Easterbrook on Waco
Jude Wanniski
September 15, 1999


Memo To: John Danforth, Waco investigator
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Dishing the dirt on Waco

What a good choice you are to peer into the darkness of Waco! A Republican, a former Governor of Missouri, a former U.S. Senator, the chief defender of Justice Clarence Thomas during the witch hunt that tried to tear him to pieces during his Senate confirmation hearings. You know how ugly our government can get, and it was never uglier than it was at Waco...and Ruby Ridge (which I wish you would look into as collateral damage). Today, I am sending you a piece by a man I know who currently writes for the New Republic, Gregg Easterbrook. If I had to name the most careful, intelligent, nonpartisan reporter in the entire press corps, Easterbrook it would be. The fact that he works for a nominally "liberal" magazine is no matter. He is a straight arrow, which is why the piece he did last week probably is more reliable than anything you might get from anyone else as a starting point in your investigation. Good luck.

New Republic, 9/10/99

Under Fire
by Gregg Easterbrook

It's unsettling, to say the least, to learn via recently unearthed government tape recordings that the FBI has spent six years falsely denying that it used pyrotechnic military-style tear gas canisters on the final day of the Waco siege. But there was other military hardware at Waco, too. And while that hardware--specifically, combat helicopters deployed on the first day of the siege--has not drawn public attention, it may be much more significant than the military tear gas when it comes to explaining what really went wrong and why Waco belongs among the shameful events in the annals of modern government. In understanding Waco, it's time to follow the helicopters.

On its first day at Waco, a raiding party of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agents approached the Branch Davidian compound. The ATF had a valid reason to investigate the Davidians: The cult was thought to be acquiring automatic weapons, which is illegal and exactly the sort of suspicious act that law enforcement agencies ought to scrutinize. Whether the ATF needed to open with a belligerent thrust is, however, another matter. On several occasions, local police had simply knocked on the Davidians' door and entered without confrontation. The ATF held a warrant for David Koresh's arrest and might have snatched him on one of his trips outside the compound. Instead, dozens of ATF agents in flak vests, brandishing assault rifles, charged the compound door, while others took positions on the roof. Some agents wielded concussion grenades ("flash-bangs"), which can harm and also make the sort of end-of-the-world noise sure to cause a cult member to lunge for a weapon. The plan called for these agents to throw the flash-bangs early in the raid even if the Davidians did not resist. Thus, it seemed a recipe for confrontation, creating the appearance of the very sort of government apocalypse the ATF knew the Davidians feared.

Nevertheless, as ATF agents first advanced on the compound, no shooting occurred on either side. Then, three military helicopters flown by the Texas National Guard arrived at the scene. One was a UH-60 Blackhawk, a large helicopter that is among the military's most advanced. And, yes, its standard paint job is a dark shade close to black. Just how ATF personnel ended up riding in military helicopters is puzzling in itself. According to the admirable but overlooked 1995 book The Ashes of Waco--written by a mainstream author, the Texas journalist and former Neiman Fellow Dick Reavis--prior to the raid, the ATF fabricated evidence that the Davidians were manufacturing drugs. These accusations enabled it to invoke a regulation allowing military participation in anti-drug raids. But why contrive evidence just to gain access to military helicopters rather than simply use standard police models? Official ego seems the likely reason.

Military helicopters are much zoomier than their civilian counterparts and, according to Reavis's book, ATF supervisors wanted a huge, magnificent Blackhawk as their airborne "command platform"--though a standard police helicopter could have served just as well.

Imagine what the Davidians, known to share the far right's peculiar dread of government helicopters, must have thought when they saw a Blackhawk approaching. The silhouettes of military helicopters are distinctive and easily recognizable, particularly to weapons buffs such as the Davidians. The cult members would have known that military helicopters such as the Blackhawk can mount machine guns, rockets, and similar weapons never found on police helicopters--the stuff of war, not of Fourth Amendment searches.

The Blackhawk used in the Waco raid was not armed, but while it is possible to tell that a helicopter is military from its silhouette, a glance will not necessarily tell a ground observer whether that helicopter is armed. (Whether ATF agents aboard helicopters fired into the compound with small arms is a subject of continuing debate.) To the Davidians -- indeed, to anyone -- the appearance of a frontline combat helicopter would suggest an attack, not an orderly search.

The arrival of the military helicopters seems to be what transformed Waco from a case of overzealousness into a tragedy. Until that point in the operation, neither the ATF agents nor the Davidians had pulled the trigger. It was only when military helicopters appeared in the sky behind the compound building, some evidence suggests, that the firing began. The first shots probably came from Davidians trying to drive the helicopters off, and of course they should not have done this. But when the ATF brought combat helicopters to the scene, it created an environment of combat. Once the first recoil sounded, the "shots fired" mentality took over and a hellish gun battle commenced in which four ATF agents and several Davidians died. (The other theory is that the firing started when ATF agents began shooting the Davidians' dogs.)

