DALLAS — When a mistake is made in John Magaw’s ATF, honesty will be the only policy.
For proof of that, the public only has to look at the growing list of ATF officials who have been disciplined for lying during and after the 51-day standoff with the Branch Davidians, said Magaw, the recently named acting director of U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
“I’m not sure the ethics of the individuals involved are wrong, but they just failed under pressure to tell the truth, and you just can’t have somebody speaking for this bureau or any others who are not telling the truth,” Magaw said after a news conference here on Wednesday.
Magaw, Ron Noble, the assistant secretary of the treasury for enforcement, and other senior ATF officials were here to meet with more than 200 Dallas-based agents in a downtown hotel ballroom.
Noble, who oversees the ATF and several other federal law agencies, said most ATF agents are models of integrity.
“No one has been punished for being honest. People have only been punished for being dishonest,” he said at the news conference.
Magaw and the other officials later met with ATF agents in Houston and will meet today with New Orleans-based agents.
Agents from Dallas, Houston and New Orleans took part in the botched Feb. 28 raid at Mount Carmel. During a gun battle at the Branch Davidian compound, four agents were killed and 16 were wounded. At least five cultists also died.
Cult leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh, and about 80 of his followers died in an April 19 fire at the compound after the standoff.
The latest ATF official to be punished for making misleading statements to Treasury Department investigators was Ted Royster, the former special agent-in-charge of the Dallas ATF office.
Royster was transferred this week to a multiagency anti-drug task force based in El Paso.
Royster has denied any wrongdoing.
According to a scathing Treasury Department report on the ATF’s performance in Waco, Royster at first lied to investigators about whether he had heard a report that the raid’s element of surprise had been blown.
“It was my judgment coming in looking at all the things that have occurred here in Dallas shortly before and during and since Waco, and maybe the months before then, that it was time for a change,” said Magaw.
“Waco is part of that,” he said.
Other top ATF officials in Washington and Houston, including Magaw’s predecessor, Stephen Higgins, have either resigned or been placed on administrative leave, in part because they reportedly lied about whether they knew that the Branch Davidians knew a raid was imminent on Feb. 28.
William Curley, the newly named acting special agent-in-charge of the Dallas ATF office, said most of what is in the Treasury report would still have been a mystery without straight talk from rank-and-file ATF agents.
“That report happened because ATF people stood up and said, ‘Hey, something is wrong, and we need to speak out,’” said Curley, who runs the ATF office in Louisville, Ky. Curley’s assignment in Dallas is only for 30 days, said the 23-year veteran.
Curley said part of his job will be to rebuild trust between agents and their superiors. The agents, he said, are ready to move forward.
“I think nationwide, ATF shut down. In my division and throughout the country, we had about a two-month spell where everybody’s direction came from Waco.
“Investigations kind of went down. Individual agents throughout the United States . . . were down, completely down and need to be rebuilt back up,” he said.
The Treasury Department report, released last month, blasted just about every aspect of the ATF operation against the Branch Davidians.
Most notably, the report said the raid should have been called off after an undercover agent who had infiltrated the cult told his superiors that Howell was expecting the raid. Magaw agreed.
“I believe that the single mistake in hindsight — hindsight is always 20/20 — is that we didn’t say, ‘Stop, we ought not to do this,’” said Magaw, who came to the ATF after a stint as director of the U.S. Secret Service.
Magaw said the agents he talked to during a two-hour meeting were confident and buoyant and looking forward to being part of the ATF’s future. They also understand, said Magaw, how mistakes were made Feb. 28.
“Sometimes, when there is a lot going on around you, you listen but you don’t hear. But if we would have heard, they were saying on the one hand, ‘They know we are coming, there is a 40-minute time frame almost before we arrive there,’” Magaw said.
“We know that they had weapons. There was a communication breakdown. Our communication plan was not as good as it should be. Those kinds of things all put together caused this,” he said.
The report, said Magaw, will be required reading for all current and future ATF employees.
“I believe if you ever put it in the past and let it lie to rest, it’s a mistake. I have just ordered as many of these books that we can possibly get of the total investigation, and I want to get every new employee, for as many years to come, to read that,” Magaw said.
“You never want this to go away because you want to learn from the lessons. Now, you want to put it behind you in the daily activity, but you want people who come behind and follow to learn by that.”