The following excerpts are from the Department of Treasury report of its review of the Feb. 28 raid on Mount Carmel. These sections from the nearly 500-page report concern the decision by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms supervisors to proceed with the morning raid even after learning Branch Davidians were expecting them and efforts later to cover up those errors in judgment. The subheads are as they appear in the text of the Treasury report.

We have added information in brackets to identify people mentioned earlier in the report.

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The flawed decision to go forward with the raid

On Feb. 28, Koresh and his followers knew ATF agents were coming and decided to kill them. That the Branch Davidians, if forewarned, would try to lay such an ambush, however, should not have come as a surprise to those who planned the ATF operation. Indeed, the extraordinary danger posed by Koresh’s arsenal and his propensity for violence were the reasons enforcement action was necessary. The issue addressed here is why ATF’s raid-day decision-makers proceeded with the raid, even though they should have realized—and indeed did realize—that they had lost the element of surprise, which was so critical to the raid plan.

The decision to proceed was tragically wrong, not just in retrospect, but because of what the decision-makers knew at the time. Surveillance certainly indicated that something was amiss. There was none of the usual activity outside the compound, and agents had seen David Jones, a known cult member, speeding toward the compound after his conversation with one of the many media personnel who had begun to congregate in the vicinity. And there was no need to speculate about what Jones might have told Koresh. Once [ATF undercover agent Robert] Rodriguez was able to report back to the command post, the key decision-makers had to know that Koresh had been tipped off. Why, then, did no one at ATF call off the raid?

The answer to this question lies in a complex set of factors that include the failure of the raid-day decision-makers to adequately access available information at the time of the decision, the failure to appreciate the tactical significance of losing surprise close to an hour before the raid was to begin, serious deficiencies in the raid-day intelligence gathering and processing structure, and the placing of decision-making authority in the hands of individuals who lacked the requisite training and experience. In the end, this is less a story of wrong choices made than one of choices not made at all as the momentum of the massive operation—left unchecked by the raid commanders and ATF management—carried it inexorably forward, with speed substituted for reflection and inquiry.

ATF decision-makers understood in advance that the raid had likely been compromised.

Despite contrary public statements made by ATF officials in the days and weeks following the raid, it is now clear that the critical decision-makers in February — {ATF raid commander Phil] Chojnacki, [ATF raid tactical commander Chuck] Sarabyn, and [ATF agent Jim] Cavanaugh — had sufficient information from Rodriguez to conclude that the raid had been compromised. They knew that Koresh had become upset and agitated after leaving to take a purported telephone call, proclaiming that neither the ATF nor the National Guard would ever get him, and commenting: “They’re coming, Robert, the time has come. They’re coming.” Koresh’s reference to the National Guard was particularly significant. Koresh had previously expressed hostility to ATF in Rodriguez’s presence, and talked of ATF’s coming to get him, but never before had he referred in this way to the National Guard. His reference to the National Guard, which was indeed participating in the raid, was strong evidence that Koresh had specific information about the impending operation. In addition, Rodriguez told Cavanaugh and others in the undercover house that “Koresh knows we’re coming,” and, according to Sarabyn, the first thing Rodriguez told him on the phone was, “Chuck, they know we are coming.”

The actions and statements of Sarabyn, Chojnacki, [ATF special agent Ted] Royster and Cavanaugh, after hearing Rodriguez’s report, strongly suggest that they not only had reason to believe, but in fact did believe, that the raid had been compromised. Their solution was to hurry up. After his telephone conversation with Rodriguez, Sarabyn related its substance to an agent in the command post. When asked what he planned to do, Sarabyn drew comfort from Rodriguez’s having left Koresh reading the Bible, with no firearms in sight, and he opined that the agents could still execute the plan if they went quickly. Raid preparations immediately moved into high gear. Sarabyn, Chojnacki and Royster had a brief discussion on the tarmac, where Sarabyn related his conversion with Rodriguez and offered his thoughts that if they hurried they could still do the raid. After that conversation ended in agreement to go ahead with the operation, Chojnacki and Royster hurried into the command post. Chojnacki called the National Command Center in Washington to say the raid was going forward, and they both rushed back to the helicopters. Royster told various raid personnel, “They know we’re coming,” and expressed the need to hurry. Sarabyn rushed to the staging area, several miles away, and, on arriving, exhorted the agents there to hurry up and “get ready to go, they know we’re coming.” Cavanaugh, though he had no place to rush to, commented to others in the undercover house, “We better do this ASAP.”

Sarabyn and Cavanaugh conceded fearing the raid had been compromised before it began. Royster likewise acknowledges that he understood that ATF had lost the element of surprise. In contrast, Chojnacki maintains that Rodriguez’s report did not lead him to this conclusion, since he felt that Koresh’s statements, as relayed to him, were not materially different from what Koresh had been saying to Rodriguez all along. Chojnacki, like Sarabyn, however, appears to have interpreted Koresh’s statements as significant enough to accelerate the raid’s timetable and get agents to the compound ahead of schedule.

