The Latest, Greatest Waco Whitewash,
by James Bovard
Saint Jack slays the truth and saves the Feds!
[[James Bovard is author of the just-published "Feeling Your Pain": The Explosion & Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years (St. Martin's Press).]]
After the FBI finally admitted last August that it had fired pyrotechnic rounds on April 19, 1993, at Waco before a fire broke out that killed scores of women and children, Attorney General Janet Reno scrambled to defuse public outrage by hand-picking former Sen. John Danforth to conduct an "independent" investigation to finally get the truth on Waco. As TAS warned ("Waco Returns," December 1999/January 2000), Danforth from the start made clear he would limit the scope of his work; he also appointed as chief investigator a federal attorney who himself was being investigated by the Justice Department. In late July, after word spread that Danforth was a finalist for the Bush campaign's vice-presidential slot, he rushed out his report even though his investigation was not finished. Danforth, aided by a crack team of 20 postal inspectors and other federal officials, spent $12 million and ten months investigating Waco. On releasing his report, Danforth--known in Senate days as Saint Jack--showed his hand one last time: "I think when people are intent on burning themselves up, there's not much you can do about it." The sentiment was eerily similar to that expressed by President Clinton a few days after the fatal fire: "I do not think the United States government is responsible for the fact that a bunch of fanatics decided to kill themselves."
The powers that be immediately hailed Danforth's report as the final word on Waco. "Seven years of absorbing unproven allegations and unfounded criticisms has levied a heavy burden on the agents who were at Waco and their families as well," FBI Director Louis Freeh declared. "This report brings great solace to them in that its findings reaffirm that which we have always believed--they did their best and for all the right reasons." Said Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder: "We join Senator Danforth in wishing that this report begins the process of restoring the faith of the people in their government." PBS "NewsHour" host Jim Lehrer went so far as to congratulate Danforth on national television: "You did tremendous investigating."
But even by the standard of recent Washington whitewashes, the report is a disgrace. Not only is it more pro-FBI than the FBI itself, it ends up reviving discredited Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms charges that the Justice Department abandoned six years ago. Danforth performs contortions to justify dismissing stark bureaucratic guilty pleas. Danforth's is probably the first investigation into a cover-up that justifies the cover-up. None of this is surprising, given that Danforth's main goal throughout was not to determine what government did so much as to correct the public bad attitude toward the use of tanks against civilians.
Danforth masterfully dredges up and reprints any possible exculpatory material for the feds--and ignores key issues on which the government has no defense. His report begins by stating that Koresh and the Davidians "shot and killed four [ATF] agents" and "wounded 20 others." The premise is that the Davidians had wrongfully killed and wounded dozens of federal agents--and thus deserved whatever treatment they subsequently received. Entirely ignored is the planned violence behind the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms' initial raid. On February 28, 1993, more than 70 agents rolled up to the Davidians' home in two cattle cars and jumped out shouting "Showtime!" The plan was for one group of agents to break through the front door while a second took ladders and smashed through the windows on the second floor. The ATF never attempted to present the search warrant.
Making no attempt to determine which side shot first--that was "a matter outside the scope of the Attorney General's Order to the Special Counsel"--the report instead states, "There is no dispute that the Davidians were prepared for a gun battle and had ATF significantly outgunned." But there is ample evidence the ATF started the gun battle. ATF agent Roland Ballesteros, one of the first agents out of the cattle trailer during the raid, later told the Texas Rangers that he believed federal agents fired the first shots--perhaps to kill five dogs that could have bitten the agents. As early as 36 hours after the initial raid, the feds abandoned routine law enforcement procedure to avoid gathering potentially embarrassing evidence of their conduct early in the raid. According to a confidential September 17, 1993 Treasury Department memo, the ATF had initiated a shooting review on March 1 and "immediately determined that these stories [of agents involved] did not add up."
The report never discusses the excellent relations Koresh had with local law enforcement. It notes instead that "Koresh and his followers harbored strong anti-government views, that he expected confrontation with the federal government, and that he and his followers viewed such confrontation as a means to religious salvation"--as if that justified the government assault that followed. Danforth doesn't mention that only nine days before the ATF attack David Koresh had gone target shooting with three undercover ATF agents (whom he recognized as G-men). After the raid the same ATF insisted that Koresh never went outside the "compound"--and thus the agency needed to launch a full-scale attack to get him. But Koresh could easily have been arrested while target shooting. None of this interests Danforth.
