FBI (SA) R. Wayne Smith
FBI Special Agent (SA) R. Wayne Smith Waco Report
Sun Feb 27, 2005 22:14

frontline: waco - the inside story: Chronology | PBS
... SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 28, 1993: ... are under way between KORESH, Steve SCHNEIDER, and Wayne
MARTIN on one side and the ATF's Jim CAVANAUGH

FBI Special Agent (SA) R. Wayne Smith Waco Report



James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher
Why Waco?

Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America


Chapter One
What Might Have Been

The FBI agents called to Mount Carmel center outside Waco, Texas, on February 28, 1993, can hardly be expected to have packed their Bibles. In retrospect, it would not have been such a bad idea. The news of the bloody shoot-out between agents of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) and an obscure religious group known as the Branch Davidians, on the peaceful Sunday morning had been flashed around the world. (1) For months the BATF had planned a "search and arrest" assault on the group based on allegations that they possessed illegal firearms materials and were possibly converting AR-15 semiautomatic rifles into machine guns. At 7:30 A.M. an eighty-vehicle convoy, including two cattle trailers pulled by pickup trucks loaded with seventy-six heavily armed BATF agents, had made its way to a staging area a few miles from the rural Mount Carmel property. Shortly after 9:00 A.M. the assault began. The two cattle trailers drove rapidly up to the property, halted in front, and the BATF agents stormed the center. Over head two Blackhawk helicopters arrived simultaneously. Local newspaper and television people, who had been alerted to the raid, watched and filmed from a distance. On Saturday, the previous day, the Waco Tribune-Herald had begun to publish a dramatic front-pagese series called "The Sinful Messiah," which alleged that the `cult' and its leader, David Koresh, were guilty of bizarre sexual practices, child abuse, and paramilitary activities.(2)

Who fired the first shot that morning is disputed. David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians, claimed that he went to the front door and shouted to the arriving agents, "Get back, we have women and children in here, let's talk," only to be cut off by a burst of gunfire.(3) The BATF claims that they tried to identify themselves, shouting to Koresh that they had a warrant, but were met with a hail of bullets.(4) Later, in the 1994 San Antonio trial of eleven Branch Davidians on charges of conspiracy to murder, it came out that the BATF had planned a "dynamic entry" with no realistic contingency for a peaceful serving of the search warrant. (5) A few minutes into the raid, the Branch Davidians called their local 911 number, demanding that the attack cease. By noon a cease-fire had been arranged. The BATF claims they were ambushed and outgunned by the Branch Davidians, who had known they were coming. The Branch Davidians maintain that their resistance was minimal and in self-defense, and that their 911 call demonstrated their nonconfrontational stance on that day. A standoff ensued, with Koresh and his followers inside refusing to surrender. Within hours the major television and print media had arrived, and the FBI was called in. For the next fifty-one days the situation at Waco dominated the news. David Koresh had instantly become a household name, and the public was hungry for information about this obscure thirty-three-year-old Bible-quoting Texan and his followers.

It all ended on Monday, April 19. Just after 6:00 A.M., two specially equipped M-60 tanks began to strategically punch holes into the Mount Carmel structure and insert CS gas in an effort to force the Davidians out. The wind was high that day, and most of the tear gas seemed to blow away. Over the next six hours the operation was stepped up, and four Bradley vehicles joined the tanks, firing 40 mm canisters of gas through the windows. A loudspeaker blared, "David, you have had your 15 minutes of fame.... Vernon [Koresh's given name] is no longer the Messiah. Leave the building now. You are under arrest. This standoff is over."(6) Around noon, smoke was seen coming from the second-story windows, and within minutes the thin frame building was engulfed in an uncontrollable fire, fanned by the gusty winds. The entire scene was carried live to the world over television satellite. Only nine Davidians were able to escape the fire. The bodies of most of the women and children were found huddled together in a concrete storage area near the kitchen, where they had apparently been trapped by falling debris.

