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Context of 'March 27, 1993: New York Times Reports Davidian Raid ‘Laden with Missteps, Miscalculations’'

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Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF, sometimes abbreviated ATF) agent Davy Aguilera obtains a warrant, or affidavit as it is sometimes called in law enforcement terminology, to search the Branch Davidian compound, known to many as Mt. Carmel, just outside of Waco, Texas. Aguilera, a BATF agent out of Austin, Texas, secures the warrant from US Magistrate Judge Dennis Green in Waco. Aguilera says the evidence for the warrant comes from his own investigation, “as well as information furnished to me by other law enforcement officers and concerned citizens” (see March 5-9, 1992, June-July 1992, November 1992 - January 1993, December 7, 1992, January 11, 1993 and After, and January 22 - Early February, 1993). Aguilera’s warrant gives legal standing for the BATF’s upcoming raid on the Davidian compound (see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993). Aguilera writes, “I believe that Vernon Howell, aka David Koresh and/or his followers who reside at the compound known locally as the Mt. Carmel Center are unlawfully manufacturing and possessing machine guns and explosive devices.” [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, 2/25/1993] The legitimacy of the BATF affidavits and warrants will be disputed. After the events of the final assault (see April 19, 1993), a retired FBI agent will examine the original BATF affidavits and say that the agency lacked probable cause for them. In 1996, a Congressional investigation will find that the warrant is replete with “an incredible number of false statements” (see August 2, 1996); one example is its claim, based on witness statements, that the Davidians own a British Boys anti-tank .52 caliber rifle, when in fact they own a Barret light .50 firearm. Possession of the British Boys constitutes a felony, while ownership of the Barret is legal. The affidavit relies heavily on information provided by former Davidian Marc Breault (see February 27 - March 3, 1993); it does not note that Breault left the compound as an opponent of Koresh, a fact that might affect his motives in speaking against Koresh. Nor does the affidavit note that Breault is almost completely blind, but instead claims that he was a bodyguard who “participated in physical training and firearm shooting exercises conducted by Howell. He stood guard armed with a loaded weapon.” Aguilera repeatedly misrepresents and misstates the facts of weapons laws in the affidavit, and misstates the types of weapons parts that Koresh and the Davidians are known to have purchased. The investigation will find that while legitimate evidence exists that would constitute probable cause for a warrant, the BATF agents “responsible for preparing the affidavits knew or should have known that many of the statements were false.” [House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, 8/2/1996; House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, 8/2/1996]

Entity Tags: US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, David Koresh, Branch Davidians, Dennis Green, Marc Breault, Davy Aguilera

Timeline Tags: 1993 Branch Davidian Crisis

The day before the BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) raid on the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco is slated to happen (see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993), BATF public information officer Sharon Wheeler calls editors at the ABC and NBC affiliates in Dallas to alert them to the impending raid. Gary Nichols, assignment editor for the Dallas ABC news affiliate, will later recall, “Sharon said, ‘We have something big going down.’” [New York Times, 3/27/1993]

Entity Tags: US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Gary Nichols, Sharon Wheeler, Branch Davidians

