WACO, Texas - Top FBI officials were surprised to see converted tanks plowing deep into the Branch Davidians' complex on the last day of the government's siege in 1993, according to testimony Thursday in federal court in Waco.
Deputy Assistant FBI Director Danny Coulson was watching a television monitor at agency headquarters in Washington as tanks pumped tear gas into the complex. Sitting beside him was his immediate subordinate, Michael Kahoe. When one of the tanks rammed into the front of the complex, Kahoe said, "Holy (expletive)!"
Coulson replied, "I hope that's a bad camera angle."
Lawyers representing the Davidians in their wrongful death case against the government used the testimony to bolster their contention that on-scene FBI commanders went beyond the eviction plan that had been approved by Attorney General Janet Reno. That plan allowed for the destruction of the complex after the tanks had gassed the Branch Davidians over a two-day period.
On April 19, 1993, the tanks began plowing into the front and rear of the complex about five hours after the gassing began. As the tanks began ramming the complex, the gymnasium roof collapsed, a fire broke out and about 80 members of the sect died.
The alleged departure from the plan is one of four claims that U.S. District Judge William Smith Jr. and a six-member jury are considering. The others involve whether FBI actions contributed to the start of the fire, whether a firefighting plan existed and whether federal agents used excessive force in their initial raid on the complex.
Coulson's statements that included Kahoe's reaction were part of four videotaped depositions by now-retired FBI officials that occupied most of the third day of the trial. The other depositions were from former FBI Director William Sessions, Deputy Director Floyd Clarke and Assistant Director Larry Potts.
Although the officials agreed that the Reno-approved plan put off destruction of the complex for 48 hours, they also circled the wagons around the two FBI commanders who were on the scene at Waco. The officials would not concede that the tanks' maneuvers were designed to destroy the building. They said the tanks were penetrating the building to get tear gas deeper into the structure where the Davidians were hiding and that the destruction of the building was a by-product of those maneuvers. They also said the on-scene commanders had discretion in carrying out the plan.
Coulson said he was surprised when the tank almost disappeared into the complex because he was afraid it would be trapped. Mike Caddell, the Branch Davidians' lead attorney, asked Coulson if what the tank did was part of Reno's plan.
"I don't recall that the plan contemplated this activity," Coulson said.
Caddell: "You would agree with the characterization of these activities as being a deviation from the plan, correct?"
Coulson: "You could use the term 'deviation.' You could use the term 'inconsistent' with what I understood the plan to be."
Later, an FBI agent testified that he did not launch any fire-causing military-type tear gas rounds into the sect's complex before it burned to the ground.
Joseph Servel Jr., a member of the FBI's hostage rescue team, said he was in a converted tank that was shooting tear gas into the complex in an attempt to force the Davidians out. He said the rounds fired from his tank were nonpyrotechnic.
"Did you put any military gas rounds into the compound?" asked James Touhey, a Justice Department lawyer.
"No," Servel replied. "I'm positive we didn't. I handed Tommy every round that he shot." Servel was referring to Tom Rowan, another agent in the converted tank who was firing tear gas into the complex using an M-79 grenade launcher.
One theory of the plaintiffs' claim is that the tear gas rounds could have started a fire. Although Reno had prohibited the use of military-style pyrotechnic rounds, it has been disclosed that the FBI fired two such rounds early on the day of the tear gas attack. Those rounds were fired at an underground bunker, several hours before the fire began.
A civil trial is under way to determine the government's culpability for the Waco massacre in 1993. At least, that's how the media are portraying this wrongful death lawsuit against the government brought by survivors of the Branch Davidians who died in the 1993 raid on the Waco compound. But we don't need a trial to establish the government's culpability. It has already been established through the investigations conducted following the event.
