FBI bungled Branch Davidian siege early on, documents say

Aggressive tactics prompted violence, say some who were there. Others point out that they negotiated for 50 days.

Philadelphia Inquirer, December 31, 1999
By Lee Hancock

FBI tactical missteps in the first weeks of the Branch Davidian siege hopelessly derailed negotiations, cementing the sect's "bunker mentality," top FBI negotiators and behavior experts told the Justice Department. Their assessments, detailed in undisclosed Justice Department memos obtained by the Dallas Morning News, faulted the FBI's reliance on punitive paramilitary actions, saying they doomed efforts to coax more Davidians out and escalated the magnitude of the tragedy.

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

An FBI behavioral profiler said in a separate Justice Department interview that he warned early on "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," said the expert, Pete Smerick, who is now retired. One of his 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 depth and detail of such criticisms, collected in the Justice Department's 1993 review of the Waco confrontation, were not included in the massive report on the siege.

Justice Department officials declined to comment.

Lawyers representing Branch Davidians in a wrongful-death lawsuit said they had never received copies of the memos despite repeated requests for such documents.

Although the 1993 Justice Department review acknowledged rifts within the FBI's Waco team and touched on negotiators' complaints, it concluded that Koresh, the Branch Davidians' apocalyptic leader, was solely responsible for the deadly outcome.

After a 51-day standoff with federal agents, Koresh and 80 followers perished during an inferno at their compound April 19, 1993, some from the fire, others from gunshot wounds. The government says the Davidians died by their own hands.

The standoff began when a gun battle broke out as agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms stormed the Branch Davidians' rural compound to search for illegal weapons and arrest Koresh. Four ATF agents and several sect members died.

Agent Noesner said in 1993: "Any negotiator would have told them that dismantling the building would provoke a violent response. Anyone would have seen the risk. What was the rush? The plan had been to wait. The agents were safe in the tanks . . . so that even though they were drawing fire, that did not justify dismantling the building.

"It was a bad decision to start knocking down a building containing women and children because people could have been crushed," he said. "This was all a manifestation of the action imperative, the sense that we have to do something because it has to end today."

Smerick and Noesner, who now oversees the FBI's negotiation program and hostage-rescue team, declined comment, citing an inquiry by independent counsel John Danforth.

FBI commander Jeff Jamar and hostage-rescue team commander Richard Rogers, both retired, declined to be interviewed. Both have dismissed criticism and have maintained that they did everything possible to resolve the siege peacefully. Both have said that the FBI negotiated for 50 days and exhausted alternatives before using gas.

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