Bashing buildings not in plan But FBI changed mind at scene

April 21, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Pounding holes in the Branch Davidian buildings was never part of the FBI's plan for ending the Waco standoff, but the strategy was altered at the scene and became "a lot scarier than intended," a Justice Department source said yesterday.

"Battering the building walls was not part of the plan," the source said. "The idea was to insert the tear gas through the windows of buildings at the west end of the compound. It was thought it would force some people to leave the compound and others to move eastward into more and more crowded and uncomfortable confinement."

But the FBI team at the compound apparently concluded that the original plan would not allow tear gas to be inserted deeply enough to be effective, especially in the high winds blowing in Waco on Monday.

As a result, the plan underwent "an operational change" because "they had to get in deeper," the Justice Department source said.

A modified M-60 tank bashed down walls and doors, while the FBI informed residents of the compound that "this is not an assault." A boom on the tank then sprayed tear gas through a nozzle by air pressure.

Hours later, a raging fire, apparently set by cult members, destroyed the compound and presumably killed more than 80 men, women and children.

The FBI plan to step up pressure on the cult by introducing tear gas was rejected more than three weeks ago by Attorney General Janet Reno, according to a well-placed source in the Treasury Department, which oversees the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Ms. Reno said then that she wanted to wait longer to see whether negotiations would prove fruitful or the cult's diminishing water supplies would run out.

A more complete plan, augmented by information obtained from 25 tiny listening devices planted inside the compound, was presented to Reno again April 12. The FBI learned from the bugs that Mr. Koresh was becoming increasingly violent, officials said.

But Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., chairman of the subcommittee overseeing the ATF, said the FBI told him that the bugging did not disclose any danger of a deliberately set fire.

Ms. Reno approved the FBI plan in the middle of last week, with bTC the understanding that the operation would take place Monday, April 19, or Tuesday, April 20, the Treasury source said.

Last Sunday, with President Clinton's approval, officials decided to proceed the following day, based on predictions of favorable weather and reports that federal agents were rested and prepared.

The reported readiness of the agents contradicts statements made by Ms. Reno and others that the FBI's hostage rescue team was suffering from fatigue.

President Clinton said yesterday that Ms. Reno told him "there was a limit to how long the federal authorities could maintain, with their limited resources, the quality and intensity of coverage by experts there."

But military counter-terrorist forces have been used in the past to augment the FBI hostage rescue team.

For example, the Army's Delta Force, the Navy's SEAL Team 6 and the FBI team collaborated to handle counter-terrorist roles in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

A cult member who recently left the compound told FBI agents that beatings of children inside the compound were continuing, Justice Department chief spokesman Carl Stern said. "There was a terrible concern about the children," he said.

Allegations of child abuse had surfaced earlier in the 51-day standoff. One cult member said early in March that Mr. Koresh had paddled his daughter because she didn't learn a Biblical verse quickly enough. But welfare workers who visited the compound earlier had been unable to confirm reports of child abuse.

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