Copyright © 1995 by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman. All rights reserved.
In the Eighties, shades of Jonestown fell on American soil, as we watched a new pattern unfold within the wider cult phenomenon, one of escalating confrontations between groups across the religious-political spectrum and their surrounding societies. The new pattern, most visible in conflicts involving armed apocalyptic cults, murderous satanic sects, radical political groups and paramilitary survivalist sects, broke out repeatedly in violent shoot-outs and flame-filled cataclysms.
In 1983, two federal marshals were killed in North Dakota while attempting to arrest fugitive tax-protester Gordon Kahl, an adherent of the ultra-fundamentalist, andti-government Posse Comitatus movement. Kahl and a local sheriff died later in a gunfight at an Arkansas farmhouse.
In 1985, weapons belonging to leaders of the paramilitary sect the Order, a breakaway group from the Idaho-based neo-Nazi Church of the Aryan Nations, were linked to the machine-gun assassination a year earlier of a Denver radio talk show host. Federal agents cornered suspects in the killing at a sect compound on an island northwest of Seattle. The sect's co-founder died in a 35-hour gun battle that ended in a fiery explosion.
In Philadelphia, the same year, authorities surrounded the inner city headquarters of the radical back-to-nature sect MOVE, whose members had been involved in a fatal shootout with police and firemen several years earlier. After a protracted siege and standoff, police helicopters bombed the building. Six adults and five children died in the blaze that followed, which destroyed sixty neighboring houses.
Sometimes the pattern of conflict stopped short of tragedy. In the early eighties, devotees of red-robed Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh purchased a 62,000-acre ranch and took domain over the rural community of Antelope in north central Oregon. Thousands of disciples converged on the commune from around the world, voted themselves into power and renamed the town Rahnesshpuram. A series of legal challenges and angry clashes with neighbors followed, and a siege mentality set in. Sect leaders amassed a cache of assault weapons and, according to local authorities, "enough ammo to supply a battalion for a year." The conflict came to a head in 1985, when reports surfaced of a sect plot to assassinate government officials investigating the group, but the crisis was defused. Three sect members were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder. Rajneesh and seven sect lieutenants were charged with federal immigration law violations. The guru pleaded guilty, was deported to India, and the commune rapidly disbanded.
However, many other actions took the lives of sect members and their opponents. Dissident cultists died in rural Nebraska and Ohio, at Hare Krishna temples in West Virginia, and in a devil-worshipping cult ritual on the Texas-Mexico border. Armed insurgencies were mounted by followers of the anti-abortion Army of God, the paramilitary the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord sect, and the White Aryan Resistance. Other violent acts were committed by members of white racist Identity Christian sects, Posse Comitatus militias, and extremist Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi and "skinhead" hate groups active in forty states.
In 1992, the next escalation took place, when a showdown between Randall Weaver, a white seperatist Identity Christian, and federal officers who had came to arrest him for firearms violations triggered an exchange of gunfire at Weaver's mountain home in Idaho. A decorated federal marshal and Weaver's 14-year-old son were killed. A massive deployment followed. Four hundred federal agents, including the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team, converged on the scene. The next day, sharpshooters acting under loosened law enforcement rules that permitted them to shoot, not only in self-defense but at any armed person in sight, purportedly fired at Weaver as he ran for cover and accidentally shot and killed Weaver's wife as she stood holding her infant child behind a door. The siege ended ten days later when Weaver surrendered. In the tumultuous trial that followed, Weaver was acquitted of murder by juror members appalled by the government's aggressive actions. Three years later, the case was still generating criticism of federal officials and bitter charges from the growing numbers of armed seperatist sects and anti-government extremists.
On the surface, these escalating conflicts, ostensibly, over guns, land and crimes of the most brutal physical nature, seemed to have little to do with life in America's advancing information society. However, their driving forces in almost every instance could be located squarely in the information dimension: in the domain of beliefs, emotions, ideologies and other messages passing among people, in the new realm of human communication and control, and in the effects of religious conversions and political convictions held by individuals in states of mind that eluded, and often completely defied, established psychological, social and legal conventions.
These vastly different confrontations could not be simply equated, but their emerging pattern gave shape to a recurring image in our minds. The image was a spiral turning in a widening gyre. The winding spiral shape seemed to us to depict the almost unstoppable momentum that seemed to gather in public confrontations with cults and cult-like groups: the swirl of information, events, and predictable actions and reactions that seemed to build to inevitable conclusions in such conflicts. Repeatedly, we watched the same spiral dynamic draw everything in its path - individuals, families, communities, the media, law enforcement and higher government officials - into a vortex that exploded in fury and left a trail of death and destruction in its wake.
Obviously, every conflict was not identical - the death spiral was as impulsive as the new sects themselves - but the pattern repeated itself in theme and variation. Sometimes tiny pivot points of belief or ideology marked the difference between loving faith and warring fanaticism. In armed showdowns, the slightest miscalculations in police tactics or timing could spin a peaceful surrender into a fatal shootout or blazing inferno. Often fierce confrontations erupted in a sudden runup of events no one foresaw or ever would have predicted. By their nature, in fact, most cult conflicts grew out of odd convergences of unruly forces and turned on seemingly insignificant factors that only became obvious in hindsight.
The death spiral fit the pattern of cult tragedies with chilling congruity. The run of recent confrontations conformed, more or less precisely, to our model.
Then, one deceptively quiet Sunday morning in late February 1993, true to every turn of chaos theory, a canvas tarpaulin fluttered in the warming breeze and set off a tornado in Texas.
The Brach Davidians were a fractal branch of the 1.5 million-member Seventh-day Adventist Church. They believed literally that the long-prophesied Second Coming of Christ and its consequence, the end of the world, were close at hand.
Their leader, David Koresh, was a voice in the whirlwind and a vortex in the classical sense, a spinning tower of overheated air that grew larger as it consumed the cooler air around it. From the beginning, Koresh was a strange attractor, a one-man energy center fixed in space and biblical time who both charmed and repelled those who came near him, but his roiling persona soon underwent a radical shift of phase from sect leader to cult commander. Koresh sealed off the Branch Davidians from the larger society. He controlled and overwhelmed them with interminable preachings and sexual domination. He took up arms against the opponents and amassed an arsenal of combat-grade weapons. In the name of discipline, he beat his followers, starved their children and abused them physically and sexually. He foretold a coming holy war with the society around him and threatened violence on an epic scale. He vowed never to be taken alive and trained his flock for mass suicide. His outrageous behavior, apocalyptic preachings and greed for guns surpassed the safety limits society could tolerate - and broke the laws of that society as well.
Then the beast in Koresh's eschatology, the united States Government, came round on cue.
On Sunday, February 28, 1993, after months of investigation, surveillance and logistical planning, seventy-five armed agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a division of the U.S. Treasury Department, converged on the Branch Davidians' 77-acre compound at Mount Carmel outside Waco. Their mission was to arrest Koresh and search for the cache of illegal automatic weapons and other arms reportedly amassed byt he sect leader and his lieutenants. Like growing numbers of religious and political extremists across the country, Koresh and his crew were venturing into the arms trade and, according to multiple sources, making plans for armed insurrection as well. They had reportedly spent more than $200,000 buying guns, grenades and other explosive devices, including assault rifles, shotguns, pistols, legal semiautomatic rifles and parts to convert them into illegal automatic firearms, an armor-piercing .50-caliber machine gun and four tons of ammunition.
The events that followed swiftly escalated into one of the most bizarre and tragic chapters in American law enforcement history.
The ATF assault conformed generally with accepted procedures for raiding fortified premises and apprehending heavily armed suspects, only this raid was staged on the scale of a military operation, perhaps to avoid a replay of the killing of a U.S. marshal in the Weaver raid in Idaho months earlier - or, as raid planners feared, an orchestrated assault on federal officers. After receiving training in communications, tactics and emergency medical procedures from Army Special Forces instructors at nearby Fort Hood, Texas ( a consultation that was later questioned but found to be entirely legal under such circumstances), agents equipped with assault gear, bulletproof vests and riot control devices rolled toward the Brach Davidian farmhouse in two cattlewagons covered by tarpaulins. Texas National Guard helicopters provided reconnaissance and standby air cover.
