• U.S.

The Waco Siege Feb. 28: Sent into a Deathtrap?

3 minute read
Jill Smolowe

THE WACO SIEGE WILL BE REMEMBERED FOR TWO TRAGIC miscalculations, 51 days apart. The cause of the first one, in which four federal agents were killed and 16 wounded, is even murkier than last week’s debacle and more likely to bring a massive upheaval at the agency responsible: the 21-year-old Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

In the months leading up to the Feb. 28 raid, federal agents had amassed plenty of justification for entering the Waco compound. A neighbor had complained of hearing machine-gun fire. A United Parcel Service deliveryman spoke of dropping off two cases of “pineapple-type” hand grenades and black gunpowder to Ranch Apocalypse. Another source talked about Branch Davidians manufacturing live grenades and trying to develop a radio-controlled aircraft to carry explosives. All told, according to documents released last week by the ATF, David Koresh spent $199,715 on weapons and ammunition in the 17 months before the Feb. 28 raid. The arsenal included 123 M-16 rifles and parts necessary for turning semiautomatic rifles into machine guns.

Yet the affidavits also show that the ATF had compelling evidence that the Feb. 28 raid should have been called off. Testimony from an ATF agent makes plain that Koresh knew of the raid in advance — and that top ATF officials were alerted to this before it got under way. Top officials, who steadily maintained that they had launched the raid unaware that Koresh had been forewarned, are now shifting tack. “The element of surprise does not mean they don’t know you’re coming. Only that they can’t take control,” says ATF intelligence chief David Troy. That explanation does not wash with the agents who anonymously charge that they were knowingly sent into a deathtrap.

The newly unsealed documents recount how an ATF undercover agent inside the compound, Robert Rodriguez, was talking with Koresh on the morning of Feb. 28 when the cult leader was called away by one of his disciples. When Koresh returned, he said, “Neither ATF or the National Guard will ever get me. They got me once, and they will never get me again. They are coming. The time has come.” Rodriguez left the compound soon after and alerted officials. Forty minutes elapsed before the ATF moved in.

Meanwhile word quickly spread through the compound that “the Assyrians are coming.” Koresh garbed himself in black and grabbed an AR-15 rifle. By the time the 91 ATF agents pulled up Double EE Ranch Road, most adults inside the compound were armed. Brandishing a search warrant, an ATF agent approached the open front door. By the ATF’s account, a man slammed the door and gunfire erupted from within. Koresh’s attorney counters that ATF agents fired first. Either way, the cult’s barrage of automatic fire so overwhelmed ATF agents that some never got off a shot.

In marked contrast to Attorney General Janet Reno’s swift admission of FBI error in last week’s raid, ATF director Stephen Higgins refuses to admit to flawed judgment. Last week members of congressional investigating committees suggested either closing down the ATF’s law-enforcement operations or merging the ATF, now a branch of the Treasury Department, with the Justice Department. Agency morale is devastated. Says Troy: “We have frustrated, hurt agents, involved in collective guilt. We’re dealing with a highly traumatic situation.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com