21 Years Ago Today

Wounded ATF agents leave the field.

Wounded ATF agents leave the field. Waco, TX, 28 Feb 93.

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.

ATF Agent, hit by friendly MP5 fire from a mortally wounded agent inside. This man survived.

ATF Agent, after breaching the window and raking the glass, remained outside. He was hit by friendly MP5 fire, possibly a dying burst from a mortally wounded agent inside. This man survived and made it back down the ladder.

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.

The ATF has never forgotten. Unfortunately, they never learned either.

The ATF has never forgotten. They’ve also never really admitted how badly their centralized planning let down the four agents who were slain.

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.”

waco_agent_wounded

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.

15 thoughts on “21 Years Ago Today

  1. Jim

    I’m curious about something…has this agency EVER pulled off a major operation that was 1) legitimate and 2) done professionaly and with complete sucess, without any colateral damage? I know like anything else, failures, especially spectacular ones, get the headlines. But I cant seem to recall ever seeing something major involving ATF that wasn’t a disaster in some way. As I understand it (and I may be wrong) but ATF was at one time considered an agency without a purpose. Or better said, an agency that was no longer needed. Tobacco is well regulated, as is alcohol and obviously firearms. State laws adequately cover any possible crimes or violations that anyone may commit. So what is and was the need for a federal agency to police those things? I have an average understanding of interstate crime and commerce law falling under federal jurisdiction, but I think in most cases state and local law enforcement can handle whatever crimes may be commited. To my mind, the Waco fiasco was the start of the militarization of local police forces. I’m sure many of the larger cities were already heading in that direction, but it really seemed to ramp up after that. Maybe they saw the helmets and sub guns and developed a severe case of tacti-cool gear envy. I know our local PD did procure themselves a Steyr submachine gun around that time. They were very proud of it. It was in the local paper. I guess they wanted everybody to know they were ready to storm buildings and crash through doorways and such. I dunno. I do know that they dont consider a .40 cal handgun sufficient to kill a badly injured fawn. Apparantly gut shooting it with a 12 gauge buckshot round was the best bet. Not the best idea in my opinion but hey, I’m not a highly skilled firearms pro…sorry got way off track there but my point is what is the purpose of the ATF other than to gear up and run around like half assed wanna be commandos? I mean other than slaughtering innocent or helpless individuals? I cant see what they really do otherwise.

    1. Hognose Post author

      I’d hold up Jay Dobyns’s 2-year infiltration of the Hell’s Angels criminal biker gang as an example. Of course, ATF leadership stepped on him for his success. Jay’s involved in a suit against the agency right now. Both sides have rested (on, IIRC, the 19th) and are waiting for the judge to come back.

      News story (text and video) http://www.kvoa.com/news/judgement-expected-soon-in-tucson-agent-s-lawsuit-against-atf/

      Jay’s blog: http://blog.jaydobynsgroup.com

      Note that the same sphincter muscles who screwed Jay, “Gunwalker Bill” Newell and George Gillett, were the same two guys who led Voth and McAllister on the Underpants Gnome Investigation, where the plan was:
      “1. Give cartels guns
      2. ???
      3. Take down the whole cartel!”

      They never drew in that stage of the whiteboard where the question marks are. John Dodson, who suggested at least GPS Tracking the guns, was a pariah for the suggestion. Adult leadership would have prevented this. (When I was a young, enthusiastic buck in SF, a number of colonels, warrant officers and senior sergeants used such harebrained schemes of mine as opportunities for professional education).

      The case wound up busting a couple of low level straw buyers, while at least 3 US Agents and well over 500 Mexicans have been killed with the walked guns, some 1200-1500 from this operation alone remain in criminal hands. (Remember, this operation was approved by the highest levels of ATF, DOJ, DHS and the local US Attorney’s office, and it was replicated all across the Southwest at least. A couple thousand more guns walked in Texas).

      I think Jay was badly served by his leaders, long before they got together to screw him over. Some of that’s professional contempt of their agent-handling tradecraft (which ought to be different when your source is a reluctant, compromised and when he’s one of your own officers gone undercover, the latter of which very seldom happened in my end of the world). It’s almost as if they lost respect for him because he went u/c in a criminal organization. That’s the kind of guy that needs to be leading SAs, not the mediocrities they promote now.

      There are great guys in ATF. (Does anyone think the four young men killed at Waco were anything buy line doggies, badly served by bad leaders?) But the organization promotes those who suck up and cluster near the Sun King, which is whoever’s currently in the baas chair in DC.

      Note that John Dodson was also treated like crap after being caught talking to Congressional investigators. There’s a pattern here.

