The Mount Carmel raid — dependent on isolating the Branch Davidian men — was launched despite undercover agents’ having lost the ability to track the cult’s men, said a former commander of Delta Force, the Army’s elite special operations unit.
Retired Col. Rod Paschall helped the U.S. Treasury Department examine the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ tactics in its Feb. 28 raid, in which ATF agents tried to serve an arrest warrant on cult leader Vernon Howell for the possession of automatic weapons.
“The raid was predicated on the males being outside and a good distance from the arms room,” Paschall said. “By late February, the ATF was unable to see if the males were outside because some plastic had been put up over the pit where they were working in. The plan was not revised to take that into account. You really couldn’t determine from the undercover house whether or not the males were outside.”
ATF agents arriving at Mount Carmel found the Branch Davidians, including the men, waiting for them. In the resulting shootout, four agents were killed and 16 cult members were wounded. At least five Branch Davidians also died.
The Treasury Department’s report on ATF’s handling of the raid should be out by the last week of September, said Henry S. Ruth Jr.
“I think they’ve done a remarkably thorough job,” said Ruth, a former Watergate prosecutor and one of three independent reviewers who will assess the final report. “It’s going to be a candid report.”
Spokesman Jack Killorin admits ATF is anxious about the report.
“Being the subject of the review, we’d like to see the end of it,” he said. “I think what happened in Waco was unique, but we certainly can’t afford to dismiss it as an aberrant set of circumstances.”
While the report is still being written, several sources told the Tribune-Herald that it will state that ATF officials knew that Howell, also known as David Koresh, had learned of the coming raid.
ATF officials first said the raid would not have been attempted without the element of surprise. Later, though, an undercover agent swore in an affidavit filed in federal court that Howell told him before the raid that the ATF and Texas National Guard were coming to arrest him. Still, some ATF officials maintain Howell’s statements weren’t a clear warning, given that he often complained that ATF was out to get him.
But Paschall said, “Howell was alerted to their coming, and they knew that.”
As to why ATF officials didn’t abandon the raid, Paschall said, “You’d have to get inside the minds of people to know that. All I can say is that it should have been called off and it wasn’t. It was a mistake in judgment.”
ATF commanders may have underestimated the Branch Davidians in deciding to proceed with the raid, said a source familiar with the review. Despite intelligence reports detailing the cult’s devotion to Howell and his prophecy of a clash one day with the government, ATF commanders apparently didn’t think the cult members would fight.
“I think they thought they wouldn’t get any resistance,” the source said. “When the undercover agent left the compound, he reported that they weren’t getting arms. But, really, I don’t know why they would think that. I guess it goes to the intelligence gathered and to the mind-set.”
A Treasury Department source said it’s likely that the supervisors in the Houston ATF office — Special Agent-in-Charge Phil Chojnacki and his deputy, Chuck Sarabyn — will be sanctioned. They directed the raid. The decision to forge ahead with the raid was made without consulting Washington officials, according to published reports.
Paschall, though, blames the system more than Chojnacki or Sarabyn.
“There’s probably going to be a hell of a lot of finger-pointing at these guys,” Paschall said. “I’m reluctant to do that, though, because they were complying with a plan approved in Washington.”
He noted that ATF’s tactical plan—called the National Response Plan—was adopted only a few weeks before the Mount Carmel raid. The rapid deployment plan was developed after the botched attempt to arrest racial separatist Randy Weaver in Idaho. The response team carrying out the plan was relatively inexperienced, having been in existence for only two years.
“So you had an untested plan, and you had an organization that had been in this for only a couple of years,” Paschall said.
Under the National Response Plan, the tactical commander was Sarabyn. Neither Sarabyn or Chojnacki has extensive special operations experience. Critics argue they weren’t qualified to lead a military-style assault.
Paschall again said the system should be blamed.
“The tactical commander was designed by the plan,” he said. “He was an officer who does not have day-to-day contact with the ATF special operations people. That was done for an administrative reason. But I feel that was an error in the National Response Plan. When you run this kind of large-scale operation, you need people quite knowledgeable of special operations. They simply didn’t have that. But when you examine ATF’s structure, there are people quite knowledgeable of raids of this nature. In other words, the talent is there. It’s obvious to me that they should use the talent they have.”
