WASHINGTON — The head of the federal agency that conducted a raid on a cult near Waco Feb. 28 on Friday revised his earlier descriptions of the operation in which for agents were killed and conceded it might have been flawed.

“We probably will find things we did right and things we did wrong and we will respond accordingly,” the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Stephen E. Higgins, told a Senate subcommittee.

Until that testimony, Higgins had repeatedly and categorically said in interviews that there were no problems in the way the agency conducted the raid on the Branch Davidian cult and that it failed only after the cult “ambushed” the agents.

In addition, he had repeatedly denied that supervisors of the operation knew they had lost the critical element of surprise, but went ahead anyway.

“I’ve looked at it and rethought it.” Higgins said in a recent television interview. “There was no problem with the plan.”

But a string of news accounts quoting agents who described the February operation — the bloodiest in the agency’s history — as seriously flawed hedged his views.

All bureau agents have already been threatened by the Washington office with the possibility of being punished, dismissed and prosecuted for speaking publicly about the raid.

But some have come forward anyway because they say they believe the political stakes are so high that even an independent investigation could turn out to be a whitewash. The agency has struggled to keep these agents silent.

Higgins, who spoke at a Senate hearing intended to review the agency’s budget, said the 34-day standoff with cult members has cost the government millions of dollars and that if his agency was not reimbursed, it would be forced to trim other operations.

While declining to answer many questions about specific events leading to the assault on the 77-acre compound 10 miles east of Waco, Higgins offered his most detailed account of the tragedy in which four agents were killed and 16 wounded, and in which an unknown number of casualties were suffered by members of the Branch Davidian cult.

As late as Monday, Higgins said it was not true that agents made their assault on the compound even after supervisors knew they had lost the element of surprise.

He told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Treasury, Postal Service and General Government that the issue was “an open question” under review.

Asked about accounts that Branch Davidians knew there were federal agents among them before the raid, Higgins responded, “I can’t say to my knowledge it’s not true.” He had previously said the undercover agents had not been discovered.

Federal agents intentionally carried “defensive type weapons” in the raid because they wanted to avoid shooting innocent people, Higgins said.

“We didn’t go in there armed to shoot through walls and ceilings,” he said, “We didn’t want to come in with a frontal assault.”

Higgins said planners of the raid feared high-powered weapons would penetrate the walls of the compound buildings and might kill unarmed cult members, including many children. As a consequence, man agents were armed with handguns to face the cult’s arsenal, which included semiautomatic rifles and at least one high-powered 50-caliber weapon.

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.