April 19 will mark the fifteenth anniversary of one of America’s most shameful events; the murders of dozens of helpless victims, including two pregnant women and twenty-one children, at the Branch Davidian compound assault in 1993. While at the time the FBI repeatedly insisted, even under oath, that they used no incendiary devices nor fired any gunshots, overwhelming evidence since the raid has proven that the FBI and BATF were directly responsible not only for the destruction of the Davidian buildings, but also for shooting unarmed Davidians, then using their official positions to conceal and destroy evidence of the crimes. The evidence includes not only witness testimony and video coverage (including FLIR footage), but also casings at the scene and the admission in 1999 of the use of M651 CS canisters (after repeated denials under oath) “during the assault” (during which time loudspeakers attached to the tanks could be heard declaring “this is not an assault” as they ran into walls of bedrooms and tore out sections of the structure).
Forensic evidence was largely destroyed by the government immediately following the raid, including the bulldozing of the area to prevent recovery of ballistics and other objective data which could have supported key Davidian claims. Even so, autopsy evidence indicated that several Davidians were run over by armored vehicles, none of them found with any sort of weapon; the FLIR footage shown on the documentary provides compelling evidence that the FBI started the fires which destroyed the building, although this appears to have been unintentional; the video footage of the assault shows that federal agents surrounded the compound and fired into the building, preventing opportunity to flee the death trap (CS tear gas used in an enclosed space metabolizes to hydrogen cyanide), eventually firing CS gas into the kitchen storage area, which had no windows or exits, and where dozens of women and children fled; the FBI had no fire trucks on site during the raid; and despite agents’ insistence that saving children was their top priority, there is not even one case of an FBI agent saving a child from the building during the raid. Not one.
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The FBI defended itself, basically, by lying about the facts and the evidence for years, destroying what it could, and then won in court because the Davidians could not produce exculpatory evidence the FBI had locked away or destroyed. The Branch Davidian raid became a touchstone for every conspiracy theory and worry of totalitarian government. I would go so far as to suggest that every major domestic uprising since 1993 has a connection to the Branch Davidian raid. Timothy McVeigh admitted that the Davidian raid strongly influenced his decision to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City. Even the April 19, 1995 attack date was chosen to recall the Davidian raid’s date. The Montana Freemen became much more militant and active following the Davidian raid, apparently in fear that the government would soon begin cracking down on anyone who got out of line. Politically, the raid was a disaster for the Clinton Administration. Attorney General Reno took full responsibility and offered her resignation, which President Clinton refused to accept. The Davidian raid and the deaths of 4 federal agents and 92 Branch Davidians gradually faded from the public eye, to be obscured by other media events and political scandals.
It would be easy to go overboard with this story, either as evidence for a conspiracy theory or to attack the Clinton Administration. There have even been attempts to connect Hillary Clinton to the deaths of the women and children at the compound, demonstrating just how rabid some of the claims have become. I even wrote the first part of this article with a lean towards the evil-government conspiracy angle. The matter takes on a different look when we step back a bit.
To be sure, the elements I cited are all true and have been painstakingly established over the last decade and a half. But there is more to the story, which needs to be considered.
First, the conflict began with an ATF raid on the Davidian compound on February 28, 1993. The raid was based on fears that the Branch Davidians were a “doomsday cult”, planning a violent attack on neighboring Mount Carmel or even Waco, Texas. While no evidence was ever produced to support the claim that the Branch Davidians intended to attack anyone, the group had come into possession of several hundred semi-automatic rifles, and while all of the known purchases were legal, there was an anonymous claim made that some of the rifles had been modified to fire as fully automatic weapons. Because of this claim (also never substantiated by evidence or any credible sitness), a search warrant was issued for the Mount Carmel compound, and because a large amount of firearms were involved, the ATF came armed to the teeth, with a lot of armed men and helicopters. The problem was, the ATF was sloppy in its surveillance and the Branch Davidians expected the raid, if not the specific tactics. What happened exactly, when the ATF tried to serve the warrant depends on who you ask, but there is no question that a lot of shooting happened, and a number of people were killed, including four federal agents and six Branch Davidians. The ATF set up a perimeter and a 51-day standoff began. The first salient factor to the tragedy, thus, was the assumption by each side that the other was violent and could not be trusted.
By the time of the April 19 raid, the authorities involved in the standoff included the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Guard, and an unspecified number of officials from the Treasury Department, Justice Department, the Attorney General’s office and the White House. This created the second salient factor to the disaster, a lack of clear command and simple communication.
The law enforcement and government agencies also had problems deciding media’s role in the crisis. The media by 1993 had exploded in capability and appetite, with 24-hour coverage and non-stop commentary. This exponentially increased pressure on law enforcement, as officials were badgered over and over for new updates and action. In addition, neither the ATF nor the FBI were equipped or trained for a prolonged siege on territory controlled by their adversary, and as the days turned to weeks, the authorities felt increasingly compelled to act, even without a clear and well-developed plan or worst-case analysis. This was the third salient factor in the crisis, an imperative to act whether or not the plan’s assumptions had been tested.
The combination of these three factors, in my opinion, led to the needless deaths of 76 people on April 19, 1993. They also helped to create a fear of discovery by the ATF and FBI, which led to destruction of evidence and a series of false accusations against Davidians to prevent a public outcry against the FBI and the ATF. That did not work out, however, as outrage from the raid’s casualties continued in the media, the Internet, and in virtually all public venues. This led to unexpected consequences for the authorities, the Clinton Administration in particular. It may be that seeing the results of the Davidian raid, the Clinton Administration decided to avoid any conflict where the outcome was not in firm control. It would explain Clinton’s sudden reticence to increase the U.S. military presence in Somalia, his delay in sending military aid to Rwanda, and the reason why Clinton was so late in keeping his promise to send troops to Bosnia. In the light of heavy casualties at Mount Carmel, where he had been given no reason to expect them, it is not at all surprising that President Clinton refused to take unilateral military action under any circumstances, and never again showed trust in his forward commanders. While the later military decisions may be criticized on their own merits, it should be noted that the Davidian raid was not the fault of the Clinton Administration. The available records show that AG Reno made clear that the children’s safety was the top priority, and when the April 19 raid was planned she asked for confirmation that the CS tear gas would not contribute to a possible fire. The Clinton Administration was in its early months and would not have yet become familiar with drill-down processes for checking claims by subordinates, especially in such an unanticipated domestic stand-off. It should also be noted that no appropriate agency existed to deal with a situation posed by the Branch Davidians, who represented no military threat yet refused to surrender, whose agricultural compound was well-suited for a prolonged siege while the FBI had to find ad-hoc accomodations. The records show that in addition to the ATF, the FBI and the National Guard, members of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team and Delta Force were also present during the siege, showing that the government agents sensed that they were not in control of the situation, but unable to find a group trained and experienced in just this kind of situation. The Branch Davidians were not hostages, and interviews with Davidians and tapes of negotiations show that they were not intent on aggression, despite the media spin. The FBI was in charge but did not know what to do, and it appears the SAC was not at all willing to admit this to the Attorney General. It remains to be seen what will happen, the next time a large domestic group chooses to resist government attempts at mass arrest by force.