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Making America: A History of the United States, Brief Second Edition
Carol Berkin, Christopher L. Miller, Robert W. Cherny, James L. Gormly, W. Thomas Mainwaring
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Introduction | Questions to Consider | Source | Related Links

Events in Waco: House Judiciary Committee Investigation
Janet Reno

In February 1993, an agent of the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BAFT) attempted to arrest David Koresh, the leader of a religious cult known as the Branch Davidians, on charges of possessing illegal weapons. The Branch Davidians opened fire, killing four agents and suffering six deaths themselves. Thus began a seven-week standoff between law enforcement officials and members of the cult. On April 19, Janet Rene, the new attorney general, ordered an immediate attack on the Branch Davidian compound. In the ensuing battle the entire compound was set aflame and eighty people died, including twenty-four children. For many Americans, especially those of the political right, the events in Waco became a symbol of government excess and violence. On April 23, 1993, the House Judiciary Committee began an investigation on the Waco encounter.

Questions to Consider
  1. According to Attorney General Reno, on what tactics did the negotiation team focus?

  2. Explain the FBI's rules of engagement. Did they work?

  3. List three strategies used by the BAFT to encourage the Branch Davidians to surrender. Analyze the effectiveness of those strategies.

  4. How would you describe the rapport between Reno and Conyers?

  5. Why did Reno decide to proceed with the attack on the compound?

  6. Did the government use excessive force in effecting the arrests?

This is one of the hardest decisions that anybody could ever be asked to make. We deliberated long and carefully before reaching a decision. Nothing we do now can change the suffering felt by the families of the ATF agents or the families of those who perished in the compound; but as you have pointed out so eloquently, we must do everything we can to learn from these events about what we can do in the future to prevent people like David Koresh, or people motivated by other thoughts from causing such a senseless, horrible loss of human life...

Weapons used by the Branch Davidians included .50-caliber rifles having an effective range of 3,000 yards, a distance from the Capitol to the White house....

After the [first] shootout, the remaining ATF agents established a protective perimeter around the compound... ATF officials then requested that the FBI dispatch its Hostage Rescue Team, which we refer to as HRT.

On February 28, 1993, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, including the HRT, arrived on the scene. The FBI found an armed fortress compound consisting of approximately 70 acres located on Route 7 near Waco.

I took office on March 12, 1993.... I was advised that the primary goal of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team was to negotiate with Koresh to secure the release of the children and the surrender and prosecution of all those who participated in the murder and assault of the Federal agents without further violence or injury to anyone concerned. I concurred that we must try to negotiate to avoid further bloodshed to the extent that we could.

As this situation evolved, the FBI had consistently rejected a direct assault on the compound because of the danger of heavy casualties to the agents and to the children and because of the layout which prevented a surprise assault. I was told, as I was briefed, that the FBI had a trained negotiator on the scene and that they had, and during the course of these deliberations, continued to consult with behavioral experts and others who had knowledge of the cult to determine how best to proceed to negotiate with Koresh.

From the start, the negotiation tactics focused on restricting the activities of those inside the compound and of depriving them of a comfortable environment so as to bring the matter to a conclusion without further violence.

Those inside the compound were advised of the FBI's rules of engagement. Under those rules, the agents conveyed the information that they would not use deadly force against any person except when necessary in self-defense or defense of another, or when they had reason to believe that they or another were in danger of death or grievous bodily harm.

The FBI installed lights to illuminate the compound at night and loudspeakers to ensure they could communicate with all members of the compound at once rather than to rely solely on a single telephone line available to speak to Koresh and those he permitted to talk on the phone. They also used loudspeakers to disrupt their sleep. They cut off their electricity and they sought to restrict communications of those within the compound just to the hostage negotiators.

Additionally, they sent in letters from family members and made other good-faith efforts designed to encourage surrender by those who wished to leave the compound. In particular--and I asked about this during the course of our deliberations--they made repeated efforts to secure the release of the children.

In further efforts to encourage the negotiating process, attorneys representing Koresh and Steve Schneider were allowed to enter the compound or communicate by telephone with them on several occasions. Throughout this 51-day process, Koresh continued to assert that he and others inside would at some point surrender. However, the FBI advised that at no point did he keep his word on any of his promises.

Despite all efforts, the negotiators concluded that negotiations were at a standstill and that they had not been able to negotiate a single item with Koresh. Although 21 children and 14 adults had been allowed to leave the compound between February 28 and March 23, 1993, those persons who left the compound did so because Koresh affirmatively wanted them out as they were not fully committed to his cause; they were a drain on his efforts in internal discipline and resources; or he viewed them as potential spokespersons to the media.

