WASHINGTON — The ATF should have called off its Mount Carmel raid at the last minute because Branch Davidians knew the agents were coming, the chairman of a House subcommittee said Thursday.
U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the raid failed because Branch Davidians had at least 45 minutes’ notice that agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were on their way to the compound Feb. 28.
Hoyer said two days of hearings on Mount Carmel by his appropriations subcommittee left him convinced the critical failure was the ATF decision to go ahead with the operation.
ATF undercover agent Robert Rodriguez was in the Davidian compound at least an hour before the raid began and was told that cult leader Vernon Howell knew the ATF and the Texas National Guard were on their way, according to Hoyer.
“It appears that Rodriguez left at approximately 8:30 a.m.,” Hoyer said after the hearings ended Thursday. “Somebody should have made the decision, ‘Look, they know we’re coming and the element of surprise is lost. Let’s stop now.’”
Four ATF agents and six Davidians were killed in a gun battle that erupted as soon as agents tried to serve an arrest warrant on Howell, also known as David Koresh, and search the compound for illegal guns and explosives.
ATF officials appearing at the hearing said the plan included several “jump off” points at which the assault could have been aborted.
ATF associate director for enforcement Dan Hartnett said that as the cattle trailers carrying agents approached the Mount Carmel compound “if from the observation post, some message was received or communication that they were moving around the compound with guns, we had points at which they could turn off.”
Hartnett said the agents’ first opportunity to abort the raid was on Double EE Ranch Road, which runs along the front of Mount Carmel. The agents turned off FM 2491 onto Double EE Ranch Road to reach Mount Carmel’s driveway.
“Once they got into the compound, there was still another road. If they were seen with guns or if they started to receive fire, they could turn off into that road and have an exit,” Hartnett said.
The subcommittee did not review how seriously commanders of the team took the fact that Howell had said he knew they were coming, or even precisely what was said.
Any reference to specific conversations was omitted at the request of ATF because of “pending trials,” Hoyer said.
Hartnett also said he was at a loss to understand a McLennan County Sheriff’s lieutenant’ inability to communicate with commanders after he received telephone calls from inside the Davidian compound, demanding that the action be called off.
Sheriff’s Lt. Larry Lynch told members of the subcommittee Wednesday he had been unable to get in touch with ATF agents for 30 minutes while he carried on a series of frantic telephone conversations with Howell and Davidian member Wayne Martin, who were inside the compound.
A tape recording of conversations between Lynch and Howell and Lynch and Martin was played at the committee’s first day of hearings Wednesday.
With the talk punctuated by gunfire and Howell’s rambling discourse on the meaning of a biblical passage, Lynch could be heard repeatedly telling 9-1-1 operators to get in touch with the ATF communications van.
Hartnett said Lynch was at the 9-1-1 station at the Waco Police Department to field neighboring ranchers’ calls in the case of shooting during the raid.
Lynch testified he was told ATF would be monitoring the sheriff’s office radio frequency, but Hartnett said the telephone number for ATF’s command headquarters was with Lynch at 9-1-1 headquarters. A telephone call was all it would have taken to inform them of the Davidian calls, Hartnett said.
Also, Hartnett said, three sheriff’s office squad cars were at the scene and should have heard Lynch’s frantic attempts to notify lawmen at the compound that he was talking about a cease fire with members of the cult.
In the end, Hartnett said, Lynch sent another squad car to the compound to get word about the telephone link he had with Howell’s group.
“The most sobering aspect of what we saw at Waco was not the communications problem,” Hoyer told Hartnett and ATF Director Stephen Higgins at the end of the hearings. “It was in the ability to abort the mission. My own view is that that decision in retrospect and in hindsight was an error.”