Using Military Weapons on Americans: 20th Anniversary of Federal Attack at Waco
Today is the 20th anniversary of the ATF’s attack on the Branch Davidians outside Waco, Texas. National Guard helicopters played a key role in the initial attack; 51 days later, Army tanks would lead the final assault. I thought Waco might be the most important public education lesson of the 1990s, but I don’t see the learning curve yet. Most Americans forgot or never undertstood Waco, paving the way for politicians to commit other grave abuses in the following years.
Following are a few pieces I did on Waco back in ‘95, when some members of Congress briefly acted like they gave a damn about the carnage.
The New Republic
MAY 15, 1995
HEADLINE: NOT SO WACKO
BYLINE: James Bovard James Bovard is the author of Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty (1994).
On last Sunday’s “60 Minutes,” when Lesley Stahl gingerly asked President Clinton if he had “any second thoughts” about the raid at Waco, he didn’t hesitate. “Before that raid was carried out,” Clinton fumed, “those people murdered a bunch of innocent law enforcement officials … and when that raid occurred it was the people who ran that cult compound who murdered their own children, not the federal officials. They made the decision to destroy all the children that were there.” You don’t have to sympathize with those seeking vengeance for the raid, though, to recognize that some second thoughts are in order.
Start with last year’s trial in which a jury found five of eleven surviving Branch Davidians guilty of manslaughter (not, as Clinton said, murder) in the deaths of four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). The bureau claimed it had a video proving that the Davidians fired first during the ATF’s February 28, 1993, raid. Yet it never produced the video at the trial, and Rolland Ballestros, one of the first ATF agents out of the cattle trucks, told Texas Rangers and Waco police shortly after the raid that he thought the first shots came from agents aiming at the Davidians’ dogs. Besides, as Robert Cancro, chairman of the psychiatry department at the New York University Medical Center, commented in the Justice Department’s report on the Waco operation: “Certainly an armed assault by 100 agents had to be seen as an attack independent of who fired the first shot…. The law does not usually allow the potential attacker to fire first before a response can be called self-defense.”
Nor is it clear that the government should be absolved of blame for the fires in which eighty-one Branch Davidians died. The fires could, as the Justice Department claims, have been started by the Branch Davidians themselves, but many doubts remain. Federal officials have insisted that the CS gas (a potent form of tear gas) they lobbed into the Davidian compound was nonflammable. But according to U.S. Army manuals, there is a significant risk of inflammability from CS gas particulates. One U.S. Army Field Manual offers the following warning: ” When using the dry agent CS1, do not discharge indoors. Accumulating dust may explode when exposed to spark or open flame.” FBI officials testified after the April 19 fire that agents had thrown flash bang grenades–which can easily set off fires–into the compound during the gassing operation.
Federal officials also misrepresented the potential effects of the CS gas on the Davidians. A 1975 U.S. Army publication on the effects of CS gas notes, “Generally, persons reacting to CS are incapable of executing organized and concerted actions and excessive exposure to CS may make them incapable of vacating the area.” According to Attorney General Janet Reno, the FBI hoped that pumping the gas into the compound would force people to flee outdoors. In fact, the gas itself may have prevented people from escaping.
Harvard University professor of law and psychiatry Alan Stone was one of the experts brought in by the Justice Department in 1993 to evaluate the agency’s action at Waco. In a recent interview, Stone observed, “Some of the government’s actions may have killed people before the fire started. I cannot tell whether the tanks knocked down places where people were already. I don’t know if there were people in there crushed by the collapsing building as a result of FBI tanks plowing into the structure before the fire started.”
Neither the ATF nor the FBI has made any apologies for their actions at Waco. Indeed, the ATF recently rehired two agents (with back pay) who were fired for lying about whether they knew that Koresh was expecting the initial ATF raid; the agents ordered the raid to proceed even after they were informed that Koresh was expecting an attack. James Jorgensen of the National Association of Treasury Agents denounced the rehiring last February: “This most recent callous action by the government is disgraceful. It defiles the memory of the brave ATF agents who gave their lives doing their duty.”
All of this adds up to reason for skepticism about the federal government’s version of what happened at Waco. It’s not only right-wing lunatics who have such doubts. A Treasury Department report written by outside experts and issued in September 1993 found “disturbing evidence of flawed decision making, inadequate intelligence gathering, miscommunication, supervisory failures, and deliberately misleading post-raid statements about the raid and the raid plan by certain ATF supervisors.” After the Justice Department issued its own considerably more favorable report on the FBI’s performance at Waco (it repeatedly praised the agency for “remarkable restraint” during its gassing operation), The New York Times published an editorial called, “the waco whitewash.” Even Justice Department investigators could find no evidence for the
rationale that Reno invoked for the FBI’s final assault: the need to use gas and tanks to prevent Koresh from abusing children.
