Waco: Still Burning

Washington Post/April 18, 1997; Page C01
By Richard Leiby and Jim McGee

You can't believe your eyes. But the man on the screen, a distinguished scientist, makes it all seem true. He is pointing out bright bursts that look to him like machine gun fire. You are witnessing what could be a military-style slaughter of civilians -- My Lai in America. First they were gassed, then burned, then shot. It all happened on April 19, 1993, according to a new documentary film, "Waco: The Rules of Engagement."

It's all a load of bunk, says the government -- but still, you have to wonder. This is not another quickie video cranked out by militia nuts. It's a serious documentary that quotes real experts, cost nearly $1 million and was first screened in January at Robert Redford's prestigious Sundance Film Festival. In the handful of cities where the film has played, audiences are stunned and angered when they leave the theater.

"One of the most disturbing films you'll ever see," the San Francisco Chronicle said in its review. "It is the documentary that will not go away," wrote a columnist in the Boston Globe.

"Waco: The Rules of Engagement" suggests that the government's version of events -- as recounted in official reports and three sets of congressional hearings -- basically amounts to a lie. Contrary to all testimony, the film alleges that federal forces shot at Branch Davidians on April 19, probably with machine guns. The filmmakers say the muzzle flashes are visible on a heat-sensitive surveillance tape made that day by the FBI.

Of course, there's another possibility: that the film's central conclusion is dead wrong. That's what the FBI says, backed by top officials of the Justice Department. They perceive "Waco" as anti-government propaganda, and potentially dangerous. Timothy McVeigh was inspired to blow up a federal building, prosecutors say, to avenge the Branch Davidians who died.

Somewhere between these polar opinions lurks that most elusive of commodities, The Truth. Finding it presents a challenge worthy of a high-tech thriller -- it's an excursion into the fever swamp of conspiracy and unthinkable cover-up, with detours into physics textbooks, FBI headquarters and secret military labs.

Who shot at whom? What's the evidence? It's basic police work -- but it's rarely simple.

Waco was a singularly complicated event -- the longest, largest and deadliest federal law enforcement operation in U.S. history. It began with a botched raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on Feb. 28, 1993, that led to the deaths of four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians, members of a small, heavily armed sect focused on the Bible's book of Revelation.

The FBI oversaw the 51-day standoff that ended with a tear gas assault by tank-driving commandos. At least 76 more Davidians (including 30 women and 25 children) died from fire, suffocation and gunshots. Before any investigation -- before the vast majority of the bodies had been pulled from the ashes -- President Clinton was unequivocal about who was to blame. He told reporters that "a bunch of religious fanatics decided to kill themselves."

The FBI has always contended that its agents never fired on April 19, even when fired upon -- that the Davidians shot themselves and each other. Autopsy reports showed that 19 Branch Davidians had gunshot wounds. But Justice Department officials now acknowledge that the ballistics work done after Waco was rudimentary at best.

Maybe for that reason alone, Waco isn't settled yet, at least in some minds. Wild theories about flame-throwing tanks and death squads have circulated since the beginning. It's a lot like Dallas 1963, and its infamous grassy knoll: New "evidence" can always be found, more questions can always be raised.

The "Waco" filmmakers claim to have found proof of government malevolence -- in the form of a grainy, black-and-white videotape recorded by an FBI surveillance aircraft circling overhead. Shot from an altitude of about two miles, the video was made with an infrared camera designed to detect heat sources, including bursts of weapons fire on the ground.

Called Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR), this technology was widely used in the Persian Gulf War to detect enemy tanks and installations. The military refers to FLIR (pronounced "fleer") as a form of "night vision" technology.

The 90-minute FLIR tape shows things not recorded by TV news cameras, which were set up more than a mile away and provided only a view of the front of the compound. In 1994, during the criminal trial of the surviving Branch Davidians, federal prosecutors used the FLIR tape to help show that the Branch Davidians started the fire that consumed their compound on April 19.

The 165-minute "Waco" documentary was produced by former CNN newsman Dan Gifford, his wife Amy, and Mike McNulty, who has been investigating Waco independently for years. It is heavy on C-SPAN footage from congressional hearings, audio tapes of FBI negotiations and home videos made by the Branch Davidians. But its shocking conclusion -- that FBI agents were intent on murdering Branch Davidians -- relies largely on the opinion of an expert who analyzed the FLIR tape.

