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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Disaster at Waco

     The April 19, 1993 raid of the Mount Carmel Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, which resulted in the deaths of 80 cult members, is a worst-case example of how the militaristic approach to law enforcement can lead to disaster.

     Fifty-one days before the FBI assault, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tax, and Firearms (ATF), at the conclusion of a 7 month investigation, had raided the compound to arrest cult leader David Koresh and search for a cache of guns that ATF agents suspected had been illegally converted to fully automatic weapons. That raid ended after a brief shootout in which 4 ATF agents were killed and 16 wounded. The officers retreated, leaving an unknown number of Branch Davidians dead and wounded.

     The AFT agents, prior to the raid, had several opportunities to arrest David Koresh outside the Mount Carmel compound. These chances were missed because Koresh had not been uder 24-hour surveillance. Had the ATF taken Koresh into custody when the opportunity presented itself, the raid might not have been necessary. The ATF had also lost the element of surprise, and they knew it when two National Guard helicopters, circling above the compound with agency supervisors aboard, took gunfire from below. The supervisors launced the invasion anyway. Although several AFT agents had been trained at Fort Hood by Green Beret personnel (the unsupported suspicion that the compound housed a methamphetamine lab served to justify the military's role in the operation), most of the agents participating in the 9:30 A.M. attack had not been appropriately trained or armed. Many of the 76 agents who charged the compound carried semi-automatic handguns.

     Following the AFT fiasco, the FBI took charge of the stand-off. Following the 51-day siege and a series of failed negotiations, several FBI SWAT teams, in full battle gear, armed with shortened variants of the standard M-16 assault rifle, and supported by Bradley Fighting Vehicles and M-60 tanks, stormed the compound. Forty minutes after 400 canisters of CS gas had been shot inside the building through holes punched in the walls by the armored vehicles, the structure burst into flames and burned to the ground. David Koresh and 17 children were among the 80 dead. Attorney General Janet Reno, operating on unreliable evidence that the Davidian children were being sexually mistreated, had authorized the assault. The Waco fiasco turned out to be the deadliest police action in American history.

     Attorney General Reno, in the wake of the Waco disaster, asked former Missouri senator John C. Danforth to investigate the government's role in the raids. In 2000, following a 14-month inquiry, Danforth found that although an FBI agent had fired tear gas rounds at a concrete pit 75 feet from the Davidian living quarters, a fact the FBI had tried to suppress, agents had not started the fire. The former senator also concluded that FBI agents had not fired bullets into the compound, and that the military's role in the raids had been lawful. (Today, that issue wouldn't even come up.)

     Several months after the Danforth inquiry, Thomas Lynch, the director of the CATO Institute's Project on Criminal Justice, published a report characterizing the Branch Davidian raids as "criminally reckless," and Danforth's investigation as "soft and incomplete." According to the CATO investigation, FBI agents in National Guard helicopters had fired rifle shots into the compound, a finding that contradicted the FBI's claim that the helicopters had been deployed merely to distract the Davidians.

     At a news conference, Senator Danforth defended the integrity of his inquiry and attacked the CATO report. The debate over who started the fire at the Davidian compound continues. Regardless of what FBI agents did or didn't do on April 19, 1993, many believe the military-supported ATF and FBI raids should not have been launched in the first place. That is my opinion as well.

1 comment:

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmOBNnz9Wms
    waco-rules of engagement, the other side of the story

    ReplyDelete