Decision-makers failed to realize unacceptable risk of proceeding without surprise

The chief reason why Rodriguez’s report did not lead ATF’s decision-makers to call off the operation, or even to make further inquiries into whether Koresh had indeed been tipped off, appears to be that they did not appreciate that surprise itself was absolutely critical to the operation’s success. Sarabyn and Chojnacki recalled that, for them, the determining issue was not whether Koresh would be surprised, but whether the Branch Davidians were arming themselves in anticipation of ATF’s arrival. That this was indeed their concern is suggested by the question that they asked Rodriguez upon his return to the undercover house on Feb. 28. Although Rodriguez had been sent into the compound to see if the Saturday and Sunday Tribune-Herald articles had led the Branch Davidians to take up arms or otherwise vary their routine, he emerged with the information of far more direct importance to the ATF operation. But the decision-makers stuck to the questions that had been prepared earlier, asking what Koresh was wearing, whether the compound’s gates were open, and whether anyone in the compound was armed. On hearing that Rodriguez had seen no weapons in the compound, the decision-makers decided that they could still succeed as long as they hurried up the raid and got agents to the compound before conditions changed. Should Koresh mobilize his followers while the agents were en route, Chojnacki and Sarabyn assumed that they would learn of the danger from forward observers positioned in the undercover house with sights on the compound, and could abort the raid if necessary.

Chojnacki’s and Sarabyn’s calculations apparently rested on two false premises: First, that Koresh would not mobilize his followers as soon as he learned that agents were coming; and, second, that if an ambush were prepared, signs of it would be visible to the forward observers more than 250 yards away.

This underestimation of Koresh’s resolve was inconsistent with the intelligence that had been amassed during ATF’s investigation. Those familiar with Koresh’s stockpile of weapons, his increasing propensity toward intimidation and violent rhetoric, and his prior statements expressing extreme hostility to the ATF, could have predicted how Koresh might react to a tip that the ATF and the National Guard were coming. Former cult member David Block had told [ATF investigating agent Davy] Aguilera that he had left the Branch Davidians because Koresh would always remind his followers that if they were to have a confrontation with the local or federal authorities, the group should be ready to fight and resist. In light of the information provided by Block, Koresh’s statement that “the time has come” was also a strong indication that something Koresh had planned for was about to happen.

It is true that Chojnacki and Sarabyn lacked the firsthand or secondhand familiarity with Koresh that Rodriguez and Aguilera had, and therefore were less able to predict how Koresh would react to a tip about the raid. But they never turned to anyone for help. Instead, they asked Rodriguez only about whether he had seen defensive preparations, and they never made any inquiries of Aguilera or of the raid plan’s other architects. Had they done so, they would have better understood how these new facts jeopardized a plan that depended entirely on the advantage of surprise. The compound’s structure, the firepower that Koresh had amassed inside, the loyalty and discipline of cult members, and the absence of cover in the surrounding terrain made the assault against forewarned assailants unacceptably risky.

Instead of seeking such counsel, the raid commanders thought they should hurry up. This, too, made no sense. If Koresh was not going to arm and deploy his followers, there was no need for haste. The raid commanders could follow the original plan and wait for the Branch Davidian men to begin their work in the pit, away from their weapons. If the men did not appear, the forward observers or ATF’s fixed-wing aircraft would be able to tell the raid commanders. If, on the other hand, Koresh was going to resist the agents, any acceleration of the raid would not help. It would still take at least 30 minutes, from the time Sarabyn left the command post for the cattle trailers, to get from the staging area to the compound. This delay would give Koresh more than enough time to hand out weapons and deploy his followers in a compound that appeared to be designed for just such defensive measures. And it was scarcely likely that anyone stationed outside the compound would be able to tell that an ambush was being prepared. Cult members with access to machine guns and semiautomatic assault weapons should not have been expected to display their weapons out the window while they lie in wait.

Perhaps one explanation for why the raid commanders underestimated the ability and resolve of Koresh and his followers might be that they overestimated ATF’s ability to intimidate their target simply by arriving at the compound in force. No decision-maker has said that he acted in the belief that Koresh would back down in the face of ATF’s show of force. Several ATF raid participants, on the other hand, have said they never thought the Branch Davidians would fire on scores of uniformed agents. Such statements betray an insensitivity to the volatility of the situation that ATF should have known it was entering. Given that a small segment of the population harbors extreme hostility both to ATF and the federal laws it is charged with enforcing, the agency must always be wary of violent responses from the targets of its investigations. And here, Koresh’s pronouncements left no need to speculate about his hatred of the agency and the apocalyptic violence with which he would greet its agents.

The narrow answer to why the raid was not called off Sunday morning is that ATF decision-makers failed to realize surprise was critical to the operation’s success, and why it was so critical. Looking only for indications of defensive measures that were unlikely to be seen by forward observers, the commanders never paused to reflect on the consequences of Koresh’s having been tipped off. They hurried up when they should have slowed down. This narrow explanation, however, is incomplete, for it must be understood against the backdrop of the momentum inevitably generated in an action of the type contemplated by ATF, and the upper-level management decisions within ATF that exacerbated the pressure imposed by the momentum.