'Something Terrible' A portrait of Jesus stands guard over the big-screen TV in Edward Allard's living room in Springfield. A lifelong Catholic, Allard is a man of conviction and certitude. He also holds a doctorate in physics and is a former supervisor of the Department of Defense's night vision laboratory at Fort Belvoir. He knows what he is seeing on that tape -- he says the weapons signatures are so clear as to eliminate all doubt. He cues up the FLIR video and plays it in slow motion, frame by frame, each frame representing a 30th of a second.

"Right there, something terrible happens," he says, pausing the tape. He's pointing to an area on the screen where he believes a team of men is firing into the burning cult compound. He has counted 44 distinct flashes in that area.

He also points out bursts near an Army M-60 tank that's destroying the back of the compound -- "an infantry-tank maneuver," as he sees it.

Where are the shooters? They aren't visible, Allard says, because their bodies are roughly the same temperature as the ground -- FLIR would not distinguish between the people and the background. They'd fade to gray.

Allard, 63, worked for the Defense Department and as a thermal-image consultant for more than 30 years. He has agreed to serve as an expert witness in a civil lawsuit being waged by attorneys representing the estates and families of dead Branch Davidians, who say the government acted recklessly, negligently and perhaps criminally at Waco.

In a federal court motion filed last October, former attorney general Ramsey Clark argues that Allard's analysis "leaves no doubt that the U.S. repeatedly fired gunshots into the church and at its occupants."

Allard's assertion "is outrageous and absurd," the Justice Department responds in its motion. However, the government has produced no expert testimony on FLIR to answer Allard's claims in the civil case, or in the movie.

The Justice Department issued a statement yesterday saying that the gunfire theory is contradicted by all available evidence. "The allegations presented by The Post are irresponsible and wrong. Given that the [FLIR] films have not been thoroughly analyzed, publication of such speculations at this particular time can only serve to inflame conspiracy theories."

A year ago, around the time of the last Waco anniversary, the FBI was able to make this gunfire matter go away quietly. CBS News's "60 Minutes" was asking about those strange flashes on the FLIR tape. Its producers hired another expert who said he believed they were gunfire.

Those are not gunshots, FBI officials insisted. They're reflections of sunlight on broken glass and blowing debris. And besides, there are no shooters visible on the tape, the FBI pointed out. You can't have gunshots without shooters.

"60 Minutes" never ran a story. "I reached the conclusion that this was inconclusive," says Rome Hartman, a "60 Minutes" producer.

The "Waco" documentary makers point to this as proof of a continuing cover-up. FBI spokesmen point to the same fact as confirming that the gunshot theory is nonsense.

It's all a matter of how you see things.

An FBI Screening In the audiovisual lab in the basement of FBI headquarters, a half-dozen Justice Department lawyers, FBI officials and technicians gather to show portions of the original FLIR -- this time to The Washington Post. The darkened room is filled with glowing screens and a huge console.

There is no FLIR expert on hand, but John M. Hogan, Attorney General Janet Reno's chief of staff, says these bright blips are benign glints of noonday sun. The image here is dramatically better than Allard's version of the tape and the video equipment is the best that money can buy.

"When the film is this quality, you can see things that are not producing heat," Hogan explains. The tape is slowed to points where others have seen gunfire. "If there are men there, they would be run over by the tank," he notes. "But there's no person there."

The shooters-on-the-ground theory simply defies logic: "If you are a commander and you have tanks, why expose your people to gunfire?" he asks, exasperated.

"At this point the FBI agents are risking their lives, pulling people out of the fire. Not standing back firing into the inferno."

The technician cues up another tape, this time to show what people look like on FLIR. It's a sequence shot after the fire ended that afternoon, when men are searching frantically in a storm shelter for survivors. This part isn't in "Waco," the movie. The men's bodies are clearly evident at some points, ghostlike at others, as the temperatures of the backgrounds change.

But here's the main point: If the FBI agents were trying to kill everyone, as the conspiracists argue, then why search for survivors at all?

It's a convincing display. The government's lawyers are smiling as the reporters exit into the darkness of Pennsylvania Avenue. An FBI official says, "We don't want you to have any unanswered questions."