The blunt fifth-generation Texan finds much to fault in ATF’s execution of the Mount Carmel raid. While Paschall doesn’t spare the agency the rod, he also praises the men and women who stormed out of the back of cattle trailers into withering gunfire.
“I’m very reluctant to come down hard on these people, some of whom are incredibly brave,” Paschall said. “It makes you feel good to know we’ve got Americans who will do what they did. Their team leaders, guys like Bill Buford, were outstanding. Their dedication, their courage, you can feel it just talking to them.
Another source knowledgeable of the review was also impressed by the agents carrying out the raid.
“Nobody panicked, nobody ran,” the source said. “They were very courageous. They were obviously well-trained and knew what they were doing.”
But bad judgment dogged ATF in preparing for and carrying out the raid.
The staging for the raid was in Waco, at Texas State Technical College. ATF agents stayed the night before the raid in hotels throughout the area—which Paschall called, “In hindsight, a bad decision.”
News of the pending raid leaked to many in McLennan County, everyone from chambermaids to county officials. The day before the raid, ATF spokeswoman Sharon Wheeler phoned Dallas area media to advise them that there would be a news story the next day involving ATF. Wheeler maintains that she did not mention the Branch Davidians.
The Tribune-Herald and KWTX-TV (Channel 10) of Waco were the only media in the vicinity of Mount Carmel on Feb. 28.
WFAA-TV in Dallas knew of the raid by Saturday evening, but chose not to send anyone to cover it, according to an interview photographer Jim Tapley gave the Baylor Line, a magazine for Baylor University graduates.
Tapley, a ’79 graduate, said the TV station didn’t think the story would appeal to its viewers.
“We’re on really good terms with Channel 10 and we told them, ‘Give us a call if all hell breaks loose,’” Tapley told the magazine.
On the morning of the raid, three helicopters on loan from the Texas Air National Guard appeared on the horizon at least five minutes before the raid. Federal officials told the Dallas Morning News that the helicopters could not have alerted the Branch Davidians to the raid. Helicopters belonging to a local aviation program at a nearby community college—presumably TSTC—often flew over the compound, the officials said.
A spokeswoman for TSTC’s aviation program, however, said it had no helicopters.
“It’s fixed wing only,” the spokeswoman said.
McLennan Community College has no programs that offer flying time.
DPS has a landing strip near TSTC, but it only has one helicopter, said spokeswoman Laureen Chernow.
Paschall, however, downplays the helicopter’s role in possibly alerting the Branch Davidians to the raid. By that time, he said, the raid was already doomed. The helicopters were just something else to wonder about.
Who fired the first shot?
Investigators visited Waco this summer hoping the seven newspaper and TV journalists who viewed the Mount Carmel raid could give them the answer.
ATF agents said Howell opened the door to the compound, smiled, then ducked inside and the cult opened fire. But attorney Dick DeGuerin of Houston, who was Howell’s attorney, believes ATF fired the first shots. Howell reported that he opened the door to warn that children were inside the compound, when agents opened fire on him, DeGuerin said. He believes Howell because of the extraordinary number of gunshots around the door frame, DeGuerin said.
Journalists could not settle the issue definitively.
Despite wide-spread newspaper reports that the journalists confirmed ATF’s version of the shootout, they actually told investigators they weren’t sure who fired the first shot. Many of the journalists had not been looking at the front door. Others admitted being somewhat in shock as the firefight erupted.
“I couldn’t really tell,” said one journalist, who asked not to be identified. “But if I had to make an educated guess, I’d say it was the Davidians, the way the ATF agents were reacting coming out of the trailers. They were under fire. I didn’t see anybody by the front door. That was one of the first places I looked.”
No local action
After investigating the raid, Paschall said he was most struck by the refusal of local officials to deal with the Branch Davidians.
He recalled the 1990 Waco meeting where charges that Howell was sexually and physically abused children were made to representatives from the district attorney’s office, the sheriff’s department and the Texas Department of Public Safety, as well as the U.S. Attorney’s office.
“I wonder how in the hell this got to be a federal case,” Paschall said. “What in the hell is happening in that county? I’m from near there. If we have to have our crime problems solved at the federal level, we’re in real trouble. Why wasn’t something done locally? I feel relatively certain that local officials could have taken care of this damn problem, and maybe we wouldn’t have had all the people getting killed. Our job wasn’t to judge local authorities. But I wish it had been.”