  2. WyomingBound

    I moved to this country in 1983.
    When Waco happened, I realized that I was back in the good old police state I had left 10 years earlier. It really pisses me off that most Americans don’t understand what they have and are willing to sacrifice their freedom so easily. This event should have precipitated the disbanding of the ATF, but instead the opposite happened. Suddenly it was alright to see the SWAT teams kicking down innocents doors, dragging them to jail (all on TV, of course), and then not charging them with anything.

    1. Andy

      We are ready to take this country back by force , if need be , but we are still hoping that the idiots in DC will rethink what they are trying to accomplish by tyranny , it is not a question of if it will happen but when it will happen ! Be prepared and ready. Keep your powder dry.

      1. Hognose Post author

        Having studied them all around the world (not ours, especially), and participated in a couple, nobody should be eager for a civil war.

        Real conversation, citizen who received a confiscation letter with Lt Paul Vance, Connecticut State Police (edited for brevity, not to alter meaning):

        ASHLEY: I want to know, if it comes down to it, will the police go to my home if my husband refuses to give up a weapon that was formerly legal and now has been made illegal by a corrupt legislature? Will the police actually go to my home and threaten my family, ’cause I’m scared to death?

        VANCE: We don’t threaten people, ma’am. That doesn’t happen.

        ASHLEY: If you’re going with the force of government, that’s a threat.

        VANCE: Ma’am, it sounds like you’re anti-American, it sounds like you’re anti-law. I can’t answer your question.

        ASHLEY: You’re the servant, we’re the master.

        VANCE: I’m the master, ma’am. I’m the master.

        Conclusions: the higher levels of the CSP (Vance is the command spokesman), like this law and the power they give them, and think anyone that opposes it is no different from street criminals.

        NB that the CSP does not normally deal with street criminals. They don’t even run many marked cruisers, their major activity is speed enforcement for revenue, in unmarked cruisers. But it seems like they’re really excited about this law.

        Nobody should want a civil war.

  3. paul

    When I saw those buildings burning as I walked in the door after my night shift working for.gov, i knew it was all wrong.

    I left a “promising job” to go work with my hands.

    And I never looked back.

  4. Aesop

    4 ATF agents reminds one of the punchline to the old lawyer joke:
    A good start!

    To date, their chief function seems to be to give DHS and TSA agents a mark of excellence towards which to aspire, and an easy way to make the FBI and DEA feel superior by comparison.

    1. Aesop

      And FWIW, I think the takeaway lesson is, when you’ve got somebody pinned down and out of ammo, don’t agree to a truce.

      1. Bill K

        I’d agree with your 2nd comment, Aesop. And add the Shirky Principle – “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”

        But by analogy, consider ‘Lewis’s law’ – “The comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.” I worry that from the ATF’s point of view , “The comments on any article about the ATF justify the ATF.”

  5. IvyMikeCafe

    Just ordered Ashes of Waco because of this post. I have read much about Waco and respect our host’s measured view of it. When the final assault happened, I was just graduating college and was as ignorant / left / liberal as you can get. Weird religious fanatics with machine guns scared me, but ramming tanks into a building full of people because, as the Attorney General at the time stated, “he [Koresh] was slapping babies” did not pass even my snot-nosed kid smell test.

    Within a year’s time, my view of our government changed completely.

    Looking forward to the new read and thank Hognose for the recommendation.

  6. Borepatch

    Like the old Bourbon monarchs restored to the throne after the fall of Napoleon, the ATF has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

  7. Hogstail

    John Ross had an interesting writeup of both Ruby Ridge and Waco in his book “Unintended Consequences.” In that book the citizens rose up against nazi ATF agents and slaughtered a bunch of them. It would be unfortunate if that really happened. Strange how government officials have trouble doing the math.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Yep. Many times. FBI claims >200 rescues. A few examples for the googling:
      – 1991, nine hostages, Talladega Federal Prison.
      – 4 Feb 13, kid in a bunker held by a — this is no shit — crazed VN vet, Midland City AL
      – 10 Aug 13, 16-year-old kidnapped by a family friend (who’d murdered her mother and brother).

      Note that the first of these was more of a classic hostage rescue, the second two were more of a barricaded suspect compounded by an innocent in with the bad guy.

      And sometimes they lose:
      – 2011, yacht Quest off Somalia, 4 souls on board murdered execution-style by the pirates. HRT arrived in time to process evidence.

      1. Pericles

        Thanks – I had assumed most of that was local SWAT action – and much of that transpired while I was OCONUS. Failures always get publicity …..

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