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ATF Says Changes Since 1993 Waco Siege Have Improved Agency


April 13, 2003
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ATF Says Changes Since 1993 Waco Siege Have Improved Agency

Angela K. Brown, The Associated Press

WACO, Texas (AP) -- In the last decade, "not another Waco" has become a powerful mantra for law enforcement agencies nationwide.

On a Sunday morning in February 1993, federal agents expected to storm the compound of a religious group suspected of stockpiling weapons, catch the occupants off-guard and take leader David Koresh away in handcuffs.

Instead, the agents were stunned to find themselves caught in a gun battle that left four lawmen and six members of the religious group dead.

It was the beginning of a standoff that lasted 51 days and ended in the deaths of about 80 more people, including two dozen children, inside the Branch Davidian complex.

The then-attorney general, Janet Reno, and leaders of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were widely accused of bungling the operation. The agency's current leadership says lessons were learned.

"The events of Waco were a watershed for the ATF, on a personal level ... and professional level in terms of it being a horrendous wake-up call in terms of how we do business," said Brad Buckles, ATF director since 1999.

The ATF was criticized for raiding the compound instead of arresting Koresh while he went jogging or drove into town, and for not calling off the raid after an undercover agent who had recently been inside the compound reported that Koresh knew about the planned raid.

The FBI, which assumed command the day after the raid, was accused of ineffective negotiating with Koresh and for rushing to end the standoff with a self-proclaimed prophet who had predicted a violent end.

Government officials have maintained that the final, deadly fire was started by Davidians. The FBI admitted in 1999 that two potentially incendiary tear gas canisters were fired on the last day but said the devices were aimed away from the compound hours earlier.

Reno, who had approved the use of tear gas, ordered another investigation. The report in 2000 _ citing 2.3 million pages of documents and 1,000 witness interviews _ determined that Branch Davidians started the fire and shot each other in a mass suicide, ending the standoff.

Many agents and supervisors with ATF, FBI and other agencies involved in the Waco incident have since been fired, reassigned or retired.

There is a perception "that we were big macho guys rolling in with tanks, trying to show these guys who was boss, but there's nothing further from the truth," said Bob Ricks, a retired FBI special agent who worked with negotiators at Waco. "In the final analysis, our hopes and prayers and wishes were that everyone would come out alive."

The initial raid in February involved 50 agents who crouched under tarps in the back of two cattle trucks that pulled up to the compound. They said sect members began firing immediately. Some agents reached a roof outside a second-story window before being repelled as bullets ripped through walls and the roof from the inside.

After the failed raid, law enforcement agencies settled in for a long period of negotiations with Koresh. Over the next few weeks, the FBI secured the release of 14 adults and 21 children, but authorities grew impatient each time Koresh delayed his surrender.

Agents cut off electricity to the compound and blasted tapes of rabbits being slaughtered and dental drills.

On April 19, 1993 -- after agents said they learned from secret listening devices inside the compound that the group was planning to commit suicide by setting a fire -- military vehicles rammed the buildings and sprayed tear gas inside.

A few hours later, flames were seen spreading throughout the compound. Only nine people got out alive, and they denied that sect members killed themselves.

Criticism of the ATF and FBI built quickly. The FBI was already under scrutiny for its handling of a 1992 standoff in Idaho, when an agent shot and killed the wife of a white separatist as she held her 10-month-old baby.

Law enforcement agencies made sweeping changes after Waco. The ATF changed its policy on who makes decisions during an incident and improved how intelligence is gathered and reported. Agents now get more tactical training.

The FBI formed a crisis-response group to coordinate negotiators, agents, hostage-rescue teams and others. Officials admitted that they didn't communicate well with each other at Waco.

"That's the attitude in all of law enforcement. ... You have to be much more patient," Buckles said.

That approach was tested three years later in Montana with a small, heavily armed anti-government group called the Freemen. Members had filed bogus multimillion-dollar liens against public officials and others who crossed them, then issued checks against the liens.

On March 25, 1996, federal undercover agents lured the two top Freemen leaders into the open on a ruse and captured them. A standoff lasted 81 days until a Montana lawmaker convinced the rest of the group to surrender. No shots were fired.

Ricks, now the Oklahoma commissioner of public safety, said agents can wait "forever" if a barricaded suspect or group has no hostages. But officers must consider raids and use of tear gas if innocent lives are at stake, he said.

Associated PressCopyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

"There's a role for lawmen with tactical intervention," Ricks said. "The greatest lesson is you don't initiate a process without anticipating what the result is going to be."





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