The Dallas Morning News
Some in ATF feel betrayed by Treasury Department
Director says he won't quit, cites Bentsen support
WASHINGTON -- One day after the ATF faced its toughest grilling to date on the failed Branch Davidian raid, some agency officials privately complained that their bureau has been "hung out to dry' by its superiors in the U.S. Treasury Department.
But federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Director Stephen Higgins said he is confident that the agency has Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen's support. He disputed reports that he is likely to be forced to resign as a result of the Feb. 28 Waco raid that ended in the deaths of four ATF agents and a 51-day siege of the cult.
"I don't know why I would give thought to resigning,' he said during an interview with The Dallas Morning News. "I think you resign if you have done something wrong or you think you cannot be effective.'
Mr. Bentsen issued a statement Thursday disputing news reports that the ATF director will be forced out after Treasury officials complete an independent review of the Waco raid.
"The secretary has not assigned blame for conflicting statements about the ATF raid,' said Assistant Treasury Secretary Jack DeVore. "He has serious questions about what happened, but at this stage, with the investigation getting under way, has reached no conclusions.'
Some ATF agents -- from high-ranking officials to field investigators -- complained that the Treasury Department appears to be using the investigation to try to distance itself from the bureau.
"Agents are questioning the future of our agency. I think a clear signal has been sent that our leader is on his way out,' one high-ranking official said. "And I'm hearing from a lot of agents that they'd like to see us moved over to the Department of Justice because that agency, at least, has a leader willing to support her law enforcement personnel.'
Attorney General Janet Reno has drawn praise for her staunch defense of actions by the FBI in its failed attempt to end the Branch Davidian siege. As many as 86 cult members were initially believed killed on April 19 when a fire destroyed the cult compound after FBI agents began injecting tear gas into the structure. That number, based on figures supplied by cult leader David Koresh, has been questioned by investigators as possibly too high.
Ms. Reno also was praised Thursday by President Clinton for her firm response to questions during the daylong House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Waco standoff.
"She certainly seemed in command to me yesterday up on the Hill,' he said in a speech to U.S. Justice Department employees.
Many agents said they sensed a lack of support by Treasury officials for Mr. Higgins, who appeared alone to testify before the House committee and whose testimony was followed by a statement from Mr. Bentsen that he was "deeply troubled' by conflicting accounts of the Waco raid.
"It's like they order him not to answer questions and then they complain because he's not answering questions,' one ATF official said.
Mr. Higgins, 54, ATF's director for the last decade, said Thursday that the agency will face "a tough time' in the next few months as officials examine the Feb. 28 raid.
But he said he believes that the agency can survive and should remain an arm of the Treasury Department, despite calls by congressional critics for disbanding the bureau or merging it into the Justice Department.
He said he believes that he can lead the agency he joined 32 years ago.
"I don't think this can happen and not have an impact on people's perception of your effectiveness. But If I didn't think I could be helpful, I'd go somewhere else,' he said.
But he added: "I know some people say that in the political process there's always got to be a scapegoat. I play by the rules, and I'm a believer in the process. That dosn't mean the process won't bite me.'
He said he understands the frustration of many in his department at the agency's inability to answer all questions about the Waco raid. He said, however, that he supports a Treasury Department directive that he and other ATF officials answer no questions about what happened until the independent review and prosecutions of surviving Branch Davidians are completed.
"I'm not complaining about Treasury asking me to do that. I respect that,' he said.
Mr. Bentsen said again Thursday that he is troubled by conflicting accounts of why federal agents in Waco decided to execute the raid even after learning that the cult had been tipped off.
"Was ATF aware that (the element of suprise) had been lost? If so, why did the raid proceed?' he said.
Mr. Bentsen and Ms. Reno announced late Thursday that independent investigators will examine how the ATF and the FBI responded to the Branch Davidian crisis and whether changes are needed in the way federal law enforcement agencies manage protracted cult standoffs.
Mr. Higgins said the conflicting statements about what led to the Waco raid "will be explained. As to why people heard or acted on differing information, those questions can be resolved.'
Mr. Higgins was battered by some members of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday -- including Texas Rep. John Bryant, D-Dallas -- after he refused to answer questions about what happened and how the cult might have been tipped off. He cited an order by Treasury officials not to discuss what happened until completion of an independent review of the ATF action.
He said the exchange with Mr. Bryant was his most frustrating moment during the often intense hearing "because I think he thought I was covering up. . . . I'm not a person who wants to be evasive.'
"Its frustrating because I've always thought of myself as the most open, candid person,' he said.
Texas Rangers are investigating the cause of the leak, and law enforcement officials say they are focusing on information reportedly passed just before the raid by a Waco media representative to a cult member who died when the siege ended April 19.