When the wagons reached their objective, the Trojan cattle deployed, but the Davidians were waiting. A butterfly in the vortex, a local TV cameraman who had learned of the raid from a co-worker's girlfriend, an emergency medical technician hired to support the federal effort, stopped to ask a postman for direction and told him the ATF was coming. The postman was Koresh's brother-in-law, and he promptly passed word to Koresh that the long-expected raid was standing at the front door. When they identified themselves, he stepped back inside and a massive firefight broke out through every wall and window. Media observers confirmed government claims that the Davidians fired first. When the smoke cleared after forty-five minutes of battle, four ATF agents lay dead; sixteen more were wounded from gunfire and grenades hurled at government forces. Inside, Koresh himself was wounded, five sect members were dead and a sixth died several hours later.
The standoff that followed lasted an excruciating fifty-one days. During that time, the 400 special agents of the FBI who took over the Waco operation, an occupying army of national and global media, and a transfixed world learned more than they ever cared to know about David Koresh and his Branch Davidians. Koresh, 33, a.k.a. Vernon Wayne Howell, a gangly kid with wavy hair and wire-framed glasses, was no Jim Jones. He was more like a "Generation X" Charles Manson, an aspiring rock musician who lured his followers with a piper's charms and who later, like Manson, declared himself to be God.
In 1984, young Vernon Howell joined the straggling Branch Davidian sect and promptly began wrestling for control over the group. After a brief apprenticeship under sect leader Lois Roden, the widow of the sect's founder Ben Roden, Howell proclaimed himself to be the Davidians' new prophet, rallied older members around him, and began recruiting new followers from across the U.S., Great Britian and Australia. In 1987, he led a shootout against a rival sect leader and emerged the victor after a local jury deadlocked in his trial for attempted murder. Soon after, he claimed divine visions of a coming apocalypse and removed his flock to the sect's secluded compound on the central Texas plains.
There he proceeded to spin out of control by degrees. He systematically separated husbands from wives and children from parents. He took nineteen "wives" for himself, including girls ten, twelve, fourteen, another seventeen and, later her fifty-year-old mother. In 1990, Howell changed his name legally to David Koresh - Hebrew for Cyrus, after the benevolent king of Persia who welcomed the wandering tribes of David back to Israel in the sixth century B.C. - and began predicting that the Battle of Armageddon would now commence in Texas. In Koresh's scenario, the American army would attack his new Israelites and ignite a conflagration that would bring on the end of the world. In preparation, he ordered the sect's male adherents, who included a core group of zealous lieutenants schooled in paramilitary tactics and retooling automatic weapons, to arm and fortify the Waco compound and make ready for the Final battle. He buried a bus beneath the compound and stocked it with food for a year. Sect members practiced daily military drills and were put on a rationed vegetarian diet. Children and adults were instructed in the surest way to commit suicide with a gun.
For sect members inside the besieged compound, the ATF raid proved Koresh's bona fides as a prophet of God. For lawmen outside the cult enclave, Koresh proved to be a devil of an adversary. Veteran FBI negotiators set up shop in a trailer near the compound. The Bureau's crack-shot hostage Rescue Team was airlifted to the scene. Early on, Koresh cleaned house, releasing six adult Davidians he considered potentially disloyal and twenty-three children of sect members. Then he dug in for the long haul, keeping fifty adult followers and twenty-five children he claimed as his own.
Days stretched into weeks of frustrating, infuriating negotiations. Koresh made and broke repeated promises to come out with his flock. In rambling phone conversation and cryptic messages relayed by his lawyers, he applied to federal agents the same mind-numbing methods and manipulative ploys he plied among his followers. Negotiations were stymied by days of biblical exegesis and entire weeks during which Koresh claimed he was awaiting "further instruction from God." FBI commanders ringed the compound with razor wire, surrounded it with tanks and bathed it in white light through the night. Koresh gave back more Bible verses.
After a month, the FBI stepped up the psychological warfare. Loudspeakers were set up in an effort to communicate directly with sect members. Tapes were played of those who had left attesting to their good treatment by authorities. At one point, the loudspeakers blared at the compound - Tibetan chants, trumpets blowing reveille, screams of dying rabbits, Christmas carol sing-alongs - in a bizarre attempt to beat Koresh at his own mind-scrambling game. In reply, Koresh fired back a request for quiet through the Davidians' Passover celebration and promised once again to come out, this time, as soon as he had completed writing his interpretation of the Seven Seals of the Bible's final Book of Revelation. His lieutenant said that might take "six months or six years."
On day fifty-one, the FBI took command of the situation. Before dawn on April 19, military assault vehicles closed on the compound, led by a Bradley tank equipped with a long bettering ram. Holes were punched in the wood frame walls and a non-lethal tear gas was pumped in, as the loudspeakers informed the Davidians that the game was over. FBI taticians were confident that the stinging tear gas would persuade Koresh and his weary Davidians to come streaming out and surrender. At the very least, anxious government officials in Washington were assured, the devoted mothers inside Mt. Carmel would not let their children suffer the sickening but otherwise harmless fumes.
They were wrong.
The Davidians opened fire. A sect lieutenant threw the negotiating phone out the window. At noon, Koresh and his followers made their own exit. As the tanks continued to pummel the sect's living quarters, flames broke out in the second floor of the building. Whipped by gale-force winds blowing across the prairie, the compound became an inferno in seconds. Exploding ammunition stockpiles spewed debris and flaming mushroom clouds hundreds of feet into the sky. First reports said a tank had knocked over a kerosene lamp in an upstairs storeroom, but FBI surveillance tapes and aerial photographs released later, confirmed that fires were set in at least three separate sites throughout the compound by the Davidians themselves.
At least seventy-five people died that day, including seventeen children ages ten or younger. Combined with the sect's earlier casualties and the government's own dead and wounded, the deadliest operation in federal law enforcement history now also ranked as one of the longest, costliest and most destructive police actions on American soil.
Pathologies of Communication. The story of Waco grew larger than the legend that played out on television. For years afterward, the case smouldered and caught fire anew in the public mind. Investigators in government and the media probed and reprobed unanswered questions. Religious and political groups made "Waco!" the rallying cry for their private agendas. But, amid the recurring fact-finding inquiries and search for scapegoats by special interests, it seemed to us, no one was really addressing the deeper human dimensions of the case.
We spent months exploring the tragedy from our perspective, talking to people who participated up front and behind the scenes at each stage of the action. From our vantage point as communication researchers, the tragedy was a stunning real-life exercise in the chaotic dynamics of the death spiral, and one in which pathological communication contributed materially to the disaster. For a view from inside the spiral, we spoke first with several former Branch Davidians.
David Bunds became a Branch Davidian in childhood, when his father brought their family into the group in 1970. In an extended interview that paced through the group's history and horrific end, he described the Davidian's transition by degrees from a small religion sect like countless others on America's spiritual landscape into a militant apocalyptic cult.
"I was five when our family became Branch Davidians," Bunds began. "They were not a very strange group at the time. People led normal lives in different cities around the country and the world. Some people lived at the headquarters in Waco and every now and then you would go visit, but there was nothing extreme or unusual going on."
He recalled his religious upbringing as a young Branch Davidian.
"It was standard stuff. We prayed like anyone else. We met locally in California at places we would rent. We got together on holidays. There were studies where we would read the Bible for an hour together. As a child, I was required to sit in the studies but I didn't really understand what they were about. They were kind of boring."
A child of any faith might have said as much and, for the next ten years, the Bunds led a normal life in Southern California. Bunds' father worked in a "regular" job. His mother tended to her family. David and his younger sister Robyn enrolled in public schools. There was just one point of departure.
"The only thing different about my life was that we would go to these meetings and talk about the end of the world."
