Dick J. Reavis
The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation
Simon & Schuster, 1995
320 pages, $24.00 hb.
Reviewed by Gary McGath
This review Copyright 1995 by Gary McGath

The recent Congressional investigation of the Waco deaths has provided rather little new information, although it has offered some bizarre theatre. In a scene rivalling Kafka, Janet Reno kept asserting that she had ordered the fatal assault, while her accuser, Rep. Zeliff, kept pressing her to disclaim responsibility. ̉She was hammering home a line that 'I did it,' 'I did it,' 'I did it,'" declared a frustrated Zeliff. "We just couldn't change it."

For a more coherent look at what happened, we may read The Ashes of Waco by Dick Reavis -- who, incidentally, testified at the Congressional hearings. Reavis is cautious about what he regards as proven; this gives his conclusions more plausibility than the claims of those who fling grand charges of premeditated murder with the involvement of large numbers of government officials. What he presents is, nonetheless, damning of the Federal government.

It is not necessary to regard the Branch Davidians as heroes in order to recognize the government's actions as villainous. Our government is obligated to treat everyone, not just nice people, justly. Reavis goes into detail about the background of the Branch Davidian movement, which derives from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. David Koresh's claim to be a Messiah would be merely laughable if the Mt. Carmel battle had never happened; but other groups have made similarly absurd claims which are not laughed at only because they are more familiar.

What is important is not the beliefs of the Davidians, but the actions of the BATF and FBI. From the initial search warrant to the final siege and the trial of the survivors, Reavis shows those actions to be outrageous.

He points out that the search warrant was based on a "flawed and perhaps insufficient affidavit" by Special Agent Davy Aguilera. This is a rather generous assessment, considering its outright falsehoods. Reavis cites the affidavit's failure to provide any convincing evidence of illegal actions or intent, and cites the mislabelling of Shotgun News as a "clandestine magazine," with the implication that the Davidians' possession of copies was evidence of criminality. His coverage of this topic is brief; more details on the affidavit's falsehoods are provided in R. W. Bradford's "There's No Kill Like Overkill" in Liberty, August 1993.

The February 28 raid is covered in great detail. Reavis notes that the use of military equipment -- specifically the helicopters with National Guard pilots -- may have violated the Posse Comitatus Act, which provides for fines and prison terms for anyone who "willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force" for law enforcement purposes. There is an exception to the law for drug interdiction, and the BATF's Dan Hartnett apparently lied to Texas Governor Ann Richards about the existence of a "drug nexus" in order to secure her cooperation in obtaining National Guard equipment. (Hartnett in turn claimed, at the Congressional hearings, that the Treasury Department's report contained "false statements, distortions and very significant omissions"; it is often hard to tell who is the liar and who is innocently passing on false information.) The helicopters may or may not have fired into the compound in the raid; Reavis cites evidence that they did, including the testimony of witnesses and an autopsy report, but does not claim that the matter is proven.

Reavis concludes that the ATF's much-cited loss of the element of surprise was not really important to them; they were relying, he argues, on obtaining surrender through a massive show of force rather than on achieving surprise. But, it appears, they did not plan on accepting a peaceful surrender peacefully; rather, they came with intent to rampage. He cites a defense attorney's questioning of a BATF Special Agent at the San Antonio trial:

Q. Well then, if David Koresh had welcomed the front door team that wouldn't have changed anything about your mission and tactics? You still would have thrown in flash-bang grenades and completed your dynamic entry?

A. That is correct.

The disproportion of the amount of force used to the raid's objective -- execution of a simple search warrant based on flimsy evidence -- is grotesque. The BATF provided ample confirmation of the Davidians' belief that a corrupt government was out to destroy them, and an armed battle was the only possible result of the confrontation of two such forces.