Paranoia Runs Deep Suspicion and conspiracy theories tend to arise whenever the government clams up. The Kennedy assassination cottage industry thrives on withheld documents. The alleged Roswell, N.M., "alien" survives 50 years later because the government classified a report about a weather balloon.

The FBI side of the story is scarcely represented in "Waco: The Rules of Engagement." The filmmakers say that's because the bureau refused their requests to interview key personnel involved in the standoff.

The FBI says an examination of the entire FLIR tape -- which runs for several hours -- would provide context and further discredit the gunfire theory. Yet the government has delayed releasing the entire tape to attorneys who filed a Freedom of Information Act suit in Arizona. The bureau also hasn't provided a full copy to The Washington Post, which first requested one in December 1996.

Why the delay? "National security issues," says a Justice Department spokesman.

Lessons Learned Nine days after the debacle at Waco, Attorney General Reno told a House Judiciary Committee hearing: "To the great credit of the FBI, they received substantial fire from within the compound . . . without returning any fire."

Under the operations plan approved by Reno -- the rules of engagement -- FBI snipers were allowed to respond with deadly force to gunfire that endangered their lives. All have sworn they did not. Snipers were interviewed and ammunition accounted for, according to Richard Scruggs, who wrote the Justice Department's October 1993 report on Waco.

So why don't some people believe it? Perhaps because, in 1993, the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team -- its motto: "To Save Lives" -- didn't enjoy a reputation for restraint. The 50-man squad of sharpshooters and commandos was deployed to Waco seven months after its engagement in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where an FBI sniper shot and killed a woman holding a baby in her arms, a day after her teenage son and a U.S. marshal were killed in a shootout.

The shooting of Vicki Weaver at Ruby Ridge, during a standoff with her white-separatist husband, became the source of much internal investigation and embarrassment for the FBI. The bottom line is this: A high-ranking FBI official, E. Michael Kahoe, admitted covering up the truth about Vicki Weaver's death. He tried to rewrite history by destroying documents.

Ruby Ridge and Waco had the same players, including Larry Potts, who was instrumental in decision-making during both incidents, and who has been suspended while officials probe his role at Ruby Ridge. Kahoe, who briefed Reno during the Waco siege, last year pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in connection with Ruby Ridge.

The FBI learned its lesson. When confronted with a group of militants in Montana a year ago, the Hostage Rescue Team brought in outside negotiators and emphasized patience over confrontation.

Maybe mistakes were made at Waco. Maybe secrets are being kept. But that doesn't mean that anybody in the FBI acted criminally there. It only means that people will keep asking questions.

Expert Opinions Find enough FLIR experts, we figured, and maybe this controversy could be settled. Or could it?

First, The Post mailed copies of the FLIR tape -- those portions obtained from court filings -- to people with infrared and weapons experience. After the FBI gave us a one-hour excerpt (but not the whole tape), we showed that to local defense contractors who specialize in interpreting FLIR. And we took the tape to the military's top scientists. In all, 12 examiners offered opinions.

These days, infrared analysts are fairly easy to find. Once an expensive military technology, FLIR is now widely used in private industry and law enforcement -- especially in drug cases where infrared cameras are used to locate indoor marijuana growers' hot lamps and methamphetamine labs.

Four of the analysts contacted by The Post, who have extensive military and weapons experience, were convinced that they saw bursts on the tape indicative of gunfire going into the compound.

"The gunfire signatures are real," said Joseph Horn, an El Paso, Tex., consultant on firearms evidence, who wrote a letter pointing out five incidents that Allard had also deemed gunfire.

But where were the shooters?

"It bothered me that I wasn't able to see their bodies," said Horn, a former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy. "But the patterns of the firing were there."

Ron Smith, who runs a business in Tempe, Ariz., supplying machine guns to law-enforcement and military agencies, said he counted seven separate instances of automatic weapons fire on the tape -- also directed at the buildings. He believes the alleged shooters could have been wearing FLIR-resistant camouflage.

Both Smith and Horn admitted they are not scientific experts on infrared technology, although they have worked with it for years. "I don't care what kind of FLIR they used," Smith says. "Gunfire looks like gunfire."