The Right to Lie About Drugs
Before the February 28 raid, ATF officials were told that it would be illegal for the U.S. military to assist them unless there was a "drug nexus" to the case. A few days later, the ATF informed military officials that they suspected the Davidians had a methamphetamine lab in their basement. ATF agents then received training in close-quarters combat and called in military helicopters from the Texas National Guard to assist in the assault. The ATF also requested the military to supply "100 gas masks, 500 sandbags, 90 sleeping bags, 15 night-vision goggles, a water tank truck, ten tents (including one for 'VIP sleeping'), along with electric generators and smoke generators 'to cover two square kilometers with concealment smoke,'" as the Dallas Morning News reported.
Despite such extensive preparations, the drug charge vanished immediately after the raid, and federal prosecutors never raised the issue at the surviving Davidians' 1994 trial. To even raise the drug nexus issue at this stage reveals the lengths Danforth was willing to go to defend federal behavior. While admitting that "the Office of Special Counsel did not extensively investigate the basis for ATF's assertion that there was a drug nexus," the report nonetheless concludes "there is some evidence prior to February 28, 1993, connecting 'drug activity' with the complex which could form the basis of a drug nexus."
Indeed, there had been some "meth" activity at the Davidian residence--in the mid-1980's. But when David Koresh took over the group in the late 1980's, he personally asked the local sheriff to haul away all the meth-related equipment. To justify military help the ATF relied almost solely on dated, unsubstantiated charges from one former Davidian who had left Texas three years before and was working with a "cult-buster" group. The ATF told the military it had records of large deliveries of precursory chemicals for meth to the Davidian residence--but could never produce any such evidence.
Methamphetamine labs are very dangerous to disassemble; yet, as a 1996 report on Waco by two committees of the House of Representatives noted, the ATF had declined an offer from the Drug Enforcement Administration "of direct assistance from a DEA Clandestine Certified Laboratory Team." The ATF also scoffed at a memo prepared by the military on the risks involved in raiding a meth lab; the congressional report concluded that this reaction made "clear that the ATF believed that a methamphetamine lab did not exist." The House report concluded that "the ATF intentionally misled Defense Department and military personnel" regarding the existence of the meth lab. Danforth is interested in none of this.
The "Independent" Reenactment
A key issue for Danforth was whether FBI agents fired on Davidians during the final attack on April 19. Rhythmic patterns on Forward Looking Infrared ("FLIR") tapes strongly suggested automatic weapons fire came from positions near the FBI tanks. Edward Allard, a former Pentagon expert on FLIR, concluded that the tape definitely indicated fire from the government side toward the Davidians, as did an independent investigation by "60 Minutes." To settle the question of whether the images on the FLIR tapes were actual gunfire, Danforth persuaded federal Judge Walter Smith to conduct a reenactment of the final day's action. Danforth personally chose Vector Data Systems to carry out the tests, with U.S. military assistance, and to evaluate the results.
It was a curious choice. Danforth and the Justice Department have repeatedly identified Vector as an independent British company. But Vector is hardly an independent testing organization. It is actually owned by Anteon, a large American corporation that on its Web page boasts of contracts with 50 federal agencies, including the White House Communications Agency. At Danforth's request, the public and the news media were banned from the reenactment last March 19 at Fort Hood, Texas. A month later, Vector reported that the tapes of the reenactment, like its analysis of the tapes from April 19, 1993, showed zero gunfire. This was peculiar--since the FBI had claimed that the Branch Davidians had been firing at the tanks throughout the morning of the final assault. Jim Brannon, a lawyer for Davidian survivors, complained: "Vector was either incompetent or they willfully sabotaged the test."
The FBI's "Firecrackers"
Danforth repeatedly minimizes or comically misrepresents the amount of force the feds used against the Davidians. Confidential FBI documents made public last fall reveal that during the 51-day siege, FBI agents repeatedly threw flash-bang grenades at Davidians who tried to leave the residence. When Sen. Charles Grassley asked Danforth about this at a post-report hearing (attended by only three senators), Danforth replied that flash-bangs are "in the nature, as I understand it, of, you know, firecrackers. They make a flash and they make a bang. And they don't cause injury, as a general rule...."
