WASHINGTON — Federal lawmen in charge of a raid on the Branch Davidian cult near Waco went ahead with the ill-fated operation despite learning at the last minute that Vernon Howell and his followers had abruptly changed their morning activities.
Any shift in the “patterns” of behavior inside the Branch Davidian compound was one of the signs a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms undercover agent was to look for as he monitored the group during the hours leading up to the raid, officials told a House subcommittee Wednesday.
But when the undercover agent, Robert Rodriguez, advised his superiors that the Davidians had changed their normal Sunday morning schedule by what appears to have been at least 30 minutes, the raid was merely speeded up, members of the subcommittee were told.
In the ensuing gun battle, four ATF agents and an unknown number of cult members were killed.
The daylong subcommittee hearing also featured a tape recording of frantic telephone conversations between a McLennan County sheriff’s deputy and cult leaders, including Howell, during the shootout.
With gunfire roaring around him, Howell led the worried deputy, Larry Lynch, in a rambling theological discourse on the 22nd Chapter of the Book of Revelation.
Because the raid relied critically on what officials have called “the element of surprise,” undercover agent Rodriguez was sent to the compound on Feb. 28, the Sunday morning the operation was to take place, for a last-minute surveillance, ATF officials testified.
However, he found when he arrived at the compound that the prayer service already was over at a time when it ordinarily would have been starting.
After talking briefly with Howell, Rodriguez left the compound and went to a nearby observation point, from which he contacted ATF commander Phil Chojnacki.
At that point, Chojnacki was circling the compound in a Texas National Guard helicopter and nearly 100 agents were approaching in trucks to serve arrest and search warrants.
Instead of reviewing plans in light of the change in activities inside, Chojnacki appears to have simply accelerated his own plans. The raid had been planned for around 10 a.m.
However, at 9:30 a.m., Chojnacki already had talked to Rodriguez, and ATF officials in Washington were being told that the operation was “going ahead” as planned.
The account of what Rodriguez observed inside the compound appeared to conflict with earlier accounts, including a dramatic scenario outlined previously in an affidavit filed in federal court by ATF.
That affidavit stated that Rodriguez, while inside the compound, learned Howell knew of the raid after David Jones, Howell’s brother-in-law, raced to the compound with the news. Rodriguez reported Howell became highly agitated and announced that ATF and the National Guard were coming to raid Mount Carmel.
The hearing Wednesday did little to answer questions about the basis of the decision to go ahead with the raid.
U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said members could not “ask all the questions we want to” about events leading up to the raid because of other investigations and pending criminal charges.
ATF Director Stephen Higgins and others appearing before the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the bureau avoided answering whether the change in Branch Davidian plans had signaled a possible loss of the “element of surprise,” deferring to a Treasury Department review of the raid.
“One of the primary focuses of the review team is to determine exactly what the undercover agent saw and what he relayed to his supervisor, our tactical commander,” Higgins said.
The Treasury Department official now in charge of ATF told the subcommittee that during the weekend before the planned raid, he had been so concerned about the importance of surprising Howell and his heavily armed followers that he had repeatedly emphasized that the operation should be aborted if the “element of surprise” were lost.
Assistant Treasury Secretary Ronald Noble said he was concerned that articles about Howell in the Waco Tribune-Herald might “heighten” the cult leader’s excitement or “change the patterns to the point that the operation should be called off.”
The paper’s series began on Saturday morning, Feb. 27.
“The undercover agent was to go in and monitor the situation to determine whether the investigation (by the ATF) had been compromised,” Noble said. “Only if the patterns which had been established to that point were being followed and had not changed would the operation go forward.”
ATF agents said they went to the newspaper office early that morning and the following morning to get copies of the paper to see if the series had interfered with their probe.
The articles contained nothing about the ATF investigation, they testified.
Assistant ATF Director Daniel Harnett said the undercover agent who went into the compound the day before and the day of the raid reported only that Howell was angry at the newspaper’s negative portrayal of the cult, saying it would make it more difficult for the cult to raise money.
However, Higgins said the operation was originally planned for Monday and was moved to Sunday because of the series.