WASHINGTON — Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Director Stephen E. Higgins said Monday he will retire because he disagrees with proposals to make “significant changes in the direction and focus” of the bureau as a result of its raid on Branch Davidian cult members outside Waco.
Higgins’ announcement came three days before the Treasury Department was to release a report on the bloody Feb. 28 raid, in which four ATF agents and at least six members of the Branch Davidian cult died.
In a letter to Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, Higgins said, “continuing discussions” with other officials involved in a review of the raid had left him convinced that he would not agree with “conclusions reached and actions proposed” in the report.
That and his disagreement with Bentsen’s stated preference for merging ATF into the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had convinced him he must retire, he said.
“In my view, Waco was a tragic event from which all of law enforcement can learn,” Higgins said in a letter to Bentsen, a copy of which was faxed to ATF offices around the country. “But I believe that ATF was and continues to be an outstanding law enforcement agency, a view which I believe is widely shared throughout the law enforcement community. . .
“I only have two real choices,” Higgins said. “I can either ask to be reassigned to another position or retire. This is to advise you I have decided to retire effective October 30, 1993.”
A Treasury Department spokesman said Bentsen accepted Higgins’ decision to retire, “and we wish him well.”
ATF spokesman Jack Killorin said Higgins had not seen a copy of the upcoming report, which is to be based on a review ordered by Bentsen, nearly four months ago.
“However, like everyone else, he’s observed the multitude of articles that purport to be based on those close to the report,” Killorin added.
Cult attorneys critical
Attorneys who’ve represented Davidians said Higgins’ departure is overdue.
“It’s about time,” Waco attorney Gary Coker said.
Coker represented cult leader Vernon Howell and seven other Branch Davidians on attempted murder charges after a dispute with rival prophet George Roden at Mount Carmel.
He also represented several cult members who emerged from the compound during the standoff and were held as material witnesses.
“His agency suffered some serious failures of performance before, during and after the Davidian standoff, and he should be held accountable,” Coker said.
He noted what he called the contrast between former Waco City Council member William Sessions’ departure as head of the FBI and that of Higgins at ATF.
“It is a contrast between minor personal matters and alleged petty infractions supposedly leading to Sessions’ dismissal and a major breakdown and a major failure on an agency level, which apparently brought out Higgins’ departure,” Coker said.
Coker said Higgins appeared “too distant” from the day-to-day operations of his agency, especially the failed raid on Mount Carmel.
“I had not heard his name mentioned as having any part of formulating the plan or approving any part of the plan before it was executed. He either gave the appearance of not knowing what his own agency was doing or he didn’t know,” he said.
Dick DeGuerin, a Houston lawyer who represented Howell, said Higgins should have been dismissed.
“He should have been fired instead of being allowed to retire,” he said. “To allow the head of the agency to retire doesn’t send a very strong message to anyone who would come up behind him and try the same thing.”
DeGuerin said retirements like Higgins’ are all too common, and that government officials shouldn’t be able to “do something wrong, then just lie about it and be able to retire.”
The attorney for Howell’s lieutenant Steve Schneider, Jack Zimmermann of Houston, also criticized the move.
Not held accountable
“If Mr. Higgins is retiring because of length of service and is going to be permitted to have his generous federal retirement benefits, I don’t view him as being held accountable for the actions in Waco,” Zimmermann said.
“If he was a general officer and he had overseen that attack, he wouldn’t be able to retire honorably with his head high. He would be held accountable,” Zimmermann said.
ATF spokesman Killorin said Higgins met with heads of the bureau’s main departments shortly after noon Monday and informed them of his decision to retire.
Killorin said reaction at this meeting “was one of personal regard for the director and some large degree of sadness that he would be leaving us.”
U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., a close friend of Higgins, said that in the past few days he had urged the ATF director to “go out on his own terms.”
DeConcini said Higgins told him he expected the report to be “highly critical of him.”
ATF said it was attempting to serve warrants on Howell, also known as David Koresh, and his followers when the effort exploded into a gun battle in which the four agents and an unknown number — believed to be at least six — members of Howell’s cult were killed. In addition to those killed, 16 ATF agents were wounded in the shooting.
A fiery end
The affair came to a fiery end when FBI agents, using tanks, moved on the Branch Davidian cult on April 19 and the compound went up in flames.
Higgins has spent nearly 33 years with ATF, working his way to the bureau’s top job by way of its regulatory arm.
In addition to Higgins’ retirement letter to Bentsen, ATF released a copy of a “special message” the director faxed to ATF offices.
“Your performance following the Waco tragedy was remarkable,” he said, “but I couldn’t begin to capsulize in a message of this kind all of the other reasons I’ve developed such enormous respect and appreciation for how you do your jobs.
“Maybe it’s best that I simply say thank you for making this the most rewarding job I could ever have hoped to have . . .”