The Waco operation turned out to be one of the most massive and tragic in the history of United States law enforcement. (7) In the initial raid, four BATF agents were killed and twenty wounded, while six Branch Davidians were fatally shot, with four others wounded. (8) The Branch Davidians inside the rambling Mount Carmel complex following the raid numbered approximately 123 persons, including 43 children. They were heavily armed and solidly behind their leader. On April 19, when it all came to a fiery end, 74 Branch Davidians were listed dead, including 21 children under the age of fourteen. (9) In the aftermath BATF director Stephen Higgins and five other high-ranking officials resigned from the agency. (10)

On the very evening following the initial Sunday raid by the BATF, Koresh, who had been seriously wounded, spoke several times by live telephone hookup over Dallas radio station KRLD and CNN cable television. Koresh began, in those gripping interviews, the first of hundreds of hours of explanations, based on his understanding of the biblical apocalyptic significance of the situation in which he found himself. His last direct communication with anyone other than government agents was an impromptu conversation with the station manager Charlie Serafin over KRLD radio at 1:50 A.M. the next morning. (11) In those live broadcasts Koresh offered the key to the Branch Davidians' biblical understanding of events. Unfortunately, neither the FBI agents in charge nor the myriad of advisers upon whom they relied could comprehend their perspective.

By that Monday morning, March 1, the FBI had already been called in and was in the process of taking over operations from the BATF. FBI Special Agent Jeff Jamar, from San Antonio, Texas, had taken command of the situation. The FBI fifty-person Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), a counterterrorist unit, was arriving. The situation was categorized by the FBI on this very first day of the siege as a "complex Hostage/Barricade rescue situation" even though the FBI recognized that many of the elements typically present in hostage situations were lacking. As the FBI itself later noted, "Koresh had made no threats, set no deadlines, and made no demands. Koresh and his followers were at Mount Carmel where they wanted to be and living under conditions that were only marginally more severe than they were accustomed to."(12) Nonetheless, negotiators and tactical personnel were called in, SWAT teams were put in place, and a method of dealing with the Branch Davidians was initiated, which was basically followed for the next fifty days--leading to the tragedy on April 19.

Listening carefully to what Koresh said in those live interviews over KRLD and CNN, a person familiar with the biblical texts could have perceived the situation in wholly different terms from the government's "hostage rescue." For the Branch Davidians, no one was a hostage. The only "rescue" they needed was from the government itself. In their view, the federal agents represented an evil government system, referred to in the book of Revelation as "Babylon." The idea of "surrendering to proper authority," as the government demanded throughout the next seven weeks, was absolutely out of the question for these believers unless or until they became convinced it was what God willed. As they saw it, their group had been wantonly attacked and slaughtered by government agents whom they understood to be in opposition to both God and his anointed prophet David Koresh. Their fate was now in God's hands.

The Waco situation could have been handled differently and possibly resolved peacefully. This is not unfounded speculation or wishful thinking. It is the considered opinion of the lawyers who spent the most time with the Davidians during the siege and of various scholars of religion who understand biblical apocalyptic belief systems such as that of the Branch Davidians. (13) There was a way to communicate with these biblically oriented people, but it had nothing to do with hostage rescue or counterterrorist tactics. Indeed, such a strategy was being pursued, with FBI cooperation, by Phillip Arnold of the Reunion Institute in Houston and James Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, one of the authors of this book. Arnold and Tabor worked in concert with the lawyers Dick DeGuerin and Jack Zimmerman, who spent a total of twenty hours inside the Mount Carmel center between March 29 and April 4, communicating directly with Koresh and his main spokesperson, Steve Schneider. Unfortunately, these attempts came too late. By the time they began to bear positive results, decisions had already been made in Washington to convince Attorney General Janet Reno to end the siege by force. As we will show, those officials briefing her had decided on the CS gas option and were determined to get her approval, despite her caution and better judgment.

In the KRLD radio conversations that first evening, the station manager urged Koresh to surrender and get medical attention. Since ten children had already come out, he was repeatedly asked whether he would allow more children to leave. In response, Koresh launched into a detailed message, quoting Scriptures and explaining his view of the situation. Most likely, his message was largely incomprehensible to the station manager and to much of the radio audience. Koresh was a master at his own form of biblical exposition and exegesis. From the theological perspective of the Branch Davidians, his message was highly systematic, rigidly consistent, and internally "logical"; to those unfamiliar with the prophetic portions of the Bible, however, the message, delivered in his typical nonstop style with lengthy quotations from the King James Version, surely must have seemed nonsensical. Among the many points he made in those initial conversations on KRLD, one stands out as particularly vital. "We are now in the Fifth Seal," he told his live audience--a cryptic reference to the book of Revelation.

