The Dallas Morning News
Between the lines: FBI uses briefings as tactical weapon
The language was hot. The message was cold. The objective was control.
"We believe he either does not care about those children or he is using them as a shield, which is cowardly.'
Those words from an FBI spokesman Wednesday marked a fresh offensive in the government's war of wits against barricaded cult leader David Koresh. The angle of attack was new, but the battlefield was familiar: the daily news briefing.
FBI Agent Bob Ricks, Wednesday's spokesman, and other briefers continue to deflect questions about tactical matters. But some veteran negotiators and government spokesmen say the 10:30 a.m. question-and-answer sessions are indeed a tactical matter -- one more weapon in the government's psychological arsenal against Mr. Koresh as the standoff near Waco drags toward the one-month mark.
"Almost everything (said by the briefers) now has to do more with that one-person public than with the larger public,' says Hodding Carter, the State Department's mouthpiece during the Iranian hostage crisis.
Agent Ricks himself has said as much.
"We are definitely trying to send a message to Mr. Koresh. We are definitely trying to reach him,' Agent Ricks said Friday in response to a reporter's question about the underlying function of the briefings.
But Mr. Carter describes an even more fundamental objective. "They're trying to control the negotiation environment,' he says. A key component of that environment is how Mr. Koresh believes he is being perceived -- or misperceived -- by the public.
The self-described prophet has not concealed his concern for his earthly image. In addition to monitoring radio broadcasts, he has requested copies of newsmagazines with his photo on the cover. And he has repeatedly lobbied for direct access to the media.
"Koresh is making a real effort to get his message out,' says Wayman Mullins, who teaches criminal justice at Southwest Texas State University.
"He's constantly talking about TV coverage,' says a person was involved in the early stages of negotiations. " . . . he's not being portrayed the way he wants to be portrayed.
"He wants to be seen as a good guy who is peace-loving and means only the best for people. He wants to be seen as a munificent character who is leading this flock of people.'
For now, though, the government has near total control over the public's perception of Mr. Koresh -- and the briefings, covered by reporters from around the world and broadcast live by some local radio and TV stations, are where its spokesmen demonstrate that control.
The demonstrations can be dramatic.
Three times -- on March 7, March 17 and again Monday -- the government abruptly turned up the rhetorical heat.
In the first instance, after previously stressing the positive ties negotiators were building with Mr. Koresh, Agent Ricks began to describe the cult leader as mercurial and combative. Those statements intensified over several days. On March 12, for the first time in a week, two people left the compound.
In the second instance, an obviously frustrated Agent Ricks blasted Mr. Koresh's leadership. He revealed that the cult leader had evaded a decision on whether to release dozens of followers by taking an extended bathroom break. Two followers left Mount Carmel the next day, and they were followed by seven more over the weekend.
Monday, after three days of upbeat statements, Agent Ricks again switched tacks, saying the number of releases fell short of Mr. Koresh's promises. He also noted that no young men were leaving the compound. Tuesday, 33-year-old Livingston Fagan surrendered to authorities.
Still unsatisfied, Agent Ricks cranked up the rhetoric another notch Wednesday, in effect calling Mr. Koresh a liar as well as a coward.
"It appears that keeping one's word does not necessarily apply to Mr. Koresh,' the FBI spokesman said, alluding to the two times the self-proclaimed messiah has gone back on promises to surrender.
And in perhaps the most ominous note to date, Agent Ricks warned that authorities' patience is "not inexhaustible.'
A marked change of tone is part of the negotiators' vocabulary, says Bob Wiatt, a 30-year FBI veteran who negotiated one of Texas' most high-profile prison standoffs in 1974 in Huntsville.
It's often used when talks are stalled, he says, to send a message. The message is: "We're not protecting you or your image from your actions any longer.'
Mr. Carter remembers using much the same technique, in reverse, during the Iranian hostage negotiations. "Our general rule was to say something bad about the (Iranian) foreign minister every day,' he recalls -- until that minister began working behind the scenes to resolve the crisis.
"It follows a pattern,' says Mr. Wiatt, who now heads the campus police department at Texas A&M University. "After a prolonged period without movement, the public would be scratching their heads, so you explain to them. Ricks wants the public to know what the bureau is up against.'
Public statements also can be used to pre-empt certain actions by the adversary, says Pete Williams, the Pentagon's chief spokesman during the gulf war.
Mr. Williams recalls releasing spy photos of Iraqi soldiers deliberately damaging a mosque. U.S. strategists believed the Iraqis were planning to complain that U.S. bombs had caused the damage.
Briefers in Waco repeatedly have stressed Mr. Koresh's promises to them -- to surrender peacfully, not to commit suicide -- perhaps in an effort to narrow his options.
"Possibly they are trying to draw some psychological parameters around him,' says Dr. Peter DiVasto, director of the U.S. Energy Department's hostage negotiation team.