ATF post-raid dissemination of misleading information about the raid and the raid plan

Following the tragedy of this magnitude, it was inevitable that the law enforcement community, the executive branch, Congress and concerned private citizens would demand an accounting of these events.

In the wake of the tragedy on Feb. 28, the raid commanders, who made the decision to proceed with the raid despite the clear evidence that Koresh had been forewarned, and their superiors in the ATF hierarchy endeavored to answer the call for explanations. But critical aspects of the information that they provided — to superiors, to investigators, and to the public — were misleading or plain wrong. It was not that they lacked access to the relevant facts. Rather, raid commanders Chojnacki and Sarabyn appear to have engaged in a concerted effort to conceal their errors in judgment. And ATF’s management, perhaps out of a misplaced desire to protect the agency from criticism, offered accounts based on Chojnacki and Sarabyn’s statements, disregarding clear evidence that those statements were false.

ATF management’s misleading post-raid statements

In the aftermath of the Waco raid, perhaps the most frequently asked questions were: Had Koresh been tipped off that ATF was coming? And, if Koresh indeed was forewarned, did ATF commanders know this before they launched the raid? Certainly, the news media representatives pouring into Waco sought answers for these questions from official and unofficial ATF spokespeople. The answers would also be significant for those looking toward a criminal prosecution of Koresh and his followers, since evidence that the compound’s residents had deliberately planned an ambush after getting tipped off would blunt any claims that they had merely acted in self-defense against unknown assailants. And ATF’s leadership sought answers, that they might respond to media and official inquiries, and that they could work to prevent future tragedies.

ATF’s top management appropriately set about to determine whether surprise had been lost, and how. They established a “shooting review” team, and that team systematically looked for answers. Even before a complete picture of the Waco tragedy had emerged, however, Associate Director of Law Enforcement Daniel Hartnett and Deputy Associate for Law Enforcement Daniel Conroy, together with Intelligence Division Chief David Troy — who became ATF’s principal spokesman about the incident — soon began to make false or misleading public statements about the raid. Moreover, Director Stephen Higgins, relying on their reports from Waco, unknowingly made similar misstatements. To some extent, these misstatements were the product of inaccurate, untruthful or misleading information from Sarabyn and Chojnacki about what they had learned from Rodriguez before deciding to go forward with the raid. In making his initial public statements, Hartnett appears to have consciously avoided confronting the truth and, at the very least, displayed a serious lack of judgment.

As top ATF officials began to receive additional information from line agents and other sources indicating that the raid commanders had proceeded with full knowledge that they had lost the element of surprise, those officials must have realized, had they not already known, that their earlier public statements were either misleading or flatly false. Yet they stuck to their original story, thereby misleading the public and undermining the integrity of their agency.

What follows is a brief summary of the relevant events as they unfolded after Feb. 28.

The shooting review team

On March 1, 1993, consistent with ATF policy, Hartnett and Conroy established a shooting review team to probe the circumstances of the firefight at the Branch Davidian compound. The team consisted of ATF’s intelligence division Chief David Troy, Bill Wood, special agent in charge of ATF’s Cleveland field office, and Dave Benton, the agency’s chief of planning and analysis. Troy was placed in command of the review; Benton was not able to participate in aspects of the inquiry, due to other duties. Between March 1 and 3, Troy and Wood interviewed the key participants in the decision to go forward with the raid. During the process, Troy took notes, and he and Wood kept Hartnett and Conroy apprised of what the review was being told. At the end of each day, Troy turned over his interview notes to Hartnett.

Shooting review team’s interview of Rodriguez

The team’s first interview was with Robert Rodriguez, the undercover agent, who related what had happened in the compound during his visit the morning of the raid.

In his interview with the shooting review team, Rodriguez said that he had been in the foyer with Koresh and others and that the compound had appeared to be “normal.” Koresh was preaching and reading from the Bible. Then Koresh was called from the room to take what was said to be an emergency telephone call. When he returned, he was visibly shaking and very nervous, and he repeatedly looked out the window and dropped the Bible he was carrying. He looked at Rodriguez and said, among other things, “He who kills me kills the Kingdom of God, and that includes ATF and the National Guard.” Rodriguez recalled that Koresh said he “could only die once” and, upon looking out the window, said, ”They are coming for me but they can’t kill me.”

Rodriguez told the team that, upon hearing Koresh’s proclamations, he said he had to leave. In response, Koresh walked up to Rodriguez, shook his hand and said, “Good luck, see you later,” and told him to be careful. Rodriguez reported that Koresh had never done or said anything like that before. As a result, Rodriguez felt that he had been “burned,” that is, he believed that his undercover identity had been revealed.