The FBI negotiators spoke mostly with Schneider and Koresh in extended telephone conversations on the private line they had connected. (14) The Department of Justice report indicates that the conversations with Koresh were often two- or three-hour monologues in which Koresh attempted to teach them his biblical interpretations. Although the tapes of these "negotiations" have not been made public, the liberal samples quoted in the Department of Justice report give a fair idea of the style and content of Koresh's communications with the authorities. The FBI notes that his delivery of "religious rhetoric was so strong that they could hardly interrupt him to discuss possible surrender."(15) The report constantly laments that Koresh "refused to discuss any matters of substance" and merely insisted on "preaching" to negotiators. (16) What the authorities apparently never perceived is that Koresh's preaching was tohim and to his followers, the only matter of substance and that a "surrender" could only be worked out through dialogue within the biblical framework in which the Branch Davidians lived.

In reading through the Department of Justice log of events, one detects early on a developing sense of frustration in dealing with Koresh. On March 5, the FBI agent in charge, Jeff Jamar, had summarized Koresh's position quite succinctly: "His stance is still that he's been told to wait, and when he gets the message to stop waiting, then we'll proceed from there." Indeed, on that same day, Jamar himself stressed that federal authorities were prepared to wait "as long as necessary to get Mr. Koresh and his followers out of the complex without violence, regardless of the time or expense."(17) This was in keeping with President Clinton's understanding that the FBI's philosophy was to "negotiate until the situation was resolved."(18)

Nonetheless, just over a week later, on March 15, the FBI agents in charge began to initiate an abrupt change in policy. Termed a "modified negotiation strategy," this new approach called upon the negotiators to be firm and to insist on peaceful surrender, but to refuse to listen any longer to what they now called Koresh's "Bible babble." (19) This shift in policy effectively sealed off any possibility of sympathetic communication between Koresh and the government negotiators. It deprived Koresh of the only means of communication he valued, namely his own biblical interpretation of what was unfolding. And just five days later--over one month before the April 19 fire--they began to discuss the CS gas option privately. (20)

At about the same time, the FBI began its "stress escalation" and harassment techniques. As early as March 9, a series of pressure tactics was initiated. For example, the electricity to Mount Carmel were temporarily, and later permanently, cut off. These tactics were expanded and intensified over the next few weeks. The pattern was that the FBI would demand that Koresh send out some of his people, the demand would be rejected, and the government would then retaliate with punitive measures. Searchlights kept the property brightly lit through the night, irritating noises and loud music were blared over large speakers, and vehicles and personal property of the Davidians were crushed or removed by armored vehicles. The FBI saw the situation as stalemated. They had little hope that Koresh would allow more children out. Those who were inside apparently intended to stay. All the while Koresh insisted that he would not exit until he received his "word from God."

As we mention earlier, Koresh and his followers had been labeled a "cult" and thoroughly "demonized" in a series of articles called "The Sinful Messiah" printed in the Waco Tribune-Herald beginning on February 27, just one day before the BATF raid. This series, based largely on charges by disaffected former Branch Davidians, painted a grim and bizarre picture of Koresh and his followers, echoing all the stereotypes the public had come to associate with unfamiliar groups or new religious movements that are pejoratively labeled "cults." Hungry for any "information" about this heretofore unknown religious group, all the major print, radio, and television media had snapped up this material the day of the February 28 raid. The FBI apparently shared and certainly tried to perpetuate the public perception of Koresh, charging that he was a power-mad, sex-crazed "con man" who constantly made up and changed the rules as things unfolded. They maintained that his word was completely unreliable, pointing to his broken promise to exit Mount Carmel on March 2, following the broadcast over radio of a fifty-eight-minute message he had recorded. After his default on March 2, two days after the BATF raid, however, Koresh stuck irrevocably to his position: God had told him to wait. No matter how hard the authorities pressed Koresh or his followers, demanding that they surrender and come out, the reply was the same: the group would not come out until Koresh received his "word from God." The potential ho rror of the situation was that if the group perceived itself to be "in the fifth seal," might they not unwittingly, or even willfully, orchestrat

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