Assault on Texas cult ill-planned, agents say Surprise was lost, but raid went on

March 28, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Several federal agents involved in the violent raid on a heavily armed cult in Texas dispute official descriptions of the operation as well-planned, likening it instead to the Charge of the Light Brigade, laden with missteps, miscalculations and unheeded warnings that could have averted bloodshed.

Contradicting the official version of events, four of the agents involved in the raid and in a review of its aftermath said that supervisors had realized even before they began their assault that they had lost any element of surprise but went ahead anyway.

As the costliest and deadliest operation in the history of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms enters its second month, the agency leaders who planned it insist they did nothing wrong. But the agency has provided only sketchy details of the operation.

The warrants that were the basis for the raid remain sealed. No criminal charges have been filed. And the government has never clearly articulated what laws members of the Branch Davidians sect were suspected of having broken before the raid, although some officials have said they believe its leader, David Koresh, violated federal firearms and explosives laws.

The official explanation for the shootout is that the operation was compromised at the last minute by an alleged telephone tip, resulting in an ambush.

But agents involved in the raid and its aftermath, agents from the FBI and soldiers skilled in raids all depict the assault as flawed from top to bottom.

They cite these problems:

* ATF supervisors knew they had lost the element of surprise even before the agents tried to surround the compound but ordered agents to move in anyway.

* Helicopters carrying ATF agents came under fire over the compound before the assault began, yet the bureau pushed ahead with the mission, which relied on an element of surprise.

* The operation was plagued by a badly designed communications strategy that made it impossible for different squads surrounding the compound to talk to each other after their squad leaders had been wounded.

* Some agents had not been supplied with contingency plans for encountering heavy gunfire, even though supervisors knew the cult had been stockpiling weapons for years and suspected they had been converting semi-automatic weapons into automatic weapons to make them more deadly.

* Some agents' requests to take more powerful weapons were denied, and many were supplied only with handguns to face the cult's arsenal.

* Some agents had not been briefed about the operation until a day earlier and had never been told of the cache of assault-style weapons they would be facing.

* The ATF did not bring a doctor or set up a dispensary to treat wounded agents, a practice of the FBI.

Wounded ATF agents ended up being carried, some by other agents, others on the hoods of trucks and cars, hundreds of yards down a muddy road to await medical assistance.

As more details have emerged, the Clinton administration's support for the ATF and Stephen E. Higgins, the director who approved the operation, has begun to erode.

Mr. Higgins, who has been with the agency for 31 years and its director since 1983, declined requests last week to discuss the raid, which he approved.

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