Clinton Team Scrutinized After the Waco Tragedy
Residents near cult compound mourn dead, but support the police
WASHINGTON AND WACO, TEXAS — FEDERAL law-enforcement agents and officials can expect to be scrutinized as intensely as the ashes they are sifting at the Mt. Carmel compound outside Waco, Texas.
On April 19, members of the Branch Davidian sect apparently chose to burn down their compound rather than surrender to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). As many as 86 people, including 17 children, may have died.
Attorney General Janet Reno took full responsibility for the conflagration, one of the deadliest law-enforcement incidents in United States history. Ms. Reno had approved the FBI's plan to step up pressure that morning by using tanks to knock holes in the compound walls and spray tear gas inside.
"These are the hardest decisions you have to make," she said repeatedly the evening of April 19. "The buck stops here."
The Branch Davidians had been locked in an armed standoff with federal agents for 51 days, ever since an attempt to search the compound for illegal weapons turned into a gunfight that killed several persons on each side.
On April 19, the nation paused to watch live TV broadcasts of the standoff's fiery, fatal end. Rep. Don Edwards (D) of California, chairman of the civil rights subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, decided within hours to examine the decisionmaking process in public hearings.
"If I had known this outcome was likely, I obviously would not have approved it," Reno said of the tear-gas tactic. The intention was not to force a sudden conclusion but to "gradually increase the pressure day by day."
President Clinton was informed as Reno made the decision the previous weekend, but he did not apparently give it close attention. She says she outlined general options and explained her decision by telephone. The president OK'd it, but later Reno was reluctant to say he had approved it.
For her part, Reno was acting largely on FBI recommendations. When Mr. Clinton took office, FBI Director William Sessions was already embattled over allegations of abusing fringe benefits of his position. He had redeemed his reputation with the handling of the World Trade Center bombing and the Waco siege, in which the FBI had taken over from the ATF. But the tragic outcome of the siege puts his management in the cross hairs of a new controversy.
"We are faced with devastation and death. However, I have no question that our plan was correct and was conducted with professionalism and care," Mr. Sessions said in a statement.
Justice Department officials knew mass suicide was a possibility. Early on, the ATF cited that concern as having prompted the bureau to launch its ill-fated raid when it did. And a former sect member told television audiences that she had been taught how to kill herself. Suicide was discounted
Yet, Reno said April 19 that even as federal agents stepped up pressure on cult leader David Koresh and his followers, she considered mass suicide "highly unlikely." The FBI interviewed more than 60 people around the world who had contact with Branch Davidians in Waco. Their conclusion was that members were not inclined toward suicide.
"We have continually quizzed those coming out. They, as a general rule, state that suicide, they believe, is not a possibility," FBI spokesman Bob Ricks said at a Waco press conference April 19 before the blaze began.
"We thought that [the ramming and tear gas] was probably the best way to prevent that type of suicide pact from taking place - that is, cause confusion inside the compound," he added.
"Also, we thought that their motherly instincts would take place, and that they would want their children out of that environment," he said. Since no one surrendered that morning "it appears they don't care that much about their children, which is unfortunate."
Despite the FBI's belief that the sect would not commit suicide, the bureau was convinced Mr. Koresh had a different goal with the same result.
"David Koresh ... from the very beginning said that the people in there were going to be killed, and that they were going to do it in an armed confrontation with law enforcement," Ricks said. "It was to our benefit that we were able to prevent him from carrying out the second part of his prophecy, and that is that he intended to kill as many members of law enforcement as he could before his members were killed."
The timing of the April 19 federal move was driven primarily by the need to relieve the hostage rescue team. After seven weeks on duty, the FBI believed the squad in place would soon lose its effectiveness, and no other team existed to replace it, Reno said.
Other concerns argued for moving the siege out of a standoff. Federal authorities believed that sanitation was deteriorating inside. Further, Reno cites reports of the sexual abuse of children and the "slapping around" of infants as the "first cause" of taking action.
Experts inside and outside the Justice Department advised federal officials that Koresh was unlikely to ever come out. He had supplies for an extended stay. If he was going to stage a Jones-town-style suicide, the passage of time would not make it less likely.
In Waco, Ricks reminded reporters April 19 that Koresh had broken repeated promises to surrender. And he cited unspecified FBI intelligence as confirming that the sect leader was simply stalling for time, unbeknownst even to Koresh's lawyer.
"Through intelligence that we've gathered, they considered the meeting with the attorneys a fiasco. It was strictly a stalling tactic. The attorneys did unknowingly go along with that. They had no intention of ever coming out," Ricks said. Relief in Waco
Meanwhile, residents of Waco and nearby towns expressed relief that the siege had ended. Sympathy for law-enforcement agencies was strong, although people were somber about the loss of innocent life.
"It's all over, I guess," muttered a Baylor University student who stopped on a highway overpass to gaze at helicopters circling the smoking ruins.
Inevitably, questions turned to the children's fate. Koresh had promised the FBI that they would be kept safe. And on April 18, lawmen had sent milk into the compound for the children.
But, Ricks told hushed journalists, one sect member who escaped the fire reported that the children were kept on an upper floor during the blaze rather than in an underground bunker. No one who saw the inferno could doubt what it meant, even if Ricks had not said he didn't think anyone could survive the fire. Lawyer criticizes lawmen
Dick DeGuerin, a Houston lawyer hired to represent Koresh and who had been in the compound five times for consultations, was critical of lawmen for "gassing women and children." He was convinced the sect had no suicide thoughts until then, and that otherwise they would have come out peacefully in the end.
"It's going to be finger-pointing as far as the fire goes," predicted Koresh-souvenir-seller David Ruetten, who watched the blaze from his roadside stand at the crest of a hill. He expects demand for his photos and T-shirts to continue for a month.
"I am definitely for the ATF and the federal agents," said a vegetable farmer in Elk, located just two miles east of the compound. "If a federal man wants to come check my house, I'd welcome him in. We've got to have law and order."
Nonetheless, the farmer reported no trouble from the Branch Davidians in the 36 years he had lived there. Although Koresh was suspected of abusing children in his sect, the fact that the sect existed quietly with its neighbors brought much criticism of the ATF's initial raid.
Waco Mayor Robert Sheehy expressed support for the lawmen, though he said he felt the loss of the children deeply. Mr. Sheehy insisted Waco would overcome the stigma of the siege. "We can't control events. They could have happened in any one of your cities, anyplace across the United States," he said.