WASHINGTON — Fearing a violent confrontation that would take the lives of innocent children, senior Treasury Department officials initially refused in February to approve a federal raid on the Branch Davidian complex near Waco, only to relent hours later after being assured that agents would be able to storm the compound by surprise.
Even as he and others were preoccupied with the World Trade Center bombing on Feb. 26, Assistant Treasury Secretary for Enforcement Ronald K. Noble said Friday, when he heard that same day about the ATF plan for the Waco compound, he feared a deadly replay of the 1985 MOVE tragedy in Philadelphia.
As a federal prosecutor in Philadelphia in the mid-1980s, Noble said, his public career had been “shaped and influenced” by the disastrous outcome of the MOVE incident in the 1985. Hoping to break the siege of a heavily fortified house occupied by the radial MOVE sect, Philadelphia police launched a bomb attack that killed 11 people, including five children, and caused a fire that destroyed two blocks of homes.
“When you have zealots and they are believed to be violent and they are securing a fortified facility and you announce that you’re coming for them . . . something very, very, very bad can happen,” said Noble when asked what lessons he had drawn from the MOVE tragedy.
Noble, 36, was confirmed this week for the enforcement post, putting him in charge of ATF, the Customs Service, the Secret Service and other Treasury enforcement agencies. Now the highest ranking black in federal law enforcement, Noble was selected this week to head up an investigation of the Waco incident.
Knowledgeable sources said Friday that Treasury has also recruited a blue-ribbon panel that will oversee the inquiry and review its conclusions. The panel consists of Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams, former Philadelphia Inquirer editorial page editor Ed Guthman and former Watergate prosecutor Henry Ruth, who served on a similar panel that reviewed the MOVE incident.
Heavily distracted by the World Trade Center bombing, senior Treasury officials initially were provided only the sketchiest details about the Waco operation by ATF. When pressed for details about why the raid should go forward, Noble said, ATF director Stephen E. Higgins specifically cited the potential for “mass suicide” by cult members.
After initially receiving a brief “advisory” about the upcoming ATF raid that afternoon from an ATF liaison official, Noble said he consulted with acting assistant secretary John Simpson and recommended against the operation.
“I was thinking about the children and — I’ll admit it, I’m a sexist — the women,” Noble said. “I didn’t see how the lives of the women and children inside would be protected . . . . I told John (Simpson) . . . if I were you, I wouldn’t sign off on this” without more information.
Nevertheless, department sources confirm that Simpson accepted Noble’s recommendation, asking Higgins to respond to a series of additional questions about the operation. Noble said he and Simpson later dropped their opposition after Higgins assured them that the ATF raid slated for Sunday, Feb. 28, may have been the last opportunity to catch the cult members unprepared and away from their stockpile of heavy weaponry.