Feds Say Changes Since Waco Have Helped

On a Sunday morning a decade ago, federal agents expected to storm a religious group's compound, catch the occupants off-guard and take their leader away in handcuffs.

It didn't happen that way.

Four lawmen and six members of the group were killed in a gun battle during the Feb. 28, 1993, raid. It led to a 51-day standoff that ended that April 19 in the deaths of nearly 80 people, including two dozen children, as the compound burned to the ground.

In the years that followed the raid on the Branch Davidian complex, the mantra "Not Another Waco" has become a powerful credo for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms recently renamed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and law enforcement agencies nationwide.

"The events of Waco were a watershed for the ATF, on a personal level ... and professional level in terms of it being a horrendous wake-up call in terms of how we do business," said Brad Buckles, ATF director since 1999.

The ATF was criticized for raiding the Waco compound instead of arresting cult leader David Koresh while he went jogging or drove into town. The agency also was blamed for not calling it off after an undercover agent reported that Koresh, suspected of stockpiling illegal weapons and explosives, knew about the raid.

The FBI, which assumed command the day after the raid, was accused of ineffective negotiating with Koresh and criticized for rushing to end the standoff with a self-proclaimed prophet who had predicted a violent finale.

Government officials have maintained that the deadly fire was started by Davidians. The FBI admitted in 1999 that two potentially incendiary tear gas canisters were fired on the last day but said the devices were aimed away from the compound hours earlier.

Criticism of federal officials built quickly. Many agents and supervisors with the ATF, FBI and other agencies involved in the Waco incident have since retired or been fired or reassigned.

Then-Attorney General Janet Reno, who had approved the use of tear gas, ordered an investigation. The report in 2000 concluded that Branch Davidians started the fire and shot each other in a mass suicide, ending the standoff.

There is a perception "that we were big macho guys rolling in with tanks, trying to show these guys who was boss, but there's nothing further from the truth," said Bob Ricks, a retired FBI special agent who worked with negotiators at Waco. "In the final analysis, our hopes and prayers and wishes were that everyone would come out alive."

The FBI was already under scrutiny for its handling of a 1992 standoff in Idaho, when an agent shot and killed the wife of a white separatist as she held her 10-month-old baby. Timothy McVeigh said he bombed the Oklahoma City federal building on the second anniversary of the Waco fire as retribution for Waco and the Idaho standoff.

Law enforcement agencies made sweeping changes after Waco. The ATF changed its policy on who makes decisions during an incident and improved how intelligence is gathered and reported. Agents now get more tactical training.

The FBI formed a crisis-response group to coordinate negotiators, agents, hostage-rescue teams and others. Officials admitted that they didn't communicate well with each other at Waco.

"That's the attitude in all of law enforcement. ... You have to be much more patient," Buckles said.

That approach was tested three years later in Montana with a small, heavily armed anti-government group called the Freemen. Members had filed bogus multimillion-dollar liens against public officials and others who crossed them, then issued checks against the liens.

On March 25, 1996, federal undercover agents lured the two top Freemen leaders into the open on a ruse and captured them. A standoff lasted 81 days until a Montana lawmaker persuaded the rest of the group to surrender. No shots were fired.

Ricks, now the Oklahoma commissioner of public safety, said agents can wait "forever" if a barricaded suspect or group has no hostages. But officers must consider raids and use of tear gas if innocent lives are at stake, he said.

"There's a role for lawmen with tactical intervention," Ricks said. "The greatest lesson is you don't initiate a process without anticipating what the result is going to be."