Rodriguez then told the team about how he had reported back to his superiors. Upon entering the undercover house, he told Cavanaugh what had happened at the compound, then called Sarabyn and repeated his account. He specifically recalled informing both Cavanaugh and Sarabyn that Koresh had said ATF and the National Guard were coming. In response to Sarabyn’s specific questions, Rodriguez had reported having seen no weapons or signs of preparations to resist a raid while he was at the compound.

Shooting review team’s interview of Mastin

After interviewing Rodriguez, Troy and Wood interviewed Mastin, whose account of Sarabyn’s actions and statements corroborated Rodriguez’s claim to have informed Sarabyn that Koresh knew that “ATF and the National Guard” were coming. According to Mastin — and as the over 60 ATF agents who heard Sarabyn on the day of the raid have since recounted — when Sarabyn arrived at the staging area, he had “a sense of urgency about him.” He told the agents, “Let’s load up and go.” Mastin candidly told the team that although Sarabyn had said, “Koresh knows we are coming,” he followed Sarabyn’s lead and moved to get the trailers loaded and ready.

Shooting review team’s report to Hartnett and Conroy

Upon hearing Rodriguez’s and Mastin’s accounts of events, Troy was at a loss to explain why ATF proceeded with the raid, and he doubted the wisdom of the decision to go forward. Troy and the shooting review team promptly let Hartnett and Conroy know what Rodriguez and Mastin had related. After being briefed, Hartnett was upset and expressed chagrin that Mastin had not tried to stop the raid or even question the decision to go forward after hearing what Sarabyn had said. Thus, as early as the day after the raid, Troy, Conroy and Hartnett were on notice that ATF’s raid commanders might well have proceeded with the raid despite knowing that they had lost the element of surprise.

Shooting review team’s interview of Sarabyn

When the shooting review team interviewed Sarabyn the next day, March 2, he was unable to provide a detailed account of most of his critical conversation with Rodriguez, claiming that Rodriguez “was not real descriptive as to the ATF-National Guard statement,” and that Rodriguez had said that he had not seen any guns or armed guards. Sarabyn also recalled very little about his conversation with Chojnacki on the tarmac at the command post, when the decision to go forward with the raid had been made. Furthermore, in contrast to Mastin’s clear recollection, Sarabyn did not recall making any statements at the staging area to the effect that Koresh knew that ATF was coming.

Shooting review team’s interview of Cavanaugh

On March 3, the team briefly interviewed Cavanaugh, who reported that Rodriguez had returned to the undercover house extremely upset and reported that Koresh had said that ATF and the National Guard were coming to get him and that Koresh had said “our time has come.” Cavanaugh had instructed Rodriguez to advise Sarabyn of what had occurred at the compound.

Shooting review team’s interview of Porter

The team interviewed one of the forward observers in the undercover house, Herman Porter, because they had heard that Porter was upset that the raid had gone forward even though the commanders knew that Koresh had been tipped. When interviewed, Porter was candid and distressed. He said that he had heard Rodriguez’s report to Cavanaugh — which he confirmed had been accurately recounted by Rodriguez to the team — and had been shocked that the raid had not been canceled. Indeed, Porter recalled that after hearing Rodriguez’s account of what had happened in the compound, he had been so certain the raid would be canceled he began putting his gear away.

Shooting review team’s of Chojnacki

When interviewed by the team, Chojnacki could not recall anything specific that Sarabyn had told him about Koresh’s statement regarding ATF and the National Guard. However, he was sure that Sarabyn had said that there were no guns or sentries; this information, Chojnacki claimed, had formed the basis for his decision to go forward with the raid.

After the interviews, the shooting review team was concerned because Sarabyn’s urgency and his statements at the staging area about Koresh’s knowledge that ATF and the National Guard were coming were inconsistent with his lack of any recollection that Rodriguez had been tipped about the raid. As a result, the team was prepared to conduct additional interviews. However, after being told by Hartnett that the local U.S. attorney’s office had directed ATF to stop the shooting review because it was needlessly duplicating the pending leak and murder investigations, the team concluded its efforts.

Harnett, Conroy and Troy knew surprise was lost

By the conclusion of these interviews, Hartnett, Conroy and Troy were thus confronted with two conflicting versions of the events immediately preceding the decision to go forward with the raid. On one hand was Rodriguez’s vivid account of Koresh’s extraordinary behavior at the compound and of his own reports to Cavanaugh and Sarabyn, reports that left little doubt that Koresh had been tipped off. Rodriguez’s account was internally consistent and completely corroborated by Mastin. On the other side were Sarabyn and Chojnacki’s statements. Not only did these raid commanders — who, given the magnitude of the tragedy at the compound, obviously had a strong motive to conceal their own misjudgments — display a selective memory about critical facts, but also, what they “remembered” made little sense. Sarabyn’s claim that Rodriguez had not informed him that Koresh had been alerted to the raid contradicted reports from agents at the command center of Sarabyn’s announcements that Koresh knew ATF was coming. And Rodriguez’s account offered the only plausible explanation for the sense of extreme urgency that gripped Sarabyn after receiving Rodriguez’s telephone call.

