The Dallas Morning News
Treasury investigation of cult raid to include role of media
Officials hope to interview Waco reporters who saw ATF shootout
WASHINGTON -- The news media's role during the failed Branch Davidian raid will be an important focus of an independent federal effort to learn why the action went wrong, said the treasury official supervising the inquiry.
Investigators will soon begin interviewing agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who participated in the Feb. 28 raid, said Ronald Noble, who oversees the ATF as assistant treasury secretary for law enforcement.
They also hope to question reporters from a Waco television station and newspaper who watched as the attempt to serve federal search and arrest warrants at the heavily armed cult unleashed a 45-minute firefight that left four ATF agents dead, Mr. Noble said.
Edmund Guthman, one of three prominent residents asked to review the treasury investigation, is a Pulitzer-prize winner who teaches journalism at the University of Southern California. Also on the panel are Los Angeles police Chief Willie Williams and former Watergate prosecutor Henry Ruth.
"Hopefully Edmund Guthman will give us insight about the media,' Mr. Noble said. "It's important that the American public understand what ATF does, what they did in Waco and the role of the media in what happened.'
Both media outlets have denied wrongdoing. Employees at both have also said that they were alerted to the raid at least one day before it happened by local sources, not by ATF.
Some law enforcement authorities believe that an exchange between a KWTX-TV cameraman and a member of the cult on the rural road leading to the compound tipped Branch Davidian leader David Koresh just before the impending ATF action.
A federal affidavit filed by ATF states that an undercover agent in the compound just before the raid saw Mr. Koresh summoned to another room by the father of the cult member, a postman named David Jones.
Mr. Koresh returned shaken. He told the undercover agent that the ATF and National Guard were coming to get him and vowed that he would not be taken.
One of the agents injured in the firefight sued the Waco Tribune-Herald, accusing it of being responsible for the failure of the ATF raid. Newspaper executives have denied wrongdoing.
The newspaper began a series one day before the raid, alleging that Mr. Koresh had sex with young girls, practiced polygamy and was building a massive arsenal.
A Texas Rangers' investigation into the leak is nearly complete, officials said, and the report will be sent to the U.S. Justice Department.
Officials familiar with the review have said that it is unlikely that anyone will be prosecuted for the leak because Mr. Koresh and most of his followers, including Mr. Jones, died when the compound burned April 19 in a horrific climax to a 51-day standoff with federal authorities.
Jack Killorin, chief spokesman for the ATF, said the agency welcomes a review of the news media's actions.
"I think that's one of the most important areas for any review of this situation to focus on,' he said, citing allegations that some information that went to the cult came from the news media. "I think it's an issue of deep concern to the agents.'
In his meetings with those involved in the raid, Mr. Noble said, agents emphasized their eagerness for a full, public airing of how their raid went wrong.
"The most important thing they wanted people to know is their business is a very, very high-risk business,' he said.
Some agents said they also had voiced concerns that the review might be used by agency critics to justify moving ATF to the Department of Justice or shifting its law enforcement functions to the FBI.
The agents, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they also complained that the Treasury Department had not been sufficiently supportive of ATF during or after the Branch Davidian standoff.
Mr. Noble said he has tried to reassure agents that the inquiry is not aimed at pinning blame or justifying dismantling the agency.
"The only thing I know is that this review is not about whether or not ATF should be consolidated into FBI or whether FBI should be consolidated into ATF. We're not going into that,' he said.
"I can't prejudge anything, but one thing that's absolutely universal: People can say it was a good plan or a bad plan, but the true question is how do people perform under difficult situations where their lives are at risk or their colleagues' lives are at risk.'