Multiple Fiascoes in Waco

October 01, 1993

The investigation of the botched raid on the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, has produced a damning indictment of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Incompetence is bad enough; lying by ATF leaders is far worse. The independent review of the fiery fiasco last spring concludes that the raid was badly planned and executed by the ATF and that senior officials lied and fabricated documents in a futile attempt to conceal their failures. Some top officials have announced their retirements, and others have been suspended pending further disciplinary action.

Severe action is called for. Nothing undermines the credibility of a law enforcement officer or agency more than falsifying evidence. The investigation concluded that ranking ATF officials in Waco lied when they denied -- after the initial assault in which four agents were killed and 15 wounded -- they were aware the cultists had advance word of the raid. They also revised the written plan for the operation after the raid in an attempt to conceal the fact it was seriously inadequate. Permitting public servants guilty of this kind of deceit simply to retire is not punishment enough.

The Waco fiasco is a factor in the apparent readiness of the Treasury Department to see its ATF merged into the FBI as part of Vice President Al Gore's reorganization of the federal bureaucracy. As with the similar proposed fate for the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Gore team has not yet made a clear public case for it. Waco points out some serious problems with ATF, however.

One is the readiness of senior officials to lie. Was this due to individual character defects or a reflection of the environment within the agency? That question is not answered, and Treasury officials have an obligation to do so publicly. The other is an examination of the agency's role. Does the fact the cultists had a large cache of illegal weapons justify the sort of major raid ATF launched? It seems clear that mounting this large-scale raid was well beyond ATF's ability. Even if a raid or similar attempt in strength to confiscate the arms was necessary -- and it may not have been -- plainly it should have been carried out with the aid of those with more expertise at that sort of operation.

The decision to go it alone is a prime example of the kind of inter-agency competition and turf-protection that diminishes the effectiveness of federal law enforcement. All of the federal agencies, including the FBI, are guilty of it. There are good arguments that some law enforcement responsibilities call for specialized techniques that might get submerged in a massive agency. But the top officials of the Treasury and Justice departments need to demonstrate that they are capable of supervising the investigators who work for them. If they can't impose policy direction on these agencies separately, it is hard to see how they will be able to control a conglomerate federal police force.

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