However, both Dr. DiVasto and Mr. Carter caution against reading too much into briefers' statements.
"Whether or not it (the briefers' tone) is orchestrated, I don't know,' Dr. DiVasto says. To some degree, he notes, authorities are in uncharted territory because of the extraordinary length of the siege.
"Part of the precedent,' he says, "is there is no precedent.'
"Trying to figure out what it (the briefing) means is sort of hopeless,' says Mr. Carter. "It only makes sense in the context of what's happening at the center (of the negotiations).'
One thing is sure, though. Mr. Koresh is listening -- and responding.
"There is reaction (from Mr. Koresh) to this, our interaction here,' FBI Agent Jeffrey Jamar said at a briefing five days into the standoff.
The Dallas Morning News
FBI grows impatient with talks
Cult's leader called cowardly by agent
WACO -- Federal authorities admitted Wednesday to being "put off' by the stalled negotiations with cult leader David Koresh, and they indicated their patience with the 25-day-old standoff may be nearing an end.
Talks to break the impasse were put on hold Tuesday evening through Wednesday because of a high holy day observed by Branch Davidians, officials said.
In a marked change of tone, FBI Special Agent Bob Ricks called Mr. Koresh cowardly for not releasing the 17 children remaining in the compound and said Mr. Koresh has lost all credibility with federal negotiators.
He said Mr. Koresh has reneged on promises to end the confrontation, which began Feb. 28 after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided the group because of allegations involving illegal weapons. A gunbattle erupted, killing four ATF agents and at least two cult members.
"It appears that keeping one's word does not necessarily apply to Mr. Koresh,' Agent Ricks said. "He has selective morality, it appears, when he is willing to abide by promises that he makes.'
Meanwhile, two older sect members won release from jail Wednesday. Hearings were delayed for others challenging the government's right to hold them at the McLennan County jail as material witnesses to the raid.
U.S. Magistrate Dennis Green granted restricted release from jail to Gladys Ottman, 67, and Annetta Richards, 62. Their attorneys said the women would go to a halfway house, where they will still be held as material witnesses.
Other cult members, escorted in leg shackles, handcuffs and chains to the federal courthouse for appearances, responded to shouted questions from reporters. They gave brief accounts of the raid and said agents fired first. ATF officials deny that.
Asked when the sect might emerge, Livingston Fagan, 33, said, "When God decrees it, they will.'
Kevin Whitecliff, 32, described the standoff as "God's government vs. our government and the governments of the world.'
Each cult member who has left the compound has been questioned extensively by authorities, and most adults have been given polygraph tests, said a federal law enforcement official who asked not to be named.
Mr. Koresh, who has claimed to be Christ, says about 100 people remain in the compound.
Late Wednesday, British authorities said that Victorine Hollingsworth, a British woman who left the compound Sunday, had told them that cult member Winston Blake of Nottingham, England, died in the Feb. 28 gunfight.
As proof that Mr. Koresh's demands have been met, Agent Ricks distributed copies of the letter sent Monday to Mr. Koresh.
The FBI promised that if he surrendered, Mr. Koresh could communicate with his jailed followers and take part in a live broadcast on the Christian Broadcasting Network.
Mr. Koresh's rejection of that offer clearly exasperated authorities. Agent Ricks said their patience is not inexhaustible, and he indicated other action may be necessary "if we decide there's no end in sight.'
Mr. Koresh's credibility may be down with negotiators, but it remains high in the compound, Agent Ricks said. No one exits without his permission, communications are tightly controlled, and when followers talk with negotiators "they're acting like automatons,' Agent Ricks said.
A few more glimpses of life in the compound were given at the press briefing. Agent Ricks said cult members have ample food and water, but sanitary conditions are deteriorating and authorities are concerned about the children.
"We believe he either does not care for those children or he is using them as a shield, which is cowardly,' he said of Mr. Koresh.
Agent Ricks also said some members who have been released may have fallen from favor because they drank alcohol after the shootout. Traditionally, alcohol consumption is reserved for Mr. Koresh, Agent Ricks said.
Tuesday's release of Mr. Fagan initially was considered a positive sign, said Agent Ricks, because Mr. Fagan is young and healthy, unlike many previously released members. But Mr. Fagan has been uncooperative and "bellicose.'
"I think there was a signal,' Agent Ricks said. "It wasn't the one we were looking for.'
Authorities continued to bombard the compound with a variety of music Wednesday, from Christmas carols to reveille.
"This morning we thought it'd be nice to wake them up as the sun was coming up,' Agent Ricks said.
Federal authorities are not the only ones losing patience with Mr. Koresh.
CBN talk show host Craig Smith, on whose program America Talks Mr. Koresh was offered an appearance, criticized the cult leader on the air Wednesday.
"You're a liar, you're a con artist. Now you might have all those people in the compound conned, but you don't have me conned any more,' Mr. Smith said.