FBI agent testifies on tank assault in Waco siege

Associated Press, July 11, 2000
By Lee Hancock

WACO – A tank ramming the back of the Branch Davidian compound on the final day of the 1993 siege was trying to make a pathway so a specially equipped tank could spray tear gas deep into the building, an FBI agent testified Tuesday.

Agent Gary Harris, who operated one of two specially equipped tanks used to insert gas into the compound at the end of the 51-day standoff, testified that his vehicle lost a track and was unable to complete its mission. Harris was told to use a basic tank to make a hole or pathway so that the other specially equipped tank could reach inner areas of the building.

"We weren't getting gas into ... that courtyard of that building because people weren't getting out,'' he said.

Jurors watched infrared images of Harris driving the tank into the building as he described how he took great care to safely clear a passageway through the building's gym.

"We were trying to make the best decision we could at the time. We didn't want to recklessly drive through the building,'' he said.

The government called Harris in its defense against a $675 million wrongful-death lawsuit filed by sect survivors and family members. The plaintiffs contend that the government shares blame for the deaths of some 80 sect members by fire or gunshots on the final day of the siege.

They say government agents violated a tear-gassing plan approved by Attorney General Janet Reno when drivers of the tanks began the premature demolition of the building. The plan called for dismantling the building 48 hours after the tear-gassing operation began.

Government attorneys say the destruction caused by the tanks was a function of the the tear-gassing mission.

"It wasn't a haphazard, just run up and smash and crash things,'' Harris said. "That's not the reason I was back there in my mind, and it's not the orders I was given.''

The standoff began Feb. 28, 1993, when agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms unsuccessfully tried to search the complex and arrest Koresh on illegal weapons charges. A gunfight ensued, and four agents and six Davidians were killed.

FBI agents tried to end the standoff April 19 with the tear-gassing plan. Six hours into the operation, fire broke out, quickly consuming the rickety building.

Harris testified Tuesday that agents expected sect members to evacuate the building soon after the tear-gassing began. Instead, he said, they started firing at the tanks. The FBI escalated the operation and Harris was ordered to start inserting gas into the back of the compound.

The government was expected to call its fire expert and an investigator who sifted through the ruins of the compound on Tuesday afternoon.

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