The FBI had internal and outside reports warning that the peculiar religious belief of David Koresh could lead to disaster if traditional hostage situation tactics were used, according to a recent Justice Department report.
Federal agents, however, ignored that advice during the 51-day Mount Carmel siege, which ended April 19 with a tank-driven tear gas assault and apocalyptic fire that killed 85 people.
"In all cases, information was taken down, passed along and ignored," said Nancy Ammerman, a well-known Atlanta sociologist [also it seems a cult apologist featured in "Freedom Magazine" a Scientology publication] and one of two religion scholars who reviewed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' and FBI's handling of the Waco standoff.
The Justice Department and FBI were exonerated of any wrongdoing in last week's report, which blamed Koresh and his followers for settling the final fire and fatal shootings of sect members.
Ammerman and Harvard University world religion professor Lawrence Sullivan said in separate reports that federal agents failed to understand that Koresh lived in a world framed by the New Testament's allegorical Book of Revelation.
The Bible book depicts the epic struggle between good and evil and a fiery end of the world. Koresh believed that he could open Revelation's seven seals, which he believed would lead to Judgment Day.
ATF never tried to learn about the religious beliefs and teachings Koresh held before the Feb. 28 raid on the Branch Davidian compound, Ammerman said.
The FBI had good internal religious reporting although they too, "failed to consult a single person" who might be considered a Branch Davidian expert by social scientists she said. The agency's behavioral sciences unit studied Koresh and warned that his beliefs called for unusual negotiations, she said.
"FBI internal experts recognized the religious nature of the group. Their own internal people gave them good advice but, in the end, they didn't listen to their own advice," she said. Psychologists, who viewed Koresh as mentally unbalanced were the main federal sources.
Ammerman, a professor at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, is most critical of the FBI's handling of outside religious experts, although it was difficult to sort out credentials in the "fax meltdown" crisis faced in Waco, she also said in the report.
Most seriously ignored, she said, were religious experts Phillip Arnold of Reunion Institute in Houston and James Tabor with the University of North Carolina [see "Cult Apologist?" recommended as resources by Scientology http://www.culteducation.com/apologist.html]. Arnold and Tabor broadcast Bible prophecy talks over a Dallas radio station the Branch Davidians listened to during the siege. Their aim was to get Koresh to reinterpret Revelation and surrender.
Arnold went to Waco to try and make contact with the FBI. He had a few brief interviews with agents but not steady communication.
According to an April 14 letter by Koresh, Arnold and Tabor had talked him into writing down his views on Revelation's seven seals before he surrendered to officials. A computer disk saved from the final fire shows that Koresh had dictated a 13-page text, called The Decoded Message of the Seven Seals of the Book of Revelation, only hours before tear gas began pouring in.
"He was coming out," Arnold said this week in Houston. "I can not prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt, but I knew these people. He said that God told him to come out. He put that in writing to his attorney, Dick DeGuerin."
FBI negotiators ridiculed Koresh's claim, calling it a stalling tactic.
Instead of Arnold, Phoenix-based cult deprogammer Rick Ross had the ear of the FBI, Ammerman said.
The serious treatment given Ross by the FBI "demonstrates the preference given to anti-cult psychological tactics over strategies that would meet the group on grounds that took faith seriously," she said.
Contacted by telephone in Phoenix, Ross questioned Ammerman's own standing as a cult expert. The FBI contacted him because he had deprogrammed a former cult member and studied Koresh's cult for five years.
"The FBI looked for someone with direct, hands-on involvement with Branch Davidians. I was the only person who was a cult expert who had experience and contact with the Branch Davidians," Ross said.
But even Ross said the FBI mishandled Koresh. He told them to broadcast messages from family and friends of Branch Davidian members, hoping to break Koresh's hold. "The FBI never made the turn from the terrorist with hostage situation to cult leader with trapped members," he said.
Ammerman and Ross both said that they couldn't be certain other negotiating tactics would have saved lives. Ross contends Koresh was a "monster" who had raped 12-year-old girls. "David Koresh was not above the law," he said.
In their Justice Department reports, both Ammerman and Sullivan call for a host of federal reforms in dealing with new religious groups like the Branch Davidians. They range from basic courses in U.S. religions to an advanced pool of experts who can be consulted quickly when crises occur. Sullivan asks for a presidential executive order requiring expert review before any federal raid on a religious group occurs.
The secular nature of law enforcement work and an increasingly secular U.S. society, including the media, were other reasons why Branch Davidians beliefs were ignored, Sullivan said.