The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Lee Hancock

ATF official defends raid planning

WACO -- It should have been a textbook operation, one designed to begin and end in less than a minute.

But with Branch Davidians still holed up in their fortified compound nearly a month after a federal raid went awry, officials are fending off increasing questions about their planning, tactics and intelligence.

This week, David Troy, intelligence chief of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, began appearing at daily news briefings. He has offered the agency's most aggressive response yet to criticisms of its Feb. 28 effort to arrest cult leader David Koresh and search his rural lair.

"We feel confident that there were no mistakes made on our part,' he said Friday, dismissing critics of the raid as "second-guessers and Monday morning quarterbacks who do not have access to the facts.'

Agent Troy said the ATF director, Stephen Higgins, has asked U.S. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen to bring in other federal law enforcement agencies and tactical experts to study how the raid was conceived. ATF is a part of the Treasury Department.

The investigators also will look at how the operation was carried out and why authorities chose a massive tactical assault to execute search and arrest warrants, based on possible weapons violations, Agent Troy said.

Four ATF agents were killed and 16 others wounded.

In the months leading up to Feb. 28, ATF officials said, their raid strategy was critiqued both by the agency's own special operations division and by outside experts, including U.S. Army special forces personnel.

ATF special operations teams also were drilled by special forces personnel at Fort Hood in the week before the raid, and 80 agents involved in the assault repeatedly practiced on a full-size layout of the compound, the officials said.

Under the plan, officials said, agents carried onto the Branch Davidian property in two cattle trailers would breach the front double door in seven seconds and fully deploy from the trailers within 13 seconds. The special operations teams would mount ladders onto the second story roof within 22 seconds and breach the upper windows where the cult's armory room lay within 45 seconds. Within a minute, the agents would secure the armory.

Intelligence indicated that Mr. Koresh restricted his followers' access to the armory, so the cult was expected to be only lightly armed, agents said.

"If we could control the gun room, we expected we'd have to deal with some small arms fire, at worst,' said one agent.

Added another: "The rules were, hit it hard, fast. See if we could neutralize them. If not, withdraw in orderly fashion, establish a perimeter and get them on the phone. And that's what happened.'

The agency considered simply surrounding the buildings and ordering Mr. Koresh to come out but ruled that out because of intelligence information that the cult leader might order a mass suicide, officials said.

"What kind of questions do you think we'd be answering now if we had done that and he had started offing kids?' one agent asked.

So the full-scale assault was chosen, with plans to segregate men from women and children in the first minutes of the raid.

The agents were ordered not to fire on anyone who was not clearly armed and threatening to shoot, and the agents were backed by "forward observers' armed with Browning .308 sniper rifles in a house across the road from the compound, agents said.

When the firefight ensued, those snipers killed one cult member shooting from the compound's watertower and hit an unknown number of cult members shooting from inside the compound windows, officials said.

To ensure tight security, the officials said, the 80-agent raiding party stayed in barracks at Fort Hood and drove at dawn Sunday to the raid staging area, the Bellmead Civic Center.

Some ATF agents assigned to the raid's command center at Texas State Technical College stayed in Waco motels the night before the raid, but the agency's presence in the city was deliberately kept low, officials said.

Once at the staging area, officials said, the raiding party was joined by dozens of state and local law enforcement officials and emergency personnel who were not fully briefed on the raid's target until just before it began, officials said.

Even as the final briefing was ending, ATF suspects that someone was leaking what was about to happen to Mr. Koresh and the cult, allowing them to arm themselves.

An investigation by the Texas Rangers has produced evidence suggesting that a tip was passed to a cult member in a face-to-face exchange outside the compound just before the raid. The cult member then went back inside to tell the Branch Davidians that federal agents were about to hit the compound, said officials familiar with the investigation.

Information also came from a direct telephone call to Mr. Koresh, and investigators have determined the names of both suspected tipsters, said the officials, who declined to be named.

Investigators are focusing on whether local media outlets were the source of either tip and whether either was intentional sabotage.

The Waco Tribune-Herald, which had seven staff members outside the compound more than an hour before the raid occurred, has denied leaking any information to the cult. And a reporter and photographer for KWTX-TV who also witnessed the raid also have denied being the sources.