In the early morning of April 19, 1993, Americans watched in horror as armored vehicles smashed into the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, injecting a powerful type of tear gas, intended to be used outdoors to disperse crowds. Loudspeakers urged the Branch Davidians to surrender. Huddled inside were converts to a radical branch of Seventh Day Adventists who believed that David Koresh was the “lamb of God,” a second Messiah.
The plan — designed to force out members of the group — was not going well. A fierce wind came up and blew out much of the gas. Around noon flames unexpectedly appeared. In minutes, 80 people, including 25 children, were dead. Janet Reno, just days into her job as the attorney general, took full responsibility.
The incident became a political embarrassment for the new Clinton administration, and subsequently it cast a long shadow, becoming a particular fixation for far-right groups outraged by the militarization of federal law enforcement. With a quarter century of hindsight, it’s still not clear how Waco turned so tragically wrong. What’s clear is that showed how subtle differences in how law enforcement agencies interpreted the situation led to fateful decisions affecting the lives of Branch Davidians, nonmembers, and their children.
Ironically, Reno’s first concern had been the children. But she had, perhaps unwittingly, accepted the plan to force out the Branch Davidians out by using gas that would likely have caused fatal chemical pneumonia in the youngest children.
In July 1993, a panel of 10 experts, myself included, gathered in Washington, tasked with suggesting what the FBI should do in the future to avoid similar tragedies. We began with a review of what had happened. We were told that the FBI had listening devices in the compound, but could not in real time make sense of what they were hearing. We were told they now had irrefutable evidence Koresh (born Vernon Wayne Howell) had ordered the fires set. The FBI insisted that, rather than come out, “they chose to kill their own children — we never expected that.” But did federal agencies needlessly provoke that tragedy?
Crucial in that decision, whoever made it, was the question of whether the Branch Davidians were common criminals or religious believers. The FBI was divided into two camps — the Hostage Rescue Team, who were experts in kicking down doors, and the negotiators, who were experts in behavioral psychology. The door-kickers thought Koresh was a sociopath and his converts were dupes who would respond to standard tactics of psychological warfare (such as floodlights at night; loud, unpleasant music; and the sound of screaming animals). The negotiators believed Koresh was a paranoid-grandiose person and that his followers were true believers.
In the course of the review of the events, I discovered that on the ninth day of the standoff, one of the FBI’s behavioral psychologists warned that the people inside were true fanatics who would not respond to standard tactics. He even warned that they might kill themselves. But the next day, he reversed his warning and suggested the FBI use their standard techniques. That psychologist told to me that he was pressured by the tactical agents to change his advice.
It was the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms that planned a surprise attack on the compound where they had reason to believe there was a huge store of illegal weapons. The plan depended on surprise, before the Davidians could arm themselves agents would scale the walls and seize the guns.
But Koresh learned they were coming. The ATF knew that he knew and went anyway. A gun fight ensued with deaths on both sides, until the federal agents ran out of ammunition and retreated. Then the FBI took over. In the stand-off that followed, the tensions mounted, in Washington as well as Waco. Although Janet Reno went before Congress to take responsibility for ordering the failed tear gas attempt, associate attorney general Webster Hubbell, Clinton’s Arkansas friend, was the person at Justice in charge of the Waco operation and had the ear of the president. Hubbell acknowledges in his autobiography that he offered his resignation after Waco.
I do not claim to know the truth of what happened at Waco, but whatever clues existed were either buried in government reports or literally on the ground in Texas. The feds actually leveled the burned compound and paved it over.
Twenty five years after the tragedy, I am left with the conviction that the country prefers not to know or doesn’t care what happened to 80 Branch Davidians on April 19, 1993. That means that the truth will likely stay buried.
Alan Stone is a past president of the American Psychiatric Association and a retired professor of law and psychiatry at Harvard University.