The Waco Holocaust

A disturbing new documentary suggests that the first ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound was a publicity stunt that went terribly wrong -- and the FBI's raid was a blatant act of revenge.


Ros Davidson
April 18, 1997 8:29PM (UTC)

APRIL 19 has become one of the most feared dates on the American calendar. Special security precautions are thrown up around government buildings and federal law enforcement agents look nervously over their shoulders. For America's burgeoning radical right, it is a date that will live in infamy. The bloody attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, is, for them, proof positive that the government is their sworn enemy. They have sworn revenge.

Four years ago Saturday -- April 19, 1993 -- the compound of the Branch Davidians was burned to the ground, ending a 51-day standoff with
the FBI. About 80 people died, including children and women. Two years later, on April 19, 1995, in a twisted form of payback, the federal building in Oklahoma City was blown up. It was the worst single act of domestic political terrorism in American history. One of the accused, Timothy McVeigh, had visited Waco and has said how profoundly its destruction by government forces affected his political thinking.

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Such feelings are not the sole property of the radical right. Congressional hearings two years ago were highly critical of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms -- whose botched raid in which four ATF agents died spurred the standoff -- and the FBI. A startling new documentary, which has been airing in selected cinemas since Feb. 28, raises even more disturbing questions. "Waco: Rules of Engagement" presents evidence, some of it from previously unpublicized government videotapes, suggesting that both the ATF and FBI have consistently lied about both their motivations and activities at Waco.

Salon spoke with the documentary's executive producer and co-writer, Dan Gifford,
a former news reporter for CNN, ABC News and "The McNeil/Lehrer NewsHour."


In some respects, your documentary confirms the worst suspicions of far-right conspiracy theorists. For example, among the conclusions you draw was that the action that led to the Waco disaster -- the ATF's initial raid on the Branch Davidians -- was primarily a publicity stunt.

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According to interviews we have with former ATF agents, yes. At the time, their appropriations were due to be debated in Congress. They had suffered a number of recent debacles, including Ruby Ridge [the Idaho cabin in which fugitive right-wing militia leader Randy Weaver's wife, Vikki, and 14-year-old son, Sammy, were killed by government snipers in 1992]. "60 Minutes" had done a couple of very negative stories on the ATF, concerning sexual discrimination and harassment and racial
discrimination. There was even talk of disbanding the agency.

So, they needed publicity.

Which is not unique. Government agencies do this. They traditionally pull some sort of publicity stunt before they go in for a hearing. It's a turf
thing, a power thing.

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The documentary also suggested the ATF perhaps
launched the raid even though there was no sign of unlawful resistance from the
Branch Davidians.

That's the claim of the surviving Davidians.
There's no way to determine that absolutely because, as the film points out,
all of the physical evidence that might enable you to come to a conclusion has disappeared. It's been destroyed.

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In particular, a door from the compound that was riddled
with bullet holes ...

Yes. According to the ATF, the portion of the door which had the bullet holes in it was destroyed in the fire. The Branch Davidians say the holes were caused by bullets coming in, but now there's no proof. The ATF had a tremendous number of
video cameras out there but many of the tapes are amazingly blank.

You're saying basically that the ATF raid was unprovoked.

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There's no way to prove it. The physical evidence has all
been destroyed. But if the Branch Davidians had the kind of weaponry the government said it had, they would have blown away the entire ATF force. Jack Zimmermann,
a former Marine colonel with a lot of combat experience who is now a lawyer for the surviving Davidians, made that point; so did the local sheriff. On the audiotapes you hear
David Koresh claiming that he went down to the door and said,
"Hey, there's women and children. Let's talk about this," and the ATF
started shooting at them.

And in the documentary you show how the chief of the ATF operation, who was negotiating with Koresh, lied about the weaponry the government had brought to bear.
First, he claimed that there were no guns on the government helicopters, then saying, well, there were no mounted guns.

