ATF chief says cult raid might have had flaws

April 03, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The head of the federal agency that conducted a raid on a cult near Waco, Texas, on Feb. 28 yesterday revised his earlier descriptions of the operation in which four agents were killed and conceded it might have been flawed.

"We probably will find things we did right and things we did wrong and we will respond accordingly," Stephen E. Higgins, the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, told a Senate subcommittee.

Until that testimony, Mr. Higgins had repeatedly and categorically said in interviews that there were no problems in the way the agency conducted the raid on the Branch Davidian cult and that it failed only after the cult "ambushed" the agents.

In addition, he had repeatedly denied that supervisors of the operation knew they had lost the critical element of surprise, but went ahead anyway.

"I've looked at it and rethought it," Mr. Higgins said in a recent television interview. "There was no problem with the plan."

But after a string of news accounts quoting agents who described the February operation -- the bloodiest in the agency's history -- as seriously flawed, hedged his views.

All bureau agents have already been threatened by the Washington office with the possibility of being punished for speaking publicly about the raid in which four agents were killed and 16 wounded.

As late as Monday he said it was not true that agents made their assault even after supervisors knew they had lost the element of surprise.

Yesterday he said that the issue was "an open question" under review.

Mr. Higgins, who spoke at a Senate hearing intended to review the agency's budget, said the 34-day standoff with cult members has cost the government millions of dollars and that the agency would be forced to trim operations if it was not reimbursed.

Asked about accounts that Davidians knew there were federal agents among them before the raid, Mr. Higgins responded, "I can't say to my knowledge it's not true." He had previously said that the undercover agents had not been discovered.

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