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Context of 'April 12, 1993: Attorney General Considers Tear-Gas Plan for Waco Standoff; FBI Misleads Reno into Believing Assault Is Only Viable Option'

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Attorney General Janet Reno discusses tear-gassing the Branch Davidian compound (see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993, March 1, 1993, and April 7, 1993) with senior Justice Department and FBI officials. At first she is reluctant to approve any such plan, asking repeatedly, “Why now, why not wait?” but as the discussion progresses, she becomes more convinced that action must be taken (see April 9, 1993). The plan is presented not as an all-out assault, but as a staged assault whereby gas is used on parts of the compound, theoretically allowing sect members to exit through uncontaminated areas. Reno asks if it is feasible to cut the water supply to the compound. [PBS Frontline, 10/1995] Reno has little real knowledge of the level of infighting and dissension among the FBI officials involved in the standoff (see March 31, 1993). The FBI officials who come to her office give no hint that many are recommending that the negotiations continue and the pressure on the Davidians be lessened. Reporter Peter Boyer will later note that Reno, a Washington outsider only a month into the job (see March 12, 1993), has no “cadre of confidants” willing to give her an unvarnished, complete picture of events. Instead, the FBI officials, led by Director William Sessions, present her with what Boyer will call a “united front,” all agreeing that negotiations have completely broken down and action is now the only option. [New Yorker, 5/15/1995] In 1995, FBI profiler Peter Smerick will claim that top FBI officials “misled” Reno by not providing her with work by himself and other FBI behavioral analysts and negotiators that warned of the risks of such an assault (see 1995). Unbeknownst to Reno, the Washington FBI officials have sent a high-priority request to the FBI commanders in Waco asking for “specific documentation to support our position” that tear gas is the only option. The request outlines how the information would be used to argue against waiting out the Davidians. The request also states the FBI’s plan for addressing questions about negotiations in the report to the attorney general: “The universal assessment of all involved—including FBI and outside consultants: that negotiation would not work,” it says. [Dallas Morning News, 3/6/2000]

Entity Tags: William S. Sessions, Janet Reno, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Branch Davidians, Peter Smerick, US Department of Justice, Peter Boyer

Timeline Tags: 1993 Branch Davidian Crisis

A variety of military-grade CS gas canisters. A ruler lies between them as a size reference. It is unclear if the FBI plans to use canisters similar to these in the Davidian assault.A variety of military-grade CS gas canisters. A ruler lies between them as a size reference. It is unclear if the FBI plans to use canisters similar to these in the Davidian assault. [Source: British Ordnance Collectors]Attorney General Janet Reno approves a modified version of the FBI’s original plan to flush the Branch Davidian compound, Mt. Carmel, with tear gas and force the departure of the 80-odd members (see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993, March 1, 1993, and April 7, 1993). Reno rejected an earlier plan, instead asking for further review (see April 14-15, 1993). According to a later Justice Department report, she gives the prepared material “only a cursory review, leaving tactical decisions to those at Waco,” and begins discussing rules of engagement with FBI Director William Sessions and his top aides. She briefs President Clinton, who concurs with the plan after asking questions about measures designed to ensure the safety of the children in the compound (see March 28, 1993). According to Reno, who will later discuss her conversation with Clinton: “He said: ‘Have you carefully considered it? Have you looked at everything? Do you feel like this is the best way to go?’ And I said: ‘Yes, sir. It’s my responsibility, and I think it’s the best way to go.’” Ultimately, Clinton says, “it is your decision.” The plan has been under discussion since March 22 (see March 22, 1993); Reno will acknowledge that she has been appraised of such a plan since “around March 27th or sometime near the very end of March.” [New York Times, 4/20/1993; PBS Frontline, 10/1995]
