Racist, sexist bumblers at ATF botched Waco cult raid, agents charge

May 07, 1993|By Cox News Service

WACO, Texas -- Federal agents who say they've battled years of sexual and racial discrimination within the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms blame sloppy leadership and John Wayne mentalities for the botched raid on the Branch Davidian cult compound.

They say the same ATF leaders who have ignored their complaints authorized the ill-fated raid. Four agents died in the raid, and several were wounded.

"It's kind of like a John Wayne mentality," says Sandra Hernandez, a Baltimore agent who has filed a sexual harassment complaint. She did not participate in the raid. Agents involved in the raid refused to discuss it because of continuing investigations.

"They're cowboys," Ms. Hernandez says. "It's like, 'Boom, boom, we go in and get the job done.' "

That mentality can be traced to the agency's moonshine days, when much of its work involved raiding illegal liquor stills in the Deep South, say Ms. Hernandez and others.

They say that era left behind a good ol' boy network to fill the agency's top ranks with woefully unqualified leaders.

"If you've got bad managers . . . not only are you going to have personnel problems, but there is a potential to botch every single incident that requires skill, ability and knowledge. You could fit 100 Wacos into that," says Larry Stewart, supervisor of the ATF Atlanta arson and bombing investigation squad.

Mr. Stewart is the lead plaintiff in a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by 15 black agents. Despite his doctoral degree and at least 20 years in law enforcement, the agency has judged him unsuitable for more than 100 senior management positions, he says.

Meanwhile, Dan Hartnett, a high school dropout who earned his general equivalency diploma in the Army, is the No. 2 man in the agency and its top law enforcement official. He has served in numerous supervisory positions in the agency since entering the ATF in 1969.

ATF officials did not respond to requests for an interview with Mr. Hartnett.

"His job is to oversee law enforcement," says ATF spokesman Tom Hill. "All major operations that warrant headquarters' attention are brought to his attention."

Mr. Hill declines to discuss racial and sexual discrimination allegations, citing pending litigation.

Since the cult standoff ended April 19, critics have directed their probing questions at ATF director Stephen Higgins, holding him responsible for the raid Feb. 28, the bloodiest day in the agency's history. Some have demanded he resign.

But several current and former agents say if Mr. Higgins goes, so should Mr. Hartnett. As head of law enforcement, he recommended to Mr. Higgins how to handle cult leader David Koresh, Mr. Hill says.

"He's the No. 1 man in law enforcement. I think it's a shame Higgins is testifying and we don't see much of Hartnett," says Michele Roberts, an agent since 1978 who has filed a sexual harassment complaint against the ATF.

Mr. Hartnett meets daily with six division heads to discuss cases, Mr. Hill says.

Mr. Hartnett was the senior law enforcement officer on the scene immediately after the raid. He was the man who, after one spokeswoman said agents were outgunned, issued a denial. He blamed the botched raid on a tip received by the cult.

Former ATF Detroit group supervisor Kay Kubicki says the fact that Mr. Hartnett and Mr. Higgins approved a raid of a compound full of children reflects the macho philosophy that drives the ATF.

But a former Treasury Department official defends Mr. Hartnett and says he is competent even though he lacks an advanced education.

"I remember when he got promoted, I thought it was a good move," says Robert E. Powis, former deputy assistant secretary for enforcement in the U.S. Treasury Department. In 1981, Mr. Powis was chairman of a steering committee studying the phase-out of the ATF. The phase-out was never approved.

"I'm very surprised to hear aspersions are being cast on Dan Hartnett," he adds.

Former agent Roy Hendrix echoes Mr. Higgins' testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, saying he doubts any ATF official -- including Mr. Hartnett -- would knowingly lead agents into an ambush.

But Mr. Hendrix, who made ATF history in 1986 by becoming the first black special-agent-in-charge of the Nashville office, agrees with the other agents that discrimination and a "good ol' boy" management exist in the agency.

"There never has been a black, Hispanic or woman in a policy making position in the bureau. We pointed that out to Mr. Higgins in 1983," he says.

Ten years later, a handful of minorities and few women hold high-level jobs, illustrating deeper problems within the agency and what might have gone wrong in the Waco raid.

Ms. Kubicki says the agency chastised her for writing three- to four-page raid plans before taking the group she supervised on a raid. She says she was ridiculed for demanding better equipment, such as a door ram. On her raids, she insisted agents know CPR and first aid for wounded agents.

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