"The ATF fired first"

Government critics of the Waco raid won't be silenced by the Danforth report.

By Daryl Lindsey
July 25, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)
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Former Sen. John Danforth, the special counsel assigned by the Justice Department to investigate the deadly 1993 federal raid on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, issued his preliminary findings Friday. After years of GOP rhetoric that Janet Reno's minions conducted warfare against David Koresh's sect, Republican stalwart Danforth concluded with "100 percent certainty" that the attorney general and the federal government were not guilty of any wrongdoing.

"The blame rests squarely on the shoulders of David Koresh. This is not a close call," Danforth told reporters at a press conference in St. Louis.


The report concluded that "[g]overnment agents did not start or spread the tragic fire of April 19, 1993, did not direct gunfire at the Branch Davidians, and did not unlawfully employ the armed forces of the United States."

In his preface to the report, Danforth, who was on the short list of potential running mates for George W. Bush, warned of the "readiness of so many of us to accept as true the dark theories about government actions at Waco." Danforth also took aim at the media. "Sensational films," he wrote, "construct dark theories out of little evidence and gain ready audiences for their message." The statement appeared to be an allusion to the Academy Award-nominated 1997 documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement," created by Dan Gifford and Michael McNulty.

One of the theories promoted in the film was that federal agents fired gun shots on the day the Davidians' Mount Carmel complex ignited into a lethal inferno -- a conclusion that has been brought into question by the Danforth report as well as a recent wrongful-death lawsuit ruling in favor of the government. The film has always had its critics, including former FBI agent Bob Ricks (the agency's press liaison during the negotiations in the 51-day standoff), who told the Houston Chronicle that Gifford and McNulty's film was "totally biased, one-sided and without factual basis."


In his first interview since the release of the Danforth report, which was critical of his film's findings, Dan Gifford blasted the Republican senator's conclusions. He offered a library of conspiracy theories and at one point even admitted, "I know this stuff starts to sound like X-Files but this is very real." Gifford suggested that he has been under government surveillance since the film was released, with spooks popping up at his visits to bookstores, cafes and even at a recent lecture he gave in New York.

So it's no surprise that he would take a skeptical view of the findings in Danforth's $12 million, 10-month investigation. Nevertheless, "The Rules of Engagement" was a critical hit on the film festival circuit, and has become the definitive documentary of the 1993 siege. Gifford's admirers no doubt share his skepticism.

In his introduction to the report, Danforth writes that "sensational films construct dark theories out of little evidence and gain ready audiences for their message." As the producer of one of the most referenced films about the Waco siege, how do you respond to that?


If that is a reference to our film, there is not "little evidence." He may be referring to others. I would point out that our film has been out, around the world, under scrutiny for three years, and it has held up. If the intent is to try to denigrate the films or the findings, we stand by them; that's just totally false. It was not put together with scant evidence, it was very thoroughly researched.

But in his preliminary report, Danforth contested one of the primary arguments of "Waco: Rules of Engagement," which is that federal agents directed gunfire at the Branch Davidian compound.


Nothing surprises me. This is what I predicted would be the outcome. As you may know, I refused to talk to them because I had no confidence in what I was hearing. When I was first contacted, my first question to them was, "Can you stop the surveillance and harassment?" Without missing a beat, without so much as a pause, their comeback was, we can't do anything about that. What that tells me is they're really not in charge. Even Danforth says that they had foot-dragging and people in the Department of Justice and FBI lying to them. Everyone wants this to go away, including myself. But the conclusions he's reached are absurd.

Such as?

That the government did not fire at the Davidians, when it's right on their own video and CBS's "60 Minutes" hired an expert who says it's gunfire. This year, even Dan Rather's show "60 Minutes II" hired an expert and did what I've been after reporters for a long time to do, which is to take (and they had a former British Army guy do this) the same kind of rifle they had on the ground and fire in front of an infrared camera and then compare it. He did, and he says there's no question that it's gunfire. It's not swamp gas reflecting off Jupiter, it's gunfire from the government's side working in coordination with the tanks.


In addition you've got Edward Allard, who's in the film as the on-camera expert, whose credentials are impeccable as the head of the Defense Department's night-vision laboratory. Before we even put it in [the film], I took this personally to 10 people with expertise in identification of weapons fire and night-vision technology, and they all agreed that's what it is.

