FBI cameras encircled compound, files show

Critics question lack of tapes in Waco siege

The Dallas Morning News, October 14, 1999
By Lee Hancock

The Branch Davidian compound was ringed with FBI closed-circuit cameras and secret government sensing devices during the entire 1993 standoff, and the cameras were used throughout April 19, the day federal agents launched a tank and tear-gas assault, government documents show.

But despite written statements from FBI agents and technicians that recordings were made, no videotape from the surveillance cameras has ever been made public by the federal government. Critics of the government's actions in the standoff say their efforts to obtain such videos have been blocked for years by the FBI and the Department of Justice.

Congressional investigators who recently began re-examining investigations of the standoff said Wednesday that they cannot say what Congress has been told about the use of closed-circuit cameras at the compound because the matter involves government secrets.

"Until that information is declassified, we cannot discuss it," said Mark Corallo, spokesman for the House Government Reform Committee. An FBI spokesman said he would need to look into the matter further before commenting. A Justice Department spokesman did not return calls Wednesday night.

Lawyers for surviving sect members who have filed a massive wrongful-death lawsuit against the federal government say they are outraged because they have been told repeatedly by government lawyers that the only FBI cameras in use on April 19 were infrared cameras deployed in airplanes high above the sect's compound.

"We have asked for every possible form of recording known to man that could have been utilized at Mount Carmel," said the lead lawyer for the group, Michael Caddell of Houston. "We have been told that the only thing that exists are the [infrared] tapes and the surveillance tapes from FBI bugs inside the compound."

Written statements

But formal written statements, known as FBI 302s, obtained by The Dallas Morning News show that at least five FBI agents were sent to the compound near Waco to maintain closed-circuit cameras.

"CCTV [closed-circuit TV] monitoring sites . . . were all around the compound," one FBI technical expert stated in a June 1993 interview detailed in a three-page FBI 302. "This enabled observers to see everything that was going on at the compound without showing themselves."

One agent reported watching from the closed-circuit TV system as FBI tanks began gassing the compound on April 19, the documents state. A supervisor from the FBI's Quantico, Va., training academy said that the FBI's cameras were also running as the compound caught fire with sect leader David Koresh and more than 80 followers inside, according to a second FBI 302.

The supervisor's June 1993 statement said that recordings were routinely made from the closed-circuit cameras that ringed the compound to help document FBI actions during the 51-day standoff.

Mr. Caddell said he believes that FBI officials may have withheld information about the cameras because of the images that they captured on April 19. He noted that references to the closed-circuit television cameras were blacked out on the formal statements or FBI 302s that the Justice Department has so far disclosed in the civil wrongful-death lawsuit. Two retired Defense Department experts hired by Mr. Caddell's law firm and a third expert retained by congressional investigators have said that the FBI's infrared airborne video cameras recorded thermal flashes from the compound and from government positions on April 19 that could only have come from gunfire.

FBI officials have insisted that FBI agents did not fire a single shot that day or at any other time during the 51-day siege. The compound fire erupted six hours into the FBI's tank and tear-gas assault, and government investigators ruled that it was deliberately set by the Branch Davidians. Act of nature?

Government officials have said the repeated bursts of white flashes recorded on the infrared were caused by sunlight reflecting on mud puddles or shiny debris around the compound.

"We remain confident that it was not gunfire," FBI spokesman John Collingwood said Wednesday.

But outside experts, including a retired satellite imagery analyst who spent months studying the infrared tape from the standoff, said the rhythmic flashes could not have been caused by anything found in nature. Recently released copies of the FBI's infrared tapes show that many of the flashes emanating from the compound and all of the flashes that come toward the building from around government positions occurred on the back side of the compound. That rear area was not visible to commercial network television cameras that captured images of the tear-gas assault from media observation posts about a mile and a half away.

"Clearly, whatever those cameras recorded may very well reveal the presence of government gunmen on April 19," Mr. Caddell said. "Consider the alternative. If this evidence showed conclusively that there was no government gunfire on April 19, don't you think the government would've trotted this out front and center six years ago?

"This is clearly a deliberate, intentional coverup by people high within the FBI hierarchy," he said. "This type of closed-circuit TV system and recording system would've required approval from FBI higher-ups, and they've known for the last six years that this information was withheld."

FBI logs, reports and other documents state that the bureau's agents began setting up closed-circuit cameras within hours after arriving in Waco on Feb. 28, 1993. The standoff began that day when gunfire broke out as agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to arrest sect leader David Koresh and search the compound for illegal weapons. Four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians died, and the FBI's hostage rescue team was called in to try to resolve the standoff.

One hand-written log from the FBI's forward command post in Waco stated that approval for the first camera was granted at 10:57 p.m. by a deputy assistant FBI director in Washington. The next morning, officials at the FBI's crisis command post in Washington called to request notification "when the CCTV hookup is completed and the scene is visible in the HRT CP [command post]."

Use of robots

Seven days later, FBI agents asked the Defense Department to send prototype robots equipped with video and audio recording devices to the scene, according to Defense Department documents provided by the National Security News Service, a nonprofit, Washington-based research group. The Defense Department documents, obtained by the news service under the federal Freedom of Information Act, state that three of the robots were shipped the next day.

The robots, designed for battlefield reconnaissance and surveillance, "possess day and night cameras, forward-looking infrared imaging sensors, acoustics sensors, video recorder and two-way voice communication," according to a March 1993 Defense Department memo provided by the news service.

Federal officials now re-examining the government's actions during the Branch Davidian standoff say the federal government has classified all information about the robots' performance.

The devices were not effective, officials stated, because the lenses of their cameras fogged in heavy Texas spring rains and their fiber-optic cables were repeatedly severed by the treads of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles used by the FBI.

U.S. District Judge Walter Smith of Waco, who is overseeing the Branch Davidians' ongoing wrongful-death lawsuit, issued an order in August demanding that all government documents related to the incident be turned over to his court.

A general from the U.S. Army's Special Forces briefed the judge Friday on the government's system of classifying and handling sensitive documents. Recent government filings state that the Defense Department has more than 6,000 pages of classified documents on the siege. The FBI, ATF and CIA have reported an unspecified number of classified documents, and even the U.S. Commerce Department has reported nine classified documents on the standoff. In a similar memo written last month, the Treasury Department reported "three documents that we have referred to the office of counsel to the president in order to assess a possible claim of executive privilege." Already declassified military documents state that U.S. Special Forces went to Waco to help operate classified military equipment. A May 1995 memo states that those soldiers were ordered not to videotape anything that happened on April 19.

No information given

Tim Evans, a Fort Worth lawyer who represented one of the surviving Branch Davidians prosecuted in a 1994 federal trial, said no information about the cameras or resulting videotapes was ever given to the sect's defense team. He said that violates a federal rule requiring government disclosure of anything that might be helpful to defendants.

"Sadly, I'm not surprised," said Mr. Evans, whose client was among three Davidians acquitted. "Once again, crucial evidence has been hidden not only from the public but the jury who convicted and the judge who sentenced the survivors of this holocaust to an average of 30 years without parole."

Mr. Caddell said the information about the cameras strengthens his argument that the government's account of the siege is not credible.

"For six years, they said no pyrotechnics were ever used on April 19. For six years, they said there was no recording of FBI radio traffic. For six years, no video recordings. For six years, the only infrared recordings still in existence from April 19 started at 10:42 a.m. For six years, they said we didn't know what David Koresh was planning inside Mount Carmel," Mr. Caddell said. "Now we know that all of these were lies. The real question is, is there anything that they told us about Mount Carmel that was true?"


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