FBI could hear Branch Davidians setting fires-newspaper

Reuters, Oct 8, 1999

DALLAS, Oct 8, 1999 - Powerful bugging devices allowed the FBI to overhear clearly the voices of Branch Davidians preparing the deadly fire that consumed their compound near Waco in 1993, a former military adviser said in the Friday edition of the Dallas Morning News.

The account by retired army Col. Rodney Rawlings contradicts congressional testimony by the FBI and Attorney General Janet Reno that the agency had no idea David Koresh and his followers reacted to the start of a tear gas assault by spreading fuel and igniting a blaze, the newspaper said.

Koresh and about 80 people inside the compound died, some from fire and others form gunshot wounds, after a 51-day siege by federal agents.

Controversy over the affair was re-ignited last month after the FBI admitted, after years of denials, that agents fired potentially incendiary military tear gas rounds at the roof of a concrete bunker near the compound. But the agency said that there was no evidence the rounds helped start the fire.

Col. Rawlings told the Morning News that he and other officials sat in an FBI monitoring room outside the compound on April 19, 1993. Voices picked up by powerful bugging devices planted inside the compound were broadcast on speakers in the monitoring room, he said.

"You could hear everything from the very beginning, as it was happening," said Rawlings, 54, now a project manager for a computer firm in Austin. "Anyone who says you couldn't at the time is being less than truthful," he said.'

The colonel, who retired from the Army in 1997, said he was at Waco as the senior Army liaison to the FBI's hostage rescue team.

The newspaper said a senior FBI spokesman in Washington declined to comment on Thursday, citing an ongoing investigation by independent counsel John Danforth. Danforth was appointed by Reno last month to investigate how the siege came to a deadly end and whether federal agents had any part in causing the deaths or covering up their role afterward.

Among the most chilling transmissions picked up the FBI bugs was Koresh's order to set the fires, a command followed by the sound of gunshots, Col. Rawlings said.

The bugs then broadcast the voice of Koresh declaring that God did not want him to die, and his chief lieutenant Steve Schneider's response that the sect leader "wasn't going to get out of this," Col. Rawlings said.

Koresh's unarmed body later was found lying near Schneider's. Autopsies found Koresh had been shot once in the centre of his forehead and that Schneider committed suicide.

Officials have told Congress that transmissions from eavesdropping devices inside the compound were too garbled to allow agents to hear the sect's discussions about spreading fuel as FBI tanks began ramming the building and spreading tear gas inside.

Reno testified that she would have stopped the tear gas assault if she had been told anything about the Davidians' plans and preparations for a fire.

Rawlings told the newspaper it appeared to him that the FBI had no alternative plan to follow once the tear gas assault started, even though the bugging transmissions made it clear the Branch Davidians were preparing a blaze.

FBI agents milled around as the bug monitors played, many of them listening "with great interest," Rawlings said.

"It bothers me to no end," Col. Rawlings said about the FBI's subsequent denials it overheard the fire preparations.

"They've had the opportunity to say, 'We knew.' We've not gotten a straightforward answer."

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