Parameters of Plan - The stated mission of the plan is to “secure the surrender/arrest of all adult occupants of the residence while providing the maximum possible security for the children within the compound.” The plan spans some 48 hours, or until all the Davidians have left the building and surrendered. The raid will start with the first “insertion” of CS gas into the front left portion of the residence, the main building of the compound. After a period of time dependent on the Davidians’ response to the CS gas and any negotiations that might take place, more CS will be inserted into the back right portion of the residence. A third insertion will be made at an unspecified point in the residence. After that, all subsequent insertions will be made through the upper and lower windows of the building. The first three insertions will be made by two combat engineering vehicles (CEVs), military vehicles similar to Bradley fighting vehicles but lacking armaments. The CEVs to be used have been outfitted with boom-like arms capable of punching through the walls of the residence. On the booms are mechanical sprayers for the CS. After the third insertion, agents will fire “ferret” round projectiles through the windows; these are small, non-explosive grenade-like projectiles containing CS gas which break apart upon impact and deliver the gas. In addition, more CS will be inserted by the CEVs. HRT (hostage rescue team) and SWAT (special weapons and tactics) units have specific assignments. Maneuvers for the two CEVs, nine Bradleys, and one M-88 tank retrieval vehicle are also specified. FBI snipers are carefully positioned. A “medical annex” is placed to treat what the plan calls “the potentially large number of casualties which could exceed the current medical capabilities of any single agency present,” and there are procedures to be followed to arrest persons exposed to CS. The annex is prepared to evacuate seriously injured agents or Davidians to local and secondary hospitals, as well as the mass surrender of the Davidians if that occurs. The plan also provides for the possibility that the Davidians might not surrender. In that case, the plan states that “if all subjects failed to surrender after 48 hours of tear gas, then a CEV with a modified blade will commence a systematic opening up/disassembly of the structure until all subjects are located.” If Davidians are observed in the compound’s guard tower, agents will fire ferret rounds into the tower. Also: “If during any tear gas delivery operations, subjects open fire with a weapon, then the FBI rules of engagement will apply and appropriate deadly force will be used. Additionally, tear gas will immediately be inserted into all windows of the compound utilizing the four Bradley vehicles as well as the CEVs.”
No Frontal Assault - The plan has no provision for any sort of frontal assault by armed FBI agents; the planners feel that any such assault would almost certainly result in “significant casualties” among the agents, and might well trigger a mass suicide among the Davidians. [House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, 8/2/1996]
Reno Deliberately Misinformed - Later investigations will show that Reno is being actively misinformed by the FBI in order to secure her approval for the tear gas plan. The FBI procured documentation from the on-site commanders in Waco that supports only the Washington officials’ desire for an aggressive assault using a heavy bombardment of tear gas, and omits material from FBI profiler Pete Smerick and FBI negotiators that warns against such a plan (see April 12, 1993 and 1995). The FBI information presented to Reno does not contain Smerick’s behavioral memos, omits complaints from Smerick and an array of negotiators that negotiations had been progressing until derailed by more aggressive FBI tactics, and omits warnings that using tanks or other force against the Davidians would cause violence and death. The report concludes, “Since negotiations began on Feb. 28, 1993, despite 51 days of efforts, the negotiators have concluded that they have not been able to successfully negotiate a single item with [Davidian leader David] Koresh.” [New Yorker, 5/15/1995; Wall Street Journal, 10/17/1995; Dallas Morning News, 3/6/2000]
Allegations of Child Abuse - A later Justice Department study will show that Reno changes her mind about the plan primarily because she fears the children in the compound are being abused. The FBI’s briefing book notes allegations of child abuse by Davidian leader David Koresh, both sexual and physical. Although the FBI has no evidence of current abuse taking place, someone in the FBI tells Reno that children in the compound are being raped and beaten. According to the Justice Department report, “someone had made a comment in one of the meetings that Koresh was beating babies.” Reno, who came to Washington with the reputation of being a child advocate, later says she “double-checked” the allegation and got “the clear impression that, at some point since the FBI had assumed command and control for the situation, they had learned that the Branch Davidians were beating babies.” However, it is highly unlikely that Koresh is abusing children, largely because the wounds he suffered in the February 28 shootout sharply limit his mobility. Dr. Bruce Perry, chief of psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital, has closely examined the children already released from the compound, and concluded that none of them had been subjected to sexual or physical abuse. Perry will later say of the child-abuse allegations, “The FBI maximized things they knew would ring a bell with her.” [New Yorker, 5/15/1995; Wall Street Journal, 10/17/1995] FBI Director William Sessions says on April 19 that no direct evidence exists of current sexual or physical abuse going on among the Davidians. Reno will later state that she possessed “no contemporary evidence” of such abuse. [PBS Frontline, 10/1995] Additionally, some FBI officials worry that Koresh and the other adults may try to break out of the compound using the children as human shields, though no evidence supports this fear. [House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, 8/2/1996]
