A huge ATF operation in Texas was meant to get a lot of media attention. And it did, just not the way the Bureau wanted. A raid that was planned for television effect was initiated with a rattle of suppressed fire as ATF agents killed the residents’ dogs: an Alaskan Malamute bitch and her four puppies. They didn’t kill them clean, and the agonized yelps of wounded dogs would continue for several minutes. That was the opening round; supposedly, it was written into the operations order, but nobody knows for sure, for as we’ll see, the operations order did not survive.
Then — according to all non-ATF witnesses — the ATF opened up on the building. Few had targets; they were just blazing away at windows and walls. Sometime in these mad minutes, some dog-loving agent put the crippled dogs out of their mewling agony. The ATF kept firing for two hours, until they were out of ammunition, then pulled back. Pulling back wasn’t the right term, really; they bugged out, undisciplined, and some of their men — particularly the dead and the wounded — were left behind by the fleeing agents. The wounded and bodies would be recovered when FBI negotiators established a truce with the apocalyptic cult inside, an extremist breakaway faction of the Seventh Day Adventists.
They cult, who called themselves Branch Davidians, had been stockpiling guns. ATF agents fabricated a nonexistent “confidential source” to say they were dealing drugs, to get helicopter and heavy-weapons support from the National Guard. (Later, the FBI would use the same tactic, a phony “confidential source,” to push the Attorney General’s child-abuse button, in order to get the second, firestorm raid greenlighted).
The cult members would almost all be killed in the later FBI raid, which involved destroying all egresses with armored vehicles, covering them with sniper fire, and launching incendiaries into the building. (Weren’t we just talking about Njal’s Saga in some other context? History repeats itself).
The surviving cultists, most of whom fled before the final holocaust, were tried for various crimes, in a courtroom in San Antonio; and while some charges stuck, all of the murder and conspiracy-to-murder charges ended in acquittal. The fact-finders, the jury, found that the killings of ATF agents were self-defense. That finding is infuriating to this day to the officers who were there in 1993.
At the end of the day, 16 to 20 (sources differ) ATF agents would be wounded, some seriously, and four would be killed: in alphabetical order, their names were Conway LeBleu, Todd McKeehan, Robert Williams and Steven Willis. Some of the twenty-odd ATF casualties were caused by return fire, and some of them were caused by friendly fire. It was and remains the worst day in the history of an agency that has had a lot of bad days.
One of the problems was that none of the ATF agents were prepared to do combat trauma medicine; no provision for medical support had been made; and so many resources had been poured into setting up a press center for the post-raid press conference that the officers on the scene didn’t have any means of communication. As an agent tried, with no training and no equipment, to somehow give first aid to a critically wounded, nonresponsive brother agent, another called out to the newsman filming the scene. “Cameraman! Call an ambulance.”
Until the cameraman called, no one had alerted the county medical trauma unit. ATF senior managers had been afraid that local first responders would leak to members of the cult. The irony is rich, because there was indeed a leak. But that leak came from those same senior managers, publicity hounds who leaked the raid to television networks to make sure ATF made the evening news.
Boy howdy, did they do that.
The ATF repaid the cameraman by pointing their guns at him and threatening him. You could say they treated him like a dog, except they didn’t shoot him.
Meanwhile, the inmates of the cult compound were on the phone to 911 trying to get them to get the ATF raiders to back off. The ATF radio van, though, was unmanned. The agents there had left it to join the firing line, and no one picked up the phone.
That very day, senior ATF managers ordered the destruction of certain evidence, including all copies of the raid plan. Video shot by ATF videographers was destroyed; the ATF tried to seize and destroy video shot by media that they’d invited to the raid. (At least one cameraman palmed the exposed tape and gave ATF a blank one, which is the only reason any visual evidence of that raid survives).
In a video recorded that evening, cult leader David Koresh said, “Hey, I’m sorry some of you guys got shot. But God’ll have to sort that out, won’t he?”
Well, by the time Koresh got there, LeBleu, McKeehan, Williams and Willis had been telling their side of the story for months. Assuming, of course, that the outlaw lawmen and the blasphemous churchman wound up in the same place.
With the destruction of vast swathes of the evidence by the agencies involved, sorting out the events of February 28, 1993 is unlikely to be very successful. One thing, though, is that no one it ATF thinks anything they did was wrong. Therefore, no measures were taken to correct any shortfalls (how could there be? There were no shortfalls!) and no one was held responsible. In ATF historiography, they were just minding their own business when waylaid by David Koresh, whom the FBI sort-of held responsible by burning his house down around his ears, while HRT snipers made sure no one got away.
A lot has been written about Waco. The best book is Dick Reavis’s The Ashes of Waco. Reavis did something nobody else did: tried to understand the cult and their theology. (It’s as bizarre as its detractors say). He also tried, in a remarkably even-handed way, to understand the ATF agents. He picked up to some degree on the vast chasm that yawns between the DC HQ panjandrums whose life is politics, and the field agents who get the smelly end of every new DC brainstorm. A lot of what is written about Waco is propaganda; Reavis’s book stands out for its careful research and mature, level tone.
In the end, apart from the dead, nobody really paid. No one was fired, demoted, or suspended. (Not that stuck, anyway). Some people call ATF all kinds of names, stormtroopers, whatever, but that sentence, “No one was fired…” tells you the reality of it: bureaucracy, armed.