In his report and in subsequent interviews Danforth has insisted that he has "100 percent certainty" that his conclusions vindicating federal actions are correct. His Senate testimony, however, contained glaring factual errors. For instance, Danforth asserted that the FBI did not use flash-bang grenades during the final day's action at Waco. Yet FBI Deputy Director Floyd Clarke told Congress nine days after the assault that the FBI's plan was to "immediately and totally immerse the place in gas, and throw in flash-bangs which would disorient them...."
Danforth's claims to the contrary, flash-bangs are not harmless firecrackers. In Vancouver, Washington, two years ago a flash-bang blew the hand off of a 13-year-old girl, and two apartment residents in Minneapolis were killed by a flash-bang in 1989. Flash-bangs also have a history of starting fires. A Fitchburg, Massachusetts SWAT team raided an apartment building in 1996 and used flash-bang grenades to terrify and disorient people inside; one flash-bang set fire to a couch, which led to the building burning down. A flash-bang started an apartment fire in Minneapolis this past March and set a house on fire in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1997. According to Mike McNulty, one of the masterminds of the prize-winning 1997 film Waco: Rules of Engagement (see "Waco: The Documentary" by James Bowman, TAS, August 1997), six flash-bang devices were found in the rubble after the fire--including three found at or near the locations where the fire started.
The FBI's reversal and admission that it used pyrotechnic devices to inject tear gas on the final day was the key factor in re-igniting Waco last year. Yet Danforth told the Senate that "the use of the pyrotechnics, itself, under these circumstances was not a big thing." Danforth also assured the senators: "I don't think that there's been anybody that I know of connected with the government who has ever believed that the use of pyrotechnics, in this case, had anything to do with the fire." His report concludes that the FBI fired only three pyrotechnic rounds in the final assault--and that they were fired at a construction pit some distance away, four hours before the fire broke out--and that they were irrelevant to anything unfortunate that happened that day. But according to Mike McNulty, the Danforth report "is silent that there were other 40 mm projectiles [i.e., pyrotechnic rounds] that were passed through the building and were recovered" outside the building after the fire. McNulty also notes that "if any other rounds of 40 mm ordnance were fired into the building that day--we believe there was evidence [of such firings] on the FLIR--if they remained inside the building, they would have melted into an unidentifiable blob of metal."
Danforth does not ask what the FBI was doing with military-style rounds during its final assault, and he doesn't care that the FBI and Janet Reno deceived Congress on this issue. Reno swore to a congressional committee in 1995 that the FBI used no pyrotechnic devices at Waco. Richard Rogers, the FBI operations commander who gave the order to use the weapons, sat right behind her at the hearing. According to Reno, Rogers was there to correct any mistakes that might inadvertently be made. Why did Rogers fail to speak up? He told Danforth's investigators that he wasn't paying attention and didn't notice when the issue of pyrotechnics was raised. In shrugging off Rogers's response, Danforth said it's difficult to prosecute anyone for not paying attention. Danforth is so unfamiliar with the record that he insists that Reno testified on this issue in 1993, not 1995. In his Senate testimony, Danforth claimed that the five-year statute of limitations for possible prosecution of Rogers had expired. Actually, it had not at the time Danforth's report was released, though it has by now.
The Accidental Demolition
Some of the section headings in Danforth's report make it appear that Waco was a huge law enforcement success--such as the description of the origins of the FBI tank-gas assault: "The FBI Develops a Tactical Solution to the Standoff."