ATF’s media statements after the shooting review

The story ATF top management told the American people bore little resemblance to what had been told to the shooting review team, and had been relayed to Conroy and Hartnett. Uncritically accepting Sarabyn and Chojnacki’s account, and disregarding far more persuasive, and rapidly growing, evidence that their account was false, ATF’s top managers uniformly said, in substance, that ATF’s raid commanders had not known that the element of surprise had been lost before they made the decision to go forward.

On March 3, 1993, three days after the raid, and the day the shooting review was terminated, Hartnett was asked during one of the press conferences held hear Waco: “When the undercover agent (Rodriguez) heard this phone call (in the compound on the day of the raid), did he realize at the time that this was a tip?” He responded that “he did not realize this was a tip at the time.” (CNN, March 3, 1993). Expanding on this line, Hartnett explained:

“There was an ATF agent in the compound shortly before the execution of the warrant. When he left the compound everything was normal — children were outside, people were going about their business. While he was there, a phone call was received by (Koresh), and he began reading Scriptures. There was more to it than that, but that was about what occurred.”

Similarly, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times the next day:

“On the morning of the raid, Hartnett said, the undercover ATF agent reported that ‘Everything was normal’ at the compound . . . But the agent left the compound just “as a phone call received” at the facility tipped off the sect members. The agent did not realize at the time that the raid had been compromised.” (“Agents prepare for a long cult siege,” Los Angeles Times, March 4, 1993.)

Three days later, relying on what he had been told by Hartnett and Conroy, Higgins appeared on “Face the Nation” and flatly denied a report that ATF had known about Koresh’s receiving a telephone tip about the raid.

When he made these remarks, Higgins apparently had not been informed about Rodriguez’s and Mastin’s statements.

Texas Rangers’ report

Hartnett and Conroy’s hierarchical management style, which discouraged rank-and-file agents from speaking to them directly, effectively insulating them from the agents with contrary accounts. While Chojnacki and Sarabyn, Royster and Cavanaugh had access to Hartnett, we have been unable to find a single rank-and-file agent who spoke to Hartnett about whether the raid commanders had known the raid had been compromised. But management style cannot explain Hartnett’s and Conroy’s failure to change their public statements in the face of yet more evidence that Rodriguez’s account was correct.

Within days after the raid, as part of the state’s homicide investigation of the Feb. 28 ambush, two Texas Rangers, David M. Maxwell and Coy Smith, interviewed Rodriguez and other ATF agents, including several of the agents who had been positioned in the undercover house when Rodriguez returned from his encounter with Koresh. Rodriguez’s account was strikingly consistent with the statement he had recently given ATF’s shooting review team. In addition, several of the forward observers informed the Rangers that, while they had not heard Rodriguez’s telephone conversation with Sarabyn, they had heard Rodriguez clearly tell Cavanaugh that Koresh had returned from a “telephone call” visibly shaking and agitated and that he had been “tipped” that both the ATF and the National Guard were coming.

During the evening of March 3, shortly after their first interview of Rodriguez, the Rangers briefed Hartnett and Conroy about their interviews, noting that they had found Rodriguez to be a credible witness. Although Hartnett had already been briefed by Troy as to the shooting review team interviews, the Rangers recall that he seemed surprised to learn that Rodriguez positively recalled informing Sarabyn that the raid had been compromised. The next day, after speaking with Rodriguez again, and hearing the same account supplemented by minor additional details, the Rangers reiterated their view of Rodriguez’s credibility to Hartnett and Conroy. But Hartnett’s and other ATF top managers’ public statements supporting the raid commanders continued.

The Rangers interviewed Sarabyn and Chojnacki on March 25 and 26, respectively, and thereafter told both Hartnett and Conroy that Sarabyn’s and Chojnacki’s accounts made little sense and were inconsistent with the weight of the evidence; and that they found the two men lacked credibility. Sarabyn now had claimed to have specifically asked Rodriguez if Koresh knew that ATF and the National Guard “were coming” and was told “no.” The Rangers noted that Sarabyn’s story could not be squared with his later announcements at the staging area that the agents should hurry up because Koresh knew they were coming. The Rangers also told Hartnett and Conroy that Sarabyn was evasive during his interview and had unfairly accused Rodriguez of changing his story.

Chojnacki had also claimed to have been unaware that Koresh had been tipped, but the Rangers stressed to Hartnett and Conroy that Chojnacki’s claim was contradicted by his decision to join Sarabyn in rushing forward with the raid. Indeed, when pressed by the Rangers, Chojnacki had tried to blame Rodriguez for the flawed decision to go forward, saying, somewhat incoherently to the Rangers:

“It’s very disturbing to me that if Robert (Rodriguez), and I’m not trying to cast blame on anybody, because that I, I thought we had built in enough safeguards to cover, ah, a cowboy, you know, who would go under any costs or of any of those kinds of terms. Anything or one person, would, would be willing to, ah, ah, put us in a risky situation, riskier than our typical work, and, ah, his role was so key in this thing and was the key to the whole thing. And I can’t believe that at the most critical time if he felt absolutely sure that that was the case that that couldn’t be communicated, ah . . . or that we couldn’t recognize that he was attempting to communicate. . .”

