Waco negotiators felt tear gas inevitable, one says

They backed plan over more aggressive options

The Dallas Morning News, December 30, 1999
By Lee Hancock

Negotiators backed using tear gas against the Branch Davidians because they were powerless to prevent it and feared that tacticians would otherwise be allowed to "throw it in," a top negotiator said after the standoff. Internal records obtained by The Dallas Morning News indicate that the bureau's tactical experts began lobbying for the use of CS gas in early March, even sending a formal plan to the White House.

Two weeks later, negotiators concluded that punitive paramilitary tactics had killed negotiations, Gary Noesner, FBI negotiation coordinator in the first half of the siege, said in a confidential 1993 interview.

On March 22, he said, negotiators submitted their own plan that included gassing the compound.

"This showed a clear realization . . . that the negotiations were basically over. They knew they were at an impasse," Agent Noesner said. "They recommended that tear gas be used because they realized this was going to happen anyway and they wanted to control it, to use it with leverage in the negotiations. The tactical interests just wanted to throw the gas in."

Their proposal became the blueprint for the plan approved by Washington.

"It would be allowed to work by letting them sit in it. The idea was to increase pressure but not in a way to provoke a violent response," recalled Agent Noesner, who left Waco shortly after the recommendation and was replaced by longtime FBI negotiator Clint Van Zandt.

Attorney General Janet Reno was reluctant to approve using gas. She sought military advice and ordered Webster Hubbell, who was an associate attorney general at the time, to get the negotiating team's assessment.

Mr. Hubbell called April 15 and spoke to Byron Sage, an Austin FBI agent who worked for Jeff Jamar, the bureau's Waco commander.

In a 1993 FBI interview, Mr. Hubbell said the agent told him that there had never been real negotiations and that more talks would be fruitless.

Mr. Sage recently disputed that. "I never said negotiations were abandoned or at a total impasse," he said, noting that commanders waited a month to use gas after negotiators endorsed it. "We had reached a point where they had pared back to a fighting trim."

Mr. Van Zandt recently said he was not surprised that the call was routed to

Mr. Sage. "I probably would've told him a lot different."

"When anyone from Washington asked who should we talk to, Jamar strongly suggested Sage because he would speak the company line," Mr. Van Zandt said.

"I don't say he was Jeff Jamar's man in a negative sense. But Jamar trusted him and knew he'd be working for Jamar when this was all over."

As the plan took final shape, Mr. Van Zandt said, he warned "whoever would listen" that it was too risky and wouldn't work. "That fell on deaf ears. I said we're playing into Koresh's prophecies. We're doing what he wants." Shortly before gassing began April 19, Mr. Van Zandt said, he told the negotiators what was coming. "It was a very deep, sobering time."

Mr. Sage, who is retired and has recently become a high-profile defender of FBI actions, said, "I don't remember anyone jumping up and disagreeing. "Hindsight is 20/20," he said. "We all agreed that we had reached a point where we would try to force the issue. If that meant the exercise of some force, then tear gas was the lowest level of force available."

FBI tanks began spraying in powdered CS gas at 6 a.m. April 19. In the approved plan, agents could respond to gunfire by lobbing in gas canisters or firing back if need be. But demolition of the building was not to begin for at least 48 hours.

But by 10 a.m., FBI hostage rescue team commander Dick Rogers was short on gas and patience. He later told prosecutors that he expected complete surrender "within an hour." After conferring with Mr. Jamar, he ordered tanks deep into the building.

Minutes after tanks flattened a rear area and drove completely through the compound, fires erupted in three separate places. FBI bugs - which had captured voices of Branch Davidians discussing spreading gas that morning - picked up yelled instructions to light fires.

Government investigators concluded that sect members set the fires.

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