Reno Not Told CS Gas Can Be Flammable - The CS gas to be used is also flammable under certain conditions, a fact of which Reno may not be aware. [Dick J. Reavis, 7/19/1995; Wall Street Journal, 10/17/1995]
Exaggerated Warnings of Militia Members En Route - Reno will later state that she receives warnings during the briefings about the possibility that armed militia members may be preparing to converge on Waco to join Koresh in resisting the law enforcement forces gathered around the Mt. Carmel compound (see April 3, 1993). Later investigation shows that the “threat” of “armed militias” consists of one Indianapolis lawyer, Linda Thompson, who has promised to load people into a van, drive to Waco, and protest for the right to bear arms. Thompson says she is part of an organization called the Unorganized Militia of the United States, an organization of which few Justice Department officials are aware. [Wall Street Journal, 10/17/1995]
'Highly Irresponsible' - A House committee investigation in 1996 will find Reno’s decision to approve the assault “highly irresponsible,” and will find, “The final assault put the children at the greatest risk” (see August 2, 1996). [House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, 8/2/1996]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Janet Reno, Linda Thompson, David Koresh, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Branch Davidians, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Bruce Perry, Peter Smerick, William S. Sessions

Timeline Tags: 1993 Branch Davidian Crisis

The cover of Conway and Siegelman’s book ‘Snapping.’The cover of Conway and Siegelman’s book ‘Snapping.’ [Source: aLibris (.com)]In their book Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change, authors Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman write of their recent interviews with several law enforcement officials who dealt with various aspects of the Branch Davidian siege (see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993), the final tragic assault (see April 19, 1993), and the aftermath.
Former Deputy Attorney General Admits FBI Unprepared for Dealing with 'Cult' Behaviors - Former Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann took his post on April 19, 1993, the day of the assault on the Davidian compound, and managed the Justice Department (DOJ) review of the siege and assault (see October 8, 1993). Heymann acknowledges that the FBI went into the siege unprepared to deal with a “cult,” as many label that particular group of the Branch Davidian sect, an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists Church. “The FBI was trained to deal with terrorists,” Heymann tells the authors, “but it wasn’t trained to deal with a religious group with a messianic leader. There was no precedent of the FBI’s handling such a situation and there had been no planning for one.” Heymann says he conducted the DOJ review less to assign blame than to help improve federal authorities’ future responses to situations like the Davidian confrontation, and even less connected situations such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (see February 26, 1993). “I wanted to see that we were organized in such a way that, if this situation came up again in any form, including an extreme Islamic fundamentalist group, we could understand how to think about them, how to talk to them, when to put pressure on and when not to put pressure on, all the things that go into negotiations,” Heymann says. He acknowledges that many DOJ and FBI officials are uncomfortable with the idea of cults and with the tactical changes dealing with such groups requires. “I hesitated to use any of those terms,” he says. “We tried to avoid labeling the group as a ‘cult’ suggesting crazies. There was a purposeful attempt to not give the group one label or another. The general understanding was that we were dealing with a, you know, a group that had passionate beliefs, that was extremely suspicious of the government.