At the conclusion of their briefing, the Rangers told Hartnett and Conroy that the morale of the rank-and-file ATF agents was suffering because they did not believe Chojnacki and Sarabyn’s stories, yet the two were still high in the chain of command near Waco. The Rangers suggested to Hartnett and Conroy that morale might improve were Sarabyn and Chojnacki removed from their positions in the chain of command. Their advice was not followed.

Late March and early April ATF statements

Although Director Higgins had begun to hear bits of pieces of information belying ATF’s public statements about not having knowingly lost the element of surprise, Hartnett and Conroy failed to keep Higgins informed about the mounting weight of evidence that Sarabyn and Chojnacki’s account was false. Higgins’ own public statements thus deepened ATF’s commitment to a story which was fast losing its credibility.

The occasion for these statements to the media came when, in the face of the agency’s misleading public stance, agents “leaked” a competing story to the press. A March 28, 1993, New York Times front-page headline proclaimed: “U.S. agents say fatal flaws doomed raid on Waco cult.” The article stated:

“Contradicting the official version of events, four of the agents involved in the raid and in a review of the aftermath said the supervisors had realized even before they began their assault that they had lost any element of surprise, but went ahead anyway.”

The article initiated a barrage of ATF denials.

On March 29, 1993, on NBC’s “Today Show,” Higgins, still unaware of Rodriguez’s account of what had happened, engaged in the following exchange:

“Q. Let’s talk about one of the other charges, and that is that members were tipped off, and now there are reports that bureau supervisors knew that the element of surprise had been lost and yet decided to go ahead with the raid anyway. Is that correct?

“A. This was a plan which depended on the element of surprise. We would not have executed the plan if our supervisors felt like we had lost that element. So my position has been and continues to be we did not believe that we had lost the element of surprise.”

In the next few days, Higgins heard from many agents who challenged the agency’s public stance on the element-of-surprise issue. These contacts prompted him to request a copy of Rodriguez’s statement to the Rangers with respect to the raid day events. Hartnett gave the statement to Higgins during the first few days of April. According to one of his top assistants, Higgins, usually a reserved person, exclaimed on reading the account: “What would Koresh have to do, paint himself up with war paint and shoot up the undercover house before we would have known enough to call off the raid?”

Troy also made a number of similar public statements during late March and early April. But, in contrast with Higgins, he was fully aware of the conflicting accounts of what happened on raid day, and should have realized Higgins, Hartnett and others had overstated the agency’s position in early March. As a result, many of his statements in late March and early April appear to confirm that ATF did not realize that it had lost “the element of surprise” while artfully recasting the concept to accommodate the eventual release of Rodriguez’s account of raid day events.

In response to reports that unnamed agents at the staging area had claimed that one of the raid supervisors had run around yelling that “We need to go” and “They know we’re coming,” Troy protested:

“If the supervisory staff . . . was aware and convinced that the element of surprise was lost, there’s no way we were going to go driving in there and execute a warrant because the element of surprise was a key factor.”

Troy began to recast the issue when he told the Washington Post: “We felt that there wasn’t compelling evidence that Koresh knew that a raid was planned for that day. Had agents known that the element of surprise was lost, the raid would have been halted.” (“Koresh described as ‘nervous’ after call before ATF assault,” Washington Post, April 2, 1993.)

His remarks signaled a shift toward portraying the raid plan as requiring “compelling evidence” that Koresh had been tipped before the raid could be halted, rather than confirmation that conditions were right before the commanders would go forward. Similarly, on April 2, Troy appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning, America” and stated:

“At this point in time our position is this. We know exactly what statements were made by our undercover agent to our tactical commanders when he came out of the compound Sunday morning . . . We know exactly what statements were made by our commanders when they were at the staging area prior to departing for the raid . . . The important thing that was said, that we feel, is the undercover agent saw absolutely no preparation for any kind of battle plan, there were not firearms displayed by anyone . . . We did not feel that they were gearing up, getting ready for any kind of offensive activity.”

Troy held to the position that ATF had not known it had lost the element of surprise, but again subtly tried to redefine the concept of losing “the element of surprise, this time, to require outward signs of an ambush being prepared. By implication, therefore, according to Troy, so long as no weapons were visible, Rodriguez’s information was not sufficient grounds to stop the raid.

In keeping with this theme, on April 3, 1993, Troy told the Dallas Morning News: “We were not looking at a situation where we had a shrinking window of opportunity. We didn’t say, ‘This thing is turning bad, so let’s go in before it does.’” Troy further reconstructed the concept of the element of surprise on May 3, 1993, when he told Time magazine that “[t]he element of surprise does not mean they don’t know you’re coming. Only that they can’t take control.” By then, Troy had diluted the concept of surprise into a functionally meaningless term.

