Hush was not the word on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raid on the Branch Davidian cult.
ATF officials have said the operation was so secretive that the spouses of those taking part probably did not know the nature of their mission.
Federal agents said again Wednesday that the only thing wrong with their plan to raid Mount Carmel was losing the element of surprise, thanks to an anonymous tipster.
ATF raided the Branch Davidian cult at Mount Carmel, about 10 miles east of Waco, on Sunday in an attempt to arrest cult leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh, and search for illegal weapons. The raid resulted in the deaths of four ATF agents and at least two cult members.
The raid came a day after the Tribune-Herald published the first part of “The Sinful Messiah” series outlining cult activities, which included allegations of child abuse, and possession of high-powered weapons including a machine gun.
But the raid was not a well-kept secret.
Police scanner talk about the operation occurred before the raid, and local ambulance service, law enforcement and others had advanced knowledge of the actual operation — that some type of law enforcement activity was in the works.
Immediately before the raid, a voice came over a police scanner saying, “There’s no guns in the windows. Tell them it’s a go.”
Police scanners are readily available to the public.
Jack Killorin, chief ATF spokesman in Washington, said Wednesday that local law enforcement and an ambulance service had advance notice of Sunday’s operation.
“We did, in fact, procure ambulance service and law enforcement support for the operation. This was from the Department of Public Safety, from the county.
“Advance notice of the operation was obviously closely controlled,” he said. “Some military knew because we used facilities at Fort Hood for the teams to … train. They might have known when we left. But the exact time was closely held by those units who were moving in.”
Killorin said ATF did not notify local hospitals in advance. He added that the compound could have received word as the ATF unit began to deploy to Mount Carmel because “Waco, Texas is dead flat.”
Bellmead Police Chief Robert Harold said federal officials contacted the police department Friday and said that ATF agents would be in the area on Sunday. He said the department was not told of any details about the agents’ activities.
Harold also said ATF contacted police because it planned to park several vehicles at a school parking lot in the city.
Texas State Technical College dean for administration Fred Williams said law enforcement officials contacted the college last week about refueling capabilities for three helicopters and an airplane.
He said the call came late last week, perhaps on Friday, but like Bellmead, ATF did not tell the college its plans.
“We had absolutely no idea,” he said.
In a Wednesday press conference, Dan Harnett, associate director of the ATF, said someone tipped off the Davidians with a phone call before the raid.
Killorin said he does not know how Branch Davidians inside the compound were tipped off.
“Why, in the space of about a half hour they went from their observed planned routine … to a distribution of weapons and readiness, are answers that are going to have to come out of compound.”
Killorin said the Tribune-Herald bears no responsibility for the botched raid. He called accusations against the paper “grossly unfair.”
“The answer is we don’t know who tipped them off,” he said. “I am somewhat sympathetic to the paper. Obviously, we would have preferred a little more delay in the publication. But I’m sympathetic because I’m getting the same heat with people saying ‘Why did you do this? Why did you do that?’ ”
Killorin denied there were any “moles” inside the compound. He said special agents operated from outside.
Meanwhile, KWTX-TV responded to Tuesday’s “Nightline” program where Houston Chronicle reporter Kathy Fair repeated rumors that a Waco reporter tipped off the cult in exchange for permission to be on the compound grounds.
In a written statement, KWTX president Thomas G. Pears said the allegation is completely false. No reporter or photographer from local media was on the compound ground prior to the raid, he said.
“KWTX-TV was not on the compound property at any time prior to the raid was definitely not, as she said, hiding in the trees. Our news vehicle followed the ATF caravan by some 200 yards and did not arrive in the compound until the gun battle was in full storm.”
Pears went on to say that Ted Koppel had “seriously damaged the reputation of KWTX” and Pears demanded a correction and public apology Wednesday.
The second guessing on how the agency handled the raid continued Wednesday, particularly from FBI agents who maintained that the Texas episode is proof the ATF has been getting involved in areas for which it is not qualified.
ATF officials counter that theirs was the proper agency to move against the cult because the charges involved the illegal possession of weapons.
But FBI agents, who seldom speak publicly and refused to be identified in this case because was still unresolved, said Wednesday that the strategy of moving in on the fortified compound stood in complete contradiction to the FBI policy of waiting out any situation that holds the potential for hostages or injuries to innocent bystanders.
Law enforcement and tactical experts across the country expressed dismay over the way the confrontation was handled.
Some experts harshly criticize the ATF decision to storm the Branch Davidians’ 77-acres — rather than attempt to negotiate — despite the apparent size of the cult’s arsenal, the members’ resolve to use the weapons and the presence of a large number of children on the grounds.
Others wondered how an agency whose prime interest is weaponry and explosives, and which had the religious sect under surveillance for nearly a year, apparently failed to plan adequately for medical evacuations in the event of a violent confrontation.
There were also defenders of the ATF, who noted the courage of the agents and urged that second-guessing be put off until the crisis is finally resolved. But the tactics used in the assault are clearly a matter of dispute in the nation’s law enforcement community.
Tony Cooper is a law enforcement consultant who teaches courses in terrorism, negotiations and conflict resolution at the University of Texas, Dallas.
“What is incomprehensible to me is that they knew these people had an illegal cache of weapons and they thought these weapons would not be fired,” Cooper said. “To enter a room where they believed those weapons were kept and no know that there were people in adjoining rooms who would shoot at them through the walls is criminal because it caused deaths.” Col. Charles Beckwith, the founding commander of the Army’s elite Delta Force charged Wednesday that the ATF didn’t have a good plan. “It’s a disgrace to this country.”
Frank Bolt Jr., a former hostage negotiator and 28-year veteran of the New York Police Department, said “I’m concerned that once you know you have children in there, you don’t go storming in as you would in a barricade situation.
“When this is all over and they bring that dead child out of there,” Bolz said, “startling photographs of that child’s face will overshadow the deaths of heroic agents.