Timeline Tags: 1993 Branch Davidian Crisis

BATF agents surround the Branch Davidian compound in the first minutes of the raid.BATF agents surround the Branch Davidian compound in the first minutes of the raid. [Source: Associated Press]Agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF, sometimes abbreviated ATF) prepare to serve arrest and search warrants against members of the Branch Davidian religious sect, housed in a compound they call Mt. Carmel, on a hill just outside Waco, Texas (see November 1992 - January 1993). The Branch Davidians are a Christian group currently led by David Koresh (see November 3, 1987 and After), who is the prime focus of the arrest and search warrants. Koresh and the Davidians are known to have large stashes of firearms, many of which authorities suspect are illegal to own by US citizens—automatic rifles, machine guns, and the like. Koresh has preached that the End Times, or Apocalypse, will begin sometime around 1995, and the Davidians must arm themselves to prepare for the coming conflict. As a result, Koresh and a number of Davidians have been amassing weapons since 1991, along with gas masks, bulletproof vests, and military-issue MREs, or “meals ready to eat.” [Dean M. Kelley, 5/1995; US Department of Justice, 7/16/1995; PBS Frontline, 10/1995; PBS Frontline, 10/1995]
Large-Scale Raid Launched - After four days of preparation (see February 24-27, 1993), the BATF forces close on the compound: some 80 government vehicles, including two covered cattle trailers containing 70 BATF agents in full SWAT gear, reach the staging area near the compound by 7:30 a.m. Two or perhaps three Texas National Guard helicopters are deployed. [New York Times, 3/27/1993; Dean M. Kelley, 5/1995; Austin Chronicle, 6/23/2000] The raid was originally planned for March 1, but was moved forward when the Waco Tribune-Herald began publishing its “Sinful Messiah” series about Koresh (see February 27 - March 3, 1993). BATF spokesman John Killorin will later say the BATF feared the cult might become more alert to the possibility of a raid once the series started. Tribune-Herald editor Bob Lott will say that the newspaper alerted federal authorities the day before the first installment ran, giving the BATF a chance to review its raid plans. [New York Times, 3/27/1993]
Davidians Alerted - A local news reporter’s discussion with a US postal official inadvertently “tips off” the Davidians to the impending raid (see Before 9:45 a.m. February 28, 1993).
BATF Decides Element of Surprise Unnecessary - Koresh is visibly agitated at the news of the impending raid; he tells Robert Rodriguez, whom many Davidians correctly suspect to be a BATF undercover agent (see January 11, 1993 and After): “Neither the ATF nor the National Guard will ever get me. They got me once, and they’ll never get me again.” Looking out of a window, he adds: “They’re coming, Robert, they’re coming.… The time has come.” Fearing that he will be caught on the premises when the raid begins, Rodriguez makes an excuse and hurriedly leaves. Once off the grounds, he alerts the BATF raid commanders that Koresh knows the agents are on their way. Rodriguez reports via telephone to his immediate superior, BATF tactical coordinator Charles Sarabyn, who relays word to Philip Chojnacki, the agent in charge of the raid. The commanders ask if Rodriguez has seen any signs of alarm or guns being distributed. Rodriguez says he has not, though he tells them that Koresh is so agitated that he is having trouble speaking and holding on to his Bible. According to a Treasury Department report (see Late September - October 1993): “Sarabyn expressed his belief that the raid could still be executed successfully if they hurried. Chojnacki responded, ‘Let’s go.’ A number of agents informed the Treasury investigative panel that Sarabyn said things like, ‘Get ready to go; they know we are coming.’” Chojnacki and Sarabyn decide to rush the raid, hoping to deploy before the Davidians are mobilized. [Newsweek, 5/3/1993; Dallas Morning News, 8/28/1993; Time, 10/11/1993; Dean M. Kelley, 5/1995; House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, 8/2/1996] Rodriguez will testify that he attempts to find Sarabyn and appraise him of his fears that the Davidians are preparing to resist with violence, but will say that by the time he arrives at the BATF command post, on the Texas State Technical College campus, Sarabyn and his companions have already departed. Rodriguez will testify: “At that time, I started yelling and I said: ‘Why, why, why? They know we’re coming, they know we’re coming.‘… [E]verything was very quiet, very quiet, and if I remember right, everybody was really concerned. I went outside and I sat down and I remember starting to cry.” Sarabyn and Chojnacki will later testify that while they understood Rodriguez’s fears, neither of them believe Koresh is aware of the impending raid; testimony from Rodriguez and another BATF agent, Roger Ballesteros, will contradict their claims. [House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, 8/2/1996] A Los Angeles Times report later makes a similar claim, apparently based on Rodriguez’s recollections; the BATF will deny that report entirely. A Waco Tribune-Herald article later reports that just before the raid, a voice comes over BATF radios saying: “There no guns in the windows. Tell them it’s a go.” Two weeks after the raid, Newsweek will incorrectly report that Rodriguez, whom the article does not identify, “apparently thought little of the call [alerting Koresh of the impending raid] at the time,” left the compound, and reported an “all clear” to his colleagues. [Newsweek, 3/15/1993] Other reports have Davidians telling one another, “The Assyrians are coming,” and making preparations to resist an assault. [Newsweek, 5/3/1993] In 1996, a Congressional investigation will find that Chojnacki and Sarabyn’s decision to go ahead with the raid even though the element of surprise had been lost was a “reckless” error: “This, more than any other factor, led to the deaths of the four ATF agents killed on February 28” (see August 2, 1996). [House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, 8/2/1996]
Davidians Resist - The Davidians successfully resist the raid (see 9:30 A.M. and After, February 28, 1993), in the process killing four BATF agents (see 11:00 A.M. and After, February 28, 1993) and bringing about a standoff between themselves and the FBI (see 12:00 p.m. February 28, 1993).

