Commentary

No More Wacos: What’s Wrong With Federal Law Enforcement and How To Fix It

For those of you who have been waitng for a good book on Waco, No More Wacos is the most comprehensive book on the subject to date. This book is authored by a former prosecutor and a criminologist who have sifted through the mountain of material surrounding the Waco tragedy to tell us what really happened. From the shoddy investigation that led to the disastrous ATF raid on the Mount Carmel Center, to the pathetic machinations of the politicians who claimed to be searching for the truth, these authors offer a sober analysis of the whole sordid affair. It is their view that Waco was neither a conspiracy nor a fluke. The tragedy instead represents the worst case scenario of problems that continue to plague federal law enforcement, including lax procedures involving search warrant applications and the militarization of police tactics.

The book begins by putting Waco into perspective. The authors note the initial raid on the Branch Davidians was not merely the largest in ATF history, it “was the largest federal armed entry ever against an American home.” The ATF sent 76 heavily armed agents to storm the Mount Carmel Center to arrest one man-David Koresh. A firefight ensued. Four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians were killed and many others wounded. According to the authors, this raid resulted in “the largest number of law enforcement officer deaths in a single operation.”

The death toll would climb even higher with the unfortunate arrival of the FBI’s “Hostage Rescue Team.” The 51- day standoff ended April 19, 1993 when FBI tanks launched a chemical weapons assault on the compound. The purpose of that maneuver was to protect the children from Koresh the feds say, but by the end of the day, 76 Branch Davidians, including all of the 27 children, were dead. That loss of life is a sufficient explanation as to why Waco will not be soon forgotten. As the authors point out, it was the “largest number of civilian deaths ever resulting from a law enforcement operation.” No More Wacos does an admirable job of trying to find out exactly what happened and why.

This book plausibly contends that the ATF targeted Koresh and his followers fora publicity stunt to bolster the agency’s image on Capitol Hill. A dramatic raid on a “cult compound” would be the public relations bonanza that the ATF was desperately seeking. The media was given advance notice of the raid and was invited to film the ATF’s “dynamic entry.” The code word for the beginning of the ATF raid was “showtime.”

Giving the media advance notice was a fatal mistake. That morning a television crew arrived in the general area too early and asked a postal carrier for directions to the Davidian compound. The TV crew spilled the beans, explaining that a law enforcement raid was imminent. The postal carrier was a Branch Davidian, who immediately warned Koresh.

Although the element of surprise had been lost, an ATF undercover agent at the compound became aware of this late-breaking development. He notified the ATF raid commanders that Koresh was expecting them. Instead of calling off the raid, ATF went on with its ill-conceived stunt. By the end of the day, when it became clear that the ATF had committed a tragic blunder (4 agents dead, 28 wounded), a coverup, began. The raid commanders falsely claimed that they had not known that the element of surprise had been lost. The Texas Rangers would later ask the Justice Department to prosecute those officials for lying under oath, but they were never indicted. Indeed, as unbelievable as it may seem, those commanders were put on administrative leave, then discharged, but were then subsequently reinstated with full back pay and had the whole Waco incident expunged from their personnel records!

The authors have many interesting tidbits of information as they move beyond theinitial firefight and into the long siege. After the firefight, the government obtained a warrant to search the Mag Bag, an offsite garage rented by the Davidians. Although the owner offered the authorities a key, agents decided to “search” the garage by driving a Bradley Fighting Vehicle through a wall. The Bradleys were also used to flatten the automobiles of the Davidians at the Mount Carmel Center. Such adolescent bullying ploys were designed to show the Davidians exactly who was “in charge.”

The authors build a convincing case that a stark culture clash explains (at least in part) why the negotiating process dragged on. FBI officials seemed oblivious to important differences between ordinary street criminals and people who are deeply religious. Most ordinary criminals want to stay alive whereas a typical Branch Davidian would prefer a good death to an unworthy life. The FBI’s psychological warfare and sleep deprivation tactics backfired by frightening and consolidating the Davidians, confirming for them that the apocalyptic events that Koresh had foretold were coming to pass.

