Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen replaced the head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and suspended five officials Thursday after the release of a scathing report calling the Mount Carmel raid “tragically wrong.”
ATF officials erred in going ahead with the raid after learning they’d lost the element of surprise and then lied to cover it up, the report says.
Bentsen immediately named John Magaw, the director of the Secret Service, to replace ATF Director Stephen Higgins.
Higgins had already announced his resignation, effective Oct. 30.
ATF officials spun a web of lies to cover the raid’s failure, according to the long-awaited review, written by the Treasury Department with the help of more than 30 independent experts.
The biggest cover up concerned whether ATF officials knew the agency had lost the element of surprise in the raid, according to the review.
Raid commanders falsely accused undercover agent Robert Rodriguez of not telling them that Howell had been tipped to the raid, Treasury Department investigators found. But numerous ATF field agents vouched for Rodriguez. They said he alerted Houston Division Deputy Chief Chuck Sarabyn that Branch Davidian leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh, knew that ATF was planning to raid the compound 10 miles east of Waco on Feb. 28.
However, both Sarabyn and Houston Division Chief Phil Chojnacki refused to call off the raid. Four agents died and 16 were wounded in the resulting shootout.
Six Branch Davidians were killed.
Raid ‘hurried up’
ATF raid commanders decided the best way to deal with the raid’s compromise was to “hurry up,” according to the review.
“They hurried up when they should have slowed down,” it said, “. . . This is less a story of a wrong choice made than one of choices not made at all as the momentum of the massive operation carried it inexorably forward, with speed substituted for reflection and inquiry.”
The review called ATF’s decision to proceed with the raid “tragically wrong, not just in retrospect, but because of what the decision makers knew at the time.”
Chojnacki and Sarabyn were both suspended, along with Daniel M. Hartnett, associate director of law enforcement, Edward D. Conroy, deputy associate director, and David C. Troy, chief analyst of ATF intelligence. A 220-page analysis of the Mount Carmel raid found that the five suspended ATF officials intentionally misled the public about whether the agency knew it had lost the element of surprise in the raid.
Bentsen said Thursday that it wasn’t until months later, confronted with the statements of more than 60 witnesses, that Sarabyn admitted he had been warned Koresh was ready for him.
News of the suspensions of Chojnacki and Sarabyn shook the Houston ATF office. Donnie Carter was named acting special agent in charge, according to spokeswoman Franceska Perot.
She said Houston ATF agents are split over the suspensions.
“At this point, there is a little divisiveness,” she said. “A lot of us are going over the report, though. We’re trying to digest this huge amount of information and make our own judgment. But if the report is accurate, we’ll have to go along with what it says. But it’s hard. On a personal level, it’s talking about people we worked with every day.”
Bentsen, who spoke to reporters Thursday at a Washington, D.C. press conference, said further action will probably be taken against some of the ATF officials suspended. He said the inspector general will determine whether the evidence merited referring the cases to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecutions.
“Numerous officials were less than truthful about the facts,” Bentsen told reporters.
Chojnacki and Sarabyn, though, were the architects of the coverup, according to the review. Texas Rangers, interviewing them for the state’s homicide investigation, told their ATF superiors that they “lacked credibility.” Both ATF officials blamed Rodriguez for not making it clear enough that Howell knew about the raid. Sarabyn said he asked Rodriguez if Howell knew that the ATF and National Guard were coming and was told, “No.”
But fellow ATF agents verified Rodriguez’ story. They said he told Sarabyn of a conversation with Howell held 45 minutes before the raid.
Rodriguez had gone to the compound early Sunday morning to monitor the cult as ATF prepared for its raid. After being called from a room at the compound, Howell returned and told Rodriguez, “Neither the ATF nor the National Guard will ever get me. They got me once and they’ll never get me again.”
But Sarabyn, at first, told investigators that Rodriguez was “not real descriptive as to the ATF-National Guard statement.”
However, an ATF agent who overheard Rodriguez speak to Sarabyn went so far as to pack up his gear, sure the raid would be called off.
Chojnacki maintained that Rodriguez’ report was not materially different from what Howell had been saying about authorities all along. However, Chojnacki appeared to have interpreted Howell’s statements as “significant enough to accelerate the raid’s timetable and get agents to the compound ahead of schedule,” according to the report.
The Rangers noted that several ATF agents reported that Sarabyn had urged them at the staging area to hurry up because Howell knew they were coming. Sarabyn’s recollection of his conversations with Rodriguez did not square with his comments at the staging area, the Rangers reported.
“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 collective memory about critical facts, but also, what they ‘remembered’ made little sense,” the review said.
Plans not finalized
Reviewers learned that the planning document required for the raid was not completed until five days after the raid. Sarabyn and Chojnacki altered the document after the Texas Rangers requested a copy for their investigation, according to the review. The two ATF officials also gave reviewers a doctored copy of the plan. An original copy was later obtained from another ATF agent.
One addition made to the plan stated that a raid was necessary because Howell never left Mount Carmel. Embarrassed ATF officials admitted days after the raid that they didn’t know if Howell had left nor not. They did not have 24-hour surveillance on the cult leader.