Nowhere does Danforth distort reality more than in discussing whether the FBI intentionally destroyed much of the Davidians' home while the women and children were still inside, possibly incapacitated by tear gas. After the FBI had gassed the Davidians for more than four hours and exhausted almost its entire gas supply, FBI tank drivers were ordered to demolish the building. In the next hour, tanks smashed into the residence eight times and collapsed at least one-quarter of the Davidians' home. The Dallas Morning News summarized government documents released late last year on the tank assault: "Just before noon, [FBI on-scene commander Richard] Rogers ordered tanks in front to drive deep [into the building] toward the compound tower. At its base was a concrete room where officials believed the 'hostiles' were hiding, records show." As FBI Deputy Director Floyd Clarke admitted in 1995 congressional testimony, "the destruction of the building was part of the ultimate plan" to bring the siege to an end. FBI commanders, in a June 24, 1993 memo, recommended that the two agents in the tank who did the most to destroy the building receive the FBI Shield of Bravery; the memo stated, "At mid-morning...[the two agents] were given the mission of slowly and methodically beginning dismantling...the gymnasium." (The FBI withheld this memo from Congress in 1995; it came out late last year.)
Despite all this evidence, Danforth concludes that FBI agents never intended to demolish the building. Ignoring the 1993 memo, Danforth accepts at face value 1995 testimony of FBI on-scene commanders Jeffrey Jamar and Richard Rogers, who insisted that the tanks were not attempting to bring the building down. In the report's stunningly convenient words, the Office of Special Counsel "is confident the quoted language [in the 1993 memo] is simply incorrect." The report continues: "While the  document contradicts the  testimony of Jamar and Rogers...on March 3, 1994, Jamar resubmitted a revised Recommendation in which the above-quoted language was deleted." But this deletion occurred after the start of the murder trial of the surviving Davidians--someone in the FBI perhaps realized that the original would be an embarrassment if it then became public. Just to be safe, Danforth's report even questions the authenticity of the 1993 memo: "[It] was submitted by Jamar and Rogers, although the investigation has not yet determined whether either of them or someone else prepared the document."
Danforth is dismissive not only of written evidence but of convincing visual evidence. Waco: Rules of Engagement, which won an Emmy and was nominated for an Academy Award, shows lengthy footage of FBI tanks repeatedly and systematically demolishing much of the building. Yet Danforth laments in the report's preface: "Sensational films construct dark theories out of little evidence and gain ready audiences for their message." Later in the report, Danforth asserts: "The FLIR video does not show a 'deliberate and surgical...dismantling of the gymnasium,' and the agents in [the tank] were fully credible in stating that they were not given the mission to dismantle the gymnasium." It's unlikely that anyone not on the federal payroll would reach that conclusion from watching the tape.
If, as Danforth insists, the tanks weren't intent on destroying the building, what were they doing? They just wanted "to make a path to the base of the tower," to make it easier to gas the Davidians. The report later claims that the tanks were also trying to create "exit routes" to allow the Davidians to leave their residence peacefully. But as noted by former federal attorney David Hardy, author of a forthcoming book on Waco, the Davidians' residence had roughly "seven doors, 69 windows, and an underground tunnel." Was the FBI assuming that, instead of jumping out of a window, people gasping from tear gas would prefer to claw through jagged rubble and debris--and perhaps be crushed by a tank's next intrusion?
While assigning the best of intentions to the tank drivers, Danforth does admit, "There is evidence that structural debris, which resulted from an FBI vehicle breaching the complex, interfered with a potential escape route by blocking the trapdoor leading to an underground bus which was located on the west end of the complex." This bus was the primary refuge for people inside--and the FBI intentionally blocked access to it early on to prevent an escape from the gas. At the civil trial in Waco, 17-year-old Misty Ferguson, who was burned so badly in the fire that her fingers had to be amputated, testified that the FBI tank attack caused the floor in her second-story bedroom to buckle. Eventually she escaped the fire by jumping out a window.
Danforth's report also concedes that the openings created by the tanks resulted in a "consequent accelerated spread of the fire." Yet it insists that the FBI action "did not contribute to the deaths of the Davidians." According to television footage, once the fire started, the building quickly became an inferno; Danforth himself dismisses the building as a "firetrap." Apparently he assumes that, regardless of how fast the fire spread, the fanatical Davidians would have stayed inside to be toasted for the greater glory of God and David Koresh. Perhaps that's what the FBI believed as well. Its commanders in early April decided that, if a fire did break out, the feds would make no effort to douse it. On-scene commander Jamar prohibited fire trucks from getting within half a mile of the burning building until it was too late to hope for survivors.
