"Davidians Offer Theories on Fire - Full Coverag Waco Investigation"
by Michelle Mittelstadt ("Associated Press", September 29, 1999)
WASHINGTON (AP) - The chief lawyer for Branch Davidian survivors and family members who are suing the government says he is wary of blaming the fiery end of the 1993 Waco siege on the military tear gas that the FBI belatedly admitted using.
Attorney Michael Caddell calls the potentially incendiary canisters a possible ``red herring'' and is examining other ways federal agents could have triggered the inferno in which Davidian leader David Koresh and some 80 followers died.
The alternate theories include that the fire started from contact between the compound's wooden walls and extremely hot exhaust - perhaps 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit - from military tanks used by the FBI in the final assault on April 19, 1993, Caddell said.
A former government arson expert hired by the plaintiffs concluded that the fire started in one location, likely where a tank rammed the building.
``There are a number of possible explanations and I don't want to get sucked in too much into the whole pyrotechnic issue,'' said Caddell, lead counsel in the wrongful-death lawsuit. ``It may turn out to be a red herring.''
Federal officials have always maintained that the fire was set by Davidians, not agents.
And even after the FBI's embarrassing acknowledgment this summer that its agents fired a few military gas projectiles on the siege's final day, officials say there's no evidence those canisters started the fire.
An arson expert who was part of the team investigating the tragedy for the Justice Department's 1993 Waco probe agrees.
``I still say what we came to the conclusion on at the end of our investigation down there still holds today, regardless of what they are saying about these pyrotechnic devices,'' said Thomas Hitchings, chief deputy fire marshal in Alleghany County, Pa.
Caddell and others who accuse the government of a cover-up are examining theories that:
-Military tanks that punched holes into the building to insert non-burning tear gas knocked over the lanterns that the Davidians relied on after the FBI cut off electricity.
-Flash-bang devices used by federal agents ignited the building. Filmmaker Michael McNulty, who has espoused that theory, claims the devices were found near the fire's origins. The government disputes his assertions.
-Heat from the tanks' exhaust could have ignited the dwelling's wooden walls, which were reinforced with makeshift barricades of hay bales.
Caddell said a special forces operative told him of once trying to warm his gloved hands beneath such tanks' exhaust only to see his leather gloves ignite.
But a spokesman for General Dynamics Land Division, which manufactured the M728 Combat Engineer Vehicles used at Waco, said the tanks' diesel engines produce heat that ``does not get hot enough to start a fire.''
Attorney General Janet Reno and the FBI insist the blaze was set by the Davidians. But stung by the military tear gas disclosure, she named former Republican Sen. John Danforth to investigate whether there was a cover-up or other wrongdoing.
FBI officials decline to address the scenarios suggested by Caddell and other skeptics, saying the fire's genesis has been extensively reviewed.
``Former Senator Danforth is undertaking a review of this matter as well, which would preclude us from making any comment,'' FBI spokesman Bill Carter said.
The independent arson investigators who combed the Waco ruins concluded the fire resulted from ``an intentional act'' by people inside the compound and that accelerants were used to speed the flames.
Fires were set in three locations, the team concluded. The fire began on the second floor's southeast corner, just moments after a tank disengaged from that section's ground floor. Flames then were detected on the first floor's midsection and east side.
The fires' near-simultaneous start ``precludes any assumption of a single ignition source or accidental cause,'' the investigators wrote.
But former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms arson investigator Richard L. Sherrow, hired by the plaintiffs, has concluded the fire started in only one location, most likely when the tank rammed the building's southeast corner.
David Thibodeau, one of nine Davidians who survived the assault that ended the 51-day standoff, said he does not believe agents intentionally set the fire. But he blames the government for the conditions leading up to the tragedy.
``Although neither we nor the feds deliberately set Mount Carmel ablaze, the FBI must have been aware that the toxic brew they injected into our building in such enormous quantities would create a highly flammable condition that windy day,'' he writes in his new book.
For Caddell, the debate over who triggered the inferno ultimately may prove academic in a lawsuit that accuses the government of using excessive force throughout the operation.
