The Dallas Morning News
No easy answers
Law authorities puzzle over methods to end Branch Davidian siege
WACO -- For the armchair tactician, forcing an end to the 46-day Branch Davidian standoff might sound easy enough.
Lob tear gas or other chemical agents in until the Branch Davidians are too incapacitated to fight and have no choice but to stagger out to waiting agents.
Expose and limit their hiding places by crushing outer walls of the cult's sprawling Mount Carmel compound with Bradley fighting vehicles and 37-ton Abrams M-1 tanks.
Pick off cult leader David Koresh with sniper fire as he peers from a window and then take the compound while his followers flounder.
Although some law enforcement officials say a tactical operation may be inevitable, they add that federal officials managing the Waco standoff are still trying to find an aggressive option that works both practically and politically.
Mr. Koresh pledged Wednesday to give up after completing a religious manuscript, federal officials say, but there is no guarantee that the cult will surrender peacefully.
Officials probably will continue debating whether federal agents can -- and should -- risk aggressively forcing an end to the siege.
"Negotiations haven't worked in three weeks,' one official said, "But there's no clean solution. Anybody who is thinking about a nice, clean solution is kidding themselves.'
That official, and others who spoke on condition of anonymity, say those managing the Branch Davidian siege have not found any tactical plan that can meet a Clinton administration goal of no further bloodshed.
Complicating the situation even more is the presence of 17 children. "The question . . . that has been constant throughout is we've got to do it (any forceful action) in a way that we think will put the fewest numbers of those children in peril,' FBI Agent Richard Swensen said Wednesday.
One FBI official in Washington said the agents overseeing the standoff have a "fair amount of operational leeway. . . . We certainly can't do things to hamstring them in a way to endanger people's lives.'
The FBI official conceded, however, that major tactical options must be reviewed in Washington. "Between Waco and Washington, we're trying to run this by consensus,' the official said.
Seven weeks of talking has chiefly produced frustration among federal law enforcement officials, as traditional psychological tactics used to end other standoffs have not worked.
"Obviously they've got a tiger by the tail,' said Robert K. Ressler, a retired FBI official who helped found the agency's behavioral sciences unit and taught many of the hostage negotiators now in Waco. "This is obviously the longest wait-out they've ever encountered, so you're delving into a new area of hostage-type situations.'
Trying to weaken Mr. Koresh's resolve by altering or chipping away at his belief system has been ineffective.
"One of the things you can sometimes do in negotiations, especially if you have someone with a delusional system, is to point out the weaknesses and the fallacies in the delusional system,' said Wayman Mullins, a hostage negotiating expert who has closely followed the Waco siege. "Koresh's is so well-developed, it just wouldn't work.'
Said one federal official: "This guy is absolutely, totally committed. He believes he is Christ incarnate.'
But the traditional tactical options used in past standoffs also pose significant problems. Any direct assault on the compound would face the same firepower that stopped the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' Feb. 28 raid.
"How the people inside would react to a full assault is really difficult to say now,' one official said. "You don't know what their mindset is now, but given the letters Koresh has sent out, you'd have to assume it's belligerent.'
Despite estimates that cult members fired more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition from at least 47 different locations during the gunbattle, officials believe that the cult still has plenty of ammunition.
Assaulting such a fortified, heavily defended position would also be difficult because the compound sits on open, rolling prairie with few trees or other natural cover, said a 20-year special forces officer who now teaches special operations tactics to federal agencies.
psubard to attack
Determining the layout of the compound's interior and where everyone is inside -- intelligence vital to any new assault -- has also been difficult, officials concede.
Jack Zimmermann, a lawyer who has been inside the compound, said sect members have reinforced windows to protect themselves against assault, and federal officials speculate that the cult also has altered the compound's interior in other significant ways during the siege.
Trying to incapacitate Mr. Koresh to force a surrender also is not likely because it would have highly unpredictable results, the official said.
"David has been seen standing in the windows several times within the last week. Two or three times snipers spotted him looking out. They had him in their sights,' the official said.
Killing Mr. Koresh might create a leadership vacuum allowing individual cult members to decide to give themselves up. But it also could lead his followers to kill themselves or try to provoke federal agents into doing so.
Shooting Mr. Koresh unarmed would raise serious legal questions. "It's not going to happen that way anyway,' the official said. "They're not going to get a green light.'