… We wanted to avoid having to dispute the people who, on the one side, treat groups like this as just another fundamentalist religion and, on the other, regard them as a dangerous form of mind control. I did not want to come down on one side or the other of that debate.” Conway and Siegelman believe that the FBI’s reluctance to deal with the “cult” aspect of the Davidians helped bring about the deaths of the Davidians on the final day of the siege. Heymann admits that many in the FBI and DOJ ignored or downplayed warnings that as a cult, the Davidians were prone to take unreasonable actions, such as hopeless confrontations with authorities and even mass suicide (see February 24-27, 1993, Around 4:00 p.m. February 28, 1993, March 5, 1993, March 7-8, 1993, March 12, 1993, (March 19, 1993), and March 23, 1993), and that some officials denied ever receiving those warnings after the final conflagration. “I think you have to assume that any organization after a result like this is going to try to play down their responsibility, but we ought to have picked that up in our report and I’m disappointed if we weren’t skeptical enough,” he says. He concludes: “I think we’re going to be prepared to confront any obvious illegality done in the name of religion. If someone commits a serious crime, like killing government agents, there’s no doubt that the government will be prepared to use force to make an arrest. But if they haven’t, if it’s a question of whether people have been brainwashed, I think you’ll continue to see the same history we’ve had for the last 20 or 30 years. We don’t really have any way of deciding whether brainwashing is holding someone against one’s will or not, or what to do about it.”
DOJ Assistant - Richard Scruggs, an assistant to the attorney general, worked with Heymann on the DOJ review, assembling the timeline of events of the siege. He recalls: “The AG [Attorney General Janet Reno] started here two weeks into the siege. I arrived two weeks later and, by that time, planning was already well underway to get the people out of the compound. After the fire, I was called in to try to figure out what the hell had happened. We did a thousand interviews. We got every piece of the story from everyone’s perspective.” He discusses the array of evidence and opinions the DOJ received concerning the reaction the Davidians were likely to have to the increasingly harsh and aggressive tactics mounted by the FBI during the siege. “The whole issue of suicide and the psychological makeup of Koresh and his followers was obviously something we looked into,” Scruggs says. “The bureau [FBI] sought dozens of expert opinions and many more were offered. There were literally hundreds of people calling in with advice, not just people off the street but people from recognized institutes and universities. The result was that FBI commanders, both in Waco and in Washington, had so many opinions, ranging from ‘they’ll commit suicide as soon as you make any move at all’ to ‘they’ll never commit suicide,’ that it really allowed them to pick whichever experts confirmed their own point of view. The experts FBI officials judged to be the most accurate were those who said suicide was unlikely, which turned out to be wrong.” Scruggs acknowledges that Reno was not given examples of all the opinions expressed, saying, “She only got the no-suicide opinion.” He insists that Reno was aware of the possibility of suicide, and offers two possible explanations as to why the FBI officials only gave her selected and slanted information (see April 17-18, 1993). “My first impression was that someone made a conscious decision to keep this information away from the AG,” he says. “It certainly looked that way. On the other hand, sometimes these things just happen, one decision leads to another, and nobody really thinks things through. I think the people who were putting together the material truly believed there was a low chance of suicide and then simply picked the materials that confirmed what they wanted to believe.” Scruggs acknowledges that DOJ and FBI officials ignored the warnings given by two FBI “profilers,” Peter Smerick and Mark Young (see March 3-4, 1993, March 7-8, 1993, and March 9, 1993). “Oh yes, absolutely,” he says. “Smerick and Young got wiped out by the on-site commander, who wanted a combination of negotiation and increasing pressure on the compound, the so-called ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach.” Scruggs, unlike Heymann and other government officials, says that the FBI “believes strongly in mind control, believe me.… There was a great debate going on in the bureau whether Koresh was a con man or whether he really thought he was some kind of messiah, but whichever he was there was no doubt that he was effectively controlling the rest of the people. Everybody assumed that.… Everybody believed he did it through some kind of brainwashing or mind control. We scrubbed the report of words like that, but the bureau used them. They fully understood that.” The mistake that was made during the siege was in believing that the increasingly aggressive “psywar” tactics used during the siege, even during the initial hours of the assault itself, was that “by making it very uncomfortable, they could overcome the control Koresh exercised over the rest and get out a large number of the women and children. They even used the phrase ‘the motherhood instinct.’”
