WASHINGTON — The FBI got so much advice on how to end the 51-day siege of Mount Carmel that agents ended up ignoring most of it, including evidence that cult leader Vernon Howell was about to give up, say experts consulted by the Justice Department.
The views of these experts are included in the department’s new report on the confrontation outside Waco that began Feb. 28 when an ill-planned assault on the compound resulted in the deaths of four Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents, and ended April 19 when FBI tear gas prompted Howell to set the place on fire, killing at least 80 cult members.
The report is to be released at a Justice Department news conference today. It consists of a step-by-step review of the FBI’s handling of the siege and an assessment by Edward Dennis, a former chief of the department’s criminal division.
The rest of the report focuses on recommendations by Deputy Attorney General Philip Heyman on how to apply the lessons of Waco to future hostage situations, along with comments by 10 outside experts in religion, behavioral science and law enforcement.
Much of the criticism is leveled at what they called the FBI’s failure to understand and interpret the apocalyptic fantasy in which Howell lived.
“What went wrong is the FBI didn’t take the religious and social dynamics of situation seriously,” said Dr. Nancy Ammerman, a professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.
For example, although the FBI did consult with a few religious experts, the bureau enlisted no one with expertise on fringe religious movements in general and the Branch Davidians in particular, Ammerman wrote.
She notes that the prevailing FBI belief was that Howell, also known as David Koresh, was little more than a garden-variety criminal, an ego-driven con man. As a result, the bureau gave short shrift to the views of its own behavioral science unit, Ammerman wrote.
One member of the unit, FBI agent Peter Smerick, wrote a psychological profile of Howell and concluded that “mass suicide ordered by Koresh cannot be discounted.”
But once the federal assault was over, FBI officials, including then-Director William Sessions, said experts had concluded that Howell would not order a mass suicide by his followers.
FBI conduct defended
Justice Department spokesman Carl Stern defended the bureau’s conduct.
“Even if every line of communication had worked perfectly, and even if every expert’s judgment given weight and consideration, the result would have been the same,” Stern said.
One expert says the problem may have been the bureau received too much advice.
Robert Louden, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and long-time police hostage negotiator, said: “The FBI had such an intelligence overload that the recommendations from experts canceled each other out. So they fell back on past practice—and since they didn’t have any experience with religion, they treated it like standard barricade.”
Dr. Robert Cancro, a professor of psychiatry at New York University, criticized the FBI practice of negotiating with Howell while irritating him and his followers with bright lights and loud music, Tibetan chants and the sounds of rabbits being slaughtered.
“Even a person who isn’t paranoid would interpret that as a lack of consistency and good faith in negotiations,” he said. “A paranoid individual needs more reassurance, not less.”
Ammerman said that the FBI also failed to understand Howell was living in the frightening world of the Bible’s Book of Revelation, which offers an apocalyptic vision of a fiery end to the world as the forces of good battle those of evil.
In Howell’s mind, he was inching his way toward the opening of the Seventh Seal, which signaled the Day of Judgment and the end of the world, which Howell called “Babylon.”
Peaceful way out
Ammerman also criticized the FBI for ignoring what two religion professors called the “alternative path” through the Book of Revelation, one that would lead Howell away from violence and permit a peaceful end to the standoff.
That strategy, offered by James Tabor, a religion professor at the University of North Carolina , and Phil Arnold, director of Reunion Institute in Houston, envisioned Howell writing his beliefs on a “scroll” and releasing it to the public. He could then surrender and say he had remained true to the biblical verses.
In fact, the two men discussed the idea on a radio talk show to which Howell regularly listened. Howell took the hint, Tabor recounted in the October edition of Bible Review, an academic journal.
Six days after that April 1 broadcast, Howell dictated a letter to his attorney, Dick DeGuerin, that “upon completion of this task, I will be freed from my waiting period . . . I will come out and then you can do your thing with this beast.”
But the FBI thought Howell was “simply stalling” and agents “stepped up their pressure tactics,” Tabor wrote.
When the gas attack began on April 19, Howell must have convinced himself that the end really was at hand, and the fire that engulfed the complex was ignited shortly thereafter, Tabor wrote.
One of the Davidians who survived, Ruth Riddle, emerged from the compound with a computer disk containing the first chapter of Howell’s “scroll.”