FBI tanks' movement at issue

Official: Demolition planned later

The Dallas Morning News, June 24, 2000
By Lee Hancock

WACO – The FBI's deputy tactical commander conceded Friday that the Washington-approved plan for ending the Branch Davidian siege didn't call for sending tanks in to begin demolishing the sect's embattled compound until it had been tear-gassed for 48 hours.

But Attorney General Janet Reno said in videotaped testimony that the plan she approved for the 1993 operation included some discretion for the FBI's commanders in Waco. She added that she viewed the commanders' decision to send tanks into the building as part of their effort to get gas into areas where the Davidians were hiding – not a bid to demolish the sect's flimsy wooden building.

"There was a recognition that the people on the scene could see what was happening, where we could not see what was happening," she said.

Her testimony came near the end of the first week of the Davidians' wrongful-death lawsuit against the government. It also ended a day focused on key decisions by on-scene FBI commanders Jeffrey Jamar and Dick Rogers in carrying out the final April 19, 1993, assault on the compound.

Lawyers for the sect allege that the two FBI officials went beyond their authority and beyond the scope of a Washington-approved gassing plan when they decided to send tanks into the building about four hours after the gas assault began.

They have alleged that tanks smashing deep into the front of the building and demolishing half of the gymnasium in the rear may have prompted a few Davidians to try to ward off the government forces by starting fires. Their $675 million lawsuit also alleges that Mr. Jamar and Mr. Rogers violated Ms. Reno's orders by not having firefighting equipment ready before starting their assault when fire was a known threat.

Government lawyers have asserted that none of the three blazes that broke out shortly after noon on April 19 was caused by government actions. They argue that sect members alone should be held responsible for the setting the compound fires and the deaths of 80 Davidians that followed.

Lawyers for the sect have charged that FBI agents possibly fired some tear gas canisters into the compound kitchen that were capable of sparking fires. During sometimes-caustic examinations of several FBI agents, lead lawyer Michael Caddell suggested Friday that the team assigned to the back side of the building may have fired a pyrotechnic gas round just before a fire was spotted in that area.

FBI officials denied for more than six years that pyrotechnic tear gas was used at Waco. They reversed that last August after a former senior FBI official told The Dallas Morning News that at least two of the military gas grenades were fired April 19.

The agents who testified Friday each denied that any of the pyrotechnic gas rounds were used in the rear of the compound.

"We did not need to use them. We did not have the desire to use them, and we did not fire military rounds that day. We did not fire military rounds that day," testified Thomas G. Rowan, an FBI hostage rescue team member who fired gas rounds from a Bradley fighting vehicle.

But Mr. Rowan and two other agents did acknowledge that they quickly ran through their supply of non-pyrotechnic gas grenades on April 19, firing 400 at the building between 6 a.m. and noon. Steve McGavin, former deputy hostage rescue team commander, also confirmed that the FBI had to seek new supplies at mid-morning on April 19. He said some that arrived from local and state police were pyrotechnic. But he maintained that none of those gas projectiles were sent into the field for use against the compound.

Mr. McGavin, Mr. Rowan and a third agent who testified Friday admitted that some of their descriptions of what they saw and did on April 19 conflict with their testimony in earlier depositions.

Asked to change account

Mr. Rowan conceded that he had asked to change his deposition only a few days before going to court to testify. He acknowledged that he now wanted to say that his Bradley probably did have military gas rounds on board because other Bradleys at Waco had some of the grenades. Other agents assigned to the vehicle have said it carried none of the rounds, but some FBI records from 1993 suggest otherwise.

Michael Sackett, a second FBI agent called to testify Friday, initially told jurors that he "wasn't entirely sure" but believed the tank he saw smashing down the compound gym on April 19 had been sent in to insert gas. Jurors were then read a potion of his earlier deposition in which he had said he believed the tank was going into the gym "to take down parts of the building."

On Thursday, former FBI official Danny Coulson testified that on-scene commanders did not follow the original tear gas plan and their actions in sending tanks into the rear of the compound appeared to be a deviation. Government lawyers and FBI commanders Jamar and Rogers have long insisted that what happened at the gym was not a "demolition" effort but a bid to get gas deeper into the compound.

Mr. Caddell has questioned that, noting that the tank sent into the gym wasn't equipped to spray gas and that an internal memo describedits actions as a dismantling or demolition mission.

Late Friday, he read FBI award recommendation to jurors. He also recited excerpts from areport in which a Miami-based FBI SWAT commander said after the siege that "everything went according to plan except for the timetable that was set for the demolition of the building. ...The actual dismantling took place sooner than 48 hours."

Mr. Caddell spent most of Friday afternoon playing videotaped excerpts of statements by the FBI's senior leaders during the Waco siege and the March deposition of Ms. Reno. The excerpts focused on Ms. Reno's statements that she expected adequate emergency equipment to be on hand before the assault and the FBI leaders' understanding that her directive included fire fighting equipment.

Former FBI Director William Sessions said he wasn't told there was no plan to fight a fire, and other senior FBI officials said they didn't recall anyone advising Ms. Reno of that decision. Among documents introduced Friday was a phone message taken at the FBI's headquarters command center on April 7 announcing that Mr. Jamar and Mr. Rogers had decided not to try to fight a fire if one broke out during the gas operation.

The FBI leaders said they weren't aware that the Washington, D.C,. fire department had two armored firetrucks in 1993 or that a California firm had offered free use of Czech-made, remote-controlled armored firefighting vehicles if the FBI arranged to have them flown to Waco.

Judge grows impatient

At the close of Friday's proceedings, the government trial team again asked U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith to dismiss the sect's assertions about tank demolition and failure to have fire equipment on hand. They have argued that those actions amounted to judgment calls and are thus protected by broad federal laws barring most lawsuits against federal agencies and employees.

Judge Smith had denied several similar motions in the month's leading up to trial, but he appeared close to dismissing those claims when he arrived in court Thursday morning. He relented after a private chambers conference in which plaintiffs' lawyers showed him notes of a 1993 interview in which the attorney general recalled the FBI telling her "to butt out" after she OK'd their gas assault.

In Friday's pleading, government lawyers argued that Ms. Reno was only expressing her understanding that she would not be directing the operation once it began, and they argued that even negligent or ill-informed decision-making by the attorney general was protected by federal law.

Judge Smith appeared to grow impatient with the slow pace of proceedings Friday, announcing a 40-hour limit for each side to present their cases. He also granted a government request to exclude testimony of a structural engineer who was ready to describe the damage inflicted on the compound by FBI tanks.

Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, attorney for many of the Davidians who survived the siege, said he fears the judge's new time limits on the trial will cripple his ability to present a case. He noted that Mr. Caddell has already taken about 24 hours of the plaintiff's time allotment and has said he has at least several more days of testimony and evidence.

"If he sticks to it, it will be impossible to put on a fair trial," Mr. Clark said, noting that he wants to present testimony of seven or eight Davidians and several experts in subjects ranging from religion to the effects of the FBI's tear gas. "I'm hoping that he'll relent. ...You're supposed to have a right to your day in court."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.