Expended flares found among siege evidence

DPS chief calls find important, questions use

The Dallas Morning News, September 8, 1999
By Lee Hancock

Expended military illumination flares fired by U.S. government personnel have been discovered in the tons of evidence recovered from the Branch Davidian compound, the head of the Texas Department of Public Safety said Tuesday night.

Texas Rangers searching a Waco storage facility Friday for missing pyrotechnic tear-gas grenades discovered one of the military devices, a star parachute flare. Evidence logs indicate that more of the flares were recovered in the weeks after the compound burned following an FBI siege and tear-gas assault April 19, 1993, said James B. Francis Jr. of Dallas.

"These flares are potentially a very important issue, inasmuch as the government had enormous spotlights trained on the compound throughout the standoff," Mr. Francis told The Dallas Morning News.

"They didn't need these flares to light the compound. One or more was fired. For what purpose or reason would these rounds be used?" he said. "I can't tell you whether they were [shot by] the military or FBI, but certainly, they were fired by government officials."

FBI spokesman John Collingwood said he could not flatly rule out FBI use of illumination rounds at Waco. "Several times during the standoff they had people sneaking in or out of the compound at night. Whether they ever used them then, I don't know," he said. "But I can say categorically, we did not use illumination rounds on the 19th."

The discovery of the incendiary illumination rounds raises new questions for federal officials already scrambling to explain why it took six years for the FBI to admit that its agents used pyrotechnic tear-gas rounds against the Branch Davidians on April 19, 1993.

The government made that admission only after a former senior FBI official told The News that the use of the flammable rounds in Waco was "common knowledge" within the bureau's hostage rescue team.

Attorney General Janet Reno has said that its use violated her strict instructions that nothing capable of sparking a fire be used during the FBI tear-gas assault.

What next?

With the discovery of the spent illumination round, Texas law enforcement officials said they are concerned about what else may be found in the 24,000 pounds of evidence recovered after the compound burned.

The Rangers, who were asked to develop a criminal case after the siege began, were asked by the U.S. Justice Department to keep all evidence needed for the prosecutions of Branch Davidians that followed.

But tons of other debris, including more than 300,000 rounds of ammunition and other ordnance stockpiled by the sect, has been kept in Waco.

"There is a big semiwarehouse of spent munitions that has not been investigated," one Texas official said. "Nobody knew what they were looking for before now. Nobody was hunting for incendiary devices."

A government investigator said Tuesday that a General Accounting Office investigation on military involvement during the siege was unable to resolve questions about the FBI's acquisition of high-explosive 40 mm military rounds during the standoff or the number of U.S. Army Special Forces personnel sent to Waco.

Fort Hood source

Defense Department records indicate that the high-explosive rounds were acquired along with the illumination rounds from nearby Fort Hood during the standoff.

The sect's compound burned on April 19, six hours after FBI tanks began battering the building and inserting tear gas. Leader David Koresh and more than 80 followers died.

Government officials have long maintained that the fires were deliberately set by the Branch Davidians.

Federal officials also have insisted that the pyrotechnic tear-gas rounds were fired into a bunker away from the compound and were used more than three hours before the fire began.

But where or when those devices, known as M-651 CS rounds, were acquired by the FBI is unclear.

Mr. Francis said Texas Rangers on Tuesday obtained two unfired M-651s from the same manufacturing batch as those used at Waco from Redstone Arsenal in Alabama and Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas. Mr. Francis said Rangers have traced a shell casing in their custody to a batch made for the U.S. military in the late 1960s.

Defense denials

Some recent news reports have included Defense Department denials that any pyrotechnic gas used at Waco came from U.S. military stores.

Mr. Francis said Texas Rangers plan to return to Waco in the near future to search for a second parachute flare listed on evidence logs and other questioned items.

"They have no military value other than to be an incendiary flare," he said of the flares. "The question this raises is how many are still to be discovered."

Illumination rounds have been controversial in past high-profile FBI cases. They were used by FBI teams to burn the hideout of white supremacist Robert Mathews after he shot and wounded one FBI agent and engaged in a gunbattle with others in 1984. Mr. Mathews died in the blaze.

GAO inquiry

Defense records reviewed in the GAO inquiry commissioned by Congress to examine military assistance during the Waco siege indicated that five special forces soldiers maintained specialized technical equipment loaned to the FBI and watched government actions.

But other records indicated that eight people from special forces were present at various points during the 51-day siege, said GAO investigator Melissa McDowell.

The number of special forces personnel in Waco has been questioned since the Waco controversy reignited. A former CIA employee recently told The Dallas Morning News that acquaintances in the Army's secret Delta Force claimed that the anti-terrorist unit was actively involved in the FBI's tear-gas assault.

Defense Department officials have insisted that no military personnel took active roles.

Ms. McDowell said many defense documents shown to the GAO were heavily redacted, with all information about the names and units of the military personnel blacked out.

"I can only assume that some of them were there for technical support, others were there to spell the others off or to be observers. We had no reason to be suspicious," she said.

Military records

She said military documents indicated that classified technical equipment provided to the FBI in Waco included highly specialized robot-driven video equipment as well as electronic jamming equipment. Military records indicated some of the classified equipment was on the ground and in use in the siege on March 2, three days after the standoff began.

Ms. McDowell said the two-year GAO inquiry ended before investigators could resolve the discrepancies in the number of special forces personnel reported to have traveled to Waco.

"I have seen no documents that would say that they were there for more than observation purposes, liaison or to train operators or operate some certain equipment," she said.

The other question left unresolved was the supply of 250 40 mm high-explosive rounds to the FBI's hostage rescue team. Records from Fort Hood's III Corps indicated that the Army supplied those rounds along with 50 illumination rounds and 200 practice rounds to the hostage rescue team, along with a refresher training session in mid-March 1993 at a Fort Hood firing range.

FBI agents were armed with shoulder-fired grenade launchers, and they used those to fire both nonflammable tear-gas and pyrotechnic tear-gas rounds during their final assault.

While military records tracked a specific request for the illumination and practice rounds, no records explained who asked for the high-explosive shells and why they were needed, Ms. McDowell said.

"We questioned it and we weren't able to get any more information," she said.

Asked about the matter Tuesday, Mr. Collingwood, the FBI spokesman, said, "I'm 100 percent sure that we did not use H-E [high-explosive] rounds at any time during the Waco standoff."

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