Delta team at Waco?

A former CIA official says Army commandos played a role in the deadly standoff.

Published August 28, 1999 1:00PM (EDT)

With congressional Republicans calling for hearings on the FBI's handling of the deadly 1993 Branch Davidian crisis, thanks to new revelations about the bureau's long-denied use of gas grenades, it's clear the whole story about the federal response to the Waco conflagration has yet to be told.

Salon News has learned that U.S. Army Delta team commando officers sat in on a meeting at CIA headquarters to discuss the ongoing Waco hostage situation in March 1993, according to a former CIA security officer. Such involvement by U.S. military personnel in a domestic conflict could be illegal.

Former CIA officer Gene Cullen told Salon News he attended a meeting at CIA headquarters on the Waco crisis where Army representatives were "mostly observers," but indicated they were prepared to step in and help if any more federal agents were killed. The standoff ended with the fiery deaths of 76 people at the Branch Davidian religious compound.

"My charter at the agency was facilities personnel, and operations worldwide. So we called this meeting [at CIA] during the Waco crisis ... to see how the [FBI's hostage rescue team] would respond if it was one of our buildings in this country, and if it were overseas, how Delta would respond.

"So we're all sitting around the room talking about scenarios. The FBI gave us a briefing on what had transpired. The Delta guys didn't say much. They were playing second fiddle to the FBI."

Pentagon officials denied the story. "We had no operational involvement in this activity, or planning," an official said.

Salon has also learned that a senior Army Special Forces lawyer advised the
special operations command that aid to federal police forces could violate
the so-called posse comitatus provision of U.S. law barring the use of
U.S. military forces in domestic operations, except for training, maintenance
of equipment or "expert advice." There is also an exception to the law
allowing the use of military personnel in drug operations if requested by an
agency head.

Col. Philip W. Lindley, judge advocate general for the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command, wrote a memo on Feb. 3, 1993, three weeks before the Branch Davidian standoff began, saying "an exception under federal law would have to be found."

"Since there are point targets with identified civilian subjects this falls outside the scope of JTF mission approval and cannot be accomplished" legally, Lindley wrote.

Four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had been killed during an initial siege of the compound. "Their biggest fear was that more agents would be killed," said Cullen, who was a senior officer in the CIA's Office of Security. Participants at the meeting, which occurred in "early or mid-March 1993," Cullen said, also discussed the use of "sleeping gas" that might end the siege peacefully.

A senior former FBI official, Danny Coulson, admitted this week that
munitions were fired into the Branch Davidian compound that could have set it
on fire -- after denying it for six years. A visibly angry Attorney General Janet
Reno said it was news to her and
vowed to get to the bottom of the affair.

Cullen said Delta operatives he met with in Bangkok first told him about the operation in Waco. "They said there were about 10 guys, fully armed, fully operational, they were ready for war. The last thing they wanted was to be sitting there with their thumbs up their rear end."

One of the Delta commandos was helping drive a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, according to conversations Cullen had with Delta commandos during his trips overseas to inspect security arrangements for CIA installations. Cullen said that in his experience, Delta teams rarely went on any operation with less than 10 commandos.

"I was surprised at the amount of involvement they had," he added.

Cullen said he heard the "same basic story" separately on "three or four occasions" from different Delta operatives in different places overseas. He was deployed to Somalia during the crisis there in 1996, ferrying payments to an agent on the CIA payroll who turned out to be working as a double agent for a warlord.

After Cullen told a version of this story to the Dallas Morning News, the CIA refused to confirm his employment there. But he showed pay slips to Salon News that confirmed his senior rank.

Cullen joined the CIA in 1980 and attended the career officers course at Camp Peary, Va. He was assigned to CIA headquarters from 1990 to 1995, with primary responsibilities for area security.

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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