Chojnacki and Sarabyn rewrote the planning document “in a concerted effort to conceal their errors in judgment,” reviewers declared.
The review said that even before a clear picture emerged of the raid, Hartnett, Conroy and Troy began to make false or misleading public statements on whether ATF knew it had lost the element of surprise. Higgins, relying on their reports, unknowingly made similar misstatements.
“They stuck to their original story, thereby misleading the public and undermining the integrity of their agency,” the review said.
The Treasury Department’s review also found that Chojnacki and Sarabyn did not have the training to command a raid such as the one at Mount Carmel. The bulk of their law enforcement experience was in street enforcement. They did not have the training or military tactical experience to compensate.
Bentsen criticized ATF at his press conference for not trying to arrest Howell while he was off Mount Carmel.
“ATF did not adequately explore the possibility of arresting David Koresh away from the compound,” Bentsen said.
The report faulted ATF’s intelligence gathering operation for failure to detect at least a half-dozen instances when Howell left the compound in the months leading up to the raid. Instead, ATF officials devised a high-risk strategy to catch cult members by surprise during a Sunday morning raid — “a plan whose window of opportunity was much smaller than they realized,” the review said.
Treasury Department experts learned that some ATF officials ruled out arresting Howell off the property and laying siege to the compound. The officials did not think the flat terrain around Mount Carmel afforded agents enough places to hide from the cult’s weaponry.
ATF was also criticized in the review for not using more sophisticated electronic equipment to monitor the cult’s radio traffic. Although ATF undercover agents picked up no transmissions, two area residents reported hearing people they believed to be cult members describe approaching ATF agents as looking like “a covey of quail,” and saying, “If I had a shotgun, I could flush them out and kill every one of them.”
Had ATF monitored the same conversation, the review said, “even the decision makers undeterred by Rodriguez’ report might have recognized the need to abort the raid.”
Detailed in the review’s pages is a sobering portrayal of Feb. 28, a day that went wrong in every way for ATF.
It sketches a nervous Rodriguez reluctantly re-entering Mount Carmel that Sunday. Rodriguez was not certain he could leave by 9:15 a.m. without arousing suspicion. He was supposed to gauge the cult’s reaction to the Tribune-Herald’s series, “The Sinful Messiah,” which had started the day before. It reported allegations that Howell had sex with underage girls in the cult and sometimes physically abused children. The series did not mention the pending ATF raid.
But Rodriguez did not find the series had inspired the cult to arm themselves.
Outside the compound, on Double EE Ranch Road, KWTX-TV photographer Jim Peeler was lost, according to the review.
He encountered David Jones, a cult member and U.S. Postal Service employee. Jones drove a yellow Buick with “U.S. Mail” painted on the door. He asked Peeler if he was lost. Peeler reportedly said he was looking for Rodenville, a name by which many people knew the compound. Jones pointed at Mount Carmel, then said he had read about cult members in the Tribune-Herald and thought they were “weird.”
His defenses down, Peeler warned Jones that a raid was coming down and there might be shooting.
Jones got in his car and sped toward the compound. Thinking Jones might be a cult member, Peeler called his station. He was instructed to return to his post. But when he returned, a roadblock had been set up.
An undercover agent witnessed the talk between Peeler and Jones.
The agent later told his supervisor what he had seen. The supervisor told Treasury Department investigators that he relayed the information to ATF’s command post. But no one there reported receiving it.
At the compound, Rodriguez and Howell were interrupted. Howell left the room. When he returned, he was agitated. Howell told a stunned Rodriguez that the ATF and Texas National Guard were coming for him.
Howell walked to the window and looked out.
“They’re coming, Robert,” he said. “The time has come.”
Cult members flocked into the room, blocking Rodriguez’ path to the door. He thought about jumping through the window. Rodriguez told Howell that he had to meet someone for breakfast.
“Good luck, Robert,” Howell said, shaking Rodriguez’ hand.
According to the review, Rodriguez left the compound, got into his truck and drove to the undercover house. He announced that Howell had said ATF and the National Guard were coming for him. His supervisor asked if he had seen any guns or seen anyone talking about guns or seen anyone hurrying around. Rodriguez said no.
Sarabyn was called at ATF’s command post at Texas State Technical College. He asked Rodriguez many of the same questions. Rodriguez said that when he left the cult members had been praying. An ATF supervisor told Sarabyn that there were no signs of unusual activity inside the compound.
An agent at the command post overheard the conversation. He asked Sarabyn what had happened. He relayed Rodriguez’ comments.
“What are you going to do?” the agent asked.
Sarabyn said he thought they could still execute the plan if they moved quickly.
Chojnacki, Sarabyn and Ted Royster, head of the Dallas ATF office, held a hurried conversation on the TSTC tarmac. The whirring of the helicopters warming up made it hard to hear. Sarabyn said Howell knew they were coming, but he had not ordered cult members to arm themselves. Howell was reading the Bible and shaking, Sarabyn reported. Chojnacki asked if any guns had been seen. Sarabyn said no. Chojnacki next asked what should be done. Sarabyn again said he thought the raid could be carried out.
