Naturally, those Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms officials who lied to the public, lied to investigators and tried to cover up their failures in the botched Feb. 28 raid on the Branch Davidians should be punished.
But the most important outcome of the investigation into what went wrong that foggy Sunday morning 10 miles east of Waco is to make sure similar tragedies are never repeated.
Commenting on the results of the investigation into the raid, Secretary of Treasury Lloyd Bentsen said it is obvious that the raid should have been called off when ATF commanders learned the element of surprise had been lost inadvertently by the presence of a TV crewman.
Instead, the ATF commanders forged ahead with the raid. Within minutes four ATF agents were killed and 16 were wounded. At least five Branch Davidians also were killed during the gun battle with more than 100 ATF agents who stormed the Mount Carmel compound in an attempt to arrest cult leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh, for violating gun laws.
The four-month investigation found “disturbing evidence of flawed decision making, inadequate intelligence gathering, miscommunication, supervisory failures and deliberately misleading post-raid statements about the raid.” The required planning document for the raid was not written until five days after the tragedy. It then was altered, rewritten and lied about by ATF officials “in a concerted effort to conceal their errors in judgment.”
Bentsen said numerous ATF officials “were less than truthful about the facts” following the raid. That’s a polite way of saying ATF officials lied and knew they were lying. Those officials included Associate Director Daniel Hartnett, Deputy Associate Director Edward Daniel Conroy and Intelligence Division Chief David Troy, among others. ATF officials continued to make statements that “were either misleading or flatly false” when they knew better, “thereby misleading the public and undermining the integrity of their agency,” the report said.
Public deserves better
The report also found that ATF officials failed to adequately explore the possibility of arresting Howell away from the compound. ATF officials told the public that Howell did not leave the compound in the months before the raid. Information that disagreed with their public statements was often ridiculed or derided with sarcasm. The investigation found that the ATF’s intelligence-gathering operation failed to detect at least a half dozen instances when Howell left the compound in the month leading up to the raid.
Clearly the public deserves better from its public servants. The ATF deserves better. The ATF officials who misled the public already had public sentiment on their side due to the tragedy suffered by the brave agents who were killed or wounded during the assault.
Replacing ATF Director Stephen Higgins with John Magaw, the director of the Secret Service, and placing five top ATF officials on administrative leave was a good start. The administration should also take Bentsen’s suggestion and merge the ATF into the FBI, establish better action plans and create a permanent special operations team to handle such situations. Also, public confidence in public institutions depends on public servants telling the truth. That’s a must.
Another consideration was voiced by a member of the blue-ribbon investigating team who said before the report was released that he felt certain the entire tragedy could have been avoided had it been handled originally by the local authorities.