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The Fires of Waco Are Still Burning

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Waco: The Rules of Engagement, a new film now available on video cassette, and recently nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary, is one of the most educational films ever made. Many Americans were transfixed by the images of the FBI tanks in April 1993 smashing into a building occupied by scores of women and children — pumping in toxic gas hour after hour while FBI officials proclaimed on loudspeakers, “This is not an assault!” After the FBI had rammed and gassed the flimsy building for six hours, flames burst out, scores of people died, and Attorney General Janet Reno became a national hero.

Why did the ATF originally assault the Branch Davidian’s home in a military-style attack, and why did the FBI feel obliged to carry out a “final solution” to its siege on April 19, 1993? Waco: The Rules of Engagement walks viewers through the steps that led the government to its final attack. And perhaps even more important, this film could provide the impetus to breaking through the continuing cover-up of federal action at Waco.

This is an extraordinarily high quality production — both the actual filmmaking itself and the analysis it presents. The producers did a masterful job of sifting through the 1995 congressional Waco hearings, FBI press briefings, and other public events, as well as utilizing touching scenes from a Branch Davidian home video of children a few weeks before their deaths. Democratic congressmen Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Gene Taylor (Miss.) come across as weasels, happy to shill for and cover up any law-enforcement abuse, regardless of how contemptibly the feds may have acted.

Perhaps the most controversial part of the film is its evidence that federal agents machine-gunned Branch Davidians seeking to escape their burning compound. The film producers acquired Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) footage from lawyers for the Davidian defendants at the 1994 federal trial, filmed by FBI surveillance planes, that appear to show rapid muzzle flashes coming from positions where only federal agents could have been. FBI officials testified that none of their agents fired a shot at Waco; however, FBI officials also insisted that sending their tanks smashing into the building was not an aggressive action.

Viewers are also walked through the sequence that led to the fires’ breaking out inside the Davidian home, and FBI incendiary devices are linked with the outbreak of two out of the three fires. The Village Voice called the film “a convincing, indeed devastating, argument against the FBI.”

This movie makes both the events and the issues of Waco stunningly fresh. The film is profoundly effective at reaching conservatives, moderates, and liberals who initially supported federal action at Waco — as well as capturing the attention of cynics who suspected government treachery all along. This movie does not pound the table or jam its conclusions down the viewers’ throats. The producers did a masterful job of letting federal officials hang themselves with their own words. (Dan Gifford was the executive producer; William Gazecki was the director; the film was cowritten by Gifford, Gazecki, and Mike McNulty. McNulty was also the sole researcher for the film, heads a group called Citizens Organization for Public Safety, and has made a long-term crusade of getting the word out on Waco.)

This film may help repair the profound national embarrassment that occurred in the initial reaction to the FBI’s final attack. Snap polls taken on the day of the Waco fire and the following week showed that the American people overwhelmingly supported the action of the FBI. Rep. Jack Brooks (D.-Tex.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, commented that the Davidians were “horrible people. Despicable people. Burning to death was too good for them. They’d like a slower method.”

After Attorney General Reno went on several television shows to take responsibility for the fiasco while insisting that the debacle was solely the fault of the Davidians, President Clinton called her up and congratulated her on doing a good job — as if the television appearances were more important than the deaths of the women, children, and men inside the compound.

Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D.-Colo.) told Reno, “You’ve raised the responsibility and accountability of public service to an incredibly high level in a way we’ve never seen before.” A few days later, at the first Senate hearing on Waco, the opening of the hearing had to be delayed so that the senators could have their pictures taken with Reno.

The film also stands on its head the efforts by the federal government to vindicate their actions towards the Davidians. At the trial of the Davidian survivors in early 1994, federal prosecutors compared David Koresh to Hitler and Stalin and declared that the 11 defendants “are as much religious terrorists as the people who blew up the barracks in Lebanon, the people who blew up the World Trade Center in New York and Pan Am 103.” The jury rejected murder charges against the surviving Davidians, instead finding seven of the 11 defendants guilty of manslaughter — a much lighter charge.

