Thirty years ago, FBI tanks smashed into the ramshackle home of the Branch Davidians outside Waco, Texas. After the FBI collapsed much of the building atop the residents, a fire erupted and 76 corpses were dug out of the rubble. Unfortunately, the American political system and media have never honestly portrayed the federal abuses and political deceit that led to that carnage.
What lessons can today’s Americans draw from the FBI showdown on the Texas plains 30 years ago?
Purported Good Intentions Absolve Real Deadly Force
Janet Reno, the nation’s first female attorney general, approved the FBI’s assault on the Davidians. Previously, she had zealously prosecuted child abuse cases in Dade County, Florida, though many of her high-profile convictions were later overturned because of gross violations of due process. Reno approved the FBI assault after being told “babies were being beaten.” It is not known who told her about the false claims of child abuse; Reno claimed she couldn’t remember. Her sterling reputation helped the government avoid any apparent culpability for the deaths of 27 children on April 19, 1993. After Reno publicly promised to take responsibility for the outcome at Waco, the media conferred instant sainthood upon her. At a press conference the day after the fire, President Bill Clinton declared, “I was frankly—surprised would be a mild word—to say that anyone that would suggest that the Attorney General should resign because some religious fanatics murdered themselves.” According to a Federal News Service transcript, the White House press corps applauded Clinton’s comment on Reno.
It Is Not an Atrocity If the U.S. Government Does It
Shortly before the Waco showdown, U.S. government officials signed an international Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty pledging never to use nerve agents, mustard gas, and other compounds (including tear gas) against enemy soldiers. But the treaty contained a loophole permitting governments to gas their own people. On April 19, 1993, the FBI pumped CS gas and methyl chloride, a potentially lethal, flammable combination, into the Davidians’ residence for six hours, disregarding explicit warnings that CS gas should not be used indoors. Benjamin Garrett, executive director the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute in Alexandria, Virginia, observed that the CS gas “would have panicked the children. Their eyes would have involuntarily shut. Their skin would have been burning. They would have been gasping for air and coughing wildly. Eventually, they would have been overcome with vomiting in a final hell.” A 1975 U.S. Army publication on the effects of CS gas noted, “Generally, persons reacting to CS are incapable of executing organized and concerted actions and excessive exposure to CS may make them incapable of vacating the area.”
Rep. Steven Schiff (R-NM) declared that “the deaths of dozens of men, women and children can be directly and indirectly attributable to the use of this gas in the way it was injected by the FBI.” Chemistry professor George Uhlig testified to Congress in 1995 that the FBI gas attack probably “suffocated the children early on” and may have converted their poorly ventilated bunker into an area “similar to one of the gas chambers used by the Nazis at Auschwitz.” But during those 1995 hearings, congressional Democrats portrayed the CS gas as innocuous as a Flintstone vitamin.
Orwellian Language Will Vaporize Federal Aggression
As Abrams tanks driven by FBI agents continually battered the Davidian’s home, FBI loudspeakers broadcasted endlessly: “This is not an assault.” According to FBI apologists in the media, that proved the feds did not assault the Davidians. Prior to the fire, the tanks had collapsed 20 percent of the building atop its residents and the FBI planned to totally demolish the home. Grenade launchers on the tanks and other armored vehicles fired almost 400 ferret rounds of CS gas through the thin wooden walls and the windows of the building. Yet Attorney General Reno later insisted: “We didn’t attack. We tried to exercise every restraint possible to avoid violence.” Demolishing someone’s home was supposedly no more bothersome than leaving a Federal Express package on their doorstep. A 1993 Justice Department investigation was so shoddy that even The New York Times denounced the “Waco whitewash.” But that blunt condemnation was soon memory-holed in the rush to absolve the feds.
Don’t Trust Congress to Expose Federal Misconduct
A few days after the conflagration, Reno was heartily praised at a Senate committee hearing and the media made her a national hero. There was little or no sympathy on Capitol Hill for those who died during the final FBI assault. Rep. Jack Brooks (D-TX), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, commented that the Davidians were “horrible people. Despicable people. Burning to death was too good for them.” If Republicans had not captured control of Congress in 1994, there would have been no substantive hearings on Waco. And even those hearings faltered badly at times because so many Republican congressmen wasted their time boasting of their love of law enforcement rather than seeking the truth.