Entity Tags: Charles Sarabyn, Texas National Guard, John Killorin, Philip Chojnacki, Branch Davidians, David Koresh, Waco Tribune-Herald, Texas State Technical College, Bob Lott, Robert Rodriguez, US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

Timeline Tags: 1993 Branch Davidian Crisis

BATF agents attempt to force entry through a second-floor window of the Branch Davidian compound. At least one of the agents depicited will be shot in the firefight.BATF agents attempt to force entry through a second-floor window of the Branch Davidian compound. At least one of the agents depicited will be shot in the firefight. [Source: Asian Celebrities (.com)]The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) launches its long-planned raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas (see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993). About 9:30, the BATF forces arrive at Mt. Carmel, the location of the Davidian compound. Two National Guard helicopters, which had been scheduled to create a diversion in the rear of the compound so as to allow the cattle trucks carrying the BATF agents to arrive unseen, are late in arriving, and fail to carry out their mission. The raid commanders are out of radio range and unable to abort the raid or modify the deployment of agents. Moreover, as some agents will later tell the New York Times (see March 27, 1993), only squad leaders can communicate with their team members, so communications are difficult, and when a squad leader is shot—and one will be shot in the first few minutes of the raid—that leader’s squad can no longer receive or send information. [New York Times, 3/27/1993]
BATF Agents Advance, Shots Fired - At least 70 agents wearing bulletproof vests, helmets, and army gear emblazened with “ATF Agent” in yellow and white letters, emerge from the trailers and race towards the buildings in groups. Davidian leader David Koresh opens the front door and shouts: “What do you want? There’s women and children in here!” (Some reports say Koresh is unarmed; others say he is dressed in black and carrying an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.) The lead agent, Roger Ballesteros, brandishes a search warrant and shouts: “Police! Get down!” and Koresh closes the door. Moments later, BATF agents, including Ballesteros (see January-February 1994) and John Henry Williams, and Texas Ranger David Byrnes will report that the Davidians shoot first; Davidians will claim the opposite. One BATF agent will later report that a fellow agent actually shoots first, at a dog he feels is threatening him, but later that agent will retract the claim. A team of agents with a battering ram is slated to burst through the main doors. Two teams of BATF agents with ladders mount to the roof of the first floor and break into windows on the second floor, where they believe the weapons are stored. The ladder and battering ram teams all encounter heavy fire, and several agents are hit, including one on the roof who manages to hobble to a ladder and slide down. Davidians rain bullets from the upper windows onto the agents. One BATF team manages to force entry into the compound, but is unable to advance. Most of the agents are pinned down behind vehicles. The two sides exchange heavy gunfire. [New York Times, 3/27/1993; Newsweek, 5/3/1993; Dean M. Kelley, 5/1995; Dick J. Reavis, 7/19/1995; PBS Frontline, 10/1995; LMPD Arcade, 2009] A federal law from 1917 mandates that federal agents use what is called the “knock and announce” approach—in essence, a federal law enforcement agent must knock on a door and announce himself and his intentions before entering. Ballesteros and his fellow BATF agents do not follow this legal provision, though the law does have several exceptions that may apply in this instance. A later House investigation will find the BATF’s choice not to “knock and announce” reasonable under the circumstances. [House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, 8/2/1996]