Tom Simpson is a computer imaging specialist in Camarillo, Calif., who once trained military officials on how to read FLIR. Here's his report on the Waco tape:

"We observed no less than 60 of what can only be explained as gunfire energy bursts . . . all directed at the compound. We took great pains to explain these events in another fashion . . . but were unable to find that explanation."

By this time, another expert, a PhD engineer named Edward Friday, who works for Systems Planning Corp. in Arlington, had gotten deep into the mystery. Last weekend he ran tests with a FLIR system at a firing range. He wanted to see if automatic weapons fire produced flashes and also establish whether FLIR would record sunlight reflections.

Friday's results were inconclusive. "Flashes seen on the FBI videotape could be attributed to sun reflections," he wrote. "However, from our limited firearms experiments, it is not possible to eliminate firearms as the cause of these flashes."

Second Opinions Maybe those experts weren't good enough. Maybe their equipment wasn't advanced enough. Next stop, the night vision lab at Fort Belvoir. We wanted the best eyeballs in the country.

In that facility, the Army's brainiest scientists, engineers and physicists do top-secret work building the type of surveillance devices that helped defeat the Iraqi army during the Gulf War. We took a copy of the FBI's tape to the lab, to have it evaluated by four night vision scientists. Theirs would be only a visual review, they stressed -- no special equipment except a video-projection system.

They watched intently for an hour, then voted unanimously: "It looks like reflections to us," said John Palmer, the senior scientist. Nothing remotely resembling gunfire.

How could so many analysts come to such different conclusions? Reading FLIR, it turns out, is as much an art as it is a science.

A serious review begins with equipment that slows the movement of the tape to a frame-by-frame crawl, with each frame capturing a 30th of a second. The next step is a 60th-of-a-second review, aided by sophisticated equipment.

Even with the best gear, though, the surrounding context -- the temperature, the position of the sun, other corroborative evidence, the type of FLIR camera -- can make a difference. So do the preconceptions of the reviewer.

"I've always said that FLIR is one of the Army's most dangerous weapons," Fred Zegel says. "Because you can read so much into it."

Zegel is acknowledged to be one of the top FLIR readers in the world. For more than two decades, he was the in-house expert at Fort Belvoir. Any close calls, show the tape to Fred.

Zegel, 63, belongs in a novel by Tom Clancy. A mountain of a man with wild gray hair and a gentle manner, he is retired from the Army and working for Radian Inc., a defense contractor in Alexandria. Zegel knows and greatly respects Ed Allard, the scientist in the documentary. They were once colleagues at the night vision lab.

Zegel watched the tape in two sessions, the first time at regular speed, in his office.

"That was a reflection," he said, staring at flashes that Allard and the others claimed were gunfire. At another purported burst of bullets, Zegel said, "You are looking at exhaust there."

The second time, he agreed to watch the film in a different setting -- at Allard's house, on Wednesday evening. Sitting in the living room, the former colleagues went over the tape frame-by-frame for four hours.

Zegel's position gradually changed. He didn't agree totally with Allard, but he started to see things differently. He even saw things that Allard hadn't seen.

"They look like men to me," Zegel said, indicating dark spots behind a tank. It looked as if people were dropping out of the tank, to assume firing positions: what Allard had called an infantry-tank maneuver.

"In one instance, where the guys drop from tanks, that was firing," Zegel said. "There was no reflection."

By the end of the night, Allard and Zegel had found a couple instances to agree on. In four spots on the tape, they disagreed. Adding no certainty except this: Everyone sees things differently.

Like his old colleagues at the night vision lab and several of the other consultants, Zegel cautions that he cannot be certain without performing more complex tests -- a thermal scan, employing an oscilloscope and computers to analyze every pixel. Other experts suggest reenactments. All of this would cost tens of thousands of dollars. That might settle this question. Maybe. But even science can't remove all doubts.

Were three shots fired at President Kennedy -- or four? People still argue about the sounds recorded on a police Dictabelt that captured the events of Nov. 22, 1963. Some play the Zapruder film and find further "evidence" of another shooter besides Lee Harvey Oswald.

"The people who want to believe the conspiracy are going to believe it no matter what," says Richard Scruggs, who investigated Waco for the Justice Department. "It won't go away ever."

The Waco FLIR, like Dallas's grassy knoll, may be with us always.

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