A review of the Mount Carmel raid will censure not only the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ commanders who gave the go-ahead, but also the agency itself for outdated intelligence-gathering, one of the tactical experts consulted told the Tribune-Herald.
“There were a lot of things to question,” said Retired Col. Rod Paschall.
Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen will hold a press conference at 1 p.m. Waco time to discuss the findings of the Waco Administrative Review Group.
The group’s rumored 500-page report has ATF agents worried.
“It’s driving us crazy,” said one ATF agent. “They’re not telling us anything.”
Enough information has leaked, though, to cause the agency to brace for the worst. Its director, Stephen Higgins, has already announced his resignation, effective Oct. 30. Higgins said he doesn’t agree with “actions proposed” in the report.
Independent experts who examined ATF’s Feb. 28 raid on the Branch Davidian compound 10 miles east of Waco took the agency to task for its preparation and execution, according to Tribune-Herald interviews. The report, however, extols the bravery of agents who weathered ferocious gunfire with little cover, recommending that many be publicly commended.
Four ATF agents were killed and 16 wounded trying to arrest cult leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh, for the alleged possession of automatic weapons. At least five cult members died in the raid.
Sources report that the review will state that ATF undercover agent Robert Rodriguez told his supervisors that Howell knew a raid was imminent. But both Houston Division Chief Phil Chojnacki and deputy Chuck Sarabyn refused to call off the raid.
“I’ve seen this sort of thing happen in war,” Paschall said. “A guy up against it for the first time gets very hurried and makes bad decisions. It’s not unusual.”
Paschall — a former commander of Delta Force, the Army’s elite special operations unit — blames ATF’s system more than Chojnacki or Sarabyn. ATF’s National Response Plan calls for administrators, not field officers, to command a raid such as the one at Mount Carmel.
“My conclusion was that they had two administrators involved in command who were quite unaccustomed to this kind of operation,” Paschall said. “My belief is that someone leading a raid like this has to have it as their day-to-day job. I could really give a damn about changing personalities. My concern is that damn plan. As far as I know, it’s still operative. The same incident could happen in San Francisco or somewhere else. Who knows where?”
But a story in the Washington Post said Chojnacki and Sarabyn will be blamed for doctoring reports on how much preparation was done for the raid.
A written plan of action apparently did not exist until less than a week before the raid. ATF guidelines call for a written plan to be completed before launching large-scale operations. ATF agents wrote a plan that was largely incomplete and devoid of the detail expected in such documents, the Post said.
After the raid, ATF supervisors beefed up the plan. For example, they inserted statements that the raid was necessary because Howell never left the complex. The Tribune-Herald reported after the raid, though, that Howell was off the compound several times before Feb. 28.
Paschall said he recommended that the National Response Plan be revised.
Putting administrators in charge of the raid led to several mistakes, he said. For one thing, the raid was dependent on isolating the Branch Davidian men. Days before the raid, however, intelligence agents lost the ability to monitor the men. A plastic cover slung over a pit being built made it impossible to track whether they were outside, Paschall said. ATF, however, did not change its tactics.
Also, Chojnacki used a helicopter to serve as his command post. Its position over the compound made it impossible for Chojnacki to seek all the teams taking part in the raid, Paschall said. And when the helicopters took fire, they had to withdraw from the area.
“When he chose the helicopters, he made a mistake,” Paschall said.
But what amazed Paschall after reviewing the Mount Carmel raid was ATF’s refusal to use electronic surveillance to gather intelligence. The agency did not tap the compound phones, nor did it try to bug the rambling structure. ATF officials told him they were prohibited by the Federal Firearms Act from using electronic surveillance, Paschall said. However, officials for the Treasury Department report that’s not the case.
“That damn phone in the compound should have been tapped, and there were opportunities to put in bugs,” Paschall said. “Those kinds of things can be obtained by warrants, and they’re obtained every day. They save lives. If they had had electronic surveillance, they could have probably picked up preparations. Koresh probably had started ordering people around and getting guns.”
Paschall said he recommended that ATF create a permanent special-operations unit to deal with future Wacos.
“If you have a team like that, they’re going to have a hell of a lot more tricks up their sleeves than a team put together on an ad hoc basis,” he said.
And he also recommended commending many of the ATF agents for bravery during the raid.
“That ought to be done right away because there were some incredible acts of bravery,” he said. “It’s important for the morale of the whole organization and because it’s the simple, decent thing to do when someone risks their life.”
Joining Bentsen at the press conference today will be Ronald K. Noble, assistant secretary of the treasury, and the three independent reviewers of the inquiry: Edwin Guthman, a Pulitzer Prize winner and journalism professor at the University of Southern California; Henry S. Ruth, a former Watergate prosecutor; and Willie L. Williams, the police chief of Los Angeles.
Noble will brief ATF agents nationwide on the review in a closed-circuit televised speech before Bentsen’s press conference.
“Originally, they tried to set it up so that agents could ask questions,” said Franceska Perot, spokeswoman for ATF’s Houston office. “But it’s grown so much, I don’t think they’ll have that capacity. It started out with just the agents from Houston, Dallas and New Orleans being addressed. The agents here are a little anxious. You can tell there’s some nervous energy. They don’t know what to expect.”
An agent with ATF’s New Orleans field division, who was in the raid, voiced concerns similar to those of the public.
“I guess the biggest question is, ‘How could it have been avoided? How could the outcome be different?’” said Charles Giarrusso, agent with ATF’s New Orleans field division.
Giarrusso lost his best friend, Conway C. LeBleu, in the raid.
But until the Treasury Department’s review is released, Giarrusso isn’t even sure what questions to ask.
“I’m not sure who made the decision to still go ahead with the raid, how high up the ladder it went,” he said. “Those are the questions that have never been answered. I think that’s what will come out (today).”