Years before David Koresh came on the scene, the Branch Davidians were already preoccupied with death and the fiery end of the world foretold in the Book of Revelation. In the new terms of chaos science, the sect's endtimes prophecy was itself a strange attractor - a predetermined point, fixed in history but forever receding in time - around which the minds of sect members had resolved since the first Davidians branched off from the Adventist church in the 1930s/ Surprisingly, this youth was untroubled by the thought of the world's end or his own imminent death. In fact, he and other Branch Davidians welcomed it.
"I wasn't afraid of it. In a way, I was looking forward to it," said Bunds. "It sounded kind of neat. There was going to be this beautiful kingdom and we were going to live there, and all the other nations of the world were going to be envious of this beautiful kingdom, just like the prophecy in Isaiah. I was just sort of floating along waiting for it all to happen. I figured my parents knew what they were doing."
In 1980, the Bunds family moved to Texas to be close to the Davidian headquarters in Waco. The next year, Vernon Howell came to the group. Bunds recalled his first encounter with Howell in the summer of 1981, when Bunds was sixteen and Howell was a stripling of twenty-two.
"He was just like anybody else," said Bunds. "He came looking for truth. I didn't think much about him. He talked a lot. He would get up at the meetings and cry sometimes because of different problems he was having. I thought he was weird."
Despite its endtimes beliefs, the sect was no haven for fanatics, Bunds said. Vernon Howell's personality stood out in sharp contrast to the tenor of the sect from its inception, and he quickly became a destabilizing factor in the spiritual scene at Waco.
"We were a very reserved, very conservative group. There were no emotional displays. Then along came Vernon Howell. I remember my father said one day, 'Well, that guy sounds like he's going to end up saying he's a prophet the way he's acting."
The next year, the elder Bunds became disillusioned with the sect and its new rising star and the family moved back to California. Then, in late 1983, word came down from Waco that Howell had gained ascendancy over the group. Suddenly, the sect's message and traditional center of attraction began to change.
"I remember getting Vernon's new message in the mail," said Bunds. "I read the letters and put them away. They didn't make any sense to me. They did not clearly state what the message was, which was typical of Vernon. He like to be cryptic and mysterious."
Early in 1984, an enterprising Howell came to Southern California to convinve Branch Davidians in the area that he had the truth.
"He called us up," Bunds recalled. "My father said, 'You go meet him,' so I went by myself. He presented his message and various Biblical proof that he was the true prophet. He used charts. One had a little beast from Revelation on it with seven heads. He said that meant his was the seventh angel's message - in Adventist teaching, seven is a very biblical number. I remember thinking, Wow, the seventh angel's message. This is the one we've been waiting for!"
Subtly, Howell made himself one with the sect's main attractor, the Bible. Before his eyes, Bunds watched the weird, not very likable youth metamorphore into a persuasive presenter of the Scriptures who weaved circles around his prey with his encyclopedia knowledge of the good book. Then slowly, outside the awareness of everyone, perhaps even including himself, Howell began to shift the center of attraction from the sect's biblical theology to its brash new leader. Bunds felt the power in that initial encounter as, one-on-one, Howell raised him to a spiritual high and convinced him that he was in fact the Davidians' seventh and, as the sacred seals foretold, final prophet.
"That first meeting lasted six hours," Bunds recalled. "I went in skeptical but open-minded. I was just going to listen, and by the time I left I had made a 180-degree turnaround. I went home and I was going crazy. My parents kept saying, 'You can't decide that in just a few hours.' And I said 'You guys, I know it's true.' I was gung-ho."
That spring, Howell declared another change in doctrine that would have far-reaching impact on the lives of Branch Davidians: he called for the ingathering of all sect members. Bunds thought he knew why.
"He said all Branch Davidians were required to come to Mt. Carmel for Passover that year. That was something I learned about Vernon. He did not like to communicate through the mail or over the phone. He wanted to have people right there in front of him so he could read their emotions and act accordingly. Other Davidian leaders were content to send out mailings and collect tithes from followers across the country. Vernon wanted to be in personal contact with the group. He wanted to have everybody under one roof.
In 1984, Bunds persuaded his family to move to Waco where, along with others from the Davidian diaspora, they fell under Howell's growing influence and personal power. It was turning point for the group as it crossd the threshold of closure that would seal off the sect and its members from the surrounding society. There Howell completed the shift from sect to cult, as he commanded his followers to attend protracted sermons and Bible study sessions that were a far cry from the straid Davidian prayer meetings of old.
"Vernon's meetings would go on for hours," Bunds recalled. "I would walk in and sit down and start listening to him and I was just mesmerized. He was very powerful."
As his power grew, Howell's urge to control intensified. The Davidian's twice-daily Bible study sessions became grueling marathons streaming with hellfire and images of the Apocalypse to come.
"He said the time was short and he had a lot of Bible teachings to go through. We were told by 1989 it would all be over with," said Bunds recalling Howell's first prophecied date of the world's end. "The morning meeting would go until lunchtime. The evening meeting would start at three and last until seven at night."
During those months, Howell consolidated his hold over the group. He defeared his main rival in the group's first armed confrontation and crowned himself Koresh, King Cyrus of the Davidians, his new Israelites. Reeling with unchecked power, his own personality began to change. Bunds traced Koresh's trail around a quickening curve of extremist belief and behavior that would bring him into open conflict with the surrounding society.
"In '86 he got a revelation that he should marry another girl. That's when he started to get really radical. Rachel, his first wife, had a younger sister. He took her when she was twelve. He made his case from the Bible. He said, 'David had a lot of wives, Solomon had a lot of wives,' so we accepted it, but then he had to have more women."
That year, Bunds' younger sister Robyn, then seventeen, came to live at Waco. She, too, was claimed by Koresh and bore him a son. A year later, Koresh took Bunds' mother Jeannine, then fifty, for a bride. His "wives" reached double digits, including a dozen underage girls. Most were children of Davidian members who were willing surrendered by their parents and later bore children of their own with Koresh. Then, in 1989, Koresh extended his divine profligacy. He claimed he had been commanded by God to take as many wives as he wanted and, in the same breath, he annulled every other marriage at Mt. Carmel. The move prompted the first mass defection of alienated Davidians, but by then Koresh had already started on his final trajectory.
"The weapons were the next phase," said Bunds. "By '89, Koresh wanted to get every weapon he could get his hands on, and he knew instinctively that when you do that you're going to get in trouble."
Koresh primed his followers.
"He said we were going to have a confrontation with the authorities. He said the United States government was going to come and get is because they were enemies of the truth."
As the group grew more extreme, Bunds began to seriously question his participation, as many cult members do sooner or later. "I was getting doubts, but at first, I would just shelve them, store them away," he said. He recalled Koresh's method of emotional control.
" He had this ability to appeal to people's base emotions and deepest feelings, and that's what Vernon did for me initially. He controlled you through fear, hope, love, want, desire." Like other cult leaders, Koresh intuitively employed a mix of positive and negative controls, but to keep his followers in line, negative emotions were his instruments of choice. "The fear was dominant," said Bunds. "He was always putting things in the negative, always threatening. He would describe hell and start screaming in the most horrible way to show people what it was like to burn in hell."
Like Charles Manson, Koresh acted out his threats. "He used very graphic descriptions," said Bunds. "He would portray all kinds of things and people were scared. Sometimes he would be all upbeat and describe all the good things we would get when we got our reward, but most of the time he was negative, beating on people's heads, trying to whip then into shape."
And like Jim Jones, Koresh reinforced his mental and emotional controls with physical punishment. Children were the first targets, beginning at the age of eight months. Sect members were given wooden paddles and told to whack their children's bare behinds for any disobedience. Some children were beaten badly, others were deprived of food, others confined in dark spaces. Koresh and his henchmen got violent with adult Davidians as well, assaulting some with their bare fists and others with a large boat ore. Bunds witnessed several incidents during his waning months in the sect.
"Those last ten months were the worst time I'd ever had. He was really cracking down, putting the screws on the group. He would not tolerate any disagreement, and the threat of being beaten was there."
Several times, Bunds challenged Koresh's twisted interpretations of Scriptures. Against Koresh's wishes, he courted and married a young woman in the sect, and when Koresh announced his sexual Anschluss on the Davidian women, Bunds wife rejected his propositions. Through it all, however, the couple made no effort to leave. Ultimately, it wasn't Bunds who forced the break but Koresh himself.