Significance of ATF’s misleading statements

There may be occasions when pressing operational considerations — or legal constraints — prevent law enforcement officials from being less than completely candid in their public utterances. This was not one of them. And a desire to shield one’s agency from public criticism cannot justify false or misleading pronouncements on matters of clear public concern. Hartnett, Conroy and Troy permitted public statements to be put forward that were either most likely false or definitely false. Troy admitted to the Review that he wrongfully misled the press and the public. Troy provided to explanations for his actions. First, that he was trying to provide information to the press corps. Second, that he was acting at the direction of Hartnett, whose management style discouraged subordinates from challenging his instructions. Neither explanation is acceptable. Hartnett and Conroy, in contrast, were not subject to instructions to make misleading statements and never gave their superior, Higgins, an opportunity to learn the truth.

The extent of Director Higgins’ knowledge places him in a different category, since he was not aware of the falsity of Sarabyn and Chojnacki’s account when he adopted that account in his public statements. However, Higgins must accept responsibility for continuing to take public positions on the issue when repeated questions from the media and information readily available to him should have made it clear that he was on shaky ground. Higgins never adequately questioned his subordinates to determine the facts until early April.

An oft-stated justification offered by top ATF management officials for their misleading statements, and their failure to inform the public about Rodriguez’s and the other agents’ conflicting accounts, is that they were prohibited from doing so. Various ATF officials have claimed at various times that the local United State’s attorney office, the Texas Rangers and officials in Treasury prohibited them from speaking to the public or the media on the subject of the loss of the element of surprise. And the Review has found, in fact, that representatives of both the Texas Rangers and the local United States attorney’s office asked Hartnett, Conroy and Troy to refrain from commenting in specific terms about the loss of the element of surprise because of concern about how such statements might affect ongoing investigations and likely future prosecutions. Similar requests came from the Treasury Department. Over time, as ATF kept mischaracterizing the raid commanders’ knowledge, these requests were sharpened and put more forcefully — and indeed, by early April, particularly with respect to Treasury’s concerns, ripened into an effort to convince ATF to make no further statements on the subject. Still, since ATF officials obviously ignored these requests, and spoke regularly about this subject to the media, the requests offer no justification for making statements known to be misleading or false.

In addition to misleading the public, the statements by Conroy, Hartnett and Troy also had the effect of wrongfully pointing the finger at Rodriguez as being responsible for the failed raid. If the raid commanders were not informed that Koresh had been tipped, then the necessary corollary was that Rodriguez likely had failed to tell them what they needed to know. He was to blame. Moreover, despite the consistency of Rodriguez’s recollection of what happened immediately before the raid, persistent rumors circulated that he was changing his story. As Rodriguez appropriately protested:

“They’re saying that I’ve changed my story about what I saw in the compound and what I told raid commanders. That’s not true. Every time I told my story, I said it the same way — every time. The Rangers know that too. There’s no reason for me to go and make up stories.”

(ATF agent says he saw disaster loom,” Dallas Morning News, May 13, 1993.)

Sarabyn and Chojnacki lied to their superiors and investigators about what Rodriguez had reported. Their consistent attempts to place blame on a junior agent were one of the most disturbing aspects of the conduct of senior ATF officials. The recollections of Sarabyn and Chojnacki have diverged considerably since the immediate aftermath of the raid. After being confronted with the collective contrary recollections of dozens of line agents, Sarabyn finally admitted the accuracy of Rodriguez’s account. In contrast, despite the weight of contrary evidence, Chojnacki steadfastly has contended that Sarabyn neither said nor did anything that alerted Royster and him that Koresh had been tipped.

Alteration of ATF’s written raid plan

In addition to making misleading statements to their superiors and investigators about the basis for their decision to proceed with the raid, Chojnacki and Sarabyn altered documentary evidence, misleading those probing their operational judgments.

Drafting of the raid plan

ATF’s National Response Plan required that a written plan “for managing the critical incident of major ATF operation” be produced prior to the initiation of the operation. But the plan did not have to be distributed. The point of the requirement appears to have been limited to ensuring that multiple activations were predicated only upon a well-considered, reasoned and thorough raid plan.

Although the raid on the Branch Davidian compound had originally been set for March 1, 1993, no one had even started to draft the mandatory documentation of the raid plan by Feb. 23, 1993, when Darrell Dyer (Kansas City) arrived in Waco and was assigned to be the support coordinator for the operation. Dyer’s past military service led him to assume that there was a detailed written raid plan, but, when he asked the raid planners for a copy he was advised that none existed. Thereafter, Dyer and agent William Krone took it upon themselves to produce one, even though they started with little knowledge about the work of the tactical planners. In a flurry of activity, the two conducted interviews, gathered information and eventually were able to generate a written raid plan. Due to the tight timetable, the plan did not meet Dyer’s standards in terms of quality, and from his perspective was still a “work in progress.” Nevertheless, the two of them had essentially finished a written plan the day before the raid. The plan, however, remained on Krone’s desk; it was never distributed to any agents, or relied upon by any of the planners.