The jury verdict was correctly characterized by the New York Times as a “stunning defeat” for the federal government; a Los Angeles Times headline declared, “Outcome Indicates Jurors Placed Most Blame on the Government.” Bill Johnston, the lead federal attorney at Waco, burst into tears in bitter disappointment at the verdict. The defendants received relatively light sentences — until the Justice Department subsequently arm-twisted the judge to reinstate charges that had originally been dismissed.

In the first year after the fire, Waco was repeatedly invoked as a law-enforcement triumph. In October 1993, FBI Director Louis Freeh lavishly praised FBI agents for demonstrating “great excellence” during the Branch Davidian confrontation: “I am quite satisfied with the operational aspects, planning aspects, chain-of-command aspects and leadership aspects of that operation.”

Congress looked at Waco and concluded that the government needed further power: FBI officials successfully lobbied to greatly expand the size of the Hostage Rescue Team, the agents who “rescued” the women and children at Waco. Attorney General Janet Reno told a group of federal law-enforcement officers on May 5, 1995: “There is much to be angry about when we talk about Waco — and the government’s conduct is not the reason. David Koresh is the reason….”

The House of Representatives delayed substantive oversight hearings on Waco for more than two years — until after the Republicans captured control of Congress. (Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, demanded that any hearings on Waco should be structured to promote public confidence in government — which would have guaranteed a whitewash even before any hearings began.)

Attorney General Reno testified before House hearings on Waco on August 1, 1995. At one point, under intense questioning, Reno declared that a 54-ton tank that smashed through the Davidian compound should not be considered as a military vehicle — instead, it was just “like a good rent-a-car.” This comment epitomized the Clinton administration’s view that Waco was a routine law-enforcement effort, except for the number of dead bodies dug out of the rubble afterwards. (Respectable opinion continues pretending that the Waco debacle never occurred. The Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia created a special award to honor the nation’s first female attorney general — the Janet Reno Torchbearer Award. The first recipients in 1996 and 1997 were Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor.)

The federal government is still withholding key information about what actually happened at Waco. Two House subcommittees issued their findings on federal action at Waco in 1996; their report declared:

“ATF’s investigation … was grossly incompetent.”

“[The] affidavit filed in support of the warrants contained an incredible number of false statements.”

“If the false statements in the affidavits … were made with knowledge of their falsity, criminal charges should be brought….”

The report concluded that “we live in a nation of laws and no power sits above those laws.” Yet, at the press conference announcing the report’s findings, I asked Rep. Bill McCollum (D.-Fla.) and Rep. Bill Zeliff (R.-N.H.) how much cooperation they had received from federal agencies in their investigation. They indicated that cooperation had been sufficient — except for the Pentagon, which had apparently refused to provide almost any information on the U.S. military’s involvement. Many people believe that the posse comitatus laws (which prohibit military involvement in domestic law enforcement) were violated at Waco — either through the military’s training of the ATF team for the initial assault or through actions on April 19, 1993. It is surprising that there has been no controversy about the Pentagon’s completely stonewalling a major congressional investigation into one of the most controversial episodes of the decade.

The committee Republicans, despite their criticism of federal abuses, concluded that one of the “lessons” of Waco was the need to increase the size of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team. Republican Rep. Steven Schiff (N.M.), writing a dissent based in part on information provided by Rep. Bob Barr (R.-Ga.) (both Schiff and Barr are former federal prosecutors), declared that

“no rational person can conclude that the use of CS gas under any circumstances against children, would do anything other than cause extreme physical problems and possibly death…. I believe 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.”

Barr has called for Congress to reopen its investigation into what happened at Waco but as yet has received no support from senior House Republicans.

Waco is vitally important for understanding current political thinking because of the tacit acceptance and initial praise of the government’s final assault on the part of most of the media and most of the American people — the willingness to unquestioningly accept the government version of events — regardless of how many times the government changed its story. The abject docility shown by both the national media and the public to a government assault would have been denounced to high heaven if a similar attack had been carried out during the Brezhnev era by the Soviet military against a group of Christian dissidents in Siberia.

Waco goes to the heart of the question about how much force government is permitted to use against its own people. Thus far, the answers provided both by the government and the majority are not encouraging.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.