"He had to kick me out. I didn't leave on my own. He kicked my wife and me and my child out and left us with nothing. He was just tired of our rebellious attitude. We were breaking his rules."
Marc Breault followed a different path in, and out of, the Branch Davidian fold. Breault joined the group in the mid-eighties, at the age of twenty-two, and became a ranking member of the cult leader's inner circle until he parted company with Koresh and led the first mass defection of Davidians in 1989. In contrast to David Bund's view from the sect's bottom ranks up, Breault gave us a rare look into the Davidian death spiral from the top down.
Breault, who is legally blind but not sightless, had himself trained to be a Seventh Day Adventist minister but was passed over. "I was told there was no need for a blind person to be a minister," he said. He recalled his recruitment soon after by long-time Davidian Perry Jones, the sect's vice president and the father of two of Koresh's teen brides, in a Southern California town with a large Adventist population.
"I met Perry Jones in a supermarket in Loma Linda. I was wearing a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt, so he thought I was from Texas, and that's how he started making conversation. He said he was a religious journalist. He said he believed in the gift of prophecy, what he called 'inspiration.' That made sense to me. The Bible was full of prophets. Then he said he believed his son-in-law was inspired by God. He never used the word 'prophet,' because he knew how I would react to it, but that's what he was saying. I figured, okay, I'll give this guy a hearing."
Several days later, Breault met Vernon Howell.
"I met Vernon in January 1986 in Loma Linda. He was wearing faded trousers, a blue shirt, unkept hair. He seemed very down to earth. He offered to give me a Bible study. He claimed he would show me more in three hours than I had probably learned in four years of college. That struck me as something a prophet would say - prophets in the Bible were never known for their tact."
Breault recalled Koresh's mastery of the Bible and sheer physical endurance that attracted him to the Davidian message.
"That session lasted three hours. He went through the books of Daniel and Revelation. I had always been interested in both books and this guy was putting them together for me in a way I thought, yeah, this might be prophecy."
The two hit it off and, within months, Breauly became an eager recruiter himself. That spring, Breault went to Hawaii, where he had grown up and still maintained many close friendships, to start a new Davidian branch. "No one thought anything would come of it, including myself, but I recruited quite a few people and everybody was stunned. I would go in and establish a small group, the same way Vernon did. I would go somewhere for a week and just watch people and say, who is most likely to be receptive?"
While in the sect, Breault helped to enlist many of the young diehard disciples who formed a firewall around Koresh at Waco. Among his first recruits was an old friend, Steve Schneider, who became one of Koresh's most militant and loyal lieutenants.
"Steve was in a similar situation to mine," said Breault. "He had studied to be a pastor but he was passed up. The Adventist church is not a church for rebels and Steve was very independent. He didn't just accept things."
Breault described what both men, in their separate spiritual quests, found in the Davidians. For starters, Koresh brought a youthful new outlook and iconoclastic spirit to their established Adventist faith.
"A good example was the music," said Breault. "Vernon was a musician and we wanted good music in the church. We had nothing against 'Rock of Ages,' but we were tired of it. We wanted to bring guitars and amplifiers and keyboards into the church."
Koresh also brought new energy to the ritual practices of the said sect. However, in the Davidians, as in other Bible cults, the traditional practice of reading the Bible grew pathological in the hands of the group's new prophet. Breault recalled how Koresh turned the sect's biblical "message" into a consuming mind control process that dominated every thought, belief and daily activity in the sect.
"When I joined the group, I was very enthusiastic about Vernon's Bible studies. They went on for two hours in the early days and just got longer and longer. Eventually, your whole life revolved around the Bible. When you talked to people, you shared the message. When you met people, your whole aim was to introduce them to the message. Even when you ate, you studied the message - we had strict dietary laws so you would always have the Bible in mind."
In addition to Koresh's marathon sermons and group Bible studies, sect members spent hours each day in intensive individual prayer. Amid the many deprivations Branch Davidians endured, that arduous ritual practice, which emerged in our studies as a core component of cult mind control, was almost universally overlooked by investigators.
"The prayer thing was very intense, I realize now," Breault said. "Vernon spent a lot of time praying, a couple hours a day, and others did, mostly those of us who were newcomers to the group."
During one of those intense rituals, soon after he joined the sect, Breault had the first of many snapping experiences which he, like Koresh, called "visions." One vision, born of hours of immersion in Koresh's apocalyptic theology and anti-government preaching, was thick with images of a fiery end.
"We were in Jerusalem, the whole group, and there were American troops all over the place. The city was in ruins. There was obviously some sort of war going on, which we believed would be the case from Daniel, and we were in hiding. Then we heard a sound like thunder in the distance coming closer and the earth began to shake and everyone was scared. We went out and saw this huge, I suppose 'chariot' sounds a little too biblical, whatever you want to call it, and it was surrounded by white lights and energy. It was huge, like the throne of God described in Ezekiel, and as this came toward us it shook and trembled and mountains were leveled and this voice said to 'Come hither' and this cloud came down and surrounded us. Then I just relaxed and reached up and got sucked up into this cloud and rose above the earth. As we were going up, there was this huge wind. We saw the whole earth shaking off its axis and graves were opening up and the dead were coming up from hell."
His waking dream bore chilling resemblances to the nightmare sect members would live out seven years later. Breault explained how such images flowed naturally from life in the group and the drumbeat of Koresh's daily teachings.
"Other people experienced these things, I was by no means the only one. Your whole life revolved around theses teachings to the point where they became a fixation."
As Koresh's controls intensified and Koresh himself grew more grandiose, Breault, like Bunds, watched the group's focus of attraction shift from the Bible to Koresh's increasingly strange persona.
"About 1987, things began to go downhill. We had worked together as a team but then Vernon needed to be in total control. I noticed in his Bible studies that everything he was saying about the Bible was centering around him. Before it was centered around God, God's word and God's mission. Now it was, 'Look at me. The Bible says I'm this, I'm that, this is going to happen to me.' We believed he was a prophet, even in the early days, but that was never the big thing; then it gradually became the whole purpose of the Bible to talk about Vernon."
Breault's words mapped verbatim onto our chaos model. Like a storm in the making, as Koresh's power increased, he began to swell. As the group grew more insulated, the sect began to feed on itself and the turbulance within accelerated. Like Jim Jones at his Ukiah commune and later in the Guyana jungle, Koresh developed a thundering paranoia atop his apocalyptic mindset. Breault tracked the storm front gathering over Waco.
"At first it was a slow progression. Vernon was off in California or South Carolina, traveling all over the place, so he wasn't as isolated. Then, when everyone moved to Mt. Carmel, things really started going bad. At Mt. Carmel, he was king of this little kingdom. He made all the rules. There was no external checks or balance, and there was no police force to make sure everyone was okay."
As Koresh got crazier, Breault's own inner alarms began sounding, but like others in the sect, he was helpless to act on his feelings.
"Vernon would give Bible study after Bible study, for thirteen, sixteen hours, and I wrestled and wrestled with the doctrines he was teaching. I knew I did not like who Vernon was becoming, but I couldn't separate myself from the group."
Koresh went too far when he announced his new teaching that he "owned" all the women in the sect. Breault's wife Elizabeth, also a Davidian, was visiting family in Australia at the time, but the new doctrine threw Breault into a crisis.
"The problem was forcing my inner turmoil to calm so I could thing logically," he remembered. Eventually, he managed to assemble two mutually exclusive, although not entirely logical, alternatives.
"I thought to myself, maybe Vernon was right. This new talk of violence and Vernon having all the women is what God really wants and, therefore, I should hang in there and endure until paradise. But then I thought, If this is what God wants, that God isn't worth worshipping. My only other option was that Vernon was wrong and that I should take steps to leave the group."
He recalled the moment several months later when he made the connection in a sudden awakening we had come to recognize as a reverse "snapping out" process - a true enlightenment experience.
"I'll never forget that moment. I felt as if a great weight was lifted off me. I felt lighter. But most of all I felt free, like I was my own master again after so many years of being controlled. It was as if I had been another person less than a second before, then I reached this conclusion and the change was almost instantaneous. I was a different person and I felt better than I had in years."
