The Waco Dispute - Why the ATF Had to Act

The Washington Post/July 2, 1995
By Steve Higgins

It was probably inevitable that the tragic bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City would get linked to the disastrous fire at the Branch Davidian compound. The events, as most everyone knows by now, occurred exactly two years apart and the principal suspect in the Oklahoma bombing not only visited Waco but is known to have been greatly angered by what he saw there.

The link was reinforced when, a short time after the bombing, President Clinton was asked a question on "60 minutes" that sought to imply the events of Waco contributed to or even justified what happened in Oklahoma. His reply was short and direct as he challenged the temerity of anyone who would suggest that Waco brought on the tragic bombing. That such a question could even be asked shows how deeply ingrained some of the Waco myths have become.

As the former director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), I have personally answered my share of similarly posed questions. And I continue to be surprised - even after five sets of congressional hearings and extensive government reviews - at how much misinformation still persists about the event surrounding Waco. It's probably evidence that what people hear first is what they remember longest, even when subsequent reviews may show the original reports to have been in error.

I am not so naïve to think that people will blindly accept my accounting of the events surrounding Waco, only hopeful that reasonable people will realize there are at least two sides to every story. Here's mine.

First, let me say that, despite what fundraisers at the National Rifle Association would have us believe, the ATF is not part of some sinister federal plot to confiscate guns from innocent people. In fact, it is a matter of public record that the ATF did not go looking for the Davidians. In the first place. A local deputy sheriff received a report from a United Parcel Services driver who said that a package had broken apart on delivery, revealing inert grenade casings inside. The driver also reported earlier suspicious deliveries of firearms parts, casings and black powder.

In May 1992, the deputy asked the ATF for assistance, thus triggering the extensive investigation that led the issuance of search and arrest warrants by a federal magistrate-judge in February 1993. So conspiracy theorists had best include the local sheriff's office and UPS as part of the collusion.

On the day before the warrants were served by ATF officials, the Waco Tribune-Herald began a series of articles on the Davidians, detailing the potential danger the group represented to the community as well as, somewhat ironically, the failure of local law enforcement agencies in addressing the threat. (The conspiracy now would have to include the local newspaper publisher!)

There are those who argue that the Davidians were a peaceful, law-abiding people who at worst may have merely been violating federal firearms laws in building their arsenal of automatic weapons and explosives. But those who would so easily counsel the government to ignore firearms violations should consider the potential consequences of such a policy. They should recall that Davidian leader David Koresh had told a social services worker from the Texas Department Human Services that the work was coming to an end and that the riots in Los Angeles would pale in comparison to what was going to happen in Waco.

While it was never clear precisely what Koresh had in mind, during the later standoff he sent a letter out of the compound, according to the Justice Department reports, indicating he may have been planning some type of operation to blow up the dam at Lake Waco. A former resident of the compound later told government officials, again according to Justice, that Koresh wanted to force an armed confrontation with ATF and repeatedly at one point considered opening fire at a Waco fast-food restaurant just to do so.

To those who remain convinced that such information should have been ignored, or who believe that ATF was too concerned about the possibility of mass suicide if ATF conducted a lengthy siege of the compound rather than attempt a surprise entry, I can only say: Remember Jonestown. Or remember the members of the sect in Canada and Switzerland who committed mass suicide earlier this year. Or look at what happened in the subways in Japan, where a group whose presence was known and considered potentially dangerous by government officials allegedly uncorked a deadly nerve gas. The day has long passed when we can afford to ignore the threat posed by individuals who believe they are subject only to the laws of their god and not those of our government.

Most disturbing to me is the persistent claim by many Koresh sympathizers that the Davidians were only defending themselves when they shot and killed four ATF agents and wounded numerous others on Feb. 28, 1993 - the morning of the raid. While there have been some allegations that the agents were in fact killed inadvertently when other ATF officers opened fire, the Treasury report found this was not the case. Only one agent inside the compound may have been wounded by friendly fire, but even this was never clearly proven. Yet what possible excuse could there have been for the Davidians even taking up arms - let along using them - upon learning inadvertently from a TV cameraman that ATF agents were on their way to serve warrants?

The law requires that when served a warrant, we comply with that warrant and let the judicial systems determine our ultimate guilt or innocence. Had the Davidians done so, there would have been no subsequent loss of life on either side.