Alterations to the raid plan

After the failed raid, authorities began to ask ATF officials for the raid plan. The Texas Rangers were the first to ask ATF’s Houston office for the raid plan. When Dyer was told of the request, he realized that the written plan had never been put in satisfactory terms. He advised Chojnacki and Sarabyn, and the three decided to revise the plan to make it more thorough and complete. Nowhere on the new version of the plan they crafted was there any indication that this was not the original document, or any identification of what had been added. The only hint that the plan had been modified was a hand-written notation in the margin of one page that did not indicate when and how the notation was made. Moreover, Chojnacki — the agent responsible for producing it for the Texas Rangers — never advised them that there was an original raid plan that differed substantially from the plan produced. Indeed, when the Review asked ATF for all documents relating to ATF’s investigation of the Branch Davidians, initially only the altered raid plan was received, without any indication that it was anything other than the document prepared prior to the raid. In fact, the document received reflects yet another revision, since the handwritten note in the Ranger’s copy was now incorporated into the typewritten text. At no time did any ATF official inform the Review that the plan submitted was not the original raid plan.

The alterations indicate not an attempt to create a plan that existed in the minds of the tactical planners and raid commanders on Feb. 28. Rather, they suggest a self-serving effort to clarify the assumptions on which the planners had relied and enhance the reader’s sense of their professionalism. For example, to rebut criticism that ATF should have arrested Koresh when he ventured away from the compound, the following language was added to the altered raid plan: “The subject has not left the compound in months and has made statements that he does not plan to leave.” A second alteration sought to buttress ATF’s initiation of the raid at 10 a.m. instead of the standard pre-dawn timing, which law enforcement organizations customarily use to gain surprise.

“The women, men and firearms are kept in different areas in the structure. Usually at approximately 10 a.m. in the morning, the majority of the males and Howell should be in the underground area. SRT teams have been divided to handle the areas listed above.”

Inquiries into the alteration of the raid plan

The readiness of Chojnacki, Sarabyn and Dyer to revise an official document that would likely be of great significance in any official inquiry into the raid without making clear what they had done is extremely troubling and itself reflects a lack of judgment. This conduct, however, does not necessarily reveal an intent to deceive. And, in the case of Dyer, there does not appear to have been any such intent. The behavior of Chojnacki and Sarabyn when the alteration was investigated does not lead to the same conclusion.

After the Review had obtained a copy of the original raid plan from a different source, and compared to the revised document that ATF had produced, Dyer, Sarabyn and Chojnacki, the only three people who could have been involved in changing the document, were questioned. When asked about the alterations, Chojnacki denied knowing that the raid plan had been altered in any fashion except the handwritten comment in the margin of one page of one of the altered versions. Similarly, Sarabyn claimed that he had directed only that the date of the raid be changed from March 1 to Feb. 28. Chojnacki and Sarabyn denied knowing that other changes had been made, how they had been made, and who directed that they be made. Neither Chojnacki’s nor Sarabyn’s denial are credible.

When questioned about the alteration to the raid plan, Dyer recalled that it had been changed following the Texas Rangers’ request because the original document had been incomplete, inaccurate in certain respects and had not fully articulated the reasoning behind the plan. He had advised Chojnacki and Sarabyn of these shortcomings, and the three decided to change the original plan in a manner that would “upgrade” it. Dyer candidly admitted to the Review that he had made certain changes to the plan. He said that, at the time, he had not thought he was doing anything wrong, but was simply “correcting” the original document. When questioned about the importance of identifying the altered plan as amended, Dyer agreed that it was a serious error in judgment not to properly label the altered document. In fact, he candidly stated it was a “stupid” mistake.

When advised by the Review that Chojnacki and Sarabyn had denied making any changes except the handwritten marginal comments Chojnacki had affixed to one of the already altered versions of the plan and Sarabyn’s change of the raid date, Dyer seemed shocked. Obviously, as Dyer realized, when taken together, Chojnacki’s and Sarabyn’s denials amounted to a joint accusation that Dyer had directed or made all of the other changes.

The Review credits Dyer’s account of events and believes that both Sarabyn and Chojnacki falsely denied participating in the alteration of the original raid plan. The assessments are reinforced by Dyer’s relative lack of knowledge about the facts that were changed in the raid plan. Certain changes that were made went beyond Dyer’s knowledge of the raid plan and the factual assumptions upon which it was built. Everything he knew came from someone else; he created nothing; he decided nothing. And, of course, as the only one of the three who was not intimately involved in planning the failed raid, he lacked motivation to lie about making changes to the plan. Sarabyn and Chojnacki’s false statements with regard to altering the raid plan document is consistent with their failure to tell the truth about raid day events. And their readiness to blame Dyer indirectly is equally consistent with their efforts to do the same to Robert Rodriguez.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.