I originally posted the following on April 19, 2003, the tenth anniversary of the FBI’s disastrous assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco.
Ten years ago today, the property of a madman suspected of amassing illegal firearms was assaulted, and nobody in Hollywood complained.
The Catholic journal First Things was perhaps the first magazine to write an extensive report on the Waco fiasco. Published in the May 1995 issue, Dean M. Kelley’s article sketches a brief history of the Branch Davidian cult, and provides many details about the initial ATF raid and the FBI’s siege and April 19 assault.
This passage describes life in the compound during the siege:
After a week or so of this exercise in what the federal participants began to refer to as “Bible babble,” the FBI leadership on the scene grew impatient and began to use pressure tactics that tended to undercut the negotiators’ efforts. During the first week of the siege twenty-one children and two elderly women did come out. (The two women were immediately handcuffed, shackled, and charged with murder. Negotiators persuaded the prosecutors to back off a bit, and the charges were withdrawn, but the women were held as “material witnesses” anyway.) In the ensuing two weeks twelve additional adults came out (“exited the compound,” as the federal jargon put it), but each such departure seemed to be punished by an increase in pressure tactics. First the electricity was turned off overnight by the FBI for several days and then turned off permanently. After several adults had come out on March 21, the FBI announced that it would clear the ground around the buildings, bulldozing automobiles, go-carts, propane tanks, and other “obstacles” that stood in the way. That evening the FBI began playing very loud music over the public address system. Several times the Davidians asked over the phone that it be turned off. About midnight Koresh announced angrily that because of the loud music no one else would come out.
A few nights later huge floodlights were turned on the buildings and recordings of Tibetan chants, Christmas music, the cries of rabbits being slaughtered, and other engaging sounds were dinned into the residence, designed to make sleep impossible for those within. Beginning March 29, two attorneys retained by relatives of Koresh and his lieutenant, Steve Schneider, were permitted to meet with them at the door of Mt. Carmel. Later they were allowed to consult with them indoors for several hours and to talk with them by phone without federal monitoring. During the first week of April the Branch Davidians were observing Passover, and negotiations were at a standstill. Starting on April 10, the FBI began laying large coils of razor-sharp concertina wire around the buildings to close the perimeter more securely (two men- “adult males” in federalese-had “snuck”-also federalese-into the buildings during the preceding period). They also fired “flash-bangs” (distraction grenades) at anyone who came out of the buildings for any purpose other than surrender.
I am quite eager to hear from sleep researchers on how weeks of sleep deprivation affects law enforcement standoffs.
An opportunity for a peaceful solution arose, but the FBI wasn’t interested:
Early in the siege, Koresh had promised to come out if his message could be aired on national media; he prepared an hour-long audiotape that was broadcast locally, but not (he claimed) nationally. Two scholars of apocalyptic religion, Phil Arnold, of the Reunion Institute in Houston, and James Tabor, of the University of North Carolina, studied the broadcast and believed Koresh could be reasoned with if approached within his own frame of reference. After several futile efforts to persuade the FBI to let them try, they arranged with Ron Engleman, host of a radio talk show on KGBS (to which the Davidians regularly listened), for a half-hour’s uninterrupted plea to David Koresh to rethink his understanding of the Fifth Seal (Revelation 6:9-11), which he believed to be unfolding at Mt. Carmel.
In the text, the souls of the faithful who have been slain for the word of God cry out to God, “How long before thou wilt . . . avenge our blood?”…Arnold and Tabor in their radio colloquy sought to persuade Koresh that the term translated “a little season” meant in the original Greek (chronos) a period of as much as a year, leaving time for Koresh to complete his work before the Sixth Seal supervened. Koresh apparently accepted this idea, for on the day after Passover he sent out a letter via his lawyer saying that God had permitted him to explain “in structured form the decoded messages of the Seven Seals,” and that upon completion of that task he would surrender.
The FBI saw this as just another in a long series of delaying tactics and went ahead with their plans to use tear gas. They did send in writing materials, however, on Sunday, April 18, and Koresh worked most of that night dictating to Ruth Riddle, who typed his words on a battery-powered word processor. He completed a five-page introduction to the Seven Seals, a poem of thirteen quatrains, and a seven-page exposition of the First Seal. At that rate, Arnold and Tabor have estimated, he should have completed the task in two or three weeks.
Riddle escaped from the compound during the April 19 inferno, with some of Koresh’s dictation on a computer disk. The disk puts to rest one of the myths about Koresh:
Arnold and Tabor point out that this writing-tragically truncated as it is-made clear that Koresh did not consider himself to be Jesus Christ or God as some have supposed. The term “Christ” is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew word for “messiah,” meaning “anointed,” as high priests and kings were anointed for their office. Later the prophets spoke of a specific and ideal messiah-one who would be a “Branch of David”-who would bring peace to the nations. Koresh believed that Jesus of Nazareth was that Christ, but that another “Christ” would appear at the end of time and open the Seven Seals, and that he was that latter Christ.