``We do not have to prove how the fire started to win our lawsuit,'' he said.
``But I think we will prove that the government's actions on April 19 contributed to the spread of the fire ... and the deaths of Davidians as a result of the fire.''
"Danforth needs to expose the military's role"
by Peter Donhowe ("St. Louis Post-Dispatch", September 29, 1999)
When John C. Danforth undertakes his probe of the 1993 events in Waco, he will be obliged to look into the role the military played there.
While he has pledged to look into whether there were "dark acts" -- government agents who deliberately took part in killing American citizens -- he will have to look into and shed light on the shadowy role played by the military at Waco.
The immediate reason for the Danforth probe is that the FBI admitted using pyrotechnic military-type tear gas at Waco -- an action it had forcefully denied for years.
Though the focus is now on FBI behavior and a possible coverup, the military was involved even before the ill-fated Waco raid by Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents Feb. 28, 1993. Indeed, it trained ATF agents and provided military equipment, such as helicopters at Pentagon expense.
As came out in the 1995 congressional hearing, the Pentagon bore the expense for the Treasury Department, which oversees the ATF, because of the alleged presence of a drug lab at the Branch Davidian compound. This allegation provided an exception to the law banning military aid to law-enforcement agencies.
But so anxious were Republicans to use the 1995 Waco hearings to discredit President Bill Clinton and so anxious were Democrats to defend their president, that the inquiry pretty much down-played or ignored the drug connection, though it did cast doubt on the drug lab claim. Rightly so.
No evidence of a lab was ever found in the ashes after the dramatic fire April 19, 1993.
Indeed, when such a lab did exist in the compound -- well before the ATF raid -- the religious group's leader threw its two operators out of the compound and called local authorities to haul the lab away.
So from the beginning, the military's presence at Waco was specious.
Now there are allegations that military participants were involved in the fateful April tear gas attack to end the 51-day standoff.
At first, the Pentagon asserted there were only three Delta Force "observers" at Waco. Then it said two were technical advisers, one an observer.
According to a 1995 press account, the FBI also invited British military observers to Waco, a curious invitation for a civilian law enforcement agency.
But did the military do more than observe? It did. A few days before the tear gas assault and tank penetration of a wooden building, the leader of the Army's Delta Force and its former head flew to Washington to meet with Attorney General Janet Reno.
The significance of that meeting has been downplayed by the military. However, Reno testified, "Their comments were instructive . . . one suggestion was that rather than an incremental approach . . . proposed by the FBI, gas should be inserted into all portions of the compound simultaneously."
Whether the Army was only an observer and adviser to the FBI in Waco and Washington -- or something more -- Danforth will have to sort out. And it won't be easy.
Although a Texas law enforcement agency is withholding a document because it contains military secrets, Danforth said on CNN, "I believe that we can get into all of the facts." Military secrecy, however, can be a hard veil to pierce.
Certainly the Danforth inquiry will have to go beyond the kid-glove treatment given the military by the 1995 congressional Waco probe. There, two military representatives appeared at a secret session, their names were never revealed and they were never placed under oath.
Speaking obliquely about Waco at a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., mused about the wisdom of his support for the drug exception to the Posse Comitatus law, which prohibits using the military against citizens.
But his witness, Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Henry Shelton, failed to rise to the bait and spoke only about the other exception -- terrorism -- and ignored the drug exception, as if it were a secret.
Officially, Danforth's charge is to look into "whether there was any illegal use of U.S. military forces" at Waco.
A bland assertion that the military's involvement at Waco was "legal" will hardly restore the public confidence in government -- which is also a Danforth goal -- especially when the public suspects that Washington's scandal is not what is illegal but what is legal.
Peter Donhowe, Champaign, Ill., is editor of TV and Politics WATCH, a monthly newsletter.
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.
[Home Page] [Cos'è il CESNUR] [Biblioteca del CESNUR] [Testi e documenti] [Libri] [Convegni]
[Home Page] [About CESNUR] [CESNUR Library] [Texts & Documents] [Book Reviews] [Conferences]