In seeking to escape liability, the government will no doubt try to portray the incident and the resulting 80 deaths as entirely the fault of cult leader David Koresh. And without question Koresh is partly to blame. But a significant degree of fault also lies with the government, which could have averted this tragedy and spared the lives of these mostly innocent people, including 19 children. Even a jury verdict in favor of the government will not alter that fact.
The Clinton administration has employed the same public relations strategy with Waco as it has with other instances involving its malfeasance. It has sought to deflect criticism of its own conduct by demonizing its accusers. Law professor Jonathan Turley -- absolutely my favorite liberal on the planet -- puts the lie to this Clinton propaganda effort. "Waco horrified a great number of people in the mainstream. The Justice Department, however, tends to portray the Waco incident as largely a concern for fringe and extremist groups."
There have been some seemingly outrageous claims regarding the Waco incident. But the problem is that with this administration you just never know, because deceit is the tap root of so many of its activities.
One glaring example is that Janet Reno defiantly denied for six years that the FBI used incendiary devices at the siege. Only Waco wackos would conjure up such a fanciful idea. Right? Wrong. Last year Reno was humiliated with belated FBI admissions that it had in fact used pyrotechnic containers during the siege. So what else did it lie about? As it turns out, plenty.
Within the remaining space I just want to relate a few of the 1996 findings of two congressional subcommittees investigating the affair. These were not the rantings of paramilitary groups, but the conclusions of congressional committees after conducting 10 days of hearings, entertaining more than 100 witnesses and reviewing thousands of documents.
Concerning the initial raid (Feb. 28, 1993):
* While the ATF had probable cause to obtain the arrest and search warrants, the affidavit filed in support of the warrants contained numerous false statements.
* Koresh could have been arrested outside the compound (he often went jogging off premises); but
* The ATF was predisposed to a military-style raid as much as two months before its undercover operations began.
* The ATF knew that Koresh had been tipped off about the initial raid and that he was likely to resist forcefully, but it deliberately proceeded with the raid anyway, instead of delaying it in accordance with its policy.
* ATF raid commanders lied about the fact that they knew before the raid that Koresh had been tipped off and would likely be lying in wait for them.
The subcommittees also concluded that:
* Instead of cooperating with the committees, the administration engaged in damage control from the beginning. The president himself characterized the hearings as an attack on law enforcement.
* The ATF's investigation of the Branch Davidians was grossly incompetent.
* Despite all of these findings and many more, the Justice and Treasury departments issued detailed written reports exonerating all department officials.
Whom should we believe? The Clinton administration or the congressional subcommittees?
The subcommittees did not present a one-sided picture. In fact, they concluded that "the ultimate responsibility for the deaths of the Davidians and law enforcement agents lies with Koresh." But they also said that the ATF's reckless decision to proceed with the raid "more than any other factor, led to the deaths of the four ATF agents killed on February 28." And they found that "although physical and sexual abuse of children occurred, the final assault (on April 19) put the children at the greatest risk."
That's the understatement of the last century. A government does not protect children by engaging in activities that ultimately lead to their deaths. We can figure that much out ourselves, no matter what the jury determines.
WACO FBI commanders went beyond a Washington-approved plan for tear-gassing the Branch Davidian compound when they ordered tanks to drive deep into the building on April 19, 1993, at Mount Carmel, a former senior FBI official testified Thursday.
"I don't recall that the plan contemplated this activity," former FBI deputy assistant director Danny O. Coulson testified when shown photographs of damage wreaked by FBI tanks. "You could use the term deviation. You could use the term inconsistent with what I understood the plan to be."
But other FBI officials insisted in video depositions played for jurors Thursday that FBI commanders in Waco had broad authority in their execution of the Waco tear-gas assault.
The testimony was presented only after a protracted legal skirmish in which U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith initially told lawyers that he wasn't going to allow any evidence about how the FBI drafted its gassing plan and finally excluded early proposals to begin dismantling the building within an hour to force sect members out.
