The Waco Flame-Up

A six-year-old case comes alive after agents admit firing incendiary devices at the Branch Davidians

Newsweek, September 6, 1999
By Michael Isikoff

The spent shell was sitting in plain sight. Sifting through the scorched rubble after the government's deadly 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, a member of the Texas Rangers was surprised to find the 40mm shell lying on the ground. He showed it to an FBI agent supervising the cleanup. "What's this?" the ranger asked, according to a law-enforcement source. "I'll have to get back to you," the G-man answered.

The agent never did. But last week the FBI for the first time confirmed what the Texas Ranger had long ago suspected. After denying for years that federal agents used incendiary devices in the raid, FBI Director Louis Freeh acknowledged that two pyrotechnic tear-gas canisters were indeed fired at the compound. The news sent the FBI into a protective crouch — and infuriated antigovernment activists who have long believed the Feds covered up the truth about Waco. Few law-enforcement operations have spurred as many conspiracy theories — or resonated as deeply with those Americans who are profoundly distrustful of the government. Some 80 people died during the April 19 raid, 25 of them children.

No one last week seemed angrier than Attorney General Janet Reno, who ordered the Waco siege and has defended it ever since. Reno, who says she was never informed about the pyrotechnic shells, described herself as "very, very upset" and began an independent inquiry into the matter. Freeh was "incredulous" when he found out, a bureau official said. "He immediately realized the damage this could do to the bureau's credibility," said the official.

Despite the public hand-wringing, government officials insisted that the combustible canisters had nothing to do with the fire that destroyed the compound. They repeated the litany of evidence indicating the blaze was ignited from the inside by Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and his followers. The FBI says the tear-gas devices were launched several hours before the fire started and had been aimed at an underground concrete bunker 40 yards from the wooden main building. Bureau officials explained that the noxious gas was supposed to force the Davidians into the open. As it turned out, the tactic had no effect at all: the canisters bounced off the top of the bunker and landed in a field. As one Justice official put it, the use of the shells "doesn't change the bottom line."

Then why did it take the FBI so long to admit to using them? The bureau insists the reason is that no one ever asked. In the initial post-Waco reviews, investigators repeatedly asked agents if they had used any incendiary devices that might have "caused the fire." The answer, uniformly, was no. Then, last year, freelance journalists sympathetic to the Davidians petitioned the Texas Department of Public Safety — the agency that supervises the Texas Rangers — to inspect the Waco evidence buried in its storage lockers. Public Safety Commissioner James Francis seems to have played the pivotal role in forcing the evidence into view. He ordered the rangers to sort through the boxes and report back. Six weeks ago he had his answers. "My God, this is a problem," Francis recalled saying. Not only did the rangers inform him about the incendiary devices, but also reported that a handful of soldiers from the U.S. Army's supersecret Delta Force may have done more than just observe the operation, as had been previously acknowledged — a discovery that was sure to send conspiracy buffs into a furor. Francis gave the findings to the federal judge presiding over a wrongful-death suit brought against the government by survivors of the siege.

As it turns out, Francis's role could create a minor conspiracy flurry of its own. A political appointee of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Francis is also the top fund-raiser for Bush's presidential campaign. Francis told NEWSWEEK that the connection was pure coincidence. "I'm trying not to be political," he says, adding he hasn't even talked to Bush about this. There isn't any evidence that last week's news was the result of a GOP plot to embarrass the Clinton administration. But six years after the siege, Waco skeptics aren't about to start taking politicians at their word — about anything.

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