The problem here is that you have the available pool of expertise that is largely working for the government or has government contracts. The Waco reenactment that was done [on March 19 as part of a wrongful death suit brought by Davidian survivors against the government] is always presented as if it was done by an independent firm, implying that it has no axe to grind, no connections, and is completely free to come to whatever its conclusions are. Fact is, that firm is [mostly] owned by Anteon Corporation, one of the largest defense contractors, holding major contracts with the FBI for training and for software and also with the Treasury Department and the ATF for training.

What other findings in the Danforth report did you disagree with?


All the evidence that I've seen is that the ATF fired first. And that came out in the trial -- that it was the ATF agents who were killing the [Davidians'] dogs. How you would come to an opposite conclusion in their situation -- especially with all the obvious -- the destruction of evidence, the videotapes, the missing half of the front door -- is beyond me. You might remember that the FBI lied over and over and over again that it did not have fragmentation grenades, and then it turns out they had in excess of 240 millimeter fragmentation grenades there. I don't know of any other reason to have fragmentation grenades unless you plan to kill someone.

It's a nasty episode. Ramsey Clark was right on the money when he said to the jury that Waco is something that could happen to anybody. All you have to do is demonize someone for political gain, and that's all Waco really was from the beginning. We have found no evidence that there was anything happening among the Davidians that was illegal or that the federal people had any authority over. Whether an illegal weapon was constructed during the standoff is another matter. I'm talking about the initial stages.

Again, let's go back and look at the setup. If you look on the Web site, you've seen the report about the ATF agents who went out to target-shoot with David Koresh and the Davidians about a week before the initial raid, and they actually handed Koresh and the Davidians their guns to shoot. And then they go to the judge and say these people are firing automatic weapons or illegal weapons or whatever they said out there. Then we have the episode where Koresh has invited the ATF agents to bring their list of serial numbers (they had all the serial numbers of the guns he had bought from a deal) up to the building and to take a look at whatever it was that they had there. You don't make that kind of offer if you have something to hide.

The usual people that take up for this kind of government action -- the ACLU, for instance -- aren't interested because to get into Waco, you have to question the War on Guns, and the War on Terrorism and the violations of civil liberties and all the rest of it that's been going on. We're talking about the Davidians here, who are not very palatable and not very well liked. It's a class warfare. People in newsrooms or Hollywood just don't care.


How do you think Danforth reached his conclusions?

It would have to be political. There's national security -- a lot of the documents that the government was refusing to turn over, that people were dragging their feet about are claimed to be national security documents. You have to ask yourself what could possibly be national security about Waco. It turns out that classified communication and electronic weapons were being tested on the Davidians.

My impression from the questions is that he really didn't have the kind of access or clout to do it. He's going to have to question: Why are aspects of what happened at Waco considered national security? What was going on there? What were these classified weapons? There's a lot of things I don't know if he could get into. I don't know what kind of security clearance he had. I'm taking the position that this was a good faith investigation on his part, but it looks to me as if he's been hornswoggled, and it doesn't surprise me at all.

But the verdict in the recent lawsuit brought by the Davidians against the government also failed to support the theory promoted in your film.


You get a very pro-government judge and you stack the deck. I've never heard of empaneling an advisory jury that has no authority. It doesn't really surprise me. Let's not forget that a jury also said that O.J. Simpson didn't murder two people. It doesn't prove anything. What we're talking about here is the official process, and this isn't the first time in history where there's an event so heinous that it can't be admitted to, and it has to be claimed, officially, that it didn't happen. Waco did happen.

The Republican Congress has been intensely critical of President Clinton and Janet Reno on Waco. Did you find it odd for a Republican leader of Danforth's status to exonerate 100 percent an administration his party has been so critical of?

The answer is no. Not if this is the same John Danforth that told us that Clarence Thomas would make a great Supreme Court justice, but [Thomas] would then go on to write some of the most police-state friendly opinions in the history of the country. Danforth is an establishment, status quo conservative. I think his heart would be in protecting the reputation of the establishment.

That question [of partisan rancor] presumes that the Waco incident would only give Democrats a black eye, and I can assure you that that's not true. Remember, the investigation of the Davidians began under the Bush administration. There's more to this. There are questions about who in the administration knew anything about it, what decisions were made. All of that was left out of the Department of Justice report -- it's just abominable.


Tomorrow: A Danforth defender responds.

Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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