Alternatives Considered and Rejected - But the options aside from assaulting the compound were in some ways worse. “The options were minimal. They could have killed Koresh—the Israelis couldn’t understand why he didn’t do that. The HRT had Koresh in their sights 50 times. They could have killed him and all his leaders and that would have been the end of it, but that was not an option. They looked into all kinds of other things. One official had heard rumors that the government had a secret weapon, like a laser weapon or sound weapon, that could vibrate people in some non-lethal way and get them out of there. We didn’t. We found out later there was a microwave weapon, but they couldn’t use it because it affected people differently based on their body size and weight. It didn’t do much to big people but it tended to cook little people.” Scruggs says that there was no “win” in any scenario they considered. “I’m not saying that mistakes weren’t made, because they were,” he says, “but I became firmly convinced in my own mind, after looking at this 16 hours a day for six months, that it was Koresh’s game. He was, in effect, controlling us no less than he was controlling his own people.” Scruggs echoes the words of senior FBI agent Byron Sage, who was present for the siege and the assault, who will say five years later that Koresh “had an apocalyptic end in mind, and he used us to fulfill his own prophecy” (see January 2000). Carl Stern, director of public affairs for the Department of Justice, was present at the decision-making sessions held in Reno’s office, and saw the FBI present its tear-gas assault plan for her approval. Stern, like Reno and others, was new to Washington and to the Davidian situation, and recalls the turmoil of meetings and decisions in the final weekend before the assault on Monday, April 19. “I arrived here on Tuesday and had my first meeting on Waco 15 minutes after I walked in the door,” Stern says. “Two people from the criminal division were advocating the tear gas plan. I took the other position and we argued it in front of the attorney general. The next day I attended a meeting where I really felt the idea had been turned off. I was confident that nothing was going forward (see April 12, 1993). Then on Saturday it got turned around 180 degrees” (see April 17-18, 1993). Stern is still unsure why the opposition to the assault plan disappeared so thoroughly. “The AG [Reno] was there with her deputies, the FBI director [William Sessions] was there with his deputies, and they were going through the whole thing all over again.” Stern summarizes the list of official priorities that weighed in favor of the action. “The FBI was concerned about deteriorating health conditions in the compound. There were dead bodies on the premises. The building had no indoor plumbing. People were defecating in buckets and dumping it in a pit out back and, after 50 days, there was real concern that there would be a massive disease outbreak and the first ones to get sick would be the kids. They were concerned that the perimeter of the compound was highly unstable. It was a large perimeter. There had been several breaches of it. There were rumors that armed pro-Koresh groups might come from Houston or California or elsewhere to put an end to the siege. Finally, the Hostage Rescue Team had been there for 49 days at that point—the longest they had ever gone before was four days. They were in sniper positions around the clock. They were losing their edge, not training, sitting out there in mudholes, and they were afraid if something went wrong in the rest of the country they would not be able to respond.” Stern confirms that one of Reno’s overriding concerns was the reports of child abuse she was receiving. “The AG asked a number of questions and this became the legend of what she was concerned about. She asked first about sanitary conditions. She asked next about sexual assault and child abuse. The FBI replied that if Koresh was still doing what he had been point prior to the raid (see November 3, 1987 and After) he was legally committing statutory rape. Third, the question of beatings came up. As recently as March 21, youngsters had been released who described having been beaten. The consensus was that, at a minimum, the government was not adequately protecting these children, but all that got distorted later.”
