MARCH has been a month of momentous publicity at both extremes for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), a law enforcement agency that until now rarely captured the public's attention.
On the positive side, the ATF may have helped to crack the biggest terrorism case in United States history. Its arson experts, investigating the bombing of the parking garage of New York's World Trade Center, found clues that led to several arrests less than one week after the blast.
On the negative side, last week the bureau lost four agents, the most ever killed in a single operation by the ATF and its predecessor organizations since 1920. Sixteen other agents were wounded by the greatest fusillade reportedly ever directed at federal lawmen.
Believing that a religious sect called Branch Davidians possessed explosives and illegal firearms, some 150 ATF agents attempted on Feb. 28 to storm Mount Carmel, the sect's 77-acre compound 10 miles east of Waco.
During a 45-minute shootout, the Branch Davidians successfully repelled the assault. Another gun battle broke out later that day.
In all, the sect suffered three confirmed fatalities and possibly 10 or more. Meanwhile, the ATF called in reinforcements, including the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team and FBI negotiators.
As the standoff drags into its second week, hundreds of lawmen from a score of agencies ring the compound. No further shooting has taken place, and the FBI says it is willing to wait as long as necessary for the Branch Davidians to give up peacefully.
The FBI negotiates constantly with sect leader David Koresh, who has allowed 21 children and two elderly women to leave the compound. At press time, he says 90 adults and 17 children remain inside.
The fiasco at Mount Carmel has prompted sharp criticism of the ATF's tactics. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, for whom the ATF works, has called for an investigation, as have key members of Congress. Bureau director Stephen Higgins has promised "a full and complete report," says ATF spokesman Lester Stanford.
Questions about the raid, which the ATF says was preceded by four months of planning, focus on the bureau's timing and tactics. ATF had a warrant for Mr. Koresh's arrest on firearms charges. Why didn't it arrest him during the daily jogs he reportedly took, rather than confront him in his stronghold?
An undercover ATF agent who left the compound 45 minutes before the raid believed that Koresh was tipped off. Why didn't ATF delay the raid? In earlier statements, an ATF spokesman said that the bureau didn't believe the raid had been compromised. Now ATF claims that it rushed in to prevent a mass suicide.
In the past, upon learning that local authorities were concerned about the types of weapons the Branch Davidians might possess, sect members elected to take samples in for examination to prove the weapons were legal. Did storming the compound provoke a misguided defensive reflex among sect members that could have been avoided by a less confrontational approach?
"They were attacked in their own home," says David Edmondson, executive director of the Texas State Rifle Association in Dallas. The ATF "wanted to make an example of this group. Now we see the result."
Richard Gardiner, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association adds: "What we don't know is what the people in the compound thought was going on. We don't know who they thought was outside. We have not heard how ATF announced itself, if they did."
"Those people may have believed that they were being invaded by some black-robed gang of kooks," Mr. Gardiner says. If the sect members did not realize the men were federal agents, they could be acquitted of the killings, Gardiner says.
In one published report, an unnamed agent says that agents identified themselves and then were fired upon.
But Joe Hanley, spokesman for the FBI for the Waco siege, says, "You don't want to give these guys a chance to get to their guns. In Waco, there was no announcement of who was there and the fact that they're there for the lawful purpose of executing a warrant."
Frustratingly for the ATF, until the standoff ends and its agents can search the compound for bombs and unregistered machine guns, the bureau will not be able to demonstrate that it was justified in raiding the Branch Davidians in the first place.