Breault shared his new awareness with his wife when she returned. The pair confronted Koresh and, soon after, walked away from the sect. They relocated in Australia and later helped more than thirty Davidians to leave Koresh's degenerating New Jerusalem. Others snapped out of it as he did, Breault told us - providing ample roof that Branch Davidians at Waco were subject to debilitating mind control practices that impaired and physically diminished their capacities to think, feel and chose.
"One woman said it was like 'a controlling spirit' had left her," Breault reported. "She said she felt as if she had been hypnotized, and the instant she concluded that Vernon was wrong, she woke up."
Many suffered great guilt after leaving the group. Others left filled with fear from Koresh's preaching that apostates were destined for unending torment and divine punishment. Amid reports that Koresh kept a hit list of defetors targeted for death by his loyal corps of "Mighty Men" some of who left went into hiding, like those who left the Peoples Temple, and remained hidden after Waco's demise.
Marc Breault and David Bunds walked us through the confrontation. In 1990, Breault, his wife and their group of mostly Australian ex-members brought their concerns to the attention of U.S. government authorities. Two years and many futile efforts later, out of
frustration and growing fear for those still in the sect, like the concerned relatives group whose warnings to public officials fell on deaf ears before the Jonestown disaster, they turned to the media. An Australian TV crew was the first to discern that the once-docile Davidians had become a dangerous armed cult. Worried relatives and child welfare agencies crowded in. The death dance began - two accelerating spirals of building energy and information turning in steadily opposing directions. Soon turbulence began to appear at the perimeter. Armed guards circled the encampment around the clock. Neighbors alarmed by sounds of gunfire complained to local authorities. A shipment of grenade casings split open en route to Waco and started an investigation by local lawmen, who soon appealed to federal firearms officials for assistance.
Late in 1992, in another pattern with parallels to Jonestown, the Waco Tribune-Herald started work on a multi-part series about the sect. As the publication date neared, Breault and other ex-members were contacted by ATF investigators. Breault cautioned the agency against adding heat to the reaction.
"The ATF agents I spoke with were quite good," he recalled. "They said they wanted to get Vernon on his own, to lure him away from Mt. Carmel and arrest him. Their other scenario was a raid on Mt. Carmel. I said if they were going to do a raid they had better have the element of surprise or they would end up with an armed confrontation."
Within hours of the raid, Breault received a call in Australia from FBI agents on the scene who had moved in to manage the crisis.
"It was pretty chaotic. I talked with an FBI negotiator for half an hour. He asked what I thought Koresh would do. I said I thought it would end in massive death, a mass suicide. I explained Vernon's belief about the fifth seal of Revelations, which said there had to be a certain number of martyrs before the end could come."
But that knowledgeable warning and others like it went unheeded.
Like Breault, David Bunds watched in horror as the events unfolded. Prior to the raid, he too, had been interviewed at length by ATF agents planning the government's actions.
"I said, 'Don't go in there with your guns. It won't work," he recalled. "And they said, 'Oh, we're not going to do that.'"
When the siege began, FBI field agents pumped Bunds for information but never asked for his advice. When the end came, Bunds was at a loss to understand the government's reasoning and how things had gone so tragically wrong."
"Here we are in the 1990s," he said. "We have all this information on cults and the way they work, yet the FBI didn't have a clue. They thought they could pressure them into surrendering. I knew like my own self that wasn't going to work."
He laid out the fatal theology outsiders were not privy to, the pathological thought process at the center of the Branch Davidian cult that government tacticians obviouslt had failed to take seriously enough.
"Koresh taught then that when they started to burn they would be glorified. They would be transformed into radiant beings and ascend into heaven. In their minds they believed they weren't really going to die. They were going to be transformed. They were going to get their reward. Then they would come back and take over the world."
Bund's sister Robyn and her four-year-old son fathered by Koresh left the sect in 1990. His mother left a year later. His father, the first to join and to criticize Koresh, stayed. On the morning of the ATF raid, he went into Waco and was taken into custody by the ATF when he returned. The fate of the others is public record. Perry Jones, the Davidian elder who recruited Marc Breault, was killed in the ATF raid. Jones' daughters Rachel and Michelle, Koresh's first wives, along with Breault's friend Steve Schneider, Schneider's wife Judy, her two-year-old child with Koresh and seventy more perished in the flames.
Post-mortem. The official post-mortems fleshed out the chaos at Waco. Autopsis revealed that at least twenty-seven Davidians died of bullet wounds. Seven were shot in the forehead at close range, including Koresh himself. Children took special abuse: a three-year-old was stabbed in the chest, three children were shot in the head, others appeared to have been beaten to death. Yet investigators could not say whether those killings were part of a planned mass suicide, whether some sect members were killed while trying to escape Koresh's lieutenants, or whether some killed themselves and their children to escape the horror of death by fire.
Government sources provided other information. In the first public testimony, ATF agents wounded in the initial raid claimed their superiors knew in advance that the critical element of surprise was blown but sent their team into a near-certain ambush anyway. At the ATF and FBI, evidence emerged of attempted cover-ups and official misrepresentations all along the chain of command. Only U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who came to her post halfway through the FBI siege, publicly accepted responsibility for the disaster.
And everyone swore there was no evidence to support the possibility of a Jonestown-style mass suicide occurring at Waco.
Two executive branch inquests, six congretional hearings, and our own follow-up inquiries under the Freedom of Information Act painted a very different picture. Along with the sworn testimony of public officials and the documented chronology of events, our inquiries revealed how little homework the government had done in response to Congress' call after Jonestown for a concentrated program of research and training on cults. Our FOIA searches confirmed that, throughout the Waco standoff, the entire FBI knowledge base on cults, culd mind control and related subjects consisted of a lone twelve-page white paper titled "Cults." The paper, a superficial summary of identifying characteristics of cult leaders and methods, was all cribbed from one obscure academic work on the subject. We learned later that it was not even prepared until weeks after the ATF raid and the start of the FBI siege.
The official inquests, conducted in-house by the ATF's and FBI's parents, the U.S. Treasury and Justice Departments, produced two final reports totalling nearly 800 pages and released within days of each other in late 1993. The Treasury report was excoriating and self-reprimanding. "The decision to proceed was tragically wrong," it concluded. The report acknowledged that senior ATF officials made misleading statements to Congress and doctored records relating to the planning and execution of the operation. The ATF director resigned, his two deputies and the bureau's intelligence chief were forcibly retired, and the two senior agents who led the raid were fired.
The Department of Justice inquest was more problematical. DOJ investigators chronicled a long list of judgment errors and tactical mistakes. Their review found widespread confusion, disagreement and breakdown in communication among FBI personnel involved in the Waco operation, but reviewers refused to assign blame or responsibility. No heads rolled. No ranking FBI or Justice Department official was even reprimanded.
The New York Times and other critics dismissed the report as a "whitewash," however, the DOJ report contained many revealing insights. Significantly, the report illuminated the role of the FBI's discreet Behavioral Science subunit, headquartered in Quantico, Virgina, in the play of events on the Texas plain. During the first weeks of the siege, two behavioral science experts prepared a series of memoranda recommending specific strategies for the government to follow in the standoff. Special agents Peter Smerick and Mark young called for a de-escalation of "tactical pressure," and for patient negotiations aimed at facilitating a peaceful surrender. They warned that a "strong show of force" could "draw David Koresh and his followers closer together in the 'bunker mentality' and they would rather die than surrender."
In contrast to the FBI's earlier representations, the bureau's own experts had in fact warned explicitly, more than a month before the final conflagration, that "mass suicide ordered by Koresh cannot be discounted." From the outset, Smerick and Young cautioned against high-pressure tactical options that, they believed, might result in "Davidians fighting to the death and tremendous loss of life." However, those views were rejected by FBI commanders on the scene.