Some House Judiciary Committee members angrily grilled Mr. Higgins about whether the agency may have caused the leak by alerting some Dallas TV stations that a raid was about to take place.
But ATF officials have insisted that the agency never specified the time, date or place when it told some media representatives that its agents were about to conduct an action. Law enforcement officials said the ATF has been cleared of wrongdoing in the tip investigation.
The Dallas Morning News
Brooks' remarks on attacking cult get inadvertent audience
U.S. Rep. Jack Brooks, D-Beaumont, has never been one to mince words. And, like many Americans, he has an opinion about how federal authorities should have dealt with the Branch Davidian sect.
His approach: Tear gas them on Day One.
That's what the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee -- the architect of the House's investigation into the tragedy in Waco -- said Wednesday on live national TV.
During a break in the hearings, Mr. Brooks approached Stephen Higgins, director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, who had been skewered by panel members over the failed Feb. 28 raid. Believing the microphones were off, the irascible Texan felt free to give the ATF director some unsolicited advice.
"Higgins, you know what I'd have done?' Mr. Brooks growled. "The first night, I'd have run everybody off, quietly put a bomb in that damn water tank, put in tear gas.
"If they want to shoot, kill them when they came out. If they didn't want to shoot, put them in the paddy wagon. It woulda been over by 12:30.
"Now that's what Brooks woulda done.'
His remarks were carried live by C-SPAN and repeated on ABC's Nightline.
Mr. Brooks made no apologies Thursday for his comments. He said he didn't mean either to criticize the ATF or to prejudice the committee's conclusions. "You can't micromanage and second-guess everything they (the ATF) did,' he said.
What he hopes to do, he said, is "to hammer out some creative and different solutions' in case of future cult standoffs.
His televised suggestions drew "a few' calls, he said, both from his district and around the country. The national calls were largely disapproving. But back home, where Texans are more familiar with the siege and allegations about cult leader David Koresh, most everyone applauded his idea, he said.
"Child molesters aren't very popular in my district,' he said.
The Dallas Morning News
Final death toll in compound may be 72, authorities say
WACO -- Authorities believe that they have found all the bodies -- a total of 72 -- from the ruins of the Branch Davidian compound, officials said Thursday.
The final tally leaves officials 14 short of the number of followers that cult leader David Koresh said were in the compound. He told the FBI that 95 Branch Davidians were inside during their standoff with federal agents.
Nine escaped when a fire leveled the buildings April 19, ending the 51-day siege.
Earlier Thursday, Dr. Nizam Peerwani of Fort Worth, the case's lead medical examiner, said he has found seven bodies that were shot -- two more than were reported Wednesday. He said it was too early to determine whether the wounds were self-inflicted.
McLennan County Justice of the Peace David Pareya, who is responsible for making legal determination of the causes of death, said that of the 72 bodies removed from fire-ravaged compound, autopsies have been completed on 28.
Of those, nine are males, 16 are females and three undetermined, he said. He also said the total number of children who died in the fire is unknown.
The last seven bodies were removed from the compound between Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, said Mike Cox, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety.
They were found in the concrete bunker, where 25 other victims and about 1 million rounds of ammunition were recovered, said Judge Pareya. Nine bodies also were on top of the structure, he said.
He said the only bodies left at the compound are those of the five Branch Davidians who apparently died in the initial Feb. 28 gunbattle with federal authorities, Mr. Cox said. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided the compound that day because of alleged federal weapons violations.
During its investigation at the scene, Mr. Cox said, the Texas Rangers discovered "The Green Acres Cemetery' in the 77-acre property. At least five people were buried there long before the standoff began, the last one in 1972, Mr. Cox said.
Mr. Cox said workers had intended to remove the remaining bodies from the compound this week, but recent heavy rains derailed the plans.
Judge Pareya said authorities have yet to identify Mr. Koresh's body but are confident that the medical examiner eventually will do so.
The preliminary cause of death for the most recently identified victim, James Loyle Riddle, is a "near contact . . . gunshot wound of forehead,' Judge Pareya said. He would not speculate whether that indicated suicide.
Mr. Riddle, who would have turned 33 last Sunday, is believed to have been one of Mr. Koresh's lieutenants.
Gunshot blasts also contributed to the deaths of two other victims -- David Michael Jones, 38, and Shari Doyle, 18.
Mr. Cox said that besides removing the other bodies, the only task the Texas Rangers have left is examining the underground tunnels at the compound.
"The underground tunneling system there at the complex now has more water in it than when we started pumping out water yesterday,' he said.
The Rangers may resume their work at the compound Monday, depending on the weather, Mr. Cox said.
The law enforcement agency, which was put in charge of the investigation shortly after the raid, may end its work at the scene next week, Mr. Cox said.