WASHINGTON — FBI sharpshooters had Branch Davidian cult leader David Koresh in the cross-hairs of their rifles several times during the 51-day standoff — but dismissed any urge to kill him.
Some of the best markesmen in the country, the snipers are members of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team, or HRT. They are trained to hit an aspirin at a distance equal to the length of two football fields.
Each time Howell, also known as David Koresh, appeared at a window at his compound outside Waco, Texas, the snipers waited.
"Of course, we could not fire at him," said an FBI official, one of several bureau officials who briefed reporters Wednesday.
"It would be a terrible precedent for law enforcement officials on the scene to be judge, jury and executioner," he said. "We talked about it, and we dismissed it in the same breath."
A condition of the FBI briefing was that none of the officials could be identified by name.
The snipers were brought in early, hours after the Feb. 28 gun battle between Koresh's followers and agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, FBI officials said.
"Our first fear was that members of the sect would come running out with a child in one hand and an AK-47 (assault rifle) in the other and start firing sorties at law enforcement personnel," one official said.
"That was a real concern of ours. An HRT sniper is the only (sharpshooter) in the United States that has the capability of making a surgical shot under conditions like that."
However, the FBI says it never fired a shot during the standoff. The snipers spent hours staring at windows and portholes in the Davidian compound and radioing their observations, which were entered into a computer in an attempt to analyze movements inside the compound.
At the same times negotiators talked to Howell in what the FBI briefers depicted as an increasingly frustrating effort to reason with a man who refused to be reasoned with.
During the 51-day holdout, they said, Koresh released some children but indicated that he was keeping those he had fathered because they "are of the line of David" and would serve as hostages.
The FBI officials also acknowledged that they had no direct evidence of child abuse by Koresh after the siege began.
However, they said they told Attorney General Janet Reno of evidence that Koresh had "spanked" babies with boards and sticks for up to 45 minutes at a time. And they said psychiatrists and other experts told them that violence, including child abuse, likely was continuing inside the compound.