Federal officials again endure a barrage of criticism

April 20, 1993|By Dallas Morning News

DALLAS -- From the start, the feds never had it their way.

When a small army of agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms assaulted the compound of apocalyptic religious leader David Koresh near Waco, they were routed. Four agents died and 16 more were wounded in a raid that went awry Feb. 28.

The Branch Davidians remained inside, reneging on promises to leave while defiantly flying their flags and cryptic banners during a 51-day standoff.

Yesterday, federal authorities tried to force them to surrender by smashing holes in the walls of their compound with armored vehicles and spewing tear gas inside. Once again, plans went awry, and the compound became a funeral pyre for at least 85 cult members -- including children.

And once again, federal officials endured a barrage of criticism for an operation that began and ended violently.

Attorney General Janet Reno yesterday defended the FBI for using "remarkable restraint and patience" after taking over operations.

"Obviously, if I thought the chances were great of a mass suicide, I would not have approved the plan," she said. "Everything that we were told, every indication -- reactions to the pressure up to that point -- was that that would not occur."

It may take months before exactly what happened yesterday is known. But renewed criticism was fast in coming as some lawmakers demanded answers.

State Rep. Betty Denton, D-Waco, called for an immediate congressional investigation.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks, D-Texas, said he wanted to know "whether steps could have been taken to minimize the loss of human lives."

Rep. Don Edwards, D-Calif., who chairs a subcommittee that oversees FBI operations, vowed to "find all about the decision-making issues."

At a briefing, FBI Agent Bob Ricks said the cultists started the fire and that the continued fortification of the compound justified the actions yesterday. The sight of the inferno, he said, was met with "shock and horror" among law officers

He blamed the cult leader.

"David Koresh, we believe, gave the order to commit suicide, and they all followed willingly his order," Mr. Ricks said.

After the abortive Feb. 28 raid, complaints had been limited to the ATF, which had sought to arrest Mr. Koresh on weapons charges.

From the first day, how the compound was approached has been debated.

Some law enforcement experts questioned why no attempt apparently was made to arrest Mr. Koresh away from the compound and most of his followers, why the compound was not under closer surveillance and why the ATF apparently had not sought to have his telephone line monitored.

At first, an ATF spokesman said they were outgunned. Then some agents said that Mr. Koresh seldom ventured from the compound and suggested that the raid failed because the Branch Davidians had advance warning.

Others point the finger elsewhere.

"The first second I saw the assault going off, I said this violates what your drill instructor tells you the first week in basic training," said Austin Bay, a military analyst and author. "They were moving too slowly. It almost looked like a camera shot for a war movie where they bunch up the squad so you can see everybody. If you do that in combat, you're a dead duck."

On several occasions, federal agents stated that they did not believe that those inside the compound might participate in a suicide pact rather than come out.

But many who have studied the Branch Davidians and their deadly encounter with federal law enforcement say they were not surprised at yesterday's outcome.

Ray Eve, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Arlington, said the sight of heavily armed federal agents approaching the compound may have only reinforced that vision for cult members. At the very least, he said, "external threat creates internal cohesion in any crowd."

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