Helicopter Activity - Two of the three helicopters land after taking fire. [Newsweek, 3/15/1993] Philip Chojnacki, the agent in charge, rides in one of the helicopters; he is almost struck by a Davidian bullet in the first minutes of the raid. [New York Times, 3/27/1993] The House investigation will find that Chojnacki’s presence in the helicopter essentially takes him out of the communications loop with the raid commanders and team leaders before the beginning of the raid, and deprives him of any opportunity to learn that the Davidians are planning an ambush. [House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, 8/2/1996] Catherine Mattison, a Davidian who will escape the April 1993 conflagration (see April 19, 1993), will say in 2003 that she saw gunfire from the helicopters. “They were shooting when they came in,” she will recall. “I went upstairs to my room and all of a sudden I could see three helicopters in V-formation firing. David’s rooms were in the back of the building and that’s where they were firing. I didn’t realize that for three months afterwards because of all the shock and commotion but they were trying to kill him right then.” [Guardian, 10/28/2003] Mattison’s allegations are unconfirmed; testimony from a number of agents will challenge her account, and videotape from the raid shows no gunfire from the helicopters. The helicopters are on loan from the National Guard, and are expressly forbidden to engage in any role save as observational. [House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, 8/2/1996]
Machine-Gun Fire - Reflecting on the raid 10 years later, BATF agent Bill Buford will say: “But before I even got out of the trailer, I could hear machine guns, and I knew we didn’t have any.… I’m an old Vietnam vet, and I can tell you—the firing was intense.” Buford is wounded in the gun battle. “The one thing we had not planned for was to be pinned down by fire right out in front of the building,” Buford will add. “We did not anticipate we would come under such heavy fire, nor did we anticipate we would have such heavy casualties.” Buford will say that after the botched raid, the BATF will all but abandon such “insertion”-type assaults, and rely instead on surrounding a building and negotiating with the inhabitants. [Waco Tribune-Herald, 3/16/2003]
Failure to Follow Manual - Ballesteros will later testify that no particular agent was assigned to announce their identity and the purpose of the raid. “We basically all announced,” he will say. He will admit that according to the BATF manual, “[o]fficers are required to wait a reasonable period of time to permit the occupants to respond before forcing entry,” and the agents do not follow that mandate. He will testify that the agents expected resistance, but not gunfire, and had not planned for that contingency. BATF agent Kenneth King, one of the two “ladder” team members who attempt to force entry through the second-floor windows, will also testify that the agents did not plan for gunfire, and were unprepared for such a heavy level of resistance. Later testimony also shows that some of the damage suffered by the agents may have been from “friendly fire”; one BATF agent is wounded by what later proves to be a 9mm hydroshock bullet, the ordnance being used by the BATF assault teams. [Dean M. Kelley, 5/1995]

Entity Tags: Catherine Mattison, Kenneth King, David Byrnes, John Henry Williams, David Koresh, Branch Davidians, Roger Ballesteros, Bill Buford, Philip Chojnacki, US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

