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Context of 'March 20, 2000: Simulations Attempt to Prove or Disprove Contentions that FBI Agents Fired Guns during Davidian Assault'

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Pyrotechnic CS gas canisters.Pyrotechnic CS gas canisters. [Source: Law Enforcement Equipment Distribution]According to newly presented documents, the FBI used two or three pyrotechnic tear gas canisters during the raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas (see April 19, 1993). The documents contradict earlier FBI and Justice Department claims that law enforcement officials did nothing that could have contributed to the fire that killed over 80 sect members. Former senior FBI official Danny Coulson begins the revelations by admitting to the Dallas Morning News that the FBI had indeed used pyrotechnic grenades, though he says the grenades did not start the fires that consumed the building. Texas Department of Public Safety Commission Chairman James Francis says the Texas Rangers have “overwhelming evidence” supporting Coulson’s statement. “There are written reports by Rangers, there is photographic evidence, there is physical evidence, all three of which are problematic,” Francis says. Coulson, the founder of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team and a former assistant deputy director, says that two M651 CS tear gas grenades were fired into the building, but they were fired hours before the blazes erupted. Attorney General Janet Reno, who tells reporters she knew nothing of the grenade usage and is “very, very frustrated” at the knowledge, appoints former Senator John C. Danforth (R-MO) as the head of an investigatory commission (see September 7-8, 1999); Danforth will find that, regardless of the use of the pyrotechnic gas canisters, law enforcement officials were not responsible for the fire, and neither the FBI nor the Justice Department tried to cover up any actions (see July 21, 2000). [PBS Frontline, 10/1995; Dallas Morning News, 8/25/1999; Salon, 9/9/1999] The military M651 canisters, which burn for about 30 seconds to heat and release the solidified tear gas inside, were fired from a Bradley fighting vehicle at a bunker near the main building (see September 3, 1999). After the assault, a Texas Ranger found a spent 40mm gas canister shell lying on the ground and asked a nearby FBI agent, “What’s this?” The agent promised to find out, but never returned with an answer; the shell went into evidence containers (see August 10, 1999 and After). Two weeks after the FBI acknowledges the use of incendiary gas canisters at the Waco assault, Reno testifies on the matter to the House Judiciary Committee. She says that, based on the briefings she had been given (see April 17-18, 1993), “It was my understanding that the tear gas produced no risk of fire.… That fire was set by David Koresh and the people in that building.” After her testimony, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) calls on Reno to resign. [Newsweek, 9/6/1999; Associated Press, 9/10/1999] FBI agent Byron Sage, the chief negotiator during the Davidian standoff, will say in 2003 that the incendiary gas canisters could not have set the fires. “This is the critical point, the M651 rounds were never directed towards the wooden structure,” he will say. “They were used in an area yards away from the building. Also, they were used earlier in the day. The fire didn’t start until four hours later. They had absolutely nothing to do with that fire.” Sage will say that the canisters were fired only at a construction pit near the compound where other gas-discharging devices had been smothered in mud. The pit was targeted because some Davidian gunfire during the ATF raid had come from that area, he will say. [Waco Tribune-Herald, 3/16/2003] Charles Cutshaw, an editor of Jane’s Defense Information and an expert on this kind of weapon, says these military tear gas cartridges are not intended to start fires. He says he knows of no studies or reports on how often such cartridges may have caused fires. [Washington Post, 9/4/1999] Shortly after the admission, federal prosecutor Bill Johnston, one of the lawyers for the government in the wrongful-death lawsuit filed by surviving Davidians (see April 1995), informs Reno that government lawyers had known for years about the use of pyrotechnic tear-gas rounds (see August 30, 1999). Johnston will be removed from the lawsuit and replaced by US Attorney Michael Bradford. [Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 7/21/2000] He will also plead guilty to concealing evidence from investigators concerning the canisters (see November 9, 2000).

Entity Tags: FBI Hostage Rescue Team, Bill Johnston, Danny Coulson, Byron Sage, Branch Davidians, Federal Bureau of Investigation, James B. Francis Jr, Trent Lott, Janet Reno, US Department of Justice, John C. Danforth, Texas Rangers, Charles Cutshaw, Michael Bradford

Timeline Tags: 1993 Branch Davidian Crisis

US District Judge Walter Smith overrides Justice Department objections and orders independent field testing to help determine whether government agents fired at the Branch Davidian compound in the last hours of a 1993 siege (see April 19, 1993 and November 5, 1999). In a three-page ruling, Smith writes that he has been “persuaded” by arguments from Branch Davidian lawyers and the office of special counsel John Danforth that the tests are needed to resolve whether flashes of light recorded by FBI infrared cameras were caused by government gunfire. FBI officials have consistently denied allegations that any of their agents fired gunshots during the final assault. Flashes recorded by an airborne FBI infrared camera just before the compound began burning are inexplicable electronic “anomalies,” the FBI claims. Michael Caddell, the lead lawyer for the Davidians in their civil suit against the government (see April 1995), says: “It again demonstrates that Judge Smith wants to get at the truth. If they [the FBI] really believe that’s not gunfire on that video, then the government’s lawyers should embrace this test with open arms.” [Dallas Morning News, 11/16/1999] The special counsel’s office also requests the actual guns carried by FBI agents during the assault. Examination of the weapons may help determine if agents fired during the six-hour assault. [Associated Press, 11/16/1999] FBI officials have secretly offered to conduct private tests for Danforth’s investigators, though Justice Department lawyers have rejected a proposal from Caddell and the Branch Davidian lawyers for a joint public test. These actions, along with a warning from Justice Department lawyers that they intended to use national security exemptions to withhold data needed to ensure accurate public tests, impelled Danforth’s office to ask for the public tests. Smith rules, “The court is persuaded that one FLIR [infrared] test should be conducted, with participation and observation by the parties and the OSC [office of special counsel].” [Dallas Morning News, 11/16/1999]

