FBI consults theologians

The Bergen Record, November 24, 1998
By Charles Austin

ORLANDO -- During the prolonged standoff in 1993 at the Branch Davidianreligious compound in Waco, Texas, all the group's leader, David Koresh, wanted to talk about was the Book of Revelations. Federal agents were more focused on practical considerations, such as evacuating the children.

Three years later, when armed, anti-government dissidents in Montana known as the Freemen faced off against authorities, federal agents contacted religious scholars for information on the theology of the group whose members believed they were preparing for the return of Jesus Christ.

Now the links between law enforcement and theologians are being strengthened. The American Academy of Religion, in cooperation with the FBI and other police agencies, is developing a network of experts on unconventional religious movements as a resource to be tapped if future confrontations arise.

The scholars will be called upon to use their theological training to put the sometimes offbeat, religion-based philosophies of these groups into a mainstram framework that can help authorities minimize or avoid conflict.

Two FBI agents sat quietly in the audience here as a panel of religious scholars, some of whom had reviewed tapes and transcripts of the Waco negotiations, suggested that had the FBI understood more about theology, the disastrous end to the siege might have been avoided.

The panel was one of hundreds that have convened at the five-day annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature. More than 7,000 professors and other scholars gathered to discuss topics including recent archeological discoveries and the influence of UFOs on religious thought.

In the Montana case, said Catherine Wessinger of Loyola University in New Orleans, the Freemen surrendered because they were assured that their religious views would be taken into account [sic]. Wessinger was a consultant to the FBI in that case and is now one of those forging new, more formal connections between law enforcement and theologians.

During the Montana standoff, she said, she and other religious advisers working with the FBI felt excluded from the negotiations. "We were told we would receive the information the FBI had on the Freeman," she said, "but actually received very little."

The FBI now says it will use religion specialists as "world-view translators," in such situations, Wessinger said. Earlier this month, theologians visited the FBI training academy in Quantico, Va., to discuss ways they might assist law enforcement officers.

Dr. Lonnie Kleiver, of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said such advance planning was essential. Kleiver advised Texas authorities when a Taiwanese religious group, Chen Tao, moved to a Dallas suburb to await the end of the world in March. Kleiver said planning and coordination of response with religious scholars helped in the "benign" outcome of that situation [sic].

Rather than presenting a threat to the outside world, the group itself was the target of threats, but because of the input from religious scholars, the predicted apocalypse came and went without incident. The group's leaders found ways to "reinterpret their message so that it appeared to be true, as many end-of-the-world preachers have done," Kleiver said.

Eugene Gallagher of Connecticut College said that during the Waco confrontation, many people claiming expertise in religion offered advice to the federal government, including some "self-made" experts whose actual knowledge was minimal or who were involved with groups staunchly opposed to any unconventional religious movement.

The American Academy of Religion is identifying scholars who have closely studied such movements and will link those people with authorities when requested.

Agent Neil Purtell, who was attending the conference and who works with the FBI's hostage negotiation team, said, "We're here to learn." The FBI has established relationships with specialists in the fields of medicine and psychology, he said, and now the agency was seeking to reach out and expand its list of expert consultants.


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