The Dallas Morning News
DATE:06/06/93 BYLINE:Lee Hancock
ATF faces more questions from Congress
Agency chief, Treasury secretary to testify on cult raid before House panel
Officials from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms go before Congress next week to answer more questions about what went wrong in their raid on the Branch Davidian compound Feb. 28.
ATF Director Steven Higgins, who faced tough questioning about the raid in an April congressional hearing, will appear with Assistant Treasury Secretary Ronald K. Noble at a hearing Wednesday before a House subcommittee. Mr. Noble is overseeing an independent review of the raid near Waco.
For two weeks, Treasury investigators in Houston and Dallas have been interviewing agents involved in the raid. Next week, Houston-based raid commanders Phil Chojnacki and Chuck Sarabin, and Ted Royster, special agent in charge of the Dallas ATF office, will be interviewed by investigators in Washington, officials said. Mr. Royster was in Waco to observe the raid and flew in a helicopter that cultists shot at as the raid began.
Four ATF agents were killed and 16 wounded when they and more than 80 other federal agents tried to serve search and arrest warrants Feb. 28 at the heavily fortified rural compound. ATF officials said later that they had lost the element of surprise and cult members were able to prepare for a massive ambush because someone tipped them off.
In the ensuing 45-minute firefight, cult leader David Koresh was wounded and five cultists also were killed. For the next 51 days, federal negotiators attempted to talk Mr. Koresh and his followers into peaceful surrender.
But the self-proclaimed messiah and more than 75 of his followers, including at least 17 children, died April 19 when the compound burned to the ground. The blaze began after FBI agents began ramming the compound with tanks and injecting teargas in an effort to force a surrender.
Some of the nine cultists who survived have said the fire was touched off when tanks knocked over gasoline lanterns inside the sprawling building. But independent arson investigators have determined that the fire was set in at least two places by those inside.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Treasury, Postal Service and General Government chaired by Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., also has asked to hear testimony from Dallas-based ATF agent Sharon Wheeler during the two-day hearing this week. Ms. Wheeler, a regional spokesperson for the agency, has repeatedly been accused in news reports of alerting reporters to the raid.
Reporters or editors at Waco TV station KWTX and The Waco Tribune-Herald, which had reporters and photographers staking out the compound to watch the raid, have said their news organizations were not told of the impending action by the ATF but learned about it from local sources.
A lengthy Texas Rangers investigation cleared Ms. Wheeler of wrongdoing, Treasury officials said. Officials at two Dallas television stations contacted by the agent said she called only to obtain telephone numbers where reporters could be reached over the weekend.
"I am pleased that the committee is offering me this opportunity to get my side of the story out,' Ms. Wheeler said.
Law enforcement sources have said that authorities believe that the Waco television station learned of the impending raid from local emergency medical personnel who accompanied ATF on the raid.
The sources said that in a chance encounter near the compound on the morning of Feb. 28, a cameraman for the television station warned cult member and postal worker David Jones that the raid was about to take place.
A federal affidavit filed by ATF states that an undercover agent in the compound within an hour of the raid saw Mr. Jones' father, also a cult member, summon Mr. Koresh into another room after ATF agents saw Mr. Jones go inside.
The cult leader returned and told the undercover agent that the ATF and the Texas National Guard were on the way and he also vowed not to be taken, the affidavit stated. The undercover agent then left the compound to report conditions inside to the raid commanders.
ATF officials have insisted that Mr. Koresh's agitated statements were not clear proof that he had been tipped off because he had often made similar statements.
Several senior officials involved in the raid have said they decided to go ahead with the operation because neither the undercover agent nor agents watching the compound from a nearby safe house saw any indication that the cult was preparing for an armed confrontation.
But ATF agents also have acknowledged that they decided to begin the raid 20 minutes early because of the undercover agent's description of Mr. Koresh's comments and agitated state.
The House subcommittee also will hear testimony from ATF special operations chief Dick Garner, who oversees the special response teams who executed the Waco raid, and ATF Intelligence chief David Troy, who served as the agency's chief spokesman in Waco during the lengthy standoff.
Also slated to testify are several local police tactical experts on high-risk searches and arrests. They include an official with the Dallas Police Department's tactical division, officials with the Los Angeles Police Department's SWAT team and the director of the FBI's training academy at Quantico, Va. McLennan County Sheriff's Lt. Larry Lynch, whose agency assisted ATF agents in the Feb. 28 raid, will also appear.
Lt. Lynch said Friday that committee investigators have asked him not to comment on the upcoming hearing.
In April, investigators for the subcommittee -- a retired FBI official and an FBI agent assigned to Congress -- traveled to Dallas and Waco to interview local law enforcement officials and also visited Fort McClellan, Ala., where ATF special response teams involved in the Waco raid undergo tactical training.
Some ATF officials have privately complained that a rivalry with the FBI may have prompted the subcommittee's investigators to unfairly criticize the Waco raid.
"It seems odd to me that the FBI through Congress is allowed to investigate ATF while no one seems to be investigating the FBI's actions in Waco,' one Treasury official said.
A Justice Department spokesman said Friday that the agency is still trying to develop a workable format for an independent review of the FBI's actions during the 51-day cult ordeal.
In the week after the deadly compound fire, Attorney General Janet Reno pledged to form a panel of outside experts in theology, psychology, hostage negotiations and other fields to review the FBI's actions.
Justice Department Spokesman Carl Stern said Friday that the department has identified outside experts for the Waco review but may not be allowed by law to use such a panel format.
Federal law may require such an advisory board to hold its review meetings in public and give advance public notice of each meeting, he said.
Although the agency has not ruled out using an outside advisory panel, he said: "It's gotten far too complicated. It may be that they can't get there from here.'
Despite those problems, however, he said, a fact-finding review of the Waco standoff by the FBI's inspection division is ongoing. About two weeks ago, FBI officials completed a detailed, minute-by-minute chronology of the 51-day standoff.
The agents then began investigating FBI and Justice Department officials who participated in the standoff and the decision to teargas the compound. That investigation is to be completed in 60 days, he said.
Mr. Noble, who is overseeing the Treasury review of ATF, said three independent reviewers asked to oversee the Treasury probe are not subject to the federal advisory board law because each has been asked to submit independent analyses of the investigation and the ATF's actions in Waco.