Yet the Clinton administration and some members of Congress, such as Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, have been adamantly opposed to any oversight hearings on the Waco raid. Last Saturday Schumer denounced one such hearing scheduled for next month: “We know what that was all about. That was an attack on the ATF. This planned hearing was simply some red meat to some of those extreme right forces.” During the 1960s, conservative members of Congress reacted similarly to proposed oversight hearings on FBI abuses. Unfortunately, some liberals are now picking up the mantle.
The Wall Street Journal
Monday, May 15, 1995
Waco Must Get a Hearing
By James Bovard
The Senate voted 74 to 23 last Thursday to indefinitely postpone
hearings on federal government actions in Waco, Texas, in 1993 and in
the Ruby Ridge, Idaho (Randy Weaver) case in 1992. Sen. Arlen Specter
had urged the Senate to set a specific deadline for the hearings. But
Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Judiciary Committee chairman, declared that any
hearings on Waco should be postponed until after the Oklahoma City
bombers have been caught, tried and punished — which could take several
years. This is a grave error.
Attorney General Janet Reno declared on May 5: “There is much to be
angry about when we talk about Waco — and the government’s conduct is
not the reason. David Koresh is the reason.” But public opinion polls
show that approval of the government’s action at Waco is plummeting –
down from 80% just after the final assault in April 1993 to barely 40%
now. There can be no justification for the terrorist attack last month
in Oklahoma City; but likewise there is no justification for delaying
asking serious questions about government misconduct. House Speaker Newt
Gingrich announced Thursday that the House would be having thorough
hearings on both cases by August, but no specific dates have been set.
The longer hearings are postponed, the greater the danger that the FBI
will repeat the same tragic mistakes that preceded scores of deaths at
Here are some of the issues that members of Congress must examine on
– Regarding the Feb. 28, 1993, attack on the compound by 100 Bureau
of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents: Who shot first? Rolland
Ballesteros, one of the first ATF agents out of the cattle trailer that
morning, told Texas Rangers investigating the case that the first shots
came from agents shooting the dogs. (He recanted at the Davidian trial
last year, insisting instead that the Davidians shot first.) The ATF
claimed to have a video proving that the Davidians shot first, but
refused to make it public. Congress should require all ATF videotapes of
the initial battle to be made public.
– Regarding the April 19, 1993, final FBI assault on the Davidians:
When and why did the FBI decide to demolish the compound with its tanks?
Even before the fire started, roughly 20% of the compound had collapsed
as a result of tank incursions. Amazingly, despite graphic videotapes of
54-ton FBI tanks smashing through the compound’s walls, Ms. Reno
declared this past April 30: “We didn’t attack. We tried to exercise
every restraint possible to avoid violence.”
– Did any of the government tank incursions at Waco kill innocent
women or children? Attorney General Reno declared on May 5, “It is
unfair, it is unreasonable, it is a lie, to spread the poison that the
government was responsible at Waco for the murder of innocents.”
However, Harvard Prof. Alan Stone, one of the outside experts the
Justice Department brought in, concluded: “Some of the government’s
actions may have killed people before the fire started. I cannot tell
whether the tanks knocked down places where people were already. I don’t
know if there were people in there crushed by the collapsing building
[as a result of FBI tanks plowing into the structure] before the fire
– What effect did the CS gas pumped into the compound for six hours
have on the women and children? While Reno recently characterized the
gas as a mere “irritant,” Technology Review noted in October 1988 that
CS gas is far more potent than another widely used tear gas. CS gas can
kill: United Nation officials estimated that the use of CS gas resulted
in 44 fatalities in the Gaza Strip in 1988, as well as more than 1,200
injuries and numerous miscarriages.
– What did the FBI hope to accomplish by gassing the Davidians? FBI
Deputy Director Floyd Clarke told Congress nine days after the fire that
the FBI’s plan was to “immediately and totally immerse the place in gas,
and throw in flash-bangs which would disorient them and cause people to
. . . think, if not rationally, at least instinctively, and perhaps give
them a way to come out.” Flash-bang grenades temporarily blind people
and, according to a U.S. Army Field Manual, “Generally, persons reacting
to CS are incapable of executing organized and concerted actions and
excessive exposure to CS may make them incapable of vacating the area.”
