"Hollering fire in a crowded theater"

The FBI's chief negotiator during the Waco siege says critics and conspiracy theorists are sowing dangerous discord.


Daryl Lindsey
August 4, 2000 12:00PM (UTC)

Even though former Sen. John Danforth has cleared the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation of causing the deaths of 80 people at the 1993 Waco, Texas, siege, the cottage industry of conspiracy theorists continues to insist Danforth obscured the truth.

Recently, Salon spoke with Dan Gifford, who along with Michael McNulty created the Academy Award-nominated 1997 documentary "Waco: The Rules of Engagement," which charged the government with firing shots the day of the deadly inferno on Mount Carmel -- an allegation the government has repeatedly denied.

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Gifford blasted the Danforth report, insisting that his film was accurate, based on mountains of evidence that were left out of the investigation for dubious reasons. He slammed the Justice Department and the federal agencies involved in the Branch Davidian siege and claimed that the FBI has put him under surveillance and harassed him.

Now Byron Sage, retired chief negotiator for the FBI during the 1993 siege, strikes back at Gifford and other conspiracy theorists. It was Sage who spent hours on the phone with cult leader Koresh, trying to negotiate a peaceful end to what turned out to be a deadly confrontation. Transcripts of their conversations are riveting, full of all the bargaining, emotional accusations and careful manipulation that characterize such high-stakes crises.

In a frank conversation with Salon, Sage calls Gifford's accusations against the FBI "groundless" and "paranoid." In the end, he says there's something very important missing from Gifford and McNulty's presentation of the events at Waco: an eyewitness view. They weren't there; Sage was. He tells Salon what he saw.

What do you think of the Danforth report?

I find that he calls it exactly the way it is. If you read the first part of Danforth's report, he says that the greatest aspect of his findings is the overwhelming evidence that puts these issues to rest -- and why those facts have not been more aggressively represented in the media.

Were there any surprises for you in the report?

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There is some information in there that I was not aware of as far as who at the bureau had information regarding the military rounds, possibly pyrotechnic in nature. That information should have absolutely come out in a more aggressive time frame, because it had nothing to do with the fires. But the FBI by not handling that information in a more appropriate fashion -- I don't think it was intentionally concealed, I think it was just not recognized for its importance -- played right into the hands of the conspiracy theorists.

So my feeling, having read this report and having been at the site, I think the Danforth report is very thorough. I think the conclusions are absolutely accurate and appropriate and that includes holding several people accountable for their inaction or not being more aggressive in clarifying certain issues.

Have you seen the film "Waco: The Rules of Engagement"?

I have seen it. After the allegations [against the government agencies] surfaced in September I had an opportunity to watch it. And it's a very convincing, very professionally produced film.

I use the term "film" advisedly instead of documentary, because I do not think it is accurate. I think that it jumps to conclusions based upon their analysis of what they believe. They present it as absolute fact. And the problem with that is that the American public does not have the access, without really putting a great deal of effort into it, to get to information, the raw data. They would have to go to several different sources, congressional records, the court in the western district of Texas, review virtually thousands and thousands of documents. So their other option is to go down to your local video rental and rent a film such as "The Rules of Engagement."

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The producers of that film and other films like it have in essence rewritten history inaccurately. The inaccuracies have all along have been pointed out to them by the agencies involved.

The filmmakers interviewed you and other federal agents in the making of the project. How do you feel about the way they represented what you told them?

I talked to McNulty three different times at the request of the FBI. Every time I answered the questions that he had as honestly, as factually as is humanly possible and when he broke some of these issues I told him that he was in error and that is not what happened. He went on and just discarded that as if he had taken judicial notice that an FBI agent was going to lie to him.

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The point here is that the American public has now been conditioned (and I am hoping that we can reverse this) to start from a position of believing that anything that the government tells them -- and I hate to use that term in such a broad sweeping fashion, and in fact I won't -- anything that the FBI tells them is immediately subject to question.

Gifford has called Danforth's findings "absurd."

Danforth's findings are absurd in his mind because they fly in the face of a multimillion-dollar project that he has out there. They are not absurd; they are based on fact, they are based on exhaustive interviews. I was interviewed by Danforth as well, and I found that the interviews were very thorough, very professional. They bordered on confrontational and properly so. Because Danforth was charged, and the office of special counsel was charged, with a very important responsibility: to address what he referred to as the 'dark questions.' If any of those issues -- intentionally shooting at the Davidians, setting the fire, impeding their exit and so forth -- had been based upon fact, then the American public had every right to be outraged about what happened at Waco.

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As you know, Danforth was very critical of media coverage in the report. He wrote strong words that seemed to be alluding to "The Rules of Engagement." "Sensational films," he wrote, "construct dark theories out of little evidence and gain ready audiences for their message." It sounds as though you agree with that conclusion.

The people making these films, the people that are beating their chests and claiming to be super-patriots were not there. They don't know what happened and they have assumed a position of: Don't bother me with the facts, I've got my conclusions. That is not the way to thoroughly, adequately and appropriately review and analyze what happened at Waco.

Gifford says he has been under FBI surveillance since the film was released. He says government agents have been following him in bookstores and showing up at events where he has spoken. He also says that he's asked people at the FBI to stop the surveillance, and that they've responded, "We can't do anything about that," which he sees as an indication that there are people higher up the chain of command who are interested in suppressing his work investigating the Waco incident.

