negotiators were trying to persuade them to break away and leave their compound.

But Mr. Rogers also said the FBI's negotiators "wanted to curry favor with these people" just as he and others in the FBI wanted to "up the ante."

"Being nice to him was playing right into his hands," Mr. Rogers said. "He was buying time, keeping his lifestyle [and the] media circus.

"When we started depriving them, [we were] really driving people closer to him because of their devotion to him. Deprivation was a lifestyle to them." Another FBI record turned over to lawyers for the Davidians in mid-May shows that their most seasoned tactical expert was adamantly opposed to assaulting the compound with tear gas.

The memo is undated and unsigned but bears the handwriting of former FBI deputy assistant director Danny O. Coulson, founder of the FBI's hostage rescue team. Mr. Coulson's Feb. 22 deposition testimony was played during Thursday's court proceedings.

His internal FBI memo, retained in bureau records after his 1997 retirement, was in response to a proposal from Waco to use tear gas, a request sent to FBI headquarters in late March.

'A quick fix'

Despite insistence from Mr. Rogers and overall FBI Waco commander Jeffrey Jamar that negotiations were futile, Mr. Coulson noted in his memo that negotiators believed the sect would "ultimately" come out.

The critique also contended that the plan proposed by Waco commanders - gassing all of the compound simultaneously - sounded too much like "a quick fix." The revised gas assault plan approved several weeks later by Ms. Reno called for a gradual insertion of gas, but FBI commanders immediately began gassing the entire building after sect members began firing on the first tank sent to spray it in.

The memo also ridiculed the Waco commanders' arguments that spraying gas would confuse Davidians and prompt women to rush out of the building with their children. Noting that the Waco FBI officials also predicted an immediate barrage of Davidian gunfire in response to any gas, Mr. Coulson added, "How would the others act to save their children if a massive gunfight began? Surely they would not go outside to save their children in the middle of a gunfight."

"I am pretty disappointed with this approach. Everything is moving toward a gas attack ... I have stated that I believe it is unwise. We have more to negotiate," Mr. Coulson wrote.

"I think that Waco should be told in no uncertain terms that we are here to negotiate, that we should defend our positions to the fullest if the subjects decide to come out and commit 'suicide by cop' ... and that we should explore other possibilities for a negotiated surrender. HRT [commander Richard Rogers] needs to be told that we are not going to assault that compound in any fashion, including gas. If he can't accommodate this objective, he should be brought back to D.C."

Mr. Coulson's warnings about the Davidians' reactions to gas and gunfire proved an accurate forecast of what ultimately happened April 19. After the tanks moved in, gunshots rang out from the compound. Only nine adults emerged from the building after it was engulfed in flames.

In her September 1993 interview, Ms. Reno recalled that the first reports of Davidian gunshots "reminded me I couldn't control the situation."

Asked if she had authority to stop the plan, notes from that interview indicated, Ms. Reno responded: "I think I could have stopped it at any point if there was danger."

She noted that she worried about high winds that day that seemed to be blowing gas out of the compound. She said she also told the FBI to send the Davidians a cellular phone when the FBI's tanks cut their phone line early in the gas assault. No phone was sent in.

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