– What role might the government have had in starting or spreading
the fires in the compound? Federal officials after the fire insisted
that the CS gas was nonflammable. But, according to U.S. Army manuals,
there is a significant risk of flammability from the CS gas
particulates. U.S. Army Field Manual FM-21-27 states: “Warning: when
using the dry agent CS-1, do not discharge indoors. Accumulating dust
may explode when exposed to spark or open flame.” Retired Army Col. Rex
Applegate, one of the nation’s foremost experts on riot control agents,
declared in a recent interview, “Any flash bang will start fires.”
– Congress should force the Justice Department and FBI to make
public all audio tapes from inside the compound at Waco and all
communications tapes between the tank operators and their commanders.
Ms. Reno told federal law enforcement officers on May 5 that the
Davidians’ “words were recorded while they were spreading the fuels to
ignite the fire.” However, controversy exists over the audio tapes from
inside the compound. At the trial last year, prosecutors presented a
transcript of tapes made from electronic listening devices inside the
compound, claiming that the tapes showed a Davidian suicide scheme.
However, after challenges from defense attorneys, the government’s audio
expert conceded that he altered the transcripts after meeting with
Justice Department officials.
As the New York Times reported: “Defense lawyer Mike DeGeurin
demonstrated that more than 100 hours of FBI tapes from the compound had
been reduced to an hour of excerpts by the prosecution’s audio expert.
‘We didn’t hear things today from the earlier transcripts, such as
people praying as tanks were bashing in their homes, or children calling
for their parents.”‘
– Why does Janet Reno keep changing her rationale for the
government’s final assault at Waco? Immediately after the fire, she
justified the assault as needed to stop David Koresh from beating
babies. (The FBI later admitted that it had no information to indicate
that such accusations against Koresh were valid.) But on May 5 of this
year Ms. Reno announced that the “first and foremost” reason for the
tank/gas assault was that “law-enforcement agents on the ground
concluded that the perimeter had become unstable and posed a risk both
to them and to the surrounding homes and farms. Individuals sympathetic
to Koresh were threatening to take matters into their own hands to end
the stalemate [and] were at various times reportedly on the way.”
– How did Janet Reno lose 16 machine guns? The major justification
for the initial ATF raid was the allegation that the Davidians illegally
possessed machine guns. At the trial last year, the Justice Department
claimed that 48 machine guns were found at the Davidian compound after
the fire. Defense experts were prohibited from examining the weapons to
see if they had been tampered with by the government, as happened in at
least one other high-profile federal court case in recent years. On May
5, Ms. Reno said that the Davidians had only 32 machine guns. At this
rate, all the alleged machine guns will vanish by 1997.
– Why are President Clinton and Ms. Reno misrepresenting the jury
verdict as a vindication for the government? The jury verdict was
correctly characterized by the New York Times as a “stunning defeat” for
the federal government; a Los Angeles Times headline declared, “Outcome
Indicates Jurors Placed Most Blame on the Government.” Bill Johnston,
the lead federal attorney at Waco, burst into tears in bitter
disappointment at the verdict. The defendants received relatively light
sentences — until the Justice Department subsequently arm-twisted the
judge into reinstating charges that he had originally dismissed after
the jury verdict.
Mr. Clinton declared on April 23, “This is a freedom-loving democracy
because the rule of law has reigned for over 200 years now.” The
foundation of the rule of law is that government officials must obey the
same laws as private citizens. The ghosts of Waco will continue to haunt
the U.S. government until the truth is told about what the government
did and why.
— Mr. Bovard is the author of “Lost Rights: The Destruction of American
Liberty” (St. Martin’s Press).
Finally – an article that came out the day after the congressional hearings ended. I was astounded that Janet Reno’s “rent-a-tank” comment did not prove inflammatory. But the Washington media covered for Big Janet – as it always did.
The Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, August 2, 1995
Hearings Show Waco Defense is Wacky
By James Bovard
The Waco hearings, which ended yesterday with testimony by Attorney General Janet Reno, were marked by administration obfuscation, Democratic pettifogging and far too much feeble, half-hearted questioning from Republicans. But enough new information has come out to make mincemeat of the Clinton administration’s Waco story.
Within 36 hours after the Feb. 28, 1993, initial assault on the Branch Davidian compound, the federal government abandoned routine law enforcement to avoid gathering evidence that might embarrass the government. A Sept. 17, 1993, Treasury Department confidential memo to Assistant Treasury Secretary Ronald Noble stated that on March 1, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms initiated a shooting review and “immediately determined that these stories [of agents involved] did not add up.” Justice Department attorney Bill Johnston “at this point advised [ATF supervisor Dan] Hartnett to stop the ATF shooting review because ATF was creating” exculpatory material that might undermine the government prosecution of the Davidians.
