Tripped Up By Lies

A report paints a devastating portrait of ATF's Waco planning -- or, rather, the lack of it

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The elements are almost the stuff of comedy. Federal agents get wind of a surreptitious arms hoard. They then set up surveillance of a compound using 40-year-old agents passing as college students. Suddenly a raid on the compound is imminent -- without a detailed plan on how to carry it out. A sketchy plan is then drawn up -- and ignored. Meanwhile, the targets of the raid know something is up, and their watchers know that the targets know but still think surprise is a possibility. That's where the comedy turns to tragedy.

"The decision to proceed was tragically wrong, not just in retrospect, but because of what the decision makers knew at the time." Thus concluded a devastating 220-page critique of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms issued by the Treasury Department last week. The Feb. 28 raid on David Koresh's compound in Waco, Texas, resulted in the death of four ATF agents and six cult members and led to a 51-day siege and a fiery conflagration that claimed the lives of 85 people, including at least 17 children. The bureau, the report said, not only handled a sensitive situation ineptly but tried to cover up its bumbling with lies and obfuscations. As the study coldly noted, "There may be occasions when pressing operational considerations -- or legal constraints -- prevent law-enforcement officials from being . . . completely candid in their public utterances. This was not one of them."

After the report was released, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, whose department is in charge of ATF, announced the replacement of the agency's entire top management. Its boss, Stephen Higgins, who knew the report was going to be harsh, announced his retirement three days before. "It is now clear that those in charge in Texas realized they had lost the element of surprise before the raid began," Bentsen said. The field commanders made "inaccurate and disingenuous statements" to cover up their missteps, putting the blame on agents.

ATF has had a tradition of going in with guns blazing. (For example, the legendary Eliot Ness and his Prohibition-era "Untouchables" were not FBI men, but rather direct predecessors of today's ATF agents.) The Branch Davidian saga was true to tradition. Little consideration was given to arresting David Koresh outside his Mount Carmel compound. Indeed, after its preliminary investigations, the ATF began preparing for what would be the biggest raid in its history. All it lacked was a plan -- and the element of surprise. Even though a raid had been set for March 1, the mandatory documents for such a plan were not ready by Feb. 23. When acting Special Agent in Charge Darrell Dyer arrived from Kansas City and asked to see the paperwork, he found that none existed. In the next four days, Dyer and fellow agent William Krone drew up a plan -- but it was never distributed. Meanwhile, Koresh was already suspicious, having noticed that the "college students" who had moved into a house near his 77-acre compound looked like people only a few years shy of their 25th reunion.

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