As the standoff wore on, outside experts from the FBI's approved roster of contract consultants were called in to advise the ground tacticians. The FBI's high-profile Hostage Rescue Team carried more clout and ultimately carried the day. The outcome hardly have been worse, but it was by o means unforeseen. By the end, in addition to the bureau's in-house advisers, four of six FBI consultants in psychiatry and psychology, along with Marc Breault and others with first-hand knowledge of the sect, had warned that a group suicide was not only possible but probable - despite Koresh's solemn assurances to negotiators that suicide was against his religion. The last signals came only a month before the final assault, when the Houston psychiatrist who interviewed the children freed early in the siege reported that several had drawn pictures of the compound being consumed by flames. Others told him that "everyone is going to die," that sect leaders were planning "to blow you all up" and that, as they left the compound, their parents had promised to "see them in heaven."
Public sensitivities were shocked by the bungled ATF raid and the FBI's military-style aggressions. Despite overwhelming evidence of the Davidians' illegal arms and documented abuses, including Koresh's own acts that constituted statutory rape, a felony in Texas, many Americans were sympathetic toward Koresh and even defended the sect's violent actions. On the far right, a cottage industry sprang up among anti-government ideologues, conspiracy theorists and propagandists promulgating heinous claims and some patently false reports. Among their many assertions defied by the facts: that the Davidians had no illegal arms, that the ATF agents were killed by their own teammates, and that government commandos in flameproof suits secretly murdered the sect members, shot, stabbed and clubbed the children, and lit the fires that consumed the compound.
In the trial that followed, sect survivors charged the government with persecuting them for their unorthodox religious beliefs and for exercising their constitutional right to bear arms. As in the Weaver trial, all eleven Davidian survivors were acquitted of murder charges, although nine were convicted on lesser counts and sentenced to prison terms up to forty years. In other actions, the two fired ATF agents sued the government and were reinstated to civilian jobs in the agency. Civil suits were filed against those who managed the Waco action, including a $500 million wrongful death suit against Attorney General Reno and twenty-five other federal officials. A 1995 congressional hearing, packed with witnesses, consultants and peripheral figures allied with the powerful national gun lobby, tried hard to turn the tragedy into a political triumph for the far right, but by all accounts the effort backfired and, in many way, affirmed the government's actions.
Lost in the legalizing was a clear view of how the U.S. government became the other arm of the twister that tore through Texas. In late 1994, before the tragedy turned into a political football, we interviewed officials who participated in the action and others who later investigated it. They described first-hand how the conflict was apprehended, and misapprehended, by government officials who were legitimately focused on serious law enforcement matters but, at the same time, blind to the perils of their own questionable law enforcement strategies. We also learned how well-meaning civil servants concerned for the safety of American citizens, and the lives of federal officers as well, were sucked into the vortex by their own institutional pathologies of communication - or, as they were frequently described by government evaluators, "communication breakdowns." These included: the tough-cop culture of law-enforcement entrenched in both the ATF and the FBI, which fed both bureaus' reactions to Koresh's defiance and manipulations; official ignorance and erroneous assumptions about the new phenomenon of cult control, which government agencies had denied for decades and which affected every aspect of the government's actions; and, behind the scenes, misplaced concerns for religious-political sensitivities among the public and powerful special interests, which hounded the government throughout the Waco operation and long afterwards.
These patterns and others created their own forms of closure, control and confrontation that probably cost some live needlessly, and, no doubt, changed many more forever.
We spoke first with former Deputy Attorney General Philip B. Heymann, who headed the Justice Department's inquiry into FBI operations in Waco. Like other DOJ officials, Heymann entered the picture late in the action. He arrived at Justice the day the fire broke out in Waco and, a month later, he was asked to manage the DOJ review. In our talk after the report was completed and he had returned to teaching at Harvard acknowledged that the FBI went into Waco unprepared for a major cult confrontation.
"The FBI was trained to deal with terrorists," said Heymann, "but it wasn't trained to deal with a religious group with a messianic leader. There was no precedent of the FBI's handling such a situation and there had been no planning for one."
From the outset, Heymann said, he wanted to make the government inquest, not an exercise in blame-placing, but a constructive review with an eye toward any future eventualities that might arise on the domestic scene. He had in mind, not only cult showdowns like Waco, but more ominous acts of religious-political terror like the World Trade Center bombing that took place just two days before the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound.
"I wanted to see that we were organized in such a way that, if this situation came up again in any form, including an extreme Islamic fundamentalist group, we could understand how to think about them, how to talk to them, when to put pressure on and when not to put pressure on, all the things that go into negotiations."
We told Heymann that we detected much ambivalence in the government on the issues of cults. He acknowledged that, from the outset, there was reluctance among officials to confront the cult aspects of the Waco standoff, to engage the concept of cult mind control, or even to use the word "cult" in the government's investigation.
"You're absolutely right. I hesitated to use any of those terms," he admitted. "We tried to avoid labeling the group as a 'cult' suggesting crazies. There was a purposeful attempt to not give the group one label or another. The general understanding was that we were dealing with a, you know, a group that had passionate beliefs, that was extremely suspicious of the government-"
Was his hesitation caused by concerns of legal terminology or religious sensitivity?
"It was in relation to religious sensitivities," Heymann said candidly. "We wanted to avoid having to dispute the people who, on the one side, treat groups like this as just another fundamentalist religion and, on the other, regard then as a dangerous form of mind control. I did not want to come down on one side or the other of that debate."
His explanation sounded reasonable enough but bespoke deeper political considerations. In our view, the official silence from beginning to end on the mind control factor in the conflict, and the government's persisting avoidance of the entire subject of cult control, were two critical breakdowns in the communications process that contributed significantly to the chaos at Waco and the public confusion that abounded in its aftermath.
A related concern to us were numerous factual errors that were disseminated in the official record of events at Waco. We cited several errors we had documented in the DOJ report that seriously misrepresented the extent of FBI contacts with cult experts and former Branch Davidians. Those errors were relevant, we said, because of persisting questions about the nature of Koresh's control over his followers and the many warning flags raised by ex-members, and by experts within and without the FBI, about the cult's potential for mass suicide. Apparently, concerns over the politically sensitive cult issue caused some to ignore those warnings and even deny receiving them. Heymann did not defend the government's sources.
"I think you have to assume that any organization after a result like this is going to try to play down their responsibility, but we ought to have picked that up in our report and I'm disappointed if we weren't skeptical enough."
Another part of the report dismissed the entire body of scientific knowledge on the nature and effects of cult control. One outside expert Heymann had selected to aid in the DOJ review asserted that "the notion of 'cult brainwashing' has been thoroughly discredited in the academic community" and castigated federal agents for "failing to recognize the free choice those people had made in following Koresh." We suggested to Heymann that the work of respected social scientists and mental health professionals - knowledge and clinical expertise that could have been of practical value to negotiators and for future contingency planning - had been disparaged, while cult propaganda that had been exposed long ago was disseminated with the government's imprimatur. Heymann was silent for some time before speaking.
"Yes, I understand what you're saying," he told us. "We wanted each expert to say what he or she thought. We certainly didn't want to censor or edit them in any way, but we weren't embracing all their views."
Heymann assured us that the government had learned important lessons from Waco and would be better prepared to deal with future contingencies on the fractious boundary between law and religion. However, his closing comments made clear to us that, when it came to the legal dilemmas of cult control and other issues in the sensitive, and increasingly political, arena of religion, understanding was still lacking and the government's position was far from resolved.
"I think we're going to be prepared to confront any obvious illegality done in the name of religion," said Heymann. "If someone commits a serious crime, like killing government agents, there's no doubt that the government will be prepared to use force to make an arrest. But if they haven't, if it's a question of whether people have been brainwashed, I think you'll continue to see the same history we've had for the last twenty or thirty years. We don't really have any way of deciding whether brainwashing is holding someone against one's will or not, or what to do about it."
Heymann directed us to other officials still in the Justice Department. Richard Scruggs, Assistant to the Attorney General, assembled the official chronology of events for the DOJ review. He recalled the mood at the Justice Department when he came to work at the midpoint of the Waco standoff.
