"Military advisers gave officers equipment and expertise. But did they go too far?"
by William Freivogel and Terry Ganey ("The St. Louis Post-Dispatch", October 10, 1999)
Attorney General Janet Reno appointed former Sen. John C. Danforth to head an independent investigation of Waco that addresses four questions: 1 - Did government agents fire into the Branch Davidian compound? 2 - Did they start the fire that killed about 80 members of the sect? 3 - Were details of the incident covered up by the government? 4 - Was the military used illegally by the government during the siege?
The military was heavily involved in aiding government agents before and during the 51-day siege of the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, providing tanks, helicopters and advice from Special Forces units and the supersecret Delta Force. But all the evidence to date suggests that the military stayed within the bounds of the law.
That is the picture that emerges from interviews with FBI agents who were at the scene, court documents filed by lawyers for the Branch Davidians and government reports that detail the $1 million in military assistance at Waco.
Whether the military violated the federal law barring its active involvement in domestic policing is one of the four major questions under investigation by special counsel John C. Danforth's Waco inquiry.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' initial request for military help in its ill-fated raid on Feb. 28, 1993, was the largest law enforcement request for military assistance ever received by the U.S. military in its war against drugs. It also would probably have been illegal, requiring active military involvement.
The ATF's request went to Joint Task Force-Six, known as JTF-6, at Fort Bliss, Texas, the headquarters for the military's domestic anti-drug efforts. Initially, the ATF asked for specialized, time-consuming "close quarters" training, like that given to antiterrorist squads. It also asked for help planning for the raid -- a "review and scrub" in military parlance. And it wanted medical support at the scene and construction of a rehearsal site for ATF agents preparing for the raid.
The request was so broad that some Special Forces soldiers went outside their chain of command at JTF-6 to raise questions about the mission. They telephoned the Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., where the legal adviser, Lt. Col. Phillip Lindley, agreed with their concerns. Lindley concluded that Special Forces "assistance in actual planning and rehearsal of proposed 'takedown' could violate posse comitatus law" and expose the Special Forces to liability.
Lindley got a hostile response when he relayed his misgivings to the legal adviser at JTF-6. That adviser accused Lindley of trying to "undermine" and "undercut" the JTF-6's anti-drug mission. The dispute was bumped up to the office of the secretary of defense, after which the military help was scaled back to comply with the law. Eventually, a Special Forces Rapid Support Unit gave the ATF training from Feb. 25-27 at Fort Hood, Texas, on medical techniques for treating battlefield wounds and evacuating the wounded, according to a 1996 House report on the Waco siege.
Another questionable element of the ATF request for military assistance was its reliance on a stale and unproved drug allegation against David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians. When the ATF first requested military aid, its investigation focused on firearms, not drugs. That changed after the ATF learned that a drug connection would bring free assistance from the Texas National Guard and JTF-6.
The ATF then tried to flesh out an allegation about a methamphetamine lab at the compound. Mark Breault, a disaffected Branch Davidian, faxed the ATF a claim that Koresh had told him that a meth lab had existed at the compound in the late 1980s. The Feb. 2, 1993, ATF request for assistance stated that the purpose was to serve a search warrant "to a dangerous extremist organization believed to be producing methamphetamine."
The 1996 House report concluded that the ATF "misled" the Pentagon about the drug lab to manufacture the "drug nexus" required to obtain free military help. The House noted that Koresh had called the local sheriff months earlier to ask him to remove the lab and that Breault's fax had suggested that the lab was in a building that had burned down in 1990.
The Defense Department says it does not make an independent evaluation of the drug evidence when its assistance is requested. Some members of Congress think it should.
One other element of the military assistance to the ATF before the initial raid may have been technically illegal -- the involvement of an Alabama National Guard plane in taking aerial reconnaissance photographs of the compound on Jan. 14. The Alabama Guard performed the service under an agreement with the Texas Guard. But the 1996 House report concluded that agreement probably was not legal because Congress must approve any agreement between states and had not approved this one. Texas law also bars military operations in Texas by other states without the governor's permission.
The largest amount of direct military aid to government agents at Waco came from the Texas National Guard, which provided three helicopters and 10 counterdrug personnel for the Feb. 28 raid. The ATF informed the Texas Guard less than 24 hours before the raid of a last-minute change in plans that called for the Guard helicopters to be used as a diversion. In that role, the helicopters drew heavy fire as soon as the raid went sour.
The direct involvement of the Texas National Guard in the raid Feb. 28 did not violate the law because the guard was acting on behalf of the state, not the federal government -- a loophole that the House committees investigating Waco said should be plugged.
During the 51-day siege that followed the failed ATF raid, the Texas National Guard provided 10 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, which the FBI used to drive near the compound, and four Combat Engineering Vehicles, which were used on April 19 to inject tear gas into the compound. The Army also provided two M1A1
Abrams tanks, three UH-1 helicopters and three CH-47 helicopters. The military people at Waco -- 15 soldiers from the Army and 15 members of the Texas National Guard -- maintained the vehicles and trained the FBI agents who drove them. Mounted machine guns had been removed from the military vehicles.
Richard Schwein, one of the FBI commanders at Waco, stresses that the armored vehicles were vital to the FBI during the siege. "Without them we couldn't have moved because they (the Branch Davidians) were heavily armed and ready to shoot."
The Delta team
The most sensational allegation of military involvement is from Steven M. Barry, a Special Forces veteran. Barry filed a declaration in court stating that an unnamed acquaintance in the Army's elite Delta team had told him in 1993 that it had a "sizable" operation at Waco. In his experience, Barry said, a sizable group ranged from 10 to 20. Barry also said that another Delta officer told him that the force had been ordered to "take down" the Branch Davidians, a term he took to mean "kill." He also said he had heard that Delta team members had slipped into the gymnasium of the compound to place listening devices and had been in a position to capture Koresh but had been told not to because something else was planned. Barry refused to name the officers he says he talked to because he promised them confidentiality. Nor does he say whether his sources were themselves involved.
U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr., who presides over the Waco case, called the allegation about passing up a chance to arrest Koresh "outrageous."
Schwein, the former FBI agent, says: "This Delta Force thing is a myth that is being propagated. They were there as observers, but that's it."
Two or three Delta team commandos, who were not dressed out, were at the scene, as were antiterrorist officers from other countries, according to FBI commanders. Although it is not well-known, several Delta commandos are present at all major national events that could attract terrorists -- national political conventions and inaugurations, for example. So it is not surprising they were at Waco.
The most active that the Delta team got, according to the FBI commanders at the scene, was on April 14, when top officers were called to Washington to advise Attorney General Janet Reno on the FBI's plan to move in. The House report says that one Delta team officer told Reno that if the Delta team were trying to end a barricade situation in a foreign country, its focus would be "taking out" the leader.
FBI officials familiar with the meeting say that the Delta officer was instrumental in convincing Reno of the FBI view that a massive dose of tear gas should be administered if the Branch Davidians began to fire on the troops when the first gas was introduced.
When the raid was carried out on April 19, the Branch Davidians immediately began to fire, so the plan favored by the Delta officer and the FBI was put into effect. As Reno later testified, "in effect, Delta Force's recommendation was carried out."
Waco, FBI and the Branch Davidians: Updates
CESNUR reproduces or quotes documents from the media and different sources on a number of religious issues. Unless otherwise indicated, the opinions expressed are those of the document's author(s), not of CESNUR or its directors.
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