Timeline Tags: 1993 Branch Davidian Crisis

The New York Times publishes a “special report” that claims the February 28 federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound outside of Waco, Texas (see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993), was “laden with missteps, miscalculations, and unheeded warnings that could have averted bloodshed.” The report is based on interviews with several Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) agents involved in the raid as well as FBI agents and soldiers skilled in military raids. At least one of the BATF agents likens the raid to the infamously unsuccessful Charge of the Light Brigade. Four of the agents say that their supervisors knew the BATF agents had lost the element of surprise, but went ahead with the raid anyway. The Times says the raid was “the costliest and deadliest operation in the history of the” bureau. BATF leaders insist they did nothing wrong, and blame a last-minute warning about the raid to the Davidians for the agents’ failure to apprehend Davidian leader David Koresh. BATF chief Stephen Higgins said recently: “I’ve looked at it and rethought it. There was no problem with the plan.” But, the Times notes, the BATF “has provided only sketchy details of what happened, why the raid was even tried, and why it was carried out when it was.” The warrants that provided the basis for the raids are currently sealed (see February 25, 1993); no criminal charges have yet been filed; no government official has even clearly articulated what laws Koresh or his fellow Davidians are believed to have violated, though BATF officials say they believe Koresh has violated federal firearms and explosives laws, and Higgins told a reporter that it was the illegal conversion of weapons from semi-automatic to automatic that led to the raid.
Problems Underlying the Raid - Based on its interviews with its sources, the Times says the following problems caused the raid to fail:
bullet The BATF did not conduct round-the-clock surveillance on Koresh, so its agents did not know for sure if they could have arrested him while he was out of the compound.
bullet “Supervisors of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms knew they had lost the element of surprise even before the agents tried to surround the compound but ordered agents to move in anyway.” It was common knowledge in Waco and the surrounding area that something large was being prepared. Hotel workers were amazed to see men from Houston, Dallas, and New Orleans descend on their hotels, wearing army fatigues and talking on two-way radios, which area residents could monitor on police scanners. In addition, at least one BATF official alerted Dallas television news stations to the impending raid the day before it took place (see February 27, 1993). At least 11 reporters were at the scene before the raid began, though none have said how they knew to be there. The reporters now say the BATF did nothing to prevent them from watching and videotaping the raid, and add that agents only became hostile after it became clear that the raid was a failure.
bullet “Helicopters carrying [BATF] agents came under fire over the compound before the assault began, yet the bureau pushed ahead with the mission, which relied on an element of surprise.” The helicopters, on loan from the Texas National Guard and used to observe the raid from the air, quickly came under fire; a bullet passed close to the head of Philip Chojnacki, the agent in charge of the raid. When the helicopters were fired upon, several agents tell the Times, the raid should have been aborted. “That was inexcusable,” one career agent says. “As soon as those shots were taken, the raid should have been aborted. Instead, we were ordered to walk right into it.” He and others say that the agents who were heading toward the compound on the ground were not warned that shots were being fired by the cult.
bullet “The operation was hindered by a communications strategy that made it impossible for different squads surrounding the compound to talk to each other after their squad leaders had been wounded.”
bullet Some agents had not been supplied with contingency plans for encountering heavy gunfire, even though supervisors knew that the cult had for years been stockpiling weapons and suspected that sect members had been converting semi-automatic weapons into automatic weapons to make them more deadly.”
bullet “Some agents’ requests to take more powerful weapons were denied and many had only handguns to face the cult’s arsenal, which included many rifles and at least one .50-caliber weapon.”
bullet “Some agents had not been briefed about the operation until a day earlier and had never been told of the cache of assault-style weapons they would be facing.”
bullet “The firearms bureau did not bring a doctor or set up a dispensary to treat wounded agents, a practice of the FBI. Wounded agents ended up being carried, some by other agents, others on the hoods of trucks and cars, down a muddy road hundreds of yards to await medical assistance.”
No Faith in Promised Federal Investigation - Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen, whose department oversees the BATF, has promised a full and independent investigation of the raid. But the Times’s sources say they do not trust Bentsen to launch such an investigation; presumably this explains why they agreed to talk to the Times about the raid. The BATF and FBI agents have been ordered not to publicly discuss the raid, and say the orders on the subject implied they would be disciplined and prosecuted for describing the events of the raid. [New York Times, 3/27/1993]