That was Jim Cavanaugh. You saw him later testifying in Congress
in a gray suit. That's one of the things that amazed us when we were putting together the documentary -- catching them in lie after lie after lie.

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What other lies stood out?

The story that the FBI was telling everyone about David Koresh
promising to come out five times. If you listen to the audiotapes, you can't find these five times.
You might also remember that the FBI said the Branch Davidians' home video would show them to be a bunch of wild-eyed, crazy people. What it showed was absolutely the
opposite.

But most people, whether they've seen the
documentary or not, would still say Koresh was a sociopath, obsessed with Armageddon and a final face-off with outside
forces ...

That was the assumption of Alan Stone, the professor of law and psychiatry at Harvard (brought in by the government during the siege to analyze the mind-set of the
Branch Davidians). He says he found that was
not the case, that there were some very intelligent and learned people in there.
A religious expert said that what Koresh preached was fundamentally no different from
what you'd hear in any fundamental Baptist church or charismatic
church, this whole thing about the apocalypse, the focus on the
Book of Revelations, the Second Coming ...

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But weren't there complaints from the neighbors about gun-related activities at the compound?

Well again, that was the story that was sold. We found -- and the
local sheriff verified this -- that one person once
thought he heard automatic weapon fire, but there was no proof that was anything illegal. People we interviewed said the
Branch Davidians minded their own business, they had good relations
with their neighbors, that one of them came over
to shoot guns with them. That's not the way the Davidians have been
portrayed.

But there was the congressional testimony of Kiri
Jewell, who claimed she was sexually abused by Koresh.

The issue of child abuse is totally irrelevant to what happened. Neither the ATF nor FBI has the authority or jurisdiction to enforce state child abuse laws. The local sheriff we interviewed said a case had never
been made -- that there wasn't enough evidence. Some of the allegations
apparently came from former Davidians who had had a falling out with
Koresh and left.

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Yet child abuse was the reason Janet Reno gave for giving
the go-ahead for the final assault.

Yes, that was the reason she gave. It was told to her by the
FBI, which was clearly looking for a way to find her hot
button so she would give the go-ahead.

You imply that just before the FBI went in there was the possibility that the situation could have been resolved.

The Davidians thought they had a deal, that Koresh would finish
writing his Seven Seals and then come out. The reason they thought that was not
only that they were told that by the negotiators, but that the FBI had sent in
typewriter ribbons and batteries, as if to say, "Stay there, finish your
writing ..."

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But, you say, what the FBI had in mind when they finally went in was at least partly revenge for the shootings of the four ATF agents.

I'd say revenge is a fairly apt word. Whenever a law enforcement officer is killed,
what happens? Other law enforcement agents all focus on the people who did it. There was a lot of testosterone outside the compound, a lot of shoving matches, virtual fistfights. Henry Ruth, one of three independent reviewers brought in by the Justice Department to report on what happened at Waco, said one of the most stunning things: that the raid was in large part meant to scare the public, and to seek retribution and to
enforce the morals of our society. What he called the "psyche of right
thinking."

It's unclear from the documentary whether you believe the FBI started the fires in the compound on purpose or whether they were just grossly negligent.

We have a former Houston fire chief saying the
building was like a pot-bellied stove, and, with the
aerosol gas the FBI threw in, it was bound to virtually explode. We did not say that the FBI deliberately started the fire. But, again, there was this repeated lying that they did not have any munitions that would start a fire. We have an expert maintaining that the FBI used gunfire or some sort of projectile on the building. They had flashback grenades. Those were clearly incendiary things. They start fires.

Then there's that infrared tape in the documentary where you seem to see people
trying to leave the Davidian building being shot at by government
agents.

That's very disturbing. I've no doubt the FBI will say something like, "That was lightning bugs or a reflection."

The official explanation is that the Davidians who were shot had committed suicide.

Well, look at the video. Here's all this automatic weapon fire
being poured into the building, and the FBI is saying they never
fired so much as a single shot.


Ros Davidson

Ros Davidson is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Ros Davidson


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