Letters to the Editor - What Happened at Waco

The Washington Post/July 23, 1995
By Rick Ross

Phillip Arnold, James Tabor, Gordon Melton, Dean Kelley and Nancy Ammerman

The Post published an article July 2nd about Waco written by cult apologist J. Gordon Melton and Lawrence Criner, a senior associate editor with The World and I, a publication associated with the Unification Church ["What the Hearings May Tell us; Did the Federal Authorities Heed the Wrong 'Experts,'" Outlook]. Misleading statements were made concerning my role in the Waco standoff. Mr. Melton has previously acknowledged false statements concerning my work.

The Post's readers should know that J. Gordon Melton is touted as a resource for information by the Church of Scientology in its publication Freedom Magazine. Likewise, Philip Arnold, James Tabor and Dean Kelley, cited as sources by Mr. Melton and Mr. Criner, are on the same list. Nancy Ammerman, another one of their experts, rated a full page. It is interesting to note that the recent "deposition" from which the two quoted, saying I "acted as liaison between ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] and David Block" (a former Branch Davidian), was taken by Scientology lawyers in an unrelated case that has not yet gone to trial. How did they get that information? Mr. Melton has yet to disclose the board members of or the funding sources for his so-called Institute for the Study of American Religion.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Melton flew to Japan with James Lewis, another cult apologist, to investigate charges of "religious persecution" made by Aum Supreme Truth. The cult paid for all their expenses. High-ranking leaders of this destructive group have been charged with the deaths of 12 in the gassing of 5,000 Tokyo subway riders and implicated their jailed leader Asahara.

Mr. Melton and Mr. Criner's comments about interviews with federal agents are misleading. Unlike the experts touted by Scientology, I had five years of experience dealing directly with Davidians by 1993. Federal agents felt such specific information might be meaningful. I never offered to help them "destroy a cult." Mr. Melton and Mr. Criner question David Block's testimony, but his many months living within the compound and his years of experience proved reliable and accurate. The information he provided was only partially responsible for federal warrants served at the compound.

Dean Kelley has retired from the National Council of Churches and is now a "consultant." He questions the use of cult experts and instead recommends "authorities in religious studies." Mr. Kelley's article "Waco: A Massacre and Its Aftermath" in the magazine First Things seems to promote the notion of a government conspiracy. It reads more like a militia manifesto than objective religious scholarship.

Cult apologists seeks to use the Waco hearings to attack their perceived enemies and advance the theory that cult groups should not be held accountable for their action like others within our society. They are somehow excused due to their religious beliefs. This is a self-serving and dangerous argument.

It is important to discuss what happened at Waco. The government did make mistakes. The ATF was too aggressive and could have opted for a more cautious and considered approach in serving its warrants. The FBI never really fully recognized the cult dynamic central to the standoff and instead saw it as a terrorist "hostage-rescue" situation, despite the advice of experts. However, these agencies were obligated to enforce the law and could not ignore gross violations, or walk away after federal agents were murdered. We should examine and learn from the Waco standoff, but let's be honest about it.

Rick Ross


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