The judge stopped the hearing and went back to his chambers. He was pursued by attorneys on both sides, who emerged to tell colleagues that the judge had recessed the court proceeding to prepare an order dismissing the entire demolition issue but was persuaded by plaintiffs' arguments that the jury should be allowed to hear it.
The lawsuit charges that the FBI's two commanders in Waco violated the gas plan approved by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno when they decided to order tanks to begin tearing down the rear area of the compound on April 19. The operation plan called for gassing the building for at least 48 hours before starting demolition.
A fire erupted within an hour after an FBI tank began smashing into the compound's rear gymnasium. More than 80 Davidians died in the blaze.
Government lawyers have said that the fires were deliberately set by sect members and the FBI's actions played no role in the tragedy. They also have argued that the commanders' decisions, even if negligent, are protected by broad federal laws shielding federal employees and agencies from private challenge in lawsuits.
They plan to present testimony in which Ms. Reno said the Waco commanders acted properly. Both now-retired agents in charge of the FBI's Waco operation, former Hostage Rescue Team leader Richard Rogers and former San Antonio FBI chief Jeffrey Jamar, are expected to be called to testify early next week by lawyers for the sect.
After emerging from the judge's chambers, Mr. Caddell spent much of the morning showing jurors three early drafts of the FBI's gas plan. In those documents, bureau officials proposed issuing a surrender ultimatum when they began injecting tear gas and then sending tanks to begin demolishing the building if all Davidians did not give up within an hour.
But the final plan presented to and ultimately approved by Ms. Reno repeatedly mandated gassing for 48 hours before using a specially outfitted tank to rip down the outer walls of the building.
Despite the removal of that provision from the final plan, Mr. Rogers later told interviewers that it was always contemplated as part of the FBI's Waco operation.
"We asked him why on April 19 the holes were opened up in the compound," interviewers preparing the 1993 Justice Review of FBI actions in Waco wrote in September 1993. "He said this was something they had intended to do all along."
In the segment of testimony presented from Mr. Coulson's deposition, the former official recounted watching the Waco gas operation at FBI headquarters with another senior official. When a tank smashed deep into the front side of the building, he said, his stunned colleague blurted, "Holy [expletive]!"
"I said 'I hope that's a bad camera angle,'" he recalled responding. "My first reaction was that the tank could be disabled and trapped inside the building, and I was surprised to see it exit."
In another deposition excerpt, former assistant FBI director Larry Potts was shown a memo prepared with the initials of Mr. Jamar and Mr. Rogers after the incident in which they described some of their agents being assigned to begin "systematic demolition" of the gymnasium.
"I believe that an intentional dismantling of the building at that stage would've required an exigent circumstance [or emergency]," Mr. Potts said, adding that he never heard of Mr. Jamar or Mr. Rogers seeking permission to take such action. Asked if he were aware of any emergency on April 19 that would've required early demolition, he said, "I'm not aware of any."
But government lawyers responded with deposition testimony in which former FBI deputy director Floyd Clark said that the agent in charge in Waco, Mr. Jamar, "had a tremendous amount of autonomy and authority. Asked if Mr. Jamar should have told Washington before sending tanks into the building, Mr. Clark said he would have expected such notification. "But would it require it? No. I don't think it would."
The lone witness to testify Thursday, an FBI agent who fired tear gas rounds into the back of the compound on April 19, sparred repeatedly with Mr. Caddell over whether the actions of FBI tanks in the rear of the compound amounted to demolishing or even dismantling the sect's building.
"I would characterize it as inserting gas. ...We called it penetrating," said the agent, FBI hostage rescue team member Joseph Servel Jr.
Reminded that a 1993 report of his FBI interview after the siege indicated he had described what he saw as a dismantling operation, he said, "I could've used the word dismantle, the word penetrate. I could've said a lot of things."