Owing to the legal barrier against military participation in most domestic police actions, the presence of the U.S. Army's Delta hostage rescue team during some parts of the Waco siege has recently received attention. But the FBI insists that the Delta units never actually did anything. The military helicopters, on the other hand, were in the sky and may have led to grave harm.

Details such as these increasingly suggest that Middle America has cause to remain fixated on Waco. First, the ATF staged a paramilitary raid when it might have conducted a standard search, as regular police had done. The best explanation for the initial ATF plan is incompetence; the range of possibilities goes downhill from there. Regarding the competence point: If a commando assault really was necessary, the raiders should not have appeared in mid-morning, but just before dawn, when the targets would be asleep; most successful commando actions occur during the predawn hours. Assuming that bad judgment and ineptitude explain the ATF approach, it was hardly the Davidians alone who suffered. Four valiant agents were sent to their deaths by cowardly superiors snuggled safely in getaway aircraft. When the shooting began, two of the three helicopters immediately bolted for cover -- the higher-ups running from their own plan, leaving their subordinates behind to die.

Then the FBI took over and, 51 days later, staged a second assault. Attorney General Janet Reno justified this action--as opposed to just waiting things out, since the Davidians weren't exactly going to escape--on the grounds that there were reports that child abuse was occurring in the compound. Later, the Justice Department itself concluded there had never been any such reports. So either Reno lied or the FBI lied to her: those are the alternatives. Reno also said the FBI had to act because agents on the scene were getting tired. So the government had Blackhawk helicopters on call but no idea where to obtain sleeping bags.

Given the incoherence of Reno's explanations for the second assault, it is hard to fault the oft-heard supposition that the event was an attempt by federal units--which were by then equipped with overwhelming force, including armored assault vehicles on loan from the U.S. Army--to deal the Davidians some revenge for the four agents' deaths. The General Accounting Office reported last week that, before the second assault, the FBI obtained from the Army 250 high-explosive 40 mm rounds of the type fired from infantry grenade launchers. That many explosive shells would have been sufficient to blow the cult's compound to smithereens; firing even one could easily have killed bystanders, including the Davidian children inside the compound. It is hard to imagine what valid law enforcement purpose the FBI, supposedly managing a hostage situation (the children), could have had in mind for 250 high-explosive projectiles designed to cause general destruction.

The FBI says there was no vengeance motive, but, with regard to Waco, its credibility is not exactly impeccable right now. For instance, as the Los Angeles Times reported, Richard Rogers, the FBI official who ordered the use of pyrotechnic tear gas at Waco, was sitting behind then-FBI Director William Sessions as he testified to Congress that no such gas had been used. But use of the military gas canisters, which may only have been a tactical misjudgment, is minor compared to the overall plan of the second assault, which was to flood the compound with tear gas. Tear gas doesn't just produce tears; it causes choking and convulsions. It is far more dangerous to children, whose lungs are sensitive, than to adults; to children, it causes agony. And there was the FBI's armored vehicle, pumping tear gas for six hours into a compound full of children.

The revival of Waco as a national concern reflects poorly on the ATF, the FBI, and Reno, who by this point seems to have spent her entire tenure in the Clinton administration apologizing for one embarrassment or another. Reno gets a sort of backhanded credit for her honesty; she is always the first to admit a foul-up. But the fact that she's constantly admitting them seems, at this point, revealing.

The revival of concern about Waco also reflects poorly on the media establishment. Though the flames at Waco were prominent in every medium, the outrage quotient was low -- running through the coverage was the sentiment, "They were a religious cult; they got what they asked for." It is true that the Davidians were extremely strange, and, by the end, some became killers. But being strange doesn't mean you deserve to die, and, as a group, the Davidians had done others no harm until the government arrived and started bungling. The fact that the Davidians were strange in a religious way added to the media's inclination to dismiss this tragedy. As Reavis wrote, "The job of finding out what happened ... ultimately fell to people outside the media's salaried circles, to scholars, defense attorneys, survivors, and self-financed independent scholars." In the end, only the nut cohort cared about the dead of Waco, and now the nuts are revealed to have been right about something important.

As the truth is finally being told, the FBI is slipping in public esteem once again. From J. Edgar Hoover's time until today, it has been an agency built on a culture of hard work and courage in the field coupled with self-interest and deceit at the top. Part of President Clinton's legacy must be that the fiasco at Waco, followed by the FBI's lies and the Justice Department's studied lack of interest in getting to the truth of the matter, gave Americans a reason to distrust the competence and honesty of government, which is bad in general and particularly terrible for political liberalism.

Disturbing as the performance of federal units at Waco was, some allowance must be made for the judgment of those on the scene, who were putting their own safety at risk. The same cannot be said for the senior FBI officials who have now spent six years lying about a key fact in the case -- lying to the public, lying to Congress, lying to the courts. The officials were in danger only of their sinecures, not their lives. In the fundamentals of law enforcement, human error happens, but it is never OK to lie. If FBI Director Louis Freeh had any sense of honor, he'd resign. But honor doesn't seem to mean much at the FBI these days. There is a simple word for the condition the FBI has brought on itself: disgrace.

(Copyright 1999, The New Republic)