Entity Tags: Branch Davidians, US Department of Justice, John C. Danforth, Walter Smith, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Michael Caddell

Timeline Tags: 1993 Branch Davidian Crisis

Six postal inspectors and two Army soldiers, all dressed in a variety of FBI-standard assault garb, reenact key scenarios from the 1993 FBI assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas (see April 19, 1993). The purpose is to recreate “flashes” observed in 1993 infrared videotapes made by FBI observers during the assault, and determine if they were indeed gunfire from FBI agents, as some have alleged (see November 15, 1999). The exercise is done at the behest of District Judge Walter Smith, who ordered it as part of the proceedings of a civil suit by surviving Davidians against the federal government (see April 1995); additionally, the scenario is part of the evidentiary gathering by federal special counsel John Danforth, investigating the role of the FBI in the burning of the Davidian compound (see September 7-8, 1999). FBI officials who view the infrared tapes say they bear out their long-held assertions that none of their agents fired their guns during the April 19 assault on the Davidian compound. Michael Caddell, the lead lawyer for the Davidians in the lawsuit, says he believes the simulations will prove that the FBI shot at the compound, which is what his own experts reviewing the videos have said. US Attorney Michael Bradford, one of the government’s lead lawyers in the case, disagrees. “What we’re trying to do here… is get this issue hopefully put to rest so that the American public will not continue to hear what we consider a baseless allegation without foundation that the FBI was out in the back of that compound shooting that day,” he says. “It didn’t happen.” [New York Times, 3/20/2000; Washington Post, 3/20/2000]
Public Precluded from Seeing Videotapes - The exercise takes place at Fort Hood, Texas, under Danforth’s supervision. Initially, the infrared videos of the exercises were to be released to the public, but Smith seals the videos from public view. And, siding with Danforth against the Davidian lawyers, Smith denies motions by several news media organizations to witness the test. The New York Times writes, “The lack of public access has created the possibility that both sides in the case would offer conflicting opinions without any public review of the videos.” An independent analysis of the videos conducted by the private British company that conducts the simulations may be released to the public after they are turned over to the court some time in April. [New York Times, 2/17/2000; New York Times, 3/20/2000]
Simulations Carried Out to Determine Whether Videotaped 'Flashes' Might Be Gunfire - Danforth, Smith, and a group of about 20 observers watch the simulations, including representatives from the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Texas Rangers, and private lawyers representing the plaintiffs. In the simulations, the eight participants fire different weapons from prone and kneeling positions. They then slowly advance to a prescribed firing line, where they fire a series of single shots followed by short bursts and then long bursts of automatic gunfire. They repeat the exercise four times, as an FBI “Nightstalker” surveillance aircraft and a British Navy helicopter take turns filming from different angles. Additionally, an armored vehicle is driven beside a field littered with debris like twisted aluminum, broken glass, and pools of water, to see if light flashes from the debris could have caused similar flashes on the infrared video that could be mistaken for gunfire. Bradford has said that no matter how the videos are interpreted, they cannot be taken as proof that agents fired guns during the assault. “If there’s a flash in the testing, you can’t just conclude that means there was gunfire on April 19th,” Bradford said. “To me, that would mean the opposite. It would indicate it’s not a gun flash because you can’t see a person there. There’s more to be analyzed than just the flashes.” The private British firm, Vector Data Systems, was chosen in part because it owns FLIR, or “forward-looking infrared,” video cameras similar to those used by the FBI in 1993; the bureau has since abandoned those video cameras for more current technology. [New York Times, 2/17/2000; New York Times, 3/20/2000]
Davidian Lawyer: No Broad Conspiracy by FBI, Justice Department to Conceal Truth - Caddell disagrees with some Davidian supporters in discounting the broader conspiracy theories they advocate. “I know that may disappoint some people,” he says. “But this is not a big conspiracy, it’s a small conspiracy. There were a handful of people on April 19 who took matters into their own hands and disobeyed the orders of the attorney general and the FBI leadership. Those people have to be held accountable.” Of the Danforth investigators, Caddell says: “I think they’ll issue an honest report, a fair report. And I think it will be critical in many respects.” [Waco Tribune-Herald, 2/18/2000; Washington Post, 3/20/2000]

Entity Tags: Branch Davidians, John C. Danforth, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Michael Bradford, Michael Caddell, Vector Data Systems, Walter Smith, New York Times, US Department of Justice, Texas Rangers

Timeline Tags: 1993 Branch Davidian Crisis

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