Media Favorites Can Perform Rhetorical Magic Tricks
When Attorney General Reno testified to the House Waco hearing on August 1, 1995, she was challenged on the FBI’s use of 54-ton tanks to assail the Davidians. Reno replied that the tanks were “not military weapons… I mean, it was like a good rent-a-car.” When Rep. Bill Zeliff (R-NH) challenged her, Reno hectored: “I think it is important, Mr. Chairman, as you deal with this issue, not to make statements like that can cause the confusion.” This is the high-toned DC version of the old saying: “Who are you going to believe—me or your lying eyes?” Media coverage of Reno’s showdown with congressional Republicans ignored her rent-a-tank absurdity, and instead praised her toughness and demeanor. (My article in The Wall Street Journal on the day after the hearings was practically the only place Reno got thumped for her “rent-a-car” line.)
Bad Attitudes, Not Federal Atrocities, Are the Real Problem
Waco illustrates how “truth will out” is Washington’s biggest fairy tale. The FBI speedily asserted that the Davidians ignited the fire that consumed their dwelling but never provided convincing evidence on that score. Six years later, independent investigator Michael McNulty found pyrotechnic ferret rounds the FBI fired at the scene prior to the flames erupting in a Texas government evidence warehouse. Attorney General Reno lashed out at the FBI for destroying her credibility but neither she nor FBI officials suffered any consequences from the collapse of the official narrative.
Reno could have recused herself from any role in choosing a new person to reinvestigate Waco. Instead, she personally chose John Danforth, a former Republican senator and a golfing buddy of Clinton’s, to be in charge of the reinvestigation. Danforth, an ordained Episcopal priest whose piety earned him the derisive nickname “Saint Jack,” was one of Washington’s favorite useful idiots of Leviathan.
In lieu of investigating Waco carnage, Danforth appointed himself as the nation’s political faith healer. His investigation found that numerous federal officials had lied about Waco but thankfully it wasn’t their fault. Instead, the culprit was the American people’s distrust of federal agencies. Danforth defended federal deceivers:
“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.”
(Danforth did not specify the provision of federal law that absolves government agents from candor when it is not in their self-interest.)
Danforth’s bizarre downplaying of federal aggression could only have passed the laugh test in Washington. At a Senate hearing on his report, he was asked about the flash-bang grenades the FBI threw at Davidians who tried to escape and may have thrown inside the Davidians’ residence. Danforth claimed that flash-bangs were little more than “firecrackers. They make a flash and they make a bang. And they don’t cause injury, as a general rule.” In 2020, the North Carolina Supreme Court labeled flash bangs as “weapons of mass destruction.” A 2019 federal appeals court decision noted that flash-bang grenades are “four times louder than a 12-gauge shotgun blast” with “a powerful enough concussive effect to break windows and put holes in walls.” Flash-bangs burn hotter than lava and have started more than a hundred fires across the nation.
But the real WMD was Americans’ bad attitudes. When Danforth released his whitewash report, he hoped his findings would “begin the process of restoring the faith of the people in their government and the faith of the government in the people.” Danforth declared that the burden is on “all of us” to “be more skeptical of those who make sensational accusations of evil acts by government.” No wonder PBS NewsHour host Jim Lehrer responded by gushing over Danforth on national television, “You did tremendous investigating.” Danforth became a hero in DC for championing a “move along, nothing to see here” version of “consent of the governed” in which citizens are obliged to swallow unlimited federal malarkey.
Unfortunately, that same storyline still prevails in much of the nation’s media. Last month, a Houston Chronicle editorial declared, “’Waco’ has become an Alamo of sorts, a shrine for…anti-government extremists and conspiracists.” Waco should have taught the disastrous consequences of unleashing government agencies from the law and the Constitution. Thirty years after the FBI’s final assault, millions of Americans still refuse to recognize tanks and flash-bang grenades as federal paternalism at its best.