"Waco's New Question: Who Knew? Two Days After Blaze, Information on Grenades Was Withheld or Overlooked"
by Richard Leiby ("Washington Post", September 3, 1999)
On April 19, 1993, before the embers of the Branch Davidian compound had cooled and many of the corpses could be recovered, FBI commanders delivered a version of the tragedy from which the nation's top law enforcement agencies would not waver for six years: The FBI never used devices that could have ignited the blaze.
"We did not introduce fire into this compound," Bob Ricks, the FBI's chief spokesman in Waco, Tex., told reporters. "It was not our intention that this compound be burned down."
In recent days, Ricks and other former and current FBI and Justice Department officials have said they were stunned to learn that the bureau fired a small number of potentially incendiary tear gas grenades at a storm shelter as tanks carried out a final assault early that morning, ending the siege after 51 days. Seventy-six people died inside the compound, a majority of them women and children.
Federal officials insist the tear gas rounds did not ignite the blaze, noting that the devices were fired hours before the conflagration started and that they were aimed at the nearby storm shelter, not the main building. Arson investigators concluded that flammable liquids had been poured around the inside of the compound.
But the disclosure has undermined the official narrative, prompting charges of a coverup and reopening inquiries inside the Justice Department and in Congress. Embarrassed officials have been forced to reexamine thousands of pages of congressional testimony, internal investigative reports, trial transcripts and legal pleadings--all because of one new fact.
Then on Wednesday, FBI officials produced video and audio tapes from that morning of the fire that they'd always said did not exist, even in court filings.
Now, investigators are asking two key questions: Who within the FBI knew pyrotechnic tear gas grenades were used on April 19? And why did they remain silent nine days later when Attorney General Janet Reno testified before the House Judiciary Committee that, based on the FBI and Army briefings she'd received, "it was my understanding that the tear gas produced no risk of fire."
At the time she authorized tanks to ram and tear-gas the Davidian compound, Reno had been on the job about five weeks. "I asked question after question," she told the committee, "about anything that I could think of, trying to elicit as much information as I could to make sure that we had fully explored everything."
When the Waco controversy resurfaced after the bombing of the Oklahoma federal building in 1995, Reno told The Washington Post: "After two years of review, nothing has given me any indication that the FBI misled me."
Last week, Reno could not conceal her anger at the belated disclosure, which she acknowledged had tarnished her credibility and that of the FBI and her department.
Where did it all begin?
A review by The Post of thousands of pages of public records related to the Waco siege shows that information about the use of the pyrotechnic tear gas grenades was either withheld from investigators or overlooked as early as April 21, 1993, when scores of FBI agents were initially interviewed by bureau inspectors for routine reports compiled after incidents.
One such document--an FBI Form 302--obtained by The Post, is the account of FBI supervisor Richard M. Rogers, who was in charge of the 50-member FBI hostage rescue team at Waco. Rogers issued orders at the scene in consultation with the FBI special agent in charge, Jeffrey Jamar.
Rogers's Form 302 mentions the two nonflammable forms of tear gas deployed that day. He specifically noted the use of 40mm "ferret" rounds--football-size plastic shells fired from M-79 grenade launchers--which, as he said, are "nonburning" and "produce no heat." But the six-page narrative makes no mention of the use of pyrotechnic rounds.
FBI special agent Richard Intellini, who commanded a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, told investigators that one of his men shot two tear gas grenades at the storm shelter at 6 a.m., but they bounced off, according to his 302 report. Intellini said that both were nonburning ferret rounds.
According to a transcript released yesterday by the FBI, Rogers authorized the firing of the pyrotechnic rounds. At the time, according to the FBI, agents were attempting to penetrate the storm shelter, which an arson report says was "partially roofed with plywood covered with tar paper.
Rogers's attorney, Bill Lawler, said Rogers had no comment. Reached by telephone, both Intellini and Jamar declined to comment.
Five days before the blaze, Reno was briefed by military officers and FBI officials including Rogers on the use of tear gas. Danny O. Coulson, a former deputy assistant director of the bureau who attended the key briefing, said in an interview he had never heard about the use of pyrotechnic rounds until two weeks ago, when he talked to Texas authorities and others investigating the Waco fire. His confirmation of the firing of the two pyrotechnic canisters to the Dallas Morning News prompted Reno and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh to call for the new investigation.
Asked how the military gas could have entered the FBI ordnance supply, Coulson--the founding commander of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team--said in an interview: "I don't have a clue . . . Dick Rogers would know. . . . Someone in the chain of command would have to know."