Well, first of all, that smacks to me of a little paranoia on his part. If you step back from this thing, even the people who are so totally convinced that there is some grand conspiracy in this country, it is absolutely ridiculous to think that something of this magnitude, as sinister as the allegations have been against the FBI and other agencies, could ever be kept secret for this period of time. It is just virtually impossible.

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I am speaking to you as a private citizen. I'm no longer with the FBI. I am going to make this personal, because I have been accused by several people. Individuals and groups whose conspiracy theories are fueled by some of the misleading information that is out there have virtually accused myself and other people of being liars, of being murderers, of being any number of, you can just attach the most severe allegations you can imagine to this. And this has come in the form of letters and e-mails and comments to the media and so forth.

I spent 28 and a half years in the FBI. Not one day of that time would I have considered compromising the highest level of professionalism and that standard, that commitment to absolute integrity is common throughout the agency. That is the main reason that I stayed with the FBI for so long. For him to claim that the FBI is involved in some grand surveillance and an effort to get him because he has pointed an accusatory finger at the FBI is, I am confident, baseless. It borders on paranoia. It feeds the type of mentality that he is trying to peddle his information to and it is absolutely not true.

And frankly, I don't know that this individual would be worth that type of expenditure, of manpower and resources. To be absolutely candid, I don't know this gentleman, I've never met him, but I think his concerns are without reason. What I can tell you is that I have worked cases where we have extended surveillances on major subjects, terrorism matters, bank robbers, you name it. And I don't think that a filmmaker rises to that level of importance with anyone other than maybe himself.

Gifford and the surviving Davidians insist that there are still many questions that were not answered in Danforth's investigation and in the trial. Their response to the final report is that it's not going to stop them from pursuing those answers.

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There is one thing that I would ask you to remember. Michael Caddell, who was the lead attorney as you well know for the Davidians, stood up in front of the media and everybody at the front gate of Fort Hood on March 19, 2000, and said, 'The results of this FLIR [forward-looking infared tape] test will be the heart and soul of my case.' When the results of that test came back, the flashes were clearly demonstrated not to be gunfire. That should have put the whole issue of gunfire to rest. But instead [Caddell] immediately turned around and said, Well this test was faulty. They dismissed it because it did not uphold their contention.

Caddell also argued that the company was owned by Anteon Corp., which is one of the largest defense contractors. He said that they could not possibly come up with independent findings, based on that relationship with the government.

This is more of this grand conspiracy garbage. Just because someone has a contract with the government does not mean when they sign on the dotted line to provide some service to the government in some totally unrelated area -- that there is a sub-clause that they relinquish their integrity. To instantaneously jump to that conclusion is highly suspect.

These people have been found to be highly qualified professionals in their area. I guarantee you that if they had come up with results saying that those flashes were in fact gunfire, they would have been the most highly qualified scientific capability out there as far as Caddell and other people were involved. I think their integrity is intact as is the integrity of the agents that have stood up for seven years and said that we did not start those fires and we did not shoot at the Davidians.

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Another reason that Gifford says people should be skeptical of the investigation is that Danforth left out a lot of government documents for reasons of national security.

I am aware of the fact that there were sensitive national security issues involved in that some of the equipment that was brought to bear, listening equipment and so forth, is protected and classified in nature. But the flip side of it is that you don't give all of your techniques and capabilities a public airing. That does not mean that they should not be reviewed within the appropriate scrutiny of clearances.

Gifford insists that classified communication systems and electronic weapons were being tested on the Davidians and that the judge had to leave out material because he didn't have the security clearance to review it.

There was no super-secret weapons testing or anything like that directed at the Davidians. That's absolutely garbage.

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Do you think, in the end, you and other FBI agents have been vindicated by Danforth's conclusions?

Here is my bottom-line philosophy on how I tried to conduct myself and how, I think, the FBI conducts itself in general. When you are confronted with any situation, including something as horrific as Waco, you do the best job that you possibly can at the highest level of professionalism. When the situation is done, you stand behind your actions. If you made mistakes then you are accountable for those mistakes. I have no problem with that and I don't think that the FBI does.

But if you did not make mistakes and you are wrongfully accused, my feeling is that the FBI should have [been] much more aggressive in coming out and addressing some of these outrageous allegations. By remaining mute or by not being more aggressive in their response, the bureau and the Department of Justice, I feel, are partially responsible for the misunderstanding and the misrepresentation of the facts. There are other [documentaries] besides "Waco: The Rules of Engagement," but the one thing that all of them have in common is that they manipulated facts and circumstances to serve their allegations, instead of addressing what I feel are clear and concise facts. And they marketed that type of material, which comes very close in my mind of standing up in a crowded theater and hollering fire.

They have so inflamed elements of the American public that there has been irreversible damage done to the trust that the public has had in the past -- and should have now -- in the integrity and professionalism of law enforcement. I am referring to actions like Timothy McVeigh took on the second anniversary of the bombing of, I mean the fiery conclusion of Waco when he bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City. That was before "The Rules of Engagement" came out, but it is still based on the same type of response to inaccuracies.

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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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