“Let’s go,” Chojnacki said, according to the review.
Agents rushed about, yelling that Howell knew they were coming and they had to hurry. Royster told agents near the helicopters that the raid must begin immediately. Chojnacki called ATF’s National Command Center. He said the undercover agent was out of the compound and the raid was starting.
However, Chojnacki did not report the substance of Rodriguez’ report.
Soon after, Rodriguez arrived at the command post. He learned that Sarabyn, Chojnacki and Royster had departed. Witnesses told the Treasury Department reviewers that Rodriguez became despondent, repeatedly asking how the raid could have been launched when Howell knew they were coming.
Sarabyn went to the staging area at the Bellmead Civic Center. Hurry, he urged the agents, he knows we’re coming. There was no briefing, no evaluation of Rodriguez’ information. Several agents had qualms about the raid, but they decided it was inappropriate to question the decision.
Cult members gathered in the chapel after Rodriguez left, according to government interviews with surviving Branch Davidians. They waited a long time for Howell, who ordered them to their rooms. The older women and children went to the second floor. They lay in the hallway, away from the outer walls.
Cultists took up arms
Other cult members armed themselves, some with 9mm pistols, others with semi-automatic rifles. Some cult members donned bulletproof vests, others put on ammunition vests. Ammunition was distributed.
Undercover agents across the road noticed no flurry of activity. But the raid was based on separating the cult’s men from their weapons. At 10 a.m., the ATF figured the men would be working in an underground pit adjacent to the compound. But they had no way of knowing. A plastic tarp had been over the pit for several days. There was also another problem. The most men ever counted in the pit was 13, far below the total number of men in the cult. But ATF’s battle plan was not modified, however.
Silence at compound
As two cattle trailers pulled into Mount Carmel, the ATF agents huddled inside noticed the eerie quiet.
“There’s no one outside,” an agent said.
“That’s not good,” another agent responded.
Agents with fire extinguishers for holding the compound’s dogs at bay were the first people out of the cattle trailers.
Howell reportedly came to the front door and asked, “What’s going on?”
Agents yelled, “Freeze,” and “Get down.” Howell allegedly shut the door and gunfire erupted from within the compound, according to the review. The force of the gunfire was so great the door bowed out. An agent near the door was shot in the thumb and had to dive for cover.
Agents on the scene had little direction. Chojnacki was in a helicopter taking fire, and Sarabyn was in a cattle trailer with the agents. He was pinned down and unable to change tactics although circumstances had drastically changed.
The heavy gunfire raining down on his agents made it plain that the cult members must already be armed, but the battle plan proceeded as written.
Seven agents climbed onto the roof of Mount Carmel.
Bill Buford, Keith Constantino and Glen Jordan entered a window that led to a room holding the weapons.
Conway LeBleu, Todd McKeehan, Kenny King and David Millen entered Howell’s bedroom.
But the agents came under heavy gunfire. Millen retreated outside, where he stood guard by the armory window. Inside, LeBleu and McKeehan were killed. King was shot six times before rolling off the roof, behind the compound. He repeatedly called for help.
When Buford got to the armory, he saw a cult member armed with an assault rifle backing out of the room. The cult member fired at the ATF agents from behind a thin wall. They fired back with their pistols. But without automatic weapons, they could not silence the cult member.
Shots zoomed through the walls, past Millen. Shots also burst through the roof. Millen escaped by sliding down a ladder to the ground.
Inside the armory, Buford was shot twice in the upper thigh. Constantino provided cover while Buford and Jordan ran for the window. They dove onto the roof and dropped to the ground. Two agents dragged Buford out of the line of fire. An agent threw his body over Buford’s, to protect him.
When the shooting stopped, Buford was taken to a safer position.
The shooting stopped briefly inside the armory.
Constantino contemplated whether to escape or hold his position. A cult member with a rifle made up his mind for him. During the shooting, Constantino hit the man. Running for the window, Constantino hit his head, knocking his helmet off. Dazed, he rolled onto the roof and fell.
He severely fractured his hip and leg and injured his knees. Constantino held out a hand for help and Millen and agent Charles Smith risked gunfire to drag him out of the line of fire.
Supervisor James Cavanaugh, across the street in the undercover house, yelled for the compound’s number. He did not know it. Someone yelled that it was on the refrigerator. Frantically, he called. But no one answered. Finally, with the assistance of Lt. Larry Lynch, of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Department, he got through to cult members. Lynch was at 9-1-1 headquarters in Waco. He was talking to Wayne Martin, an attorney and cult member.
Both Lynch and Cavanaugh eventually worked out a ceasefire — more than an hour and a half after the raid went “tragically wrong.”
The release of the Treasury Department’s review ended one phase of a two-part Cabinet-level inquiry that Clinton ordered after the April 19 fire at the compound.
Justice Department officials are investigating the FBI’s handling of the siege and are expected to release their findings Tuesday.