Rogers testified for two days at 1995 House hearings on Waco, but no questions arose on the use of pyrotechnic gas grenades. He told the panel about tear gas delivered by the combat engineering vehicles, saying they were deployed for "two purposes: One is to make an opening to put a nonflammable, nonburning type of [tear gas] in that building; and second of all, we wanted to use them to make escape openings for those people."
The Justice Department's voluminous report on the FBI's actions at Waco notes: "The gas delivery systems the FBI used were completely nonincendiary." Delivered on Oct. 8, 1993, the report was written by a special assistant to Reno, Richard Scruggs, now a federal prosecutor in Florida.
Scruggs did not respond to requests for comment this week, but in an interview with The Post nearly three years ago he defended the thoroughness of his inquiry:
"We interviewed every single person on the [Hostage Rescue Team]--50. We interviewed every single person who had anything to do with Waco at all--over 900 people, even secretaries.
"We interviewed the firearms specialist," Scruggs said. "When FBI agents fire their weapons, they have to account for it. With the FBI weapons, all the ammunition was accounted for. It was accounting for gas canisters that was difficult."
Appended to the Justice Department report were the findings of a July 1993 arson investigation, conducted by four fire experts retained by the Texas Rangers. The arson findings make no mention of pyrotechnic grenades.
"We weren't told about them," said James Quintiere, a University of Maryland professor who analyzed how the fire spread and later testified at the criminal trial of the Branch Davidians.
Quintiere supported federal prosecutors' conclusions that the Davidians started the fire.
Arson investigators concluded that the "fire was not caused by nor was it intensified by any chemicals present in the tear-gasing operations."
Releasing the official inquiries in October 1993, Reno said: "These reports have been widely regarded as both candid and comprehensive; therefore I believe any additional inquiries are unnecessary."
But the questions didn't stop there.
In 1994, a Waco television reporter, Joe Calao, found footage of what appears to be smoke rising near the Davidians' storm shelter between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. on April 19, hours before the fire started shortly after noon.
Calao said he consulted numerous tear gas experts, who concluded that the FBI must have been using pyrotechnic rounds that morning, based on the clouds of smoke and gas.
Calao said he contacted the Justice Department for comment, and then-spokesman Carl Stern told him the camera must have captured a cloud of dirt, not smoke. Stern said this week he was relaying what he'd been told by Scruggs and others who had conducted the official inquiry, that no burning tear gas rounds were used.
By 1996, Calao's footage came to the attention of attorneys who had filed a wrongful death suit for the relatives and estates of the dead Davidians against the federal government. A photograph of a 40mm pyrotechnic gas grenade found at the scene surfaced in the civil lawsuit, suggesting that the FBI had fired a type of tear gas ordnance it had never disclosed.
"Mere speculation," the Justice Department's lawyers said in March 1998, seeking to dismiss the civil suit.
Colorado filmmaker Michael McNulty gained access to more than 500 containers of evidence held by the Texas Rangers, and said he found various other potentially fire-causing devices. In November 1998, he presented his findings to Justice Department and FBI officials and asked for a response for his upcoming documentary, "Waco: a New Revelation."
He says no officials were interested.
"We are aware of no evidence to support the notion that any pyrotechnic devices were used by the federal government on April 19," Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin told the Dallas Morning News on Aug. 23. "We've said that all along." Staff researchers Nancy Shiner and Heming Nelson contributed to this report.
"FBI Tape Includes Tear Gas Decision - A Key Agent at Waco Approved Use of Pyrotechnic Cartridges"
by Edward Walsh and Richard Leiby (Washington Post, September 3, 1999)
The FBI yesterday released an infrared videotape containing a recorded conversation between two FBI agents during the final 1993 assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex., when a hurried and seemingly casual decision was made to use potentially incendiary military tear gas cartridges in an attempt to penetrate an underground shelter near the compound.
According to a transcript of the conversation, the early morning authorization to fire at least two such cartridges was given by Richard M. Rogers, the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team. In a detailed FBI account of the tactics and equipment used during the assault, Rogers made no mention of the pyrotechnic rounds. Later, in court documents, FBI officials stated that no videotape existed of that stage of the operation.
The videotape and transcript were released as Attorney General Janet Reno continued to search for someone outside the Justice Department to head a new investigation into the fiery end to the 51-day siege. Officials said last night that some of Reno's senior aides were urging that the task be given to a prominent Republican who would enjoy bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and that at least one offer of the job was still outstanding.
