A top-to-bottom bungle

Sandy Grady

April 22, 1993|By Sandy Grady

SOMEBODY at the top screwed up.

Twice.

That's the only common-sense impression of the Waco, Texas, double disaster.

I doubt if months of hearings by Washington politicians will dent that conclusion: The Waco tragedy was a top-to-bottom bungle.

In the end, David Koresh, rock 'n' rolling, psychopathic phoney Jesus, outsmarted a U.S. Government army of hostage experts, psychiatrists and FBI agents.

The Waco Wacko got what he craved -- Apocalypse Now.

The first, reckless frontal assault Feb. 28, doomed by slipshod intelligence and a tipped-off raid, killed four government commandoes. For Koresh, a bonanza -- worldwide celebrity.

In the next 51 days, while it blared taped music and spotlights at the compound, the FBI had plenty of time to study Koresh's personality.

Mass suicide, they decided, wasn't the Wacko's style.

Wrong again.

Worse, government besiegers were getting itchy to end this charade.

Their final, miscalculated raid by tanks ramming the compound with tear gas ended with at least 86 cultists, including 17 children, burning to death. The flaming climax perfectly fitted Koresh's kooky biblical prophecies.

Watching those boiling orange flames, thinking of children in the inferno, brought back lines from Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness": "The horror! The horror!"

No doubt who won the macabre standoff:

David Koresh, predatory, freaked-out, Bible-thumping oddball, outwitted the FBI to die triumphantly in a fiery Armageddon. Li'l David, flaming out on live, global TV!

Who goofed? Nobody's excused from the double bungle, from ATF agents who botched Raid One to the entire government team that lacked the sense to outwait Koresh. Don't skip Bill Clinton.

"Well, OK," Mr. Clinton signed off on the raid. True, a president can't plot details of an FBI operation 1,200 miles away. But Mr. Clinton's quote, "I told the attorney general to do what was right," had the weaseling sound of a president easing away from political disaster.

Shucks, even Wilson Goode had been more forthright. But the Philly mayor, whose aerial cops bombed a MOVE cult house in 1985, only burned 11 people and half a neighborhood.

Time out to praise Attorney General Janet Reno.

She made what in retrospect was a terrible decision on Waco. But in her bruising news conference (and later on CBS, PBS, CNN and ABC), Ms. Reno gave the most candid, standup performance you'll witness from a Washington bureaucrat under heat.

"The buck stops here," Ms. Reno said without a quiver. "I don't do spin stuff. It was my responsibility."

Despite Ms. Reno's insistence that the FBI had a carefully plotted, restrained plan, you come back to the fiery deaths: Somebody bungled, big time.

* No matter how often they deny it, you have to suspect the FBI rushed the Waco compound because it got impatient.

All its negotiating ploys and shrink tricks had failed. Koresh would lie. Or ramble in biblical fantasies. A week ago chief agent Bob Ricks decided, "We had to up the ante."

Why? Sure, the siege was expensive, galling, exasperating. Why not pull back the perimeter, outlast Koresh if it took a year?

Reno offered the most specious alibi: The FBI hostage team suffered fatigue, had no backup, and training a new team was too slow.

Come on, what's the price tag on 86 lives, many of them innocent dupes and kids?

* It's incredible that government siege experts foolishly decided Koresh in a showdown wouldn't kill himself and his disciples.

"No one anticipated him taking his own life and other lives,'" confessed FBI director William Sessions on CNN. "We'd been assured by psychiatrists, psycho-linguists and Koresh's attorney he didn't intend suicide." Ricks was more astonished: "We asked him (Koresh) four times, and he promised he wouldn't commit suicide."

Great. The guy preaches he's a Texas messiah with the Secret of the Seven Seals, and the FBI accepts his vows as rational.

* Despite 51 days of planning, the FBI had no thought of Koresh going down in flames. They watched in amazed helplessness as the compound and people burned to a crisp.

"I can't tell you the shock and horror we felt when we saw flames coming out," said Agent Ricks.

Using firefighting helicopters or armored fire trucks is arguable hindsight. But no doubt Koresh's self-immolation outwitted FBI experts.

It's ironic that a U.S. government with whizbang missiles and armed might to defeat Iraq didn't have technology and brains to outsmart one suicidal kook.

"To Koresh it was all a game," said Mr. Ricks.

The deadly score: Koresh 90, FBI 0.

Sandy Grady writes for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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