Instead, they armed themselves with automatic firearms, grenades and semi-automatic .50 caliber rifle, opening fire when the agents arrived. To those who insist that ATF fired first, the Treasury report concluded it was the Davidians who had done so, and the Texas Ranger interviews of the only impartial observers who were there that morning - the media - all support the fact that it was the Davidians who opened fire. In fact, several witnesses reported agents being fired on even before they could exit the trucks.

As for those who insist ATF should have simply driven up to the compound and politely asked to conduct a search without displaying any firearms, I refer them again to the Treasury report, which said it best by claiming such an approach would have been "foolhardy and irresponsible." To which I could only add dangerous and potentially suicidal.

Leave aside for the moment whether ATF commanders did in fact determine the morning of the raid that Koresh had been tipped off they were coming and tragically led the agents into an ambush, as the Treasury report concluded. Assume for the sake of argument that the raid commanders should have reached that conclusion and canceled the raid. The fact is, the raid wasn't canceled. By what perverted sense of logic or legality does it somehow follow, as some have argued, that because the ATF made a mistake in not aborting the raid, the Davidians were therefore entitled to offer armed resistance and kill the agents as they arrived to serve legal, court-ordered warrants?

In my view the Davidians reacted in a criminal and violent manner. Unfortunately, there is a small but perhaps growing number of groups that feel much the same way, thought they may not cloak their beliefs in religion. By contending that they are not subject to the laws that bind this country, we allow these groups to pose a serious threat that far exceed their relative numbers.

With all that has transpired, what will another round of hearings tell us? I've heard a number of commentators and even some members of Congress suggest that another Waco hearing might help prevent more tragedies like Oklahoma City. If that were true, I would not hesitate to condone them.

Realistically, however, I find it hard to believe that the type of people who would kill hundred of innocent people by bombing a downtown building truly care about Waco other than to possibly use it as an excuse for their behavior. What rational connection can there be between the event on April 19, 1993, in Waco - where an independent review concluded that the Davidians, including many innocent men, women and children, died in a fire that was set by other residents of the compound - and the bombing in Oklahoma City where hundreds of innocent men, women and children were killed or injured by criminals in a vicious and cowardly act? Less than a day after the bombing, one individual told a television audience that, while the bombing was regrettable, the bomb itself was a "Rembrandt." Another person interviewed in Pennsylvania two weeks after the Oklahoma bombing said his reaction to the explosion was that it was a "damned good start."

Are these the kind of people who another hearing on Waco is intended to influence? I can only hope that, out of the tragedy in Oklahoma City there can in time come something positive. By seeing the faces of the survivors and reading their stories, maybe those who so vehemently rail against government authority in general, and government workers in particular, will come to understand better that those people they've been so quick to criticize have real faces and real families. They car-pool to work. They coach Little League sports. They mow their lawns. They're the family next door that waters your plants and takes in your mail while you're away.

No one deserves to have their life placed in jeopardy simply because they work in, or happen to be passing by, a government office. And no one, not even law enforcement officers who get paid for rising their lives, deserves to be targeted by violence extremists threatening to kill them simply for doing their jobs.

As for people like Gordon Liddy who think words don't matter and see nothing wrong with advising listeners to shoot ATF agents in the head because they wear bulletproof vests, I doubt there's much hope. Liddy dismisses such comments as mere words, nothing to get stirred up over. ATF agents take little consolation in Liddy's response that he meant his advice to apply only in self defense, when his listeners probably include a number of potentially violent individuals who think any time an ATF agent comes on their property with a legal warrant they've somehow got a right to defend themselves. As someone who has been an occasional recipient of his invectives, I hope he's right, because I've got a lot more to lose if he's wrong than he does.

If nothing else, however, I think it's worth remembering that Waco was not the Alamo, and David Koresh was no Davey Crockett. By his violent actions both on February 28 and April 19, 1993, he showed that he placed no more value on human life than did Charles Manson, the Son of Sam and those cowardly individuals who placed the bomb in Oklahoma City. To make him into something larger than that is to do a tremendous disservice to the young agents who lost their lives.

We can't change the outcome of what happened at Waco, but we have a responsibility not to ignore simple fairness and compassion in our search for the truth. If there is to be another hearing on Waco, let's hope it's for the purpose of examining the facts and learning from the tragedy, not merely to please one more special interest group with an anti-government agenda.

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