The infrared videotape was shot from a surveillance aircraft early on the morning of the final assault and picked up ground radio traffic between Rogers and Stephen P. McGavin, a member of the Hostage Rescue Team. On the tape, McGavin tells Rogers that a member of his unit "thinks he can get into position with relative safety utilizing the track for cover and attempt to penetrate it [the entrance to the shelter] with military rounds."
"Of course, if there's water underneath that's just going to extinguish them, but you can try it," Rogers replied.
"He can try it?" McGavin asked.
"Yeah, that's affirmative," Rogers said.
According to the FBI, this conversation took place at 7:48 a.m. April 19, 1993, a little more than four hours before the Branch Davidian compound burst into flames. The videotape and another videotape shot later the same morning that the FBI said will be released today were among the items that the U.S. Marshals Service, acting on Justice Department orders, removed from FBI headquarters on Wednesday.
The videotape to be released today shows two military tear gas rounds being fired at the shelter by the FBI from a Bradley Fighting Vehicle that was on loan from the Army, according to a senior FBI official. The first round bounces off the roof of the shelter and detonates in a field, the official said. After considerable radio traffic with Rogers, the vehicle is then repositioned so that it can take a shot at a section of the roof made of wood. A second round is fired and successfully penetrates the shelter, the official said. The videotapes are certain to be a focal point of the new investigation that Reno has ordered into the final assault on the compound and the six years of denials by the FBI that its agents used any weapons that could have set off the blaze that claimed 76 lives.
Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin confirmed yesterday that Reno has decided to select an "outside investigator" to head the probe. Two names that officials have confirmed were among those being considered are former Republican senators John C. Danforth (Mo.) and Warren B. Rudman (N.H.). Neither man responded to messages left with their offices yesterday.
"Her dream candidate is a middle-of-the-road Republican, a Jerry Ford Republican," said a senior Justice Department official.
Reno has acknowledged that the disclosure last week of the use of the pyrotechnic tear gas cartridges had damaged her credibility. It has also further strained the relationship between the Justice Department and the FBI and set in motion at least two planned congressional investigations.
An official said yesterday that the Justice Department was hoping to find someone to head the investigation who would provide "instant bipartisan credibility" on Capitol Hill, where criticism of the department's handling of the Waco incident and its aftermath is all but certain to intensify when Congress returns to Washington next week.
The White House yesterday continued to voice support for Reno and her decision to order U.S. marshals to enter FBI headquarters and seize the newly discovered videotapes and other evidence.
"The president is deeply concerned that the attorney general appears to have been misled and may have been lied to," said White House spokesman Jake Siewert. "She has vowed to get to the bottom of that. We fully support her effort to do that."
Rogers, the Hostage Rescue Team leader who approved use of the pyrotechnic military tear gas cartridges, was interviewed by FBI agents two days after the final assault on the Branch Davidian compound. A six-page account of the interview provides details of Rogers's actions that morning, but it deals exclusively with attempts to insert tear gas into the main compound structure and what Rogers did after the structure burst into flames. There is no mention in the account of an attempt to penetrate the underground shelter and it is not clear whether Rogers was asked about this by FBI investigators.
Last year, when ordered by a federal judge to publicly release all aerial infrared videotapes taken during the assault, FBI and Justice Department officials swore in court papers that after an exhaustive search, they could find no evidence that such recordings existed prior to 10:42 a.m.
The judge's order was in response to 1996 lawsuit over a Freedom of Information Act request filed by David T. Hardy, a Tucson lawyer who is researching a book on Waco and sued after the FBI said it would take five years to produce the material.
U.S. District Judge Alfredo C. Marquez ordered the FBI to speed up the request, and later expressed frustration when the bureau contended that no such tapes existed.
"In this court's opinion, FBI stonewalled release of [Hardy's] most controversial request: the [infrared] tapes," Marquez wrote in an order filed in July. The judge also awarded Hardy more than $32,000 in attorneys' fees, a penalty divided between the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, whose videos and audiotapes Hardy also had sought.
FBI officials maintain that discovery of the videotape confirming use of military tear gas cartridges does not affect their contention that the fatal fire was started by Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and his followers.
They note that the underground shelter was several dozen yards away from the main compound, and that the rounds were fired more than four hours before the structure burst into flames. Staff writer Roberto Suro contributed to this report.
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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