Using some form of tear gas or chemical irritant is considered the most viable tactical option, several officials said, but even that could endanger the lives of children still inside.
"That's the only thing that's on the table,' an official said. "Obviously they haven't come up with an acceptable plan.'
Mr. Mullins said it would be difficult to penetrate the compound's warrens of rooms and bunkers with gas. "They may even have gas masks,' he said. "And tear gas is an irritant. It's not going to put them down and out. You could still have resistance.'
Some children interviewed after leaving the compound said they had been taught how to put on gas masks.
A tactical expert with a federal agency not involved in the standoff said FBI officials might consider using chemical agents that induce vomiting.
"I don't think it would endanger kids beyond the normal level of dehydration associated with nausea,' the official said. "But I don't know if those folks are ready with the chemical suits their agents would need.'
FBI agents have repeatedly refused to discuss publicly whether they have considered driving the Branch Davidians out by knocking down the compound around them.
One federal official said that option has not been used so far because there is no guarantee that it won't provoke a new firefight.
Peter Divasto, a tactical expert and hostage negotiator for the Department of Energy, said knocking down some sections of the buildings might help increase the discomfort level of those inside, and could isolate cult members both from each other and from their food supplies.
"But if they do a Tiananmen Square number, blocking the tanks with people, obviously you're stymied. Put one pregnant lady holding a baby in front of the tanks and the tanks stop,' he said.
"It's just that anything they do now involving the use of force is going to draw criticism. That's why they need to look at raising the level of discomfort without being confrontive.'
Building a fence, reducing federal manpower and waiting the Branch Davidians out might eventually be the most viable, cost-effective option but is not likely to be considered soon, some federal officials said.
Last weekend, federal officials strung a 3-foot, razor sharp wire fence to contain the compound. Officials will not rule out eventually replacing the fence with a more permanent enclosure.
But heavily armed agents would still be needed around the clock to protect the compound's perimeter and prevent infiltrators from trying to help those inside, the official said. Even seven weeks into the siege, ATF and FBI officials say their agencies have no immediate plans to reduce either agency's contingent of several hundred agents in Waco.
"Barbed wire does afford some protection both to people going out and coming in. It's not any kind of foolproof security, nor will it stop any kind of firepower,' the FBI official said.
Such downscaling might not be politically feasible after so much time and effort has been poured into the Waco effort, said Mr. Ressler. "You're dealing with a lot of political problems here.'
So for the foreseeable future, law enforcement officials involved in the siege and outside tactical experts say, there is little the federal agencies can do but talk, try to make the Branch Davidians' lives miserable -- and wait.
Said one federal official: "I think we're basically down to two choices: One is some kind of limited tactical operation such as a gas to try and get them out, to force some if not all out.
"As long as that doesn't fly, the only other option is a complete containment policy. Put up another big strand of concertina on poles so it's a jail, ring it with an outer perimeter, pull out the hostage rescue team and negotiators, and sit and wait,' the official said.
"You make it the Mount Carmel federal correctional institute. You say, "We'll be here until you're ready to come out.' '
The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Lee Hancock, Diane Jennings
Koresh lawyer details plan He says cultist to give up after his prophesies are written
WACO -- Self-proclaimed messiah David Koresh intends to surrender after he completes a manuscript detailing his apocalyptic prophecies, his attorney said Wednesday.
But one biblical scholar named by Mr. Koresh as an intended recipient of the manuscript said it could take "several weeks' to complete, further prolonging one of the longest sieges in U.S. history.
Both the scholar and federal officials conceded that Mr. Koresh's latest pledge to peacefully lead his followers out of his barricaded compound could be another bid to buy time.
"It could still change, but at least this is going to give him something to focus on,' said Dr. Jim Tabor, a religion professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who has studied Mr. Koresh's beliefs since the standoff began 46 days ago.
"What he does next might depend on what we say when we get it,' Dr. Tabor said.
Houston attorney Dick De-Guerin said Mr. Koresh made his pledge to come out in a three-page letter and telephone conversation Wednesday morning, the last direct talk that FBI officials say they will allow between the cult leader and his attorney before his surrender.
"Upon the completion of this task, I will be freed of my waiting period. I hope to finish this as soon as possible and stand before man and answer any and all questions regarding my activities,' Mr. Koresh dictated in a letter read to Mr. De-Guerin during the telephone conversation.
Mr. DeGuerin said his client could not say how long the manuscript will take "in real time' but reported that he was finishing one part, a task he began several days ago.
FBI officials refused to comment on the latest twist in the standoff Wednesday.
But federal officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said authorities are highly dubious that the cult leader's latest pledge to surrender is any more sincere than his previous ones.
"So what does this mean? Your guess is as good as mine,' one federal official said. "How do you figure this guy, and literally, how do you analyze that letter? He's gone back on his word three or four times.'
On March 2, Mr. Koresh promised to surrender after authorities aired his hourlong taped sermon but then reneged, saying God had told him to wait for a message before giving up.
After Mr. DeGuerin began talks with the cult leader three weeks ago, Mr. Koresh hinted that he would surrender after the Branch Davidian sect's Passover observance, which ended Tuesday evening.
"DeGuerin has played out,' another official said. "He's not coming back unless they meet him at the front door, ready to leave. I don't think they're going to do that.'
Mr. Koresh and his followers have been holed up inside their fortified compound east of Waco since Feb. 28, when they repulsed a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms effort to serve search and arrest warrants with a 45-minute firefight. The confrontation left four agents dead and 16 wounded. Cult members have said six people died inside the compound.
"David has been working day and night,' Mr. De-Guerin said. "Basically, he says as soon as the manuscript is delivered to me and I am able to speak with some experts on theology, that he will come out and stand before you and the courts so his story can be told.'
After it is released, he said, it may take "one or two' days to get it to religious scholars -- a requirement Mr. Koresh has set for his surrender.
Mr. DeGuerin said the manuscript will contain Mr. Koresh's detailed interpretation or "decoding' of the seven seals of the Bible's Book of Revelation.
In the final book of the New Testament, which many Christians consider a graphic and often violent prediction of the world's last days, the seven seals hold the final plagues, portents and natural disasters to be loosed on humans before the world's end.
Mr. Koresh goes far beyond the literal interpretation of fundamentalist Christian sects, saying not only that the opening of the seals will bring God's final judgment but that he is God's anointed and has the power to open them.
In a news briefing Friday, FBI Agent Richard Swensen said federal officials feared that Mr. De-Guerin was being manipulated by his client.
The lawyer's initial attempts to speak with his client were rebuffed Tuesday, with the cult leader's chief lieutenant first reporting that Mr. Koresh was sleeping and then that he was too busy writing a message to come to the phone.
But Mr. DeGuerin said Wednesday that he viewed the telephone conversation and letter as hopeful signs that "we're getting closer' to resolving the standoff.
Jack B. Zimmermann, a Houston lawyer representing cult lieutenant Steve Schneider, said he also spoke to his client Wednesday morning and was encouraged by Mr. Koresh's latest pledge.
"There was an excitement in Steve's voice that hasn't been here before,' he said.
Both lawyers said they will not speak to their clients again until they are ready to surrender.
Mr. Koresh's letter, read to Mr. De-Guerin, complained that his last two letters to authorities last weekend had been ignored or misrepresented by the FBI and the public. Each letter purported to be messages from God, included violent biblical references and threatened that God would rain death and destruction on Mr. Koresh's enemies.
Mr. Koresh's most recent letter also predicted that he would be rejected after his surrender and saw his manuscript as a way to reach people "who won't have to deal with me in person.'
"I was shown that as soon as I am given over to the hands of man, I will be made a spectacle of, and people will not be concerned about the truth of God but just the bizzarity of me in the flesh,' he wrote.
Dr. Tabor, a specialist in Christian origins and early Judaism, said Mr. Koresh's latest move appeared to be a response to a radio show aired April 2 on KLIF-AM in Dallas.
In that show, Dr. Tabor and Houston theologian Phil Arnold, also named in Mr. Koresh's latest letter, tried to argue to Mr. Koresh that he should consider other interpretations of Revelation.
Federal authorities later delivered a tape of the interview to the compound.
Dr. Tabor said he and Dr. Arnold, who has advised Mr. De-Guerin on the standoff, purposely tried to address Mr. Koresh "within his world view.'
Dr. Arnold said they argued that Mr. Koresh should present his teachings to scholars and religious teachers before doing anything rash.
"Revelations is the most violent book in Bible,' he said. "He believes it's at hand, and we couldn't take that away. What we could do is argue for time. That's what we did.'