As talk heats up in Washington that he is about to lose his job, beleaguered FBI Director William Sessions Wednesday admitted his future may hinge on how his superiors and the American people view the Bureau’s handling of the Mount Carmel disaster.
“I cannot imagine the Waco incident not having an impact on anything or anybody that was associated with it, that was involved. I think it will have impact on everything,” said Sessions during a news conference at Waco’s Texas State Technical College.
The Associated Press, quoting an unidentified source, reported that Sessions will soon meet with Attorney General Janet Reno to discuss his tenure at the FBI.
Sessions, a former Waco City Council member, has been under pressure to resign after a Justice Department report in January accused him of ethical misconduct.
Sessions said he did not know of any such planned meeting. He still has about 4 ½ years of his 10-year term remaining.
“Obviously, it is very important to all of us that the FBI be perceived the way it is around the world, that is as the premier law enforcement agency that can handle anything. So Waco and the ending of Waco . . . we have to be sure we explain ourselves well to the American people,” he said.
“As to my personal circumstance, you’ll recall when I went to Washington, I agreed to serve a 10-year term.”
Congress “intended for this director to be apolitical, to make tough decisions regardless of what the political circumstance was. I have done that.
“And I speak in terms of my 10-year term not arrogantly. The president of the United States can ask me to step down, and he can explain to the Congress why he did it,” Sessions said.
The report by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility “accused Sessions of ethical lapses such as creating a “sham” to avoid paying taxes on his transportation, misusing government cars and planes and using government funds to build a fence around home that doesn’t meet FBI security standards.
Uncertainty over Sessions’ future was hanging over him as he led the FBI on two high-profile cases: The Feb. 26 bombing of the World Trade Center and Mount Carmel.
The FBI has been criticized for its handling of the standoff with the Branch Davidian religious sect.
The siege ended in the flaming deaths of at least 72 cult members, including 17 children, after the FBI earlier in the day failed to drive them out of the compound using tanks and tear gas.
Sessions said the FBI has not been made “a scapegoat” for the tragedy.
“People expected us somehow to work a miracle, and all I wish is that we had,” he said.
Sessions was in Waco to thank Mayor Bob Sheehy — his campaign manager in his 1969 bid for a City Council seat — and other local officials for the way area residents “welcomed us into your hearts” during the siege.
As he entered the meeting room at TSTC to a standing ovation, he pointed to many faces he remembered from his 17 years in Waco during the 1950s and 1960s.
“The burden we placed upon you was an extreme one, and I know that,” said Sessions, a Baylor University alumnus.
Sheehy defended the FBI from its critics, recounting a short conversation he had with bureau officials on the day the siege ended.
“They were shocked as I was,” Sheehy said. “You would never doubt that these people tried to do their best to get all of the people out.
“They gave them every chance and what occurred was none of their fault,” he said. “I believe that now, and I’ll believe it for the rest of my life.”
Others in the crowd of about 150 included Waco police Chief Gil Miller, McLennan County Sheriff Jack Harwell and other local and county officials.
The FBI took over police operations at Mount Carmel soon after a Feb. 28 gun battle between the Branch Davidians and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms left four federal agents dead and 16 wounded.
The ATF had been attempting to serve search and arrest warrants on cult leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh, for allegedly stockpiling a cache of illegal weapons.
Before going to TSTC, Sessions visited the site of the burned out Mount Carmel compound for about 45 minutes to meet investigators there.
“To see it as it was now was a shock,” he said.
Sessions confirmed that David Jewell, the father of a former cult member and the former husband of a woman killed in the fire, wrote to him last year about allegations of child abuse, at Mount Carmel.
Accounts of alleged child abuse were first reported in “The Sinful Messiah,” the Tribune-Herald’s series on the Branch Davidians.
Reno has said reports of child abuse were part of the reason she authorized the FBI assault on April 19.
However, a psychiatrist that has examined most of the children released during the early days of the siege said earlier this week that he had seen no signs of sexual abuse.
Sessions said the conflicts “will be resolved.”
“I think that what is important to remember is that there was no question in anybody’s mind that prior to the raid by the ATF on the morning of the 28th that there were established reports of child abuse in the compound,” he said.
“It was accepted that there were people in the compound who were bearing the children or who had borne the children of David Koresh.”
Sessions said photographs taken as Mount Carmel was engulfed in flames prove that the FBI’s strategy on April 19 would have worked if cult members had wanted to leave the compound.
Agents used tanks to knock holes in the wooden building. Tear gas inserted through the holes was meant to drive out cult members through the openings.
Early in the fire — which arson investigators said was intentionally started by someone inside — many of those openings were free of flames and smoke, allowing cultists ample room to escape, Sessions said.
“There is not a person here who would not flee fire, who doesn’t seek to get away from fire, and I know we provided the egress, and for that, I was grateful,” he said.
Nine Branch Davidians did survive the fire.
FBI negotiators took seriously Howell’s apocalyptic prophecies about a violent end of the world, Sessions said.
“It is fair to say that there is nothing that was said by Mr. Koresh that wasn’t taken seriously by the people who heard it. . . .”
He said he believes future training of FBI negotiators will include intensive theological and other studies to prepare for possible standoffs with other well-armed religious cults.
“I’m sure we will pursue it and we will learn, additionally from our experience,” he said.