Entity Tags: Stephen Higgins, Lloyd Bentsen, New York Times, Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, David Koresh, Philip Chojnacki, Branch Davidians

Timeline Tags: 1993 Branch Davidian Crisis

Stephen Higgins, the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), defends the bureau’s raid on the Branch Davidian compound (see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993), and disputes accounts by some agents that the raid was poorly planned and executed (see March 27, 1993). “We did it in what we thought was the safest way, and we had a tragedy,” Higgins says on NBC’s Today show. Higgins and the BATF are weathering a pointed lack of support from Clinton administration officials. “If people want to re-examine us as an agency, that’s fine; we’re not afraid of that,” he says. “We think we’re an agency that does good work, that the people who were there that day performed bravely.” Higgins refuses to directly address the accounts of agents who say that the raid went poorly in part because the BATF lost the element of surprise before the raid began, saying: “This was a plan that depended on the element of surprise. We would not have executed the plan if our supervisors felt like we had lost that element. So my position has been and continues to be that we did not believe that we had lost that element of surprise.” He does admit that some agents had asked to carry heavier firearms than handguns and were turned down by their supervisors. [New York Times, 3/30/1993; New York Times, 4/3/1993]

Entity Tags: US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Branch Davidians, Clinton administration, Stephen Higgins, David Koresh

Timeline Tags: 1993 Branch Davidian Crisis

Stephen Higgins, the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), now admits that some elements of the BATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound (see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993) may have been flawed. Days before, Higgins told an interviewer that the raid went off as planned, and did not end well because someone alerted the Davidians to the impending raid (see March 30, 1993). Testifying before a Senate subcommittee, Higgins says, “We probably will find things we did right and things we did wrong, and we will respond accordingly.” Higgins refuses to answer specific questions about the events leading up to the assault on the compound, but he now admits that BATF supervisors may have decided to stage the raid even after losing the element of surprise, as a number of BATF and FBI agents have claimed (see March 27, 1993). That is “an open question” under review, he testifies. He also admits that the Davidians may have known there were federal agents mounting an undercover operation (see January 11, 1993 and After). “I can’t say to my knowledge it’s not true,” he says. Previously, Higgins denied that the undercover agents were discovered. [New York Times, 4/3/1993]

Entity Tags: US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Branch Davidians, Stephen Higgins

Timeline Tags: 1993 Branch Davidian Crisis

A New York Times op-ed excoriates the federal government for allowing the FBI to assault the Branch Davidian compound outside of Waco, Texas, a decision that resulted in the fiery deaths of 78 Davidians (see April 19, 1993). “[T]here was nothing divinely ordained by yesterday’s catastrophe,” the op-ed states, and says that Attorney General Janet Reno’s later explanation of events (see April 19, 1993) clearly shows “time was on the authorities’ side, and they threw it away.” The op-ed finds Reno’s characterization of the assault as an incremental increase in pressure on the Davidians to be specious: “[A]ssault by an armored vehicle equipped to poke holes in buildings seems like a large escalation of force more likely to make cultists think that D-Day had indeed arrived.” The op-ed credits the FBI agents on site with restraint in not returning fire when the Davidians fired on them, but says both the bureau and Reno “sadly… miss the point” of the debacle. “The miscalculation was near-total,” it says. The op-ed concludes: “The Koresh affair has been mishandled from beginning to end (see March 27, 1993). It started with a bungled attack by Federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents in which four agents and unknown number of cultists were killed (see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993), and ended in yesterday’s FBI misjudgment. The hard lesson is that patience and determination do not cost lives, but impatience does. Does anyone now doubt that it would have been better to let the standoff in Waco continue?” [New York Times, 4/20/1993]

Entity Tags: US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Branch Davidians, Federal Bureau of Investigation, New York Times, Janet Reno, David Koresh

Timeline Tags: 1993 Branch Davidian Crisis


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