Mr. Servel said that the other agents assigned with him in a Bradley fighting vehicle fired only nonburning "ferret" tear gas rounds into the building. He said his armored vehicle didn't even carry any pyrotechnic tear-gas rounds. Internal FBI documents and statements from other FBI agents indicate that the armored vehicles sent to the rear of the compound were outfitted with some of the pyrotechnic gas, which is capable of sparking fires and were expressly banned by Ms. Reno in the gas operation.
The Waco tragedy began drawing renewed scrutiny last fall after Mr. Coulson told The Dallas Morning News that some pyrotechnic gas rounds were used at Waco, and the FBI was subsequently forced to acknowledge that at least two of the devices were fired on April 19.
Mr. Servel acknowledged that the heavier pyrotechnic gas rounds could penetrate wood and other building materials better than the ferrets he fired on April 19. He acknowledged that his team had difficulty penetrating the compound's kitchen area with his non-burning ferret rounds because its windows were covered with plywood.
Plaintiffs' lawyers ended the day by airing part of an FBI briefing on April 7, 1993, given to FBI agents assigned to help carry out the final tear gas assault. In the video, the head of a bureau SWAT team told other agents that FBI leaders in Washington had decided against trying to use tanks to bash holes into the compound.
"It would be conceived by the Davidians, the people inside as an act of aggression, an attack ...and they will retaliate, so headquarters rejected that," the agent said in the briefing.
WACO FBI tactical commander Richard Rogers told investigators soon after the 1993 Branch Davidian siege that negotiators could have coaxed sect members from their barricaded compound if given enough time, according to documents obtained by The Dallas Morning News.
"I have never commented to any investigators concerning negotiations because I don't view it as having a lot to do with [the] outcome at Waco," Mr. Rogers, former head of the FBI's Hostage Rescue team, told Justice Department interviewers in a confidential September 1993 interview. "I think given enough time, any negotiator could get them out if [there was] no suicide, but what is enough time?"
Attorney General Janet Reno told the same investigators preparing the Justice Department's 1993 review of the Waco tragedy that senior FBI leaders told her to "butt out" after she agreed to let them tear-gas the compound.
The records of those interviews had never been made public, and Mr. Rogers' statement represents his first known acknowledgment that more Branch Davidians might have eventually been talked into surrendering.
Congressional investigators were only told early this year that the documents existed, despite exhaustive requests for internal government records from the 1993 tragedy. Government lawyers also did not disclose the records to attorneys for the Branch Davidians until this month less than two weeks before the start of the trial in their wrongful-death lawsuit against the federal government.
Their case, which completes its first week of testimony Friday, alleges that FBI negligence and violations of a Washington-approved tear-gas plan contributed to the start of a fire that consumed the compound April 19, 1993.
Mr. Rogers is expected to testify early next week, and both sides expect his testimony to be pivotal in the $675 million negligence lawsuit.
More than 80 Davidians died in the fire, which erupted six hours after the FBI began ramming the compound with tanks and spraying in tear gas. Government lawyers have maintained that the Davidians set the fire, and that FBI actions played no role in the outcome of the deadliest law enforcement incident in U.S. history.
Lawyers for the sect say they are particularly angry that they were not told that the detailed statements by Ms. Reno and Mr. Rogers existed before they questioned the two officials in separate March depositions. The lawyers noted that the documents came to them not only on the eve of trial but also more than three months after the court's deadline for producing documents in the case.
Records to be introduced
Michael Caddell, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, said he will introduce the records to jurors Friday. He said he believes that the account of Ms. Reno's 1993 interview statements will damage her recent deposition testimony, which he also plans to present Friday.
Ms. Reno said in her March 23 deposition that she believed Mr. Rogers and the FBI's Waco supervisors acted properly on April 19, 1993.
"The contents are amazing. ... There are direct contradictions to the FBI's version of events that they have been spouting for seven years," Mr. Caddell said. "These interviews were conducted in August and September of 1993 seven years ago. It's inexcusable that we didn't have them."