The coverup continued on April 14, 1993. That day, the Treasury Department assistant general counsel, Robert McNamara, sent a memo to several top-ranking Treasury officials stating that the Justice Department “does not want Treasury to conduct any interviews or have discussions with any of the participants who may be potential witnesses” because of fear of creating exculpatory material. The memo noted, “While we may be able to wait for some of [the witnesses] to have testified in the criminal trial, the passage of time will dim memories.”
The Justice Department also warned the Treasury Department not to contact outside experts to analyze the original raid: “DOJ does not want us to generate gratuitous ‘expert witness’ materials; the prosecutors are concerned that these people won’t have all the facts upon which to base a thoughtful opinion and could play into defense hands.”
Regarding the FBI’s April 19, 1993, gassing of the Davidians, the Justice Department official report on Waco stressed that the FBI intended to gas the compound incrementally over a 48-hour period. A few minutes after the FBI gas attack began, the Davidians fired upon the tank that was injecting gas into the compound. The FBI, following its official plan, greatly accelerated its gassing — effectively injecting all the gas it planned to use over two days over a three-hour period.
While the official report portrayed the speed-up of the assault as a regrettable reaction to the Davidians’ gun shots, FBI commander Jeffrey Jamar told the House committee that he believed before the final assault that the chances of the Davidians firing on the tanks was 99% — thus making the speedup of the gassing and subsequent demolition a virtual certainty.
Congressional Democrats, who spent the first days of the hearings denouncing David Koresh for child abuse, strove mightily to claim that the CS gas the FBI used on the 21 children and 60-plus adults at Waco was as innocuous as a Flintstone vitamin. But Bill Marcus, a senior science advisor at the Environmental Protection Agency, pointed out that the CS would effect children between eight and 20 times as harshly as it affected adults. Mr. Marcus observed: “The FBI failed to read and follow the label directions” on the CS gas and the methylene chloride that agents mixed it with.
Regarding the methylene chloride that the FBI inserted into the compound, former ATF fire expert Rick Sherrow testified, “The Dow Chemical Corporation Materials Safety Data Sheet specifically states that this chemical forms flammable vapor air mixtures [and] ‘[i]n confined or poorly ventilated areas, vapors can readily accumulate and cause unconsciousness and death.”‘
Rep. John Mica (R., Fla.) observed that even if the children didn’t die directly from the CS gas, “we sure as hell tortured them for six hours before they died.”
The briefing book the FBI gave Attorney General Reno on April 12, 1993, contained false information on the effects of the CS gas. The document stated, “Experience with the effects of CS on children including infants has been extensively investigated. Available reports indicate that, even in high concentrations or enclosed areas, long term complications from CS exposures is extremely rare.” However, Defense Department toxicologist Harry Shaw testified that only two studies were available on the effects on children. One study showed that an infant exposed to CS for a few hours had to be hospitalized for 28 days; the FBI intended to gas the children in the Waco compound for 48 hours.
Rep. John Shadegg (R., Ariz.) made a painfully short presentation on July 28 showing the massive portions of the Davidian compound destroyed by FBI tanks before the fire began. Under vigorous questioning, the FBI’s Floyd Clarke admitted, “The destruction of the building was part of the ultimate plan which was included” in the briefing book given to Attorney General Reno on April 12. Yet, though FBI officials admitted that they were far along in the process of destroying the building before the fire started, the official FBI statement to the hearing still bragged, “The FBI agents demonstrated remarkable restraint and did not fire a single shot during the entire standoff.”
And, while Mr. Clarke stated that the assault was intended to destroy the compound, former FBI commander Jamar insisted: “The intent was to hopefully get their attention to where they would engage in serious negotiations.” Destroying their home was an excellent means of getting the Davidians’ attention but was not the kind of good-faith gesture that could have advanced negotiations.
The highlight of Attorney General Reno’s testimony yesterday was her assertion that the 54-ton tank that smashed through the Davidian compound should not be considered a military vehicle — instead it was just “like a good rent-a-car.” Such an observation does not inspire confidence in the Justice Department’s moderation in its future operation.
The evidence of a coverup and gross federal misconduct is far stronger in the Waco hearings than in the Whitewater investigation. The Republican leadership in Congress should seize upon the recent revelations to demand a special counsel to be appointed to investigate possible federal crimes and coverups regarding Waco.
Postscript: Alas, I admit I was cold sober when I wrote that appeal for the GOP leadership to demand a special counsel for Waco…..
On Twitter @jimbovard