"The AG started here two weeks into the siege. I arrived two weeks later and, by that time, planning was already well underway to get the people out of the compound. After the fire, I was called in to try to figure out what the hell had happened. We did a thousand interviews. We got every piece of the story from everyone's perspective."
We asked Scruggs a key question: had the Attorney General been given the full range of evidence and opinion on the chances of mass suicide by the sect before she approved the final assault? He described the process by which this crucial information was relayed up the chain of command from bureau resources and senior FBI officials.
"The whole issue of suicide and the psychological makeup of Koresh and his followers was obviously something we looked into," said Scruggs. "The bureau sought dozens of expert opinions and many more were offered. There were literally hundreds of people calling in with advice, not just people off the street but people from recognized institutes and universities. The result was that FBI commanders, both in Waco and in Washington, had so many opinions, ranging from 'they'll commit suicide as soon as you make any move at all' to 'they'll never commit suicide,' that it really allowed them to pick whichever experts confirmed their own point of view. The experts FBI officials judged to be the most accurate were those who said suicide was unlikely, which turned out to be wrong."
How much of that range of opinion did the Attorney General receive? Scruggs confirmed our suspicion.
"She only got the no-suicide opinion."
He insisted that the Attorney General was indeed aware of the cult's suicide potential, but that FBI officials only cited the "no-suicide opinion" in their final briefing. Scruggs offered two explanations for the lapse, one more sinister, one more benign.
"My first impression was that someone made a conscious decision to keep this information away from the AG. It certainly looked that way. On the other hand, sometimes these things just happen, one decision leads to another, and nobody really thinks things through. I think the people who were putting together the material truly believed there was a low chance of suicide and then simply picked the materials that confirmed what they wanted to believe."
No doubt government officials preferred that more benign explanation, although serious questions remained about exactly what information FBI officials provided to the Attorney General. Either way, we recognized two more major breakdowns in the government's patterns of communication. One, commonly referred to as "Groupthink," was the familiar phenomenon by which conformity is maximized and dissension minimized among people in organizations. Another, known as "dissonance reduction," part of the classic communication theory of "cognitive dissonance," described the internal process by which people unconsciously rationalize ill-fated actions and decisions after they have made them. In the process of dissonance reduction, new information that threatens accepted ideas and structures of understanding, information that causes, "psychological discomfort," in out colleague Dr. Gary Cronkite's terms, or in our perspective information stress, is systematically eliminated from the pool of plausible options.
Similar stress reduction strategies apparently were employed by people all along the chain of command in the Waco operation. The same communication processes lower down in the FBI command chain caused Waco field officers to reject the suicide warnings of their own in-house behavioral experts Peter Smerick and Mark Young.
"Oh yes, absolutely," Scruggs agreed. "Smerick and Yound got wiped out by the on-site commander, who wanted a combination of negotiation and increasing pressure on the compound, the so-called 'carrot-and-stick' approach."
Scruggs attributed those tragic errors of judgment and tactics, along with many other snafus at Waco, to a plague of "information overload" that reportedly descended on stressed-out FBI commanders, negotiators and agents in the field.
"There was the most massive flood of information coming in that you could imagination," he went on. "Did a lot of stuff get filtered out as it went up the line? The answer is yes. But I think it's more reflective of the way every bureaucratic initiative goes through. The bureaucracy scrubs out dissent. I think what happened was more of a bureaucratic scrub, if you will."
We asked Scruggs if a similar "bureaucratic scrub" might have caused government decision makers to ignore the crucial mind control factor, and the discomforting issues it raised legally and politically, in their strategic thinking and contingency planning for resolving the Waco crisis.
"Oh, no. The bureau believes strongly in mind control, believe me," said Scruggs, "oh, absolutely." His statement struck us as a minor revelation after decades of categorial denials by government officials. He pulled back the curtain on the FBI's internal assumptions the reigned throughout the standoff. "There was a great debate going on in the bureau whether Koresh was a con man or whether he really thought he was some kind of messiah, but whichever he was there was no doubt that he was effectively controlling the rest of the people. Everybody assumed that."
Yet apparently that assumption was not for public consumption. "Everybody believed he did it through some kind of brainwashing or mind control. We scrubbed the report of words like that, but the bureau used them. They fully understood that."
Scruggs said that understanding extended to FBI commanders in the field and to the bureau's elite Hostage Rescue Team. He cited it as a rationale for the use of the loudspeakers and the psywar tactics.
"Most people in the bureau believed Koresh and his core supporters would never come out. But even up to the tear gas insertion on the last day, they had hopes that, by making it very uncomfortable, they could overcome the control Koresh exercised over the rest and get out a large number of the women and children. They even used the phrase 'the motherhood instinct.'"
It was a plausible theory but a poor place to test it, and it made us wonder even more what government officials meant when they alternately denied, then acknowledged, the reality of cult control. In this instance, the FBI's actions seemed only to prove how powerful such control was that it could overwhelm the most basic human instincts.
"Yes," Scruggs acknowledged, "in that case it may have."
By that point, however, the other options available to FBI commanders were even less attractive. Scruggs gave a glimpse of some alternatives government officials considered, then quickly dismissed.
"The options were minimal. They could have killed Koresh - the Israelis couldn't understand why he didn't do that. The HRT had Koresh in their sights fifty times. They could have killed him and all his leaders and that would have been the end of it, but that was not an option. They looked into all kinds of other things. One official had heard rumors that the government had a secret weapon, like a laser weapon or sound weapon, that could vibrate people in some non-lethal way and get them out of there. We didn't. We found out later there was a microwave weapon, but they couldn't use it because it affected people differently based on their body size and weight. It didn't do much to big people but it tended to cook little people."
The anecdote showed the depth of the government's frustration and its powerlessness to counter the new mind control methods by conventional matter-and-energy means. During those tense weeks, and in public debates for years afterwards, everyone and his brother seemed to have a sure-fire strategy that would have saved the day, but for Scruggs and other officials we spoke with, Waco was a no-win situation. He summed up the damnable dilemma of the Waco debacle as he saw it.
"I'm not saying that mistakes weren't made, because they were, but I became firmly convinced in my own mind, after looking at this sixteen hours a day for six months, that it was Koresh's game. He was, in effect, controlling us no less than he was controlling his own people."
The death spiral cut both ways. Its chaotic dynamics consumed the sect members at its center and pulled public officials from the top of the system downward into the vortex. Our last interview took us into the other eye of the storm. Carl Stern, Director of Public Affairs for the Department of Justice, was present at those crucial decision-making sessions held in the office of Attorney General Janet Reno in which the FBI presented its tear gas assault plan for her approval. He recalled his personal predicament, shared by all the new administration appointees in Washington, of coming cold to events in progress, and the tumult of meetings and decisions during that final weekend before the culminating events of Monday, April 19.
"I arrived here on Tuesday and had my first meeting on Waco fifteen minutes after I walked in the door," Stern told us. "Two people from the criminal division were advocation the tear gas plan. I took the other position and we argued it in front of the Attorney General. The next day I attended a meeting where I really felt the idea had been turned off. I was confident that nothing was going forward. Then on Saturday it got turned around 180 degrees."
How did that happen?
"I'm not certain," Stern said, truly puzzled. He was called late to the Saturday meeting of senioe Justice and FBI officials, and by the time he arrived the assault plan seemed to have gained a new and unstoppable momentum.
"The AG was there with her deputies, the FBI Director was there with his deputies, and they were going through the whole thing all over again."
Stern summarized the long list of official priorities that weighed in favor of the action.
"The FBI was concerned about deteriorating health conditions in the compound. There were dead bodies on the premises. The building had no indoor plumbing. People were defecating in buckets and dumping it in a pit out back and, after fifty days, there was real concern that there would be a massive disease outbreak and the first ones to get sick would be the kids. They were concerned that the perimeter of the compound was highly unstable. It was a large perimeter. There had been several breaches of it. There were rumors that armed pro-Koresh groups might come from Houston or California or elsewhere to put an end to the siege. Finally, the Hostage Rescue Team had been there for forty-nine days at that point - the longest they had ever gone before was four days. They were in sniper positions around the clock. They were losing their edge, not training, sitting out there in mudholes, and they were afraid if something went wrong in the rest of the country they would not be able to respond."
