The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Lee Hancock

ATF raid secrecy is alleged
Statements to media reportedly questioned

Treasury investigators are questioning whether some high-ranking federal agents in Waco "closed ranks" and withheld information about how the Branch Davidian raid failed, according to sources familiar with the inquiry.

Agents handling the Treasury Department's review of the Feb. 28 raid are conducting final interviews with Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms officials involved in the Waco operation.

Sources familiar with the investigation say Treasury investigators are focusing some of their harshest questions on statements to news media representatives by senior ATF officials that raid commanders were unaware they had lost the element of surprise when they tried to serve search and arrest warrants on cult members in their rural compound.

Treasury agents have conducted more than 300 interviews during the four-month inquiry, and a report detailing their findings is scheduled to be forwarded to Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen and to President Clinton on Sept. 15.

Sources close to the investigation say they expect the report will include praise for the bravery of ATF agents who faced a withering firefight that left four agents dead and 16 wounded.

It also is expected to dismiss widely reported assertions that the agents lacked probable cause for the operation or could have arrested cult leader David Koresh outside the compound in the months before the raid, sources said.

To prove that those allegations were unsubstantiated, investigators have pursued stories that Mr. Koresh was sighted around Waco and even questioned a Dallas Morning News reporter about a rumor that Mr. Koresh had visited a North Dallas hairdresser within a month before the raid to get a hair weave, sources said.

In that case, investigators learned, Mr. Koresh and some of his followers met with the hairdresser to discuss a possible "messiah-like" hair weave for the cult leader. However, the visit occurred more than a year and a half before the raid.

The Treasury review also is expected to include some criticism of ATF's crisis management after the raid, sources said.

Some final interviews of ATF managers have been heated, sources say.

On Thursday, ATF's senior law enforcement officials - Mr. Hartnett and ATF Deputy Director Dan Conroy - were accompanied by personal lawyers for their final interviews with Assistant Treasury Secretary Ron Noble.

Mr. Noble declined to discuss the investigation Friday.

"The investigation is continuing. We have an obligation to do all we can to find out what happened and why to ensure that something like Waco doesn't happen in the future," he said.

Mr. Hartnett and Mr. Conroy declined to comment.

The two men were the agency's senior managers in Waco after the raid. Both have defended their management of the crisis in interviews with Treasury investigators and have maintained that they did not knowingly mislead anyone, the sources said.

In his first news conference shortly after the raid, Mr. Hartnett said that raid commanders did not know they had lost the element of surprise.

But court documents filed in the case in April indicate that an undercover agent inside the compound just before the raid had heard Mr. Koresh tell followers that the ATF was coming. According to the documents, Mr. Koresh vowed that he would not be taken alive.

Agents have told The News that the operation began at least 15 minutes earlier than planned.

The agents have said raid tactical commander Chuck Sarabin announced the time change immediately after receiving a report from the undercover agent, yelling: "Saddle up. We've got to go. He knows we're coming."

After the raid, the undercover agent, ATF Agent Robert Rodriguez, told The News that some ATF officials had unfairly accused him of changing his description of what he saw and heard inside the compound.

ATF Intelligence Chief David Troy, who served as a spokesman during the Branch Davidian standoff, also was criticized in a meeting this week with review officials for not acting on knowledge that the "element of surprise" issue was not being fully explained to the public, said sources close to the investigation.

Mr. Troy declined to comment.

Review investigators also have questioned the decision by Phil Chojnacki and Mr. Sarabin, the agency's field commanders, to proceed with the raid even after learning that its secrecy had been compromised, the sources said.

The investigators also have questioned the commanders' decision to participate directly in the raid instead of remaining at an ATF command post to oversee the operation.

Mr. Sarabin rode with the raiding party to the compound and Mr. Chojnacki rode in a helicopter assigned to create a diversion by flying over the compound as ATF agents arrived.

Both men have repeatedly been summoned to Washington for questioning. Both have said they cannot comment until results of the review are released.

But some agents involved in the raid have defended the commanders' actions, saying that they decided to proceed with the raid because agents monitoring the compound from a nearby house never saw any evidence that the cult was arming itself.

After the raid ended in a firefight, the cultists held federal officials at bay for 51 days. The standoff ended April 19, when a fire consumed the compound with Mr. Koresh and more than 80 of his followers inside. Surviving cultists say the fire was touched off when FBI tanks injecting tear gas into the compound knocked over lanterns. But federal officials and independent arson investigators say the cultists set the fire, and a recent federal indictment charges that Mr. Koresh was overheard on April 18 planning to burn the compound.

Many agents predict that Mr. Chojnacki, special agent in charge of the agency's Houston office, and Mr. Sarabin, his second-in-command, will be moved from Houston after the review is made public.

Assistant Director Dan Hartnett, who approved the raid plan and supervised the agency's operations in Waco during the ensuing standoff, has already announced his retirement but has said his decision is not related to the operation.

Many agents hope that Stephen Higgins, ATF director for more than a decade, will remain at the agency's helm.

Mr. Higgins was scheduled to be interviewed Friday by the Treasury review team, sources said.

In June testimony before a Congressional committee investigating the raid, Mr. Higgins said he instructed his senior law enforcement managers not to execute the raid if they had any suspicion that the element of surprise had been lost.