Treasury, ATF Officials Seek To Learn From Mistakes of Raid

LAST Feb. 26 is a memorable day for Ronald Noble. He wasn't yet confirmed as assistant secretary of the Treasury for enforcement, which supervises the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. But he was hanging around as a ``consultant,'' meeting people and learning how things were done.

Then came news that the World Trade Center had been bombed, which fell within ATF's purview. And as an ``FYI,'' Mr. Noble says, ATF director Stephen Higgins informed Treasury officials about an operation planned for months that would be the biggest in ATF history. It was to begin in two days outside Waco, Texas.

Noble asked that it be put on hold. It was, until Mr. Higgins assured officials the operation would be halted if it lost the element of surprise. The failure to do just that led to avoidable bloodshed, Noble says. The review that followed led to replacing Higgins and disciplinary action against other ATF officials.

``We made a lot of mistakes in how we approached [the Waco raid],'' ATF spokesman Lester Stanford says. ``We ... are in the process of doing our best to ensure that those types of mistakes don't happen again.''

* One lesson is not to put a person in charge of a tactical operation if he doesn't have the experience, Noble says.

* Another is the need for better command and control. The Waco commander was in a helicopter when the raid began. ``How can he run something from a helicopter?'' Noble asks. ``You can imagine how crazy it is, especially when your goal [for] being in a helicopter is to [draw enemy] fire.''

* A third is to separate tactics and intelligence. The undercover agent leaving the Waco compound was debriefed by an agent on a raid team. He concluded that, although surprise had been lost, sect members weren't preparing to defend themselves.

The ATF will now coordinate high-risk entry operations with other law-enforcement agencies, particularly the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Noble says. He meets weekly with ATF heads and those of other agencies under Treasury; his predecessor met with them monthly.

Higgins was replaced by John Magaw, former Secret Service head.

Officials are also considering alternatives to use of force in such cases. Treasury wants to assemble a database of outsiders, including sociologists and religious experts, to consult with in considering alternatives to forced entry. In Waco, for instance, ATF might have been able to lure residents from the compound. ``Maybe we're going to try other techniques,'' Noble says.

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