He added that the 1993 statements show that FBI leaders, not Ms. Reno, were making the key decisions on the final day of the siege. "Janet Reno has nothing to do with what actually happened on April 19," he said. "The truth is, she was out of the loop."
But lawyers for the government say they acted properly in turning over all relevant government documents to their opponents. They add that the government has made "a good faith effort" to produce all documents required by court discovery rules while struggling to keep track of the millions of government records relating to Waco as they prepared their defense.
"There wasn't any effort to hold those back," U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford said. He said the Justice Department did not obtain them until late February, after congressional investigators learned from Philadelphia lawyer Edward S. Dennis, who supervised the 1993 Justice Review, that he had some internal memos from his Waco inquiry in his private files. He added that Justice officials in Washington did not submit them to the Waco trial team until April 20, and the government's lawyers then had to review them before turning them over to lawyers for the sect.
Mr. Bradford added that he found little "significant" in them.
Reno not in picture
The documents included Ms. Reno's statement that the FBI had been fair and forthcoming in trying to persuade her to use tear gas in April 1993 but told her in plain terms that they would be in charge once she approved.
"They told me I should butt out after giving okay. Can't call back. Not law enforcement official. Not on scene," stated hand-written notes of her interview with FBI agents and lawyers asked by the Justice Department to oversee their 1993 Waco review.
"Didn't find FBI to be know it all, we know bests. Felt they kept an open mind," she later added. "[The] only thing was: [they said that] when we get in, we're in charge of tactics."
The attorney general also told investigators that she would not have approved the gas plan if she detected even a 40 percent chance that it might lead to Davidian suicides.
"If they had told me there was a very high 40% chance of mass suicide, [I] wouldn't have done it. If food supply would run out in three months or if we could cut off water, would wait. Went though [the] variables. Better to let him abuse children if there was high chance he'd take them all with him. I was told [the] outside limit was one year to wait them out."
But many of the FBI's top negotiators and behavioral experts had warned their superiors repeatedly that the Davidians might engage the FBI to force a mass "suicide by cop" if they kept ratcheting up pressure. They also complained that Mr. Rogers' aggressive tactics in Waco killed negotiations and kept many Davidians from leaving. The top negotiators also warned weeks before the gas assault that tear gas alone might lead to panic and violence in the compound and that moving tanks close to the building guaranteed it.
Opposition to tear gas
In his September 1993 interview, Mr. Rogers admitted that tactical actions during the 51-day siege drove Davidians closer to their leader, David Koresh, just as negotiators were trying to persuade them to break away and leave their compound.
But Mr. Rogers also said the FBI's negotiators "wanted to curry favor with these people" just as he and others in the FBI wanted to "up the ante.
""Being nice to him was playing right into his hands," Mr. Rogers said. "He was buying time, keeping his lifestyle [and the] media circus.
"When we started depriving them, [we were] really driving people closer to him because of their devotion to him. Deprivation was a lifestyle to them."
Another FBI record turned over to lawyers for the Davidians in mid-May shows that their most seasoned tactical expert was adamantly opposed to assaulting the compound with tear gas. The memo is undated and unsigned but bears the handwriting of former FBI deputy assistant director Danny O. Coulson, founder of the FBI's hostage rescue team. Mr. Coulson's Feb. 22 deposition testimony was played during Thursday's court proceedings.
His internal FBI memo, retained in bureau records after his 1997 retirement, was in response to a proposal from Waco to use tear gas, a request sent to FBI headquarters in late March.
'A quick fix'
Despite insistence from Mr. Rogers and overall FBI Waco commander Jeffrey Jamar that negotiations were futile, Mr. Coulson noted in his memo that negotiators believed the sect would "ultimately" come out.
The critique also contended that the plan proposed by Waco commanders gassing all of the compound simultaneously sounded too much like "a quick fix." The revised gas assault plan approved several weeks later by Ms. Reno called for a gradual insertion of gas, but FBI commanders immediately began gassing the entire building after sect members began firing on the first tank sent to spray it in.