The FBI’s response to the eruption of fires was hideous:
Around noon, fire broke out at several points and-in the brisk thirty- mile-an-hour wind-quickly enveloped the frame “fortress.” At 12:13 the FBI called the fire department. Fire trucks arrived at 12:34 p.m., but were held at the FBI checkpoint “because of the danger of gunfire.” By the time they reached the fire at 12:41 p.m., there was little to be salvaged. Nine residents left the buildings during the fire, some suffering serious burns. They were arrested, manacled, and held for trial.
And evidence was shredded afterward:
After the ruins had cooled, the forces of law enforcement combed the site for evidence and subsequently bulldozed the grounds “for health reasons.”
The article contains many details about the ensuing trial of the surviving Davidians, including the following:
The first ATF agent to testify was Roland Balesteros, who was assigned to lead the way through the front door. He said he had come out of the cattle trailer in full SWAT gear and raced toward the front door carrying his shotgun across his chest. When he was still on the way, David Koresh, unarmed, opened the door and asked, “What’s going on?” The agent claimed that he called out, “Police! Lay down! Search Warrant!” (though he admitted he had had not mentioned those cries in earlier interviews with the Texas Rangers). He said that Koresh “smirked” at him and closed the door. A moment later, he testified, bullets came out through the door; one hit his thumb, and he tumbled into the dog pen beside the porch and lay beneath a window during the remainder of the fight. He said he knew the bullets were coming outward because of holes in the door and splinters of wood pointing outward. (Cross-examination brought out that the door was steel, and there was no wood in it to splinter.)
And whatever happened to that piece of physical evidence, the door that establishes whether or not Roland Balesteros committed perjury?
More dubious testimony was submitted by an ATF arson expert:
Paul Gray devoted a page of his report to the flammability potential of tear gas and concluded that neither the ferret rounds of CN tear gas nor the pressurized CN gas delivered by the CEVs would have augmented the fire, and indeed would have had a retardant effect.
This was a curious conclusion, since all other sources and all testimony at the trial referred to the gas in question as CS, a very different substance. As Jack Zimmerman stated on the witness stand, “It’s not tear gas.” (Tear gas, CN, is Alphachloroacetenone; CS is Orthochlorobenzyladine Malononitrile.) An Army Field Manual states: “Exposure to CS may make [victims] incapable of evacuating the area. . . . The dispersers should not be used to introduce a riot control agent directly into a closed structure except in extreme circumstances. . . . Do not use around hospitals or other places where innocent persons may be affected. . . . Do not use where fires may start or asphyxiation may occur.” Yet it was solely into “closed structures” that the FBI directed the CS gas at Mt. Carmel. One of the manufacturers of CS, the Aldrich Chemical Company of Milwaukee, warns purchasers about its use: “Emits toxic fumes under fire conditions: . . . carbon monoxide . . . hydrogen cyanide . . . hydrogen chloride gas.” The United States is a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 that outlaws the use of CS in warfare.
As many may recall, it was only years later when physical evidence of spent CS gas canisters were uncovered. That evidence would have come out a lot sooner if the FBI hadn’t been allowed to tamper with crime scene evidence.
The article attracted some letters, including one from former Texan and current blogger Jay Manifold:
. . . Since organizing several protests during the Waco standoff and another one on the opening day of the trial of the survivors in San Antonio, I have often despaired of seeing “our side” accurately portrayed in any responsible medium. Many of those who object most fiercely to the government’s conduct at Waco (especially, it seems, those who were silent while the disaster was in progress) are obsessed with conspiracy theories and prone to overly malicious accusations. I am satisfied that garden-variety stupidity accounts for much of the slaughter. The mainstream media, meanwhile, seem to have accepted the government’s version of events-at least at the editorial level, where it counts; reporters I spoke to during the standoff and before the trial were skeptical in the extreme as regards the official version of reality. Your magazine is the first respectable publication I am aware of to bring such skepticism to the surface.
In the aftermath of the horrible climax, the challenge is to avoid collective judgments. I believe (and believed, prior to Waco) that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) should be abolished, but I avoid writing off all ATF agents. I am informed that there were numerous unpublicized resignations in the ATF after Waco. . . .
Some of y’all are aware of controversy over Forward-Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) images that suggest that Federal agents fired on Davidians who attempted to flee the building. A recent article written for WorldNetDaily by electro-optical engineer Barbara Grant explores that issue in great detail.