The next phase of the war was the siege which lasted until April 19. Here, Reavis cites further uncivilized acts by the besiegers, now under the direction of the FBI. From March 9 onward, a PA system "began blaring noise, night and day." This noise includes "the sounds of sirens, seagulls, bagpipes, crying babies, dying rabbits, crowing roosters, and dental drills," along with Alice Cooper and Nancy Sinatra songs which an FBI spokesman characterized as being "specifically selected for [their] irritation ability." Apparently this was successful; nursing mothers stopped lactating. In addition, electric power was cut most of the time, limiting water usage since an electrically pumped artesian well was the sole supply. Listening devices, Reavis claims, were smuggled in with milk and first-aid supplies for the Davidians.

Tanks levelled two outbuildings on March 3, destroyed a car belonging to the Waco Tribune-Herald, "halved a mobile home, interred a dozen motorcycles, crushed two dozen go-carts, tricycles, and bicycles, knocked out the windshield of a bus, and flattened Paul Fatta's pickup." Texas Rangers noted that this activity was destroying evidence of what had happened in the initial raid.

Meanwhile, the media were kept safely two miles away. This was ostensibly for their protection -- though even in wartime the press are not normally "protected" from entering areas where they might be fired on -- but could well have been for the protection of the FBI. Citing the recordings of the negotiators' telephone conversations, Reavis quotes one negotiator as telling Koresh, "We don't want the press to know what we are or are not doing." The Society of Professional Journalists protested afterward that "journalists were kept so far away from the front lines that they were not able to properly scrutinize the actions of the law enforcement agencies and negotiators." Videotapes sent out by the Davidians were not made available to the media. (The Justice Department reported "concern that if the tape was released to the media Koresh would gain much sympathy.")

Finally came April 19 and the execution of what Reavis calls the "Jericho plan." Here we face the most critical questions of all: What was the origin of the fire? Was the government's modus operandi reckless of human life? Did the attack make it impossible to flee the building once the fire broke out? What was the probable and actual effect of using CS gas under the circumstances? Why was fire equipment kept away until it was too late?

Reavis offers only possibilities on the first and most crucial of these questions. He notes that government fire expert Paul Gray, "whose wife now works for the agency's Houston office," reached a conclusion supporting arson, while independent fire examiners reached quite a different conclusion about the starting point of the fire. The latter concluded that the fire started in the gymnasium, as a tank backed out of the room. The principle of parsimony can be applied here: When vehicles are smashing the walls of a building which is lighted by kerosene lamps and a fire breaks out, a ready explanation for the fire comes to mind -- and it is not that the people inside suddenly decided to torch themselves.

The recklessness of the use of gas is hard to dispute. He cites an Army manual which notes that people subjected to CS "are incapable of executing organized and concerted actions, and excessive exposure to CS may make them incapable of vacating the area." He also notes that a manufacturer of CS cautions that when burned, its particles can give off lethal fumes. The harmfulness of CS gas was debated at the Congressional hearings, but the dispute concerned whether the gas might have directly caused fatalities, not whether it was harmful at all.

In addition, the tanks' actions made evacuation more difficult. They demolished stairways and buried a trapdoor exit. "The bodies of six women," Reavis tells us, "were found within feet of the trapdoor, dead of smoke inhalation; they apparently took their last breaths while racing toward the newly blocked underground passage."

Reavis is inclined to relieve Attorney General Reno of much of the responsibility, arguing that she was not fully informed. Nonetheless, to this day she takes full responsibility. If she is telling the truth, then she authorized a reckless attack which, regardless of who started the fire, undoubtedly led to the deaths of a number of Davidians who had not chosen suicide. If she is not telling the truth, then she is obstructing justice. Either way, she has committed actions which may well merit criminal charges. If Zeliff had not been so desperate to back up his claim that Clinton was the real mastermind, which led him to reject her repeated "I did it," Reno might now be on her way to answering those charges in court.

Many questions remain unanswered about Waco, and probably always will. But Reavis's book sheds light enough upon the subject to show that some of the worst abuses of power in recent history happened in the course of the attack. These abuses will cast a long and dark shadow on the history of the United States.

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