FBI agents criticized Waco negotiations

USA Today, December 30, 1999

DALLAS - The FBI abandoned negotiations too early in favor of more aggressive measures during the 1993 standoff with the Branch Davidians in Waco, previously undisclosed FBI interviews indicate.

Some FBI negotiators blamed their own agency's reliance on punitive paramilitary actions for failing to entice more sect members out of their Mount Carmel compound, according to Justice Department memos obtained by The Dallas Morning News.

''The negotiators' approach was working until they had the rug pulled out from under them'' by aggressive tactical actions, a Justice Department investigator was told in August 1993 by Agent Gary Noesner, FBI negotiation coordinator for the siege's first half.

The agent who replaced Noesner, Clint Van Zandt, said the negotiators' position was ''akin to sitting on the bow of the Titanic and watching the iceberg approach,'' the newspaper reported in today's editions. The depth of such criticisms, collected during the Justice Department's 1993 review of the Waco confrontation, was absent from the department's massive report on the siege.

David Koresh and about 80 followers perished during an inferno at their compound on April 19, 1993. The government says the Davidians died by their own hands as government tanks rolled in.

In a Justice Department interview, an FBI behavioral profiler said he warned early ''that they should not send in the tanks, because if they did so, children would die and the FBI would be blamed even if they were not responsible.''

''The outcome would have been different if the negotiation approach had been used. More people would have come out, even if Koresh and his core never did,'' profiler Pete Smerick, now retired, said.

One of Smerick's memos during the siege warned that strong force would ''draw David Koresh and his followers closer together in the 'bunker mentality' and they would rather die than surrender.''

The Justice Department review acknowledged rifts within the FBI's Waco team and touched on negotiators' complaints, but concluded that Koresh was solely responsible for the deadly outcome.

Justice Department officials did not return a telephone call today from The Associated Press.

FBI Agent Byron Sage said in a 1993 Justice Department interview - which was cited repeatedly in the department's review - that the sect never truly negotiated. Sage, based in Austin, said FBI disagreements did not change the outcome.

''Could we have gotten a few more people out? Maybe so, and God knows, any life that we could've saved would've been important,'' Sage told the newspaper. ''But it's a total what-if. The fact remains that we did everything we could.''

Special counsel John Danforth, appointed in September to investigate the controversy, has said he wanted to determine whether any government gunfire was involved.

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