The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Lee Hancock

FBI agent criticized for releasing cult 911 tape
But he did not knowingly commit wrongdoing, Justice Department investigation says

A Dallas FBI agent erred in releasing an edited 911 tape to a congressional investigator in the Branch Davidian case, thwarting federal prosecutors' efforts to keep the tape secret, a U.S. Justice Department inquiry has found.

A letter from Assistant Attorney General Phillip Heymann to Rep. Jim Lightfoot, R-Iowa, states that FBI Special Agent Oliver B. "Buck' Revell gave the edited tape to a congressional committee investigator May 12 but did not knowingly do anything wrong.

That investigator was preparing evidence for a House Appropriations subcommittee examining the actions of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms against the Branch Davidian sect.

Agent Revell, special agent in charge of the FBI's Dallas field office, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Agent Revell has previously denied any wrongdoing in handling the tape.

The heavily edited tape was aired earlier this month during a subcommittee hearing examining ATF's Feb. 28 raid on the cult near Waco. Committee members were told that it was an accurate recording of the first half-hour of negotiations between cultists and police.

The tape led some committee members to criticize communications planning by ATF because the recording made it appear that a sheriff's deputy manning the 911 center could not reach federal agents for almost an hour after he began talking with cultists inside their heavily fortified compound.

Tapes subsequently released by the Waco Police Department show that the 911 center was in contact with ATF raid commanders within 30 minutes after members of the sect called the emergency line.

The police tapes also indicate that ATF officials worked closely with the 911 center to negotiate a cease-fire and evacuation of wounded federal agents.

Four ATF agents were killed and 16 wounded during the failed raid. An ensuing 51-day standoff with federal authorities ended April 19 when the compound burned to the ground with cult leader David Koresh and at least 81 of his followers inside.

After The Dallas Morning News determined that the tape played for the committee had been edited, Mr. Lightfoot asked the Justice Department to determine how the tape was released. He also asked the agency to investigate whether the tape was misrepresented to the committee or its investigators, all former or current FBI agents.

Mr. Lightfoot, ranking minority member of the subcommittee, said the tapes may have been deliberately and unfairly used in an effort by committee investigators to discredit ATF actions during the raid.

The Justice Department letter, released by Mr. Lightfoot's office, states that an FBI review determined that Agent Revell's release of the tapes prevented attempts by federal prosecutors to keep more than 30 hours of 911 recordings of conversations with the Branch Davidians under seal until cult members could be brought to trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney William R. Jahn, who is directing prosecutions against Branch Davidian members, had filed an affidavit asking a state district judge not to allow release of the tapes under the Texas Open Records Act because their release "could adversely impact the federal trial.'

Agent Revell told FBI investigators that he did not know that the 911 recordings had not been released before he gave them to committee investigators. He also did not know that federal prosecutors were trying to keep them secret and "believed that the tape was already in the public realm,' the Justice Department letter stated.

After the edited tape was aired by the committee, the Waco Police Department began releasing copies of the 911 recordings because police officials decided they could not legally contest media efforts to obtain recordings that had partially been made public by federal officials.

The Justice Department letter does not address whether the committee's investigators were told that the tape had been edited, and Mr. Lightfoot said Tuesday that he will pursue that.

"I've still got questions as to why the tape was played to us and represented to us as a real-time recording when obviously, it's not,' he said.

He also questioned Agent Revell's judgment in releasing the tape.

"We question how prudent the actions of Special Agent Revell were, due to the high degree of notoriety the Waco case was receiving. It would seem to be obvious that this was a sensitive piece of information,' he said.