The book does give credit where it is due. The authors, for example, note that FBI operations commander, Jeffrey Jamar, took a risk in allowing defense lawyers to go into the compound, unescorted, during the siege. Almost no one on the government side liked the idea because there was a chance that the Davidians would be instructed to destroy incriminating evidence. “Jamar let the lawyers go in over the objections of the U.S. Attorneys, the ATF, the Texas Rangers, the negotiators, and most of the rest of the FBI except for press spokesperson Bob Ricks. That the lawyers were allowed in is among the most powerful pieces of evidence that the FBI was not deliberately trying to sabotage negotiations, as some Davidian supporters have charged.”

The feds’ most egregious error was the decision to give up on the negotiations and launch another attack on the compound. When Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman was given a courtesy briefing on the FBI’s plan to have tanks insert chemicals into the Davidian’s home, he thought Attorney General Janet Reno would reject the idea since everyone knew that Koresh would have to give in at some point, and, more importantly, “the risks of a tragedy” were too obvious to ignore.

Altman’s common sense evaluation of the situation raises the fundamental question of the Waco tragedy: Why did the feds abandon the negotiating process and launch the reckless April 19 chemical weapons attack? The authors do not buy the government’s contention that “babies were being beaten” (the implication being that further negotiations were no longer a viable and responsible option). The FBI concocted that story to manipulate the Attorney General into approving the chemical attack: Child abuse “was the hottest of hot buttons for Reno.”

The authors suggest the real reason for the attack may have been a simple combination of frustration and fatigue- The FBI agents “were getting tired of being away from their families after seven weeks, and living on fast food in cramped conditions, and spending cold nights outside watching the Mount Carmel Center.” Police science scholars are cited for the proposition that the April 19 assault was a graphic example of what they call the “Rodney King syndrome.” That is, when law enforcement agents cannot bring a subject under control using the tactics and techniques that they have been taught, the agents become frustrated, angry, and then violent. Strong, mature leadership was nowhere in place, so events spiraled out of control.

The authors closely examine the question of who started the fire, but wisely refrain from reaching a definitive conclusion. The evidence is simply unclear. This is one of the great strengths of No More Wacos - it lays out the facts and the evidence with great skill, avoiding speculation and cheap shots, letting the record speak for itself.

All of the major players involved at Waco are taken to task for their transgressions. Koresh was a “scurrilous character” who, had he survived, would likely be serving a long prison sentence for child abuse. As for Attorney General Reno, the authors believe she was deceived and manipulated by the FBI. If that analysis is correct, the authors quickly note that she is not fit for her post since she has failed to discipline any of those responsible for the patchwork of deception. If, on the other hand, Reno is really sincere about her claims of not being misled by her subordinates, the authors write that “she acted with wanton and reckless disregard for the lives of the children.”

No More Wacos contains a lengthy discussion of the congressional “oversight”hearings. If the early chapters make you angry over the way in which Waco was handled, this portion will leave you exasperated and disgusted. Readers might recall that when the media and the politicians hailed Reno for “taking responsibility” for the disaster, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) was one of the few people to condemn the government’s actions, actually calling for Reno’s resignation. Two years later, when Congress examined the incident in more detail, the politicians began to flip-flop. Rep. Conyers told everyone that he now had a more informed view of CS gas and tear gas; he warmly greeted Reno when she appeared to testify- Republican Chairman Bill McCollum (R-FL), in turn, adopted the view that Reno ought to resign. And while the media seemed fixated upon how well Reno would “hold up” under congressional questioning, few people seemed to notice (or care) that Reno had flip-flopped as well. Immediately after the tragedy, Reno acknowledged that her decision was wrong and took responsibility for it, butt at the 1995 hearings,she claimed that her decision to approve the tank attack was proper and Koresh was to blame for the carnage.

The final chapter is entitled “Policy Lessons.” Here the authors make their case for systemic legal reforms so that tragedies such as Waco will not recur. Unfortunately, the authors go overboard by venturing into almost every conceivable problem in the criminal justice system (wiretapping, civil asset forfeiture, the internationalization of law enforcement, etc.). The lengthy discussion of issues unrelated to Waco drowns out the most pertinent reforms covered, including the demilitarization of law enforcement and the strengthening of search warrant procedures.

The primary shortcoming of No More Wacos is that the book is not reader friendly. The authors go into unnecessary and mind-numbing detail in too many places and digress into extraneous subjects far too often. This is a pity because that kind of uphill reading will prevent many people from completing the joumey. But for anyone interested in the most comprehensive, A-Z account of the Waco incident, this is the book.

Timothy Lynch is director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice.