The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Lee Hancock

Key review may spur ATF fallout
Treasury study expected to fault raid commanders

The Branch Davidian raid was fatally flawed by bad intelligence and commanders who ignored clear signals that it should have been called off, say sources familiar with a U.S. Treasury review.

Some outside experts who assisted in the treasury inquiry say it has concluded that the raid plan might have been feasible, but its execution hung disastrously on the belief that federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents would succeed no matter what.

"What I'm saying: The execution was doomed from the start," said one of six tactical experts who examined the raid.

The review's findings, to be released Thursday, will assess how the raid went awry. It is likely be followed by transfers or administrative leaves for at least five senior ATF officials and replacement of ATF Director Stephen Higgins, federal officials said. Assistant Treasury Secretary Ronald Noble and other review officials have declined to comment on the five-month inquiry until their 500-page report is released.

ATF officials criticized in the inquiry have declined to comment.

Interviews by The Dallas Morning News with experts assisting the treasury and with ATF agents suggest that the report will conclude that the operation Feb. 28 was hamstrung by a lack of fallback options.

It will find that ATF commanders ultimately ignored pivotal requirements of the original plan and orders from Washington that should have stopped the raid near Waco before it began, the agents and experts said.

"They clearly knew their cover had been blown. The plan depended on secrecy. That was breached, and they went anyway," said another outside expert involved in the review.

Secrecy at issue

Raid commanders Phil Chojnacki and Chuck Sarabyn have said that they began the raid to serve warrants for possible weapons violations because they did not believe that its secrecy had been compromised.

The Branch Davidians unleashed a firefight unprecedented in American law enforcement history, experts said. Within minutes, four agents were killed and 16 were wounded. An ensuing standoff ended April 19 with a fire that left cult leader David Koresh and more than 80 of his followers dead. Federal authorities say the fires were deliberately set on orders from Mr. Koresh.

The treasury review has determined that some ATF officials added to the criticism the agency was receiving by making false statements about what happened Feb. 28, said another expert.

In news conferences in Waco, network television appearances and newspaper interviews, the officials repeatedly denied that commanders knew before the raid that Mr. Koresh had been tipped or that the raid had been compromised.

Also, some agency officials tried to discredit their undercover agent, suggesting that he changed his story about what he reported to commanders before the raid, agents and experts said.

One tactical expert said the report will show that the agent explicitly warned that Mr. Koresh "was well aware that the raid was about to take place. That was what he transmitted to Sarabyn. Sarabyn told Chojnacki, and they said, `go now.' "

Both men have declined comment, citing treasury directives not to discuss the incident until the review is complete.

A federal official knowledgeable about the case said any disciplinary action based on the review will not punish actions or mistakes made before the raid.

Although no final decisions have been made, such personnel moves will target only ATF officials who made misleading public statements after the raid about what went wrong or did not stop subordinates from doing so, the official said.

Praise for heroism

Another expert said the review will praise raid participants for heroism during the firefight and will conclude that ATF's pre-raid investigation of the Branch Davidians was justified.

The review will find that ATF should have tried harder to capture Mr. Koresh away from his followers before deciding to raid the compound, one official said.

Although ATF officials said the cult leader never left the compound in the weeks before the raid, treasury investigators have determined that he left at least twice after ATF began surveillance from a nearby house - once waving at an undercover agent as he drove by, an agent and an expert said.

ATF officials told treasury officials that they decided on a major tactical operation because they feared that Mr. Koresh might lead his followers - including dozens of children - in mass suicide if authorities surrounded the compound and ordered his surrender.

Subsequent tactical planning for the search and arrest suffered from ATF policy that such operations - no matter how complex - are commanded by the ATF agent heading the area's regional headquarters, the tactical expert said.

"I see it as a flaw in the system," he said. "You had an amateur at command and control."

The ATF policy, which put Houston Division Chief Chojnacki and Assistant Chief Sarabyn in charge, is common to federal law enforcement. A similar FBI policy made San Antonio FBI Chief Jeffrey Jamar commander of the Waco operation after FBI hostage rescue teams and negotiators were brought in to try to end the siege.

As the raid date approached, ATF officials mishandled dealings with the Waco-Tribune Herald after learning that the newspaper was preparing stories on arms stockpiling and alleged child abuse by Mr. Koresh, another expert said.

Not persuasive

Houston ATF officials asked newspaper executives to hold the series, but "they didn't give any good reason for not running the story," the expert said. ATF's subsequent dealings with the news media in Waco were "pandemonium," he said. "I think, again, they should've had their top PR guy down there."

The newspaper began running its stories Feb. 27, one day before the raid.

The tactical expert said ATF officials also failed to properly assess intelligence that should have stopped or altered the raid.

For instance, undercover agents got photographs days before the raid of a woman holding a rifle in a compound doorway. That should have prompted reconsideration of the decision to hit the compound when men and women were separated and only women were in the building where guns were stored, the expert said.

"They thought the women's role was to be extremely submissive and decided that the women might not use guns. Well, here's proof otherwise, and it was ignored," he said.

The raid also was timed to occur when males were outside working in a pit. But ATF "disregarded the fact that plastic had been put up over the pit to keep out rain about a week before the raid," the tactical expert said.

The men could enter the pit from an underground compound door, he said, so the plastic made it impossible to tell whether the men were there."

On the weekend of the raid, the tactical expert said, officials also should have been more concerned about news media near the compound.

On Saturday, media cars and gawkers cruised rural roads edging the cult's property, drawn by the Tribune-Herald series, agents said. Early Sunday, the media cars - one with newspaper markings - appeared again more than two hours before the raid.

The tip-off

Unknown to ATF, KWTX-TV in Waco heard about the raid from a local ambulance employee whose company had been hired for raid emergency medical support, law enforcement officials said. The Waco newspaper also got a tip, and both had reporters and photographers staking out roads near the compound for the Sunday morning raid.

One reporter even stopped at ATF's surveillance house across the road from the compound and had to be shooed away.

Although the Waco newspaper articles did not mention an ATF investigation, an ATF official said he told treasury that the articles should have "changed everything."

Without the articles, the ATF official also told treasury, agents might not have accepted the presence of media cars near the compound.

An ATF agent taking government snipers to a perch near the compound witnessed a conversation between a KWTX-TV cameraman and a cult member that authorities believe ultimately tipped the Branch Davidians to the raid. The cameraman has said he was lost and didn't know that he was talking to a cultist when he asked a man in a car with U.S. Postal Service markings for directions to the compound.

Though the agent saw the exchange and agents in the surveillance house saw the driver of the postal carrier car go into the compound, agents and an outside expert said, the information was not properly analyzed as a security threat, the tactical expert said.

Other sect members called Mr. Koresh away from the undercover agent in the compound, and the postman reported the tip, according to an ATF affidavit filed in federal court. Mr. Koresh returned ranting that the ATF and the National Guard were coming.

The undercover agent, Robert Rodriguez, said in a May interview with The News that he became so frightened that he expected to be shot before he could get out and report to Agent Sarabyn by telephone.

ATF commanders have said that they went ahead with the operation because no one - including the undercover agent - saw any indication that the cult was arming. They have said that Mr. Koresh often ranted that ATF would one day confront the Branch Davidians, so his Feb. 28 statements were considered a similar warning.

"He says, `They're coming.' . . . Does that mean now? This afternoon?" Agent Sarabyn told The News over the summer. "It's something you can debate for weeks."

Stop warranted

But the tactical expert who worked on the review said Mr. Rodriguez's report should have stopped the raid. Another official said the review will find that the commanders' decision violated orders from Mr. Higgins not to go if the raid's secrecy was compromised.

Instead, agents told the treasury, Agent Sarabyn hurried the operation, yelling: "We've got to go. He knows we're coming."

Said the tactical expert: "They thought he (Mr. Koresh) would not have time to prepare for an assault. It never went through their minds that it would take (ATF) 40 minutes to get going."

"It was a mad rush to do the assault as soon as possible."

The experts said the commanders should have have been in a neutral area to assess what was happening. Instead, Agent Chojnacki rode in a helicopter used as a diversion for the raid and Agent Sarabyn went in a trailer with raid teams.

The helicopter was hampered by communications problems with ATF assault teams and then was forced down by gunfire, the expert said.

ATF agents said the undercover agent was stunned when he learned that the action was under way. As ATF radio traffic began reporting agents wounded and killed, Agent Rodriguez broke down and sobbed that he did not understand why it hadn't been called off, agents said.

"He said, `I told 'em not to do it. Why the hell did they go ahead with it? Why didn't they listen?'

He said, `I told 'em he knows we're coming,' " one agent said.

Immediately after the raid, Agent Rodriguez and raid commanders Chojnacki and Sarabyn were questioned by Washington-based ATF officals. One official pointedly suggested that the undercover agent had changed his story, making it appear that his warning was more dire after the raid than before, agents said.

Making the rounds

The accusation circulated up ATF ranks and into news media reports. Agent Rodriguez, already highly distraught over the raid, was frightened enough to hire a Dallas lawyer, agents said.

Agent Rodriguez declined comment.

As a result of the review, AgenSarabyn, Agent Chojnacki and three senior ATF law enforcement officials - Associate Director Dan Hartnett, Deputy Assistant Director Dan Conroy and Intelligence Chief David Troy - are likely to be transferred or placed on administrative leave, federal officials said.

All five have declined interviews. Agent Troy has said that he was following orders, and the others have denied knowingly misleading anyone.

Knowledgeable officials said Mr. Higgins, ATF director for a decade, probably also will be eased out.

In a Sept. 9 interview, Mr. Higgins told The News that he knew of no ATF effort to cover up what happened in Waco.

In contrast to ATF, he said, the FBI has not been criticized for reported contradictions in its officials' explanations of what led to the April 19 tear-gas assault and fire that ended the cult standoff.

A Justice Department study to be released next month will include an assessment of the FBI's performance in Waco. In contrast to the treasury review, the assessment of the FBI's work in Waco will be based on an FBI internal inquiry, knowledgeable officials and experts said.

For his part, Mr. Higgins cited news reports that have suggested that the FBI has made contradictory statements about its role during the siege.

"Were they trying to mislead . . . or was that a judgment they made based on the information they had? I'm not faulting FBI's process," Mr. Higgins said. "I'm just saying if everybody looks at everything that ATF said with hindsight - well I don't see that happening with other people. That's unfair."

Some ATF agents involved in the raid say Mr. Higgins should not be blamed. They believe that he was not kept properly informed by subordinates in Waco. If he is forced out, agents say, Mr. Noble and others at the treasury should also be held accountable.

Like Mr. Higgins, agents say, treasury officials approved the raid plan.

Said one agent wounded in the firefight, "If you salute that flag, you gotta run it all the way up the flag pole."

Mr. Noble, treasury's chief law enforcement official who is overseeing the reivew, declined last week to comment on treasury's actions before the raid. In June, he told a congressional subcommittee that he raised questions about the raid plans Feb. 26 but could not take official action because he was not yet confirmed as assistant secretary.

He testified that a treasury official relayed those questions to Mr. Higgins and said the plan could go forward after receiving assurance that any breach of raid secrecy would automatically stop the raid