Politics & Policy

Waco Revisited

Cato study on Waco decries federal culture of impunity.

Nearly eight years after the final assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, that fiery disaster’s embers still smolder. A new study by Cato Institute scholar Timothy Lynch has reignited the controversy surrounding the FBI’s April 19, 1993 tank and CS gas attack on the Davidians’ home and the inferno that followed. Once the smoke had cleared, 76 Davidians were dead, including 27 children.

The conflagration ended a standoff that began 51 days earlier when Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents raided the Davidians’ compound in a disastrous effort to arrest their leader, David Koresh, on weapons charges. A shootout erupted between both sides. Who fired first remains in dispute. The Davidians fatally shot four ATF agents and injured 20 more. ATF gunfire took two Davidian lives and wounded five. The FBI soon took charge and negotiated with the Davidians for more than seven weeks before their facility at Mt. Carmel ranch went up in flames.

Lynch’s detailed analysis, documented with 114 endnotes, repudiates special prosecutor John Danforth’s official investigation of the Waco fiasco. Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at Cato (which I serve as a policy adviser), dismisses the former Missouri Republican senator’s report as “soft and incomplete.” He adds: “Danforth’s sweeping exoneration of federal officials is not supported by the factual record.” (Lynch’s paper is online.)

Lynch exposes a maddening culture of impunity in which few officials face serious consequences for violating the law. This double standard, in which federal badges become licenses for lawlessness, typified the Clinton-Reno years. The Bush-Ashcroft team should end this intolerable situation by prosecuting those federal officials who apparently broke the law at Waco and thereby contributed to the injury and deaths of scores of innocent American citizens.

On February 28, 1993, the day the ATF stormed Mt. Carmel, ATF agents encountered Dan Mulloney, a local news cameraman with KWTX-TV. Mulloney was videotaping the ATF agents as they retreated from their firefight with the Davidians. “When several ATF agents noticed what he was doing, they screamed obscenities at him and actually punched and kicked him while others tried to steal his camera,” Lynch writes. Mulloney’s camera captured this assault, battery and attempted theft–all illegal, and none of it prosecuted by Danforth.

To prevent the ATF from investigating itself, Texas Rangers were deputized as U.S. Marshalls and asked to probe the ATF. One Ranger testified under oath before a congressional panel that ATF commanders Phil Chojnacki and Chuck Sarabyn lied to him about what happened during the initial incursion. The Ranger recommended to Justice Department officials that Chojnacki and Sarabyn be charged and prosecuted for making false statements to U.S. investigators. Although this is a serious federal offense, Justice turned a blind eye toward these ATF leaders. The Treasury Department in October 1994 suspended Chojnacki and Sarabyn, but eventually reinstated them with full back pay and purged any mention of Waco from their personnel files.

Lynch argues that the FBI’s final show of force involved a criminal level of recklessness and disregard for the safety of the Davidians. The FBI used hand-held grenade launchers to shoot some 389 “ferret rounds” of tear gas into the Mt. Carmel compound that last morning. Its brute force could not discern hostile adults from passive ones, nor shield innocent children from harm. This constituted “an extreme indifference to human life,” Lynch contends. Likewise, the FBI’s use of tanks — which Attorney General Janet Reno dubbed “good rent-a-cars” — to knock down walls behind which children and law-abiding adults might have stood likely involved an unlawfully extreme indifference to human life. Such misconduct often yields second-degree murder charges. But not at Waco.

“Because numerous crimes at Waco have gone unpunished,” Lynch states, “the people serving in our federal police agencies may well have come to the conclusion that it is permissible to recklessly endanger the lives of innocent people, lie to newspapers, obstruct congressional subpoenas, and give misleading testimony in our courtrooms.”

While it is ugly but legal to lie to reporters, these other acts clearly are criminal. Private citizens are jailed for less. Unless “equal justice under law” is a slogan as hollow as a spent bullet casing, federal prosecutors must indict and try the law enforcement officials who, as Timothy Lynch convincingly argues, set the U.S. Code ablaze eight Aprils ago.

Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor, a contributor to National Review Online, and a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research.


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