Stern talked own reports that false claims of new child abuses by Koresh were the determining factor in the decision to attack.
"The AG asked a number of questions and this became the legend of what she was concerned about. She asked first about sanitary conditions. She asked next about sexual assault and child abuse. The FBI replied that if Koresh was still doing what he had been point prior to the raid that if Koresh was still doing what he had been doing prior to the raid he was legally committing statutory rape. Third, the question of beatings came up. As recently as March 21, youngsters had been released who described having been beaten. The consensus was that, at a minimum, the government was not adequately protecting these children, but all that got distorted later."
We asked about discussion of the risks associated with the tear gas assault, particularly the threat of suicide by Koresh and other Davidians. Stern confirmed that the protest was firmly dismissed by FBI officials and played no role in the final decision-making process. Was the AG told about the many expert assessments to the contrary? He replied as a witness to history and official government spokesman.
"What the Attorney General heard was the assessment that he was not suicidal."
He offered other insights into traditional law enforcement thinking and the historical tough-cop culture of the FBI, which later evaluators cited as central factors in the proposal by bureau commanders to attack the compound with tear gas.
"Remember, four officers had been killed, the FBI had never waited so long in the hostage situation, and from their perspective, it was really untenable that people who had killed federal officers were going on week after week thumbing their noses at law enforcement."
However, Stern also acknowledged that the assault plan which was presented and approved was at odds with the operation as it was executed.
"Please keep in mind that there was no plan to demolish the compound. As we said at the time, it was not D-Day. The original plan was a two-day plan for gradual insertion of gas to progressively shrink the usable space and continually encourage people to come out."
Instead, when the Davidian met the tanks with hundreds of rounds of automatic weapons fire, ground commanders responded by stepping up their timetable and increasing the flow of tear gas into more areas of the compound - all, apparently, to no avail. Stern claimed that unforeseen factors, the inevitable precursors to chaos, played havoc with events that day.
"No one anticipated the wind," he said. "The tanks were not supposed to strike the building, but because of the wind, the gas wasn't getting in and they had to get closer and finally insert the booms through the window millwork. In the course of doing so, they struck the walls and the roof."
By that time, no one was anticipating David Koresh either. Stern recalled the scene as the FBI command center in Washington when the standoff spiraled into its death throes.
"I was in the SIOC [Strategic Intervention Operations Center] when the fire broke out. At first, Floyd Clarke, the FBI's Deputy Director, thought an engine had blown on one of the vehicles they had rented from the Army. They didn't realize what had happened. Then, when it became clear that it was a fire, they all sat there waiting for the people to come out. They were saying, 'Come on baby, come on out, come on out.' They were expecting people to come flooding out and there were no people coming out and they were absolutely incredulous. Even when it was over, they were still assuming they would find the kids in the bus they had buried underground."
That assumption, too, proved tragically wrong. Stern made no excuses for the FBI's failure to take the suicide threat seriously.
"All I can tell you is that, given the atmosphere at the time, it was a surprise the suicide occurred. Remember, by then, most of the children in the compound were Koresh's own. The thought that he would permit his own children to be harmed was inconceivable."
For us, that assumption, and many others that were perhaps justicfiable in dealing with more conventional criminal minds, showed up the fatal flaw in the FBI's thinking - and the overriding problem with the government's approach to the social problems posed by cult control groups. Reading between Stern's carefully metered lines and those of other officials, our gut feelings told us that ranking FBI officers, tired of being manipulated by Koresh and, no doubt, genuinely concerned for the precedents they were setting for future confrontations, may have misguided the Attorney General into giving ground commanders too much leeway in the execution of the final assault plan - leeway that, as the tank and tear gas assault progressed, unleashed the full destructive potential of Koresh and the people under his control. However, in our view, that gaping hole in the government's strategy was not wrought by any battering ram or armored vehicle. Amid the push and pull of the government's internal debate, the failure of FBI officials in Washington and Waco to heed warning that the cult's destructive urges would ignite under pressure hastened the demise of the doom-bent Davidians.
Stern offered his own closing argument in an effort to, if not excuse, at least account for the trust in government that, for many Americans went up in flames at Waco.
"The Attorney General had only been on the job five weeks," Stern reminded us. "She didn't even have her own staff yet. She was really flying solo. She had to rely on somebody, so she relied on the FBI and their vaunted Hostage Rescue Team. Those of us who have been around town a little longer know that, while there's much to admire about the FBI, it does not have an unblemished record. There are times when they have been mistaken. They're not perfect. In the world of cats and dogs, sometimes they're closer to dogs than cats. If she had been Attorney General for two years and had more experience dealing with the bureau, she might have solicited more information."
The lessons of Waco cannot by simply drawn, but some conclusions can be made from the evidence and supporting testimony: the actions of David Koresh and his followers placed the government in a position where some intervention was called for to apprehend a suspected lawbreaker with a history and declared plan of violence who posed a danger to those around him and, potentially, to a much wider population. However, the challenge of defusing a delusional cult leader with scores of armed followers under his control was never fully comprehended or accurately informed and, as a result, it led to the exact outcome it had sought to avoid.
The same chaotic volatility ruled throughout the FBI siege. Strategic errors considered of negligible concern to negotiators had major ramifications. The assumption that sect members were merely "hostages" allowed the crucial question of cult control to be altogether ignored. The erroneous "mother instinct" assumption proved fatal to mothers and their children. The FBI's tactical teams, ground commanders and field negotiators, many of whom were them selves physically exhausted, mentally overloaded and utterly frustrated by Koresh, dismissed the warnings of ex-members, independent witnesses and their own experts and played a long-shot in the no-win game they had inherited. In the process, the entire command chain gave way to its own set of chaotic dynamics: to closed institutional thinking, subtle internecine struggles, serious errors in judgment and - not to forget - genuine differences of opinion among people acting in good faith and with the best intentions.
The lessons of Jonestown and Waco need to be grasped sooner rather than later, for those conflicts were microcosms auguring larger conflicts that have already begun to turn in pre-chaotic patterns. Our chaos model offered one tool for mapping the communication dynamics of social confrontations with cults and other ideologically controlled groups, for determining when critical thresholds were being approached and crossed, and when crucial windows were opening and closing for appropriate interventions by law enforcement, social services and mental health professionals. However, in our view, the greater lesson for people in America and elsewhere was this: without new understanding of the vulnerabilities of the mind and new legal protections for the basic human freedom that must come before any other in an information age - freedom of thought - freedom itself becomes just another strange attractor in the lands of artful manipulators drawing individuals and societies downward in destruction.
288 Factual errors…extent of FBI contacts with cult experts and former Branch Davidians: "Report to the Deputy Attorney General on the Events at Waco, Texas, February 28 to April 19, 1993," Washington, DC, October 8, 1993, pp.190-193. The report states that Breault was not contacted by the FBI and misrepresents the nature and extent of consultations with deprogrammer Rick Ross. Documentation supplied to us confirms that FBI negotiators in Waco contacted Breault in Australia after the ATF raid, and the bureau personnel initiated contact with Rick Ross in Dallas on March 4, 1993 and had at least eighteen discussions with him during the siege, the last on April 13. Personnel communications with Marc Breault and Rick Ross, 1994.
One outside expert: Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist affiliated with the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Decatur, Georgia, claimed to have studied the factual evidence, consulted with academic colleagues and "reviewed….academic literature on 'New Religious Movements.'" She also admitted to receiving unspecified information from "various political and lobbying groups." Nancy T. Ammerman, "Report to the Justice and Treasury Departments regarding law enforcement interactions with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, September 3, 1993, oo.1-10.
[ISBN#: 0-9647650-0-4. Softcover, 416 pages, illustrated, appendix, notes, index.]
Copyright © 1995 by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman. All rights reserved. The authors give their limited permission to readers of the "Rick Ross" World Wide Web site to copy and distribute this excerpt from SNAPPING, provided that the material is copied or redistributed solely for the purposes of public information and education without any charge to recipients, and that any copied or distributed materials carry this copyright notice exactly as printed here.
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