WASHINGTON — John W. Magaw, the acting director of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, say s he is determined that other religious cults will not develop into armed compounds the way the Branch Davidians did in Waco.
“They’re out there,” Magaw said in a wide-ranging interview in his office at ATF headquarters last week. “They don’t yet have the kind of weaponry that we saw in Waco . . . but they will develop if society allows them to.”
Magaw said the ATF is currently keeping tabs on cult-like organizations in “three or four places around the country,” but declined to be more specific. “We’re trying to monitor way early in the game,” he said.
The ATF’s efforts include consulting with religious scholars and cult experts, something the bureau failed to do before mounting a disastrous raid on the Branch Davidian compound.
“We need to talk to people about cults or religious groups of this type,” Magaw said. “Find out what their history, their background, makeup. And not only listen, but hear what is said.”
The ATF raided the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28 in an unsuccessful attempt to arrest the leader, Vernon Howell, for alleged federal firearms and explosives violations.
Four ATF agents were killed and 16 were injured in the raid, which led to a lengthy standoff between Howell, also known as David Koresh, and his followers and the FBI, which took over the operation from ATF.
The seven-week standoff ended when fire erupted in the compound as the FBI was trying to inject tear gas into one of the buildings with an armored vehicle.
Magaw was named by Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen to replace ATF Director Stephen Higgins in September, when the Treasury Department issued a highly critical report on the Waco tragedy.
Magaw recently completed a series of visits with ATF agents who were involved in the Branch Davidian raid.
Magaw said a number of agents in the Dallas, Houston and New Orleans offices are “emotionally hurting,” and the bureau has offered them counseling and, if necessary, transfers to other parts of the country.
“But the healing process really has started,” he added.
He said the ATF would share “the lessons of Waco” with other law enforcement agents, including the need for better relations with news media attempting to cover an operation of the magnitude of the Waco raid.
“There was a lot of criticism of the press in Waco,” he said.
“But part of that is our fault . . . We didn’t have any particular place for them. We didn’t have any guidelines. We didn’t have daily press briefings like we should have.”