During the week of April 5, the FBI advised me that they were developing a plan for the possible use of tear gas in an effort to increase the pressure on those in the compound to surrender. Thereafter, I had a series of meetings with the FBI to discuss the emerging proposal. The threshold question I asked was whether the gas would cause permanent injury to the children. I did not even want to consider the matter further if we could not be certain about this factor. The FBI assured me that the gas would not cause permanent injury...

Then the primary question I asked again and again during the ensuing discussion was: "Why now? Why not wait?" I asked about their food and water supply and was told that it could last at least a year or more... We explored but could not develop a feasible method for cutting off their water supply.... I became convinced that short of allowing David Koresh to go free, he was not coming out voluntarily.

Given that unacceptable result, in light of the fact that he was such a dangerous criminal, allowing the status quo to remain was not going to lead to an ultimate peaceful resolution and eliminate any risk to the safety of the innocent children in the compound, the public at large or the Government agents at the scene. On the contrary, the passage of time only increased the likelihood of incidents and possible injuries and attendant injuries and harm...

I advised the President on the Sunday before the operation of my decision to authorize the FBl's use of tear gas at the compound, and he said he would support my decision.

I believed that we were dealing with a situation that would not resolve itself by mere acquiescence to the standoff. Negotiations had proven to be fruitless; and despite our best efforts, we could not secure the release of the children... It was my call, and I made it the best way I know how....

I think as a footnote to this, one of the things we didn't count on was that when--and I think one of the things that we will have to review and look at and understand is, why the gas didn't cause more discomfort immediately...

Mr. [John] Conyers [of Michigan]. ...Madam Attorney General, I am extremely disappointed in the decisions that have been made out of the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

In Philadelphia, we had a mayor that bombed people out of an eviction. In Jonestown, we lost the life of my colleague, Congressman Ryan,...because of a miscalculation about cult people. We had Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army. We had Wounded Knee with the Indians.

Now, when in God's name is the law enforcement at the Federal level going to understand that these are very sensitive events that you cannot put barbed wire, guns, FBI, Secret Service around them, send in sound 24 hours a day and night and then wonder why they do something unstable?

The root cause of this problem was that it was considered a military operation, and it wasn't. This is a profound disgrace to law enforcement in the United States of America, and you did the right thing by offering to resign...

Now, there is no longer any reason why the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms cannot be folded into the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and if there is some reason for continuing ATF, I would like to hear it today, and I will be introducing legislation to that point very, very shortly.

And now I would like you to know that there is at least one Member in the Congress that is not going to rationalize the death of two dozen children that were not cultists, they were not nuts, they were not criminals. They happened to be the children of people and they were innocently trapped in there. The decision that was jointly made by these agencies bears extreme criticism. And it is not President Clinton's fault. He is taking your advice. He is taking Judge Sessions' advice. He is taking Mr. Higgins' advice.

...Doesn't anybody have any historical recollection in Federal law enforcement about how to deal with these kinds of people?...

Ms. Reno. I have not tried to rationalize the death of children, Congressman. I feel more strongly about it than you will ever know. But I have neither tried to rationalize the death of four ATF agents, and I will not walk away from a compound where ATF agents have been killed by people who knew they were agents and leave them unsurrounded.

... Congressman, I will not engage in recrimination. I will look to the future to try to learn everything I can from this situation to avoid tragedies such as this in the future.

Mr. Conyers. Are you concluded?

Ms. Reno. I am not concluded if you have further questions of me, sir.

Mr. Conyers. Well, I consider that a nonresponsive answer.

Ms. Reno. You did not ask me a question, sir. You asked me if I had any comments.

Mr. Conyers. And I consider those nonresponsive comments.

Ms. Reno. Do you have a question of me, sir?

Mr. Conyers. I have more questions of you than I will ever get time to ask you in this committee.

Ms. Reno. I will answer any questions, and I will come to your office...

Source: Events Surrounding the Branch Davidian Cult Standoff in Waco, Texas: Hearing Before the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, 103d congress, 1st Session, Serial No. 95, (Washington, D.C.,1995), pp.13-15, 17, 20, 25-26.


Related Links

  • Waco: The Inside Story
    This comprehensive site includes links to pictures, FAQs, a who's who list, a chronology of the siege, readings, and viewer reactions.