The memo also ridiculed the Waco commanders' arguments that spraying gas would confuse Davidians and prompt women to rush out of the building with their children. Noting that the Waco FBI officials also predicted an immediate barrage of Davidian gunfire in response to any gas, Mr. Coulson added, "How would the others act to save their children if a massive gunfight began? Surely they would not go outside to save their children in the middle of a gunfight."
"I am pretty disappointed with this approach. Everything is moving toward a gas attack ... I have stated that I believe it is unwise. We have more to negotiate," Mr. Coulson wrote.
"I think that Waco should be told in no uncertain terms that we are here to negotiate, that we should defend our positions to the fullest if the subjects decide to come out and commit 'suicide by cop' ... and that we should explore other possibilities for a negotiated surrender. HRT [commander Richard Rogers] needs to be told that we are not going to assault that compound in any fashion, including gas. If he can't accommodate this objective, he should be brought back to D.C."
Mr. Coulson's warnings about the Davidians' reactions to gas and gunfire proved an accurate forecast of what ultimately happened April 19. After the tanks moved in, gunshots rang out from the compound. Only nine adults emerged from the building after it was engulfed in flames.
In her September 1993 interview, Ms. Reno recalled that the first reports of Davidian gunshots "reminded me I couldn't control the situation."
Asked if she had authority to stop the plan, notes from that interview indicated, Ms. Reno responded: "I think I could have stopped it at any point if there was danger."
She noted that she worried about high winds that day that seemed to be blowing gas out of the compound. She said she also told the FBI to send the Davidians a cellular phone when the FBI's tanks cut their phone line early in the gas assault. No phone was sent in.
WACO, Texas (AP) - Survivors and family members of Branch Davidians who died in the 1993 Waco siege say federal agents sparked a fire that destroyed the sect's compound after they fired tear gas inside.
But the government contends the fire that broke out at the end of the 51-day standoff was set by suicidal sect members.
The debate over who sparked the fire was expected to intensify at the $675 million wrongful death trial with planned testimony Friday from Tom Rowan, an FBI agent who helped launch tear gas canisters into the building.
FBI agents, including tank commander Joseph Servel, have said a fire erupted in the kitchen less than 30 seconds after they saw a tank insert tear gas into the room to force out the Branch Davidians.
``We saw smoke within seconds. We saw flames and then the smoke started getting really thick,'' Servel testified Thursday.
Under cross-examination by government attorneys, Servel said he also observed what appeared to be muzzle flashes from gunfire in several windows before the fire started.
Cult leader David Koresh and about 80 of his followers were killed when fire engulfed the rickety wooden building hours after the tear-gassing began.
Earlier Thursday, former FBI officials testified that the agents who tear gassed the complex strayed from the plan approved by Attorney General Janet Reno when they used tanks to smash gaping holes in the building.
Retired deputy assistant FBI director Danny Coulson said in videotaped testimony he was surprised when he saw a tank penetrating the cult's building on April 19, 1993, the final day of the siege.
``I don't recall that the plan contemplated this activity,'' Coulson said. ``It would appear to be inconsistent.''
Coulson said he watched the events unfold on a monitor in Washington, D.C., and remembered saying, ``I hope that's a bad camera angle.''
In a videotaped deposition, FBI Director William Sessions was asked by plaintiffs' lead attorney Michael Caddell if the destruction of a part of the building known as the gymnasium was approved.
``That was not the plan, the plan was for the insertion of the gas,'' Sessions said.
Reno's videotaped deposition on the tear-gassing plans was expected to be shown Friday.
Plaintiffs' attorneys have said the FBI's on-scene commanders ordered tanks to dismantle the complex less than five hours into the tear-gassing operation, even though the Reno-approved plan permitted systematic destruction only 48 hours after a determination that the tear-gassing plan had failed.
Waco, FBI and the Branch Davidians: Updates
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