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.