Mass Suicide Never Considered an Option for Davidians - Stern also confirms that FBI officials dismissed any idea that the Davidians might commit mass suicide, and that possibility was never figured into the plans for the assault. “What the attorney general heard was the assessment that he was not suicidal,” Stern says. What did figure into the planning was what the authors calls the “tough-cop culture of the FBI, which later evaluators cited as central factors in the proposal by bureau commanders to attack the compound with tear gas.” Stern says, “Remember, four officers had been killed, the FBI had never waited so long in the hostage situation, and from their perspective, it was really untenable that people who had killed federal officers were going on week after week thumbing their noses at law enforcement.”
Assault Did Not Follow Plan - The plans as approved by Reno never contained an option to attack the compound with armored vehicles. “Please keep in mind that there was no plan to demolish the compound. As we said at the time, it was not D-Day. The original plan was a two-day plan for gradual insertion of gas to progressively shrink the usable space and continually encourage people to come out.” The assault was carried out entirely differently; when the Davidians began firing automatic weapons at the armored vehicles and at personnel, ground commanders abandoned the plans and ordered an all-out assault with tear gas and armored vehicles. Even weather conditions played a part in the final conflagration. “No one anticipated the wind,” Stern recalls. “The tanks were not supposed to strike the building, but because of the wind, the gas wasn’t getting in and they had to get closer and finally insert the booms through the window millwork. In the course of doing so, they struck the walls and the roof.” Stern recalls the moments when the fires erupted throughout the compound. “I was in the SIOC [Strategic Intervention Operations Center] when the fire broke out. At first, Floyd Clarke, the FBI’s deputy director, thought an engine had blown on one of the vehicles they had rented from the Army. They didn’t realize what had happened. Then, when it became clear that it was a fire, they all sat there waiting for the people to come out. They were saying, ‘Come on baby, come on out, come on out.’ They were expecting people to come flooding out and there were no people coming out and they were absolutely incredulous. Even when it was over, they were still assuming they would find the kids in the bus they had buried underground.” Stern says FBI and DOJ officials were stunned at the realization that the Davidians had, in essence, committed mass suicide. “All I can tell you is that, given the atmosphere at the time, it was a surprise the suicide occurred. Remember, by then, most of the children in the compound were Koresh’s own. The thought that he would permit his own children to be harmed was inconceivable.” Conway and Siegelman point out that those experienced in “cult” “mind control” techniques had, indeed, anticipated just such an outcome. They theorize “that ranking FBI officers, tired of being manipulated by Koresh and, no doubt, genuinely concerned for the precedents they were setting for future confrontations, may have misguided the attorney general into giving ground commanders too much leeway in the execution of the final assault plan—leeway that, as the tank and tear gas assault progressed, unleashed the full destructive potential of Koresh and the people under his control. However, in our view, that gaping hole in the government’s strategy was not wrought by any battering ram or armored vehicle. Amid the push and pull of the government’s internal debate, the failure of FBI officials in Washington and Waco to heed warning that the cult’s destructive urges would ignite under pressure hastened the demise of the doom-bent Davidians.” The Davidians were never Koresh’s hostages as the FBI viewed them, the authors conclude, but willing participants willing to die for their leader and for their beliefs.
Reno Forced to Rely on FBI - Stern reminds the authors: “The attorney general had only been on the job five weeks. She didn’t even have her own staff yet. She was really flying solo. She had to rely on somebody, so she relied on the FBI and their vaunted Hostage Rescue Team. Those of us who have been around town a little longer know that, while there’s much to admire about the FBI, it does not have an unblemished record. There are times when they have been mistaken. They’re not perfect. In the world of cats and dogs, sometimes they’re closer to dogs than cats. If she had been attorney general for two years and had more experience dealing with the bureau, she might have solicited more information.” [Conway and Siegelman, 1995]

Entity Tags: Flo Conway, David Koresh, Carl Stern, Byron Sage, Branch Davidians, Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI Hostage Rescue Team, US Department of Justice, Philip Heymann, Mark Young, Jim Siegelman, Richard Scruggs, Janet Reno, Floyd Clarke, Peter Smerick

Timeline Tags: 1993 Branch Davidian Crisis

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