Cover-Ups With Good Intentions
Danforth's instructions included the following: "Did any employee of the United States make or allow others to make false or misleading statements, or withhold evidence or information from any individual or entity entitled to receive it, or destroy, alter, or suppress evidence or information relative to the events occurring at the Branch Davidian complex on April 19, 1993?" An examination of the evidence makes it well nigh impossible to conclude anything other than that plenty of federal employees did withhold information or make false statements (although sometimes not intentionally). None of this troubles Danforth. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch perfectly summarized his report: "Officials Had Nothing to Hide--But Hid Some Things Anyway."
In his press release praising Danforth's report, FBI chief Louis Freeh states: "All of us in the FBI welcomed the appointment of a Special Counsel in the Waco matter in hopes of once and for all answering what Senator Danforth labeled the 'dark questions.'" Perhaps Freeh forgot to read the report. It happens to detail how Danforth had to contact Freeh personally to gain the cooperation of FBI officials who refused to disclose information to his investigators.
On the other hand, Freeh can only delight in the way Danforth excuses the bureau's egregious mistakes. The report examines why information about the FBI's use of pyrotechnic devices--which, according to Newsweek, was known by "as many as 100 FBI agents and officials"--hadn't been disclosed in previous investigations. Danforth finds the culprit: An FBI lawyer had it on her "to do" list in 1996 to inform higher-ups about the pyrotechnics but, for some reason or other, never got around to it. As Danforth explained to the Senate: ''What happened in this case was that this fairly young lawyer simply goofed, simply failed to do an adequate job.... The fact that she blundered in not turning over the information was a little thing; it was a human thing." Danforth vehemently opposed prosecuting the FBI lawyer for her alleged obstruction of justice.
In the report's preface, Danforth goes to great lengths to defend dissembling federal officials: "In today's world, it is perhaps understandable that government officials are reluctant to make full disclosures of information for fear that the result of candor will be personal or professional ruin. Any misstep yields howls of indignation, calls for resignations, and still more investigations. Several Department of Justice personnel told Office of Special Counsel investigators that they viewed the 1995 Congressional hearings as a partisan effort to attack Attorney General Reno. An FBI official complained about the 'us against them' atmosphere." In his comments on the 1995 hearings, Danforth says nothing about the Clinton administration's orchestrated efforts to smear congressional critics as enemies of law enforcement and dangers to the republic. Nor does Danforth ever criticize the FBI or the Justice Department for ignoring subpoenas and withholding vital evidence from those hearings. Danforth defends Reno, the mastermind of the Justice Department's first Waco investigation in 1993 which even a New York Times editorial denounced as a "whitewash."
Danforth As National Therapist
As he made clear at the outset, Danforth said he would look primarily at the intentions of federal officials--to see whether "agents engaged in bad acts, not whether they exercised bad judgment. It is an important distinction." The problem is that Danforth apparently made up his mind about the feds' motives even before he began his investigation. In his view, "the theory that the government deliberately shot or otherwise harmed the Davidians runs contrary to the overwhelming evidence, before, during, and after the fire, that the government officials occupied themselves with resolving the standoff in a peaceful manner that would preserve life if at all possible." Yet, on the day after the Waco fire, the FBI's Larry Potts, who supervised the standoff from the FBI's Washington headquarters, explained the rationale for the final onslaught: "Those people thumbed their nose at law enforcement."
It doesn't matter to Danforth that the FBI decided not to prepare for any fire that might result from the raid. It doesn't matter, because by definition every federal official acted with the best of intentions--even those who lied to get military aid, those who led an unnecessary military-style no-knock assault on the Davidians' home, those who tear-gassed the children, those who accidentally crushed much of the building after many occupants may have been semi-paralyzed from the gassing, and those who subsequently lied and obstructed justice. As the report states, the burden is on "all of us" to "be more skeptical of those who make sensational accusations of evil acts by government." In other words, whatever the latest version of the Absolute Truth might be, citizens must heartily accept it--at least until government changes the story again.
In the most revealing passage of the entire report, Danforth in its preface expresses the hope that his findings will "begin the process of restoring the faith of the people in their government and the faith of the government in the people." In his view, government officials have been wrongfully victimized by public distrust. At least he doesn't demand that critics now send a personal apology to Janet Reno.