The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Lee Hancock

ATF chief announces retirement
Higgins cites raid probe, proposals for FBI merger

WASHINGTON - Embattled Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Director Stephen Higgins, whose agents conducted the bloody raid on the Branch Davidian compound, announced his retirement Monday.

The announcement, sent by letter to Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, comes four days before Treasury Department investigators unveil results of a five-month investigation expected to be scathingly critical of the ATF's handling of the Branch Davidian raid near Waco.

Mr. Higgins, 55, declined to comment Monday.

In the wake of Mr. Higgins' announcement, Treasury Department and Capitol Hill sources said U.S. Secret Service Assistant Director Hubert Bell is a leading contender to replace Mr. Higgins permanently. Mr. Bell, who became head of Secret Service internal affairs this year after serving as chief of the agency's protective operations, is one of the highest ranking African-Americans in federal law enforcement.

He could not be reached for comment Monday night.

Mr. Higgins said in his resignation letter that his decision to retire effective Oct. 30 was based on his disagreement with findings of the review and Mr. Bentsen's apparent support of proposals to merge the ATF with the FBI.

In a surprisingly angry response, Assistant Treasury Secretary Jack De-Vore said the retirement had been accepted, and he noted that the ATF director had not seen the results of the review.

"Yet (he) says he cannot support its findings. Rank-and-file ATF agents wanted the review so the truth would come out, and ATF deserves a director who is willing to act on it," Mr. De-Vore said. "Steve Higgins has served long and honorably with ATF, and we wish him well."

The 500-page review, to be released Thursday, is expected to conclude that some senior ATF officials deliberately misled the public and officials in Washington about whether raid commanders knew before the action that its secrecy had been compromised.

Four ATF agents were killed and 16 were wounded in the Feb. 28 action, which began a 51-day standoff with the sect. Several cult members were killed.

The review also reportedly will conclude that the raid should have been aborted after commanders learned from an undercover agent that cult leader David Koresh had been tipped off. It will find that the raid suffered from poor intelligence and a failure to stop the raid's momentum from "taking on a life of its own," said several review experts and other knowledgeable sources.

But a federal official has said that any disciplinary action arising from the review will target officials who misled the public or investigators or allowed their subordinates to do so.

For example, the review found evidence that Chuck Sarabyn, the raid's tactical commander, gave conflicting statements to investigators about what he was told by the undercover agent just before the raid, the officials said.

Dan Hartnett, the ATF's associate director for law enforcement, said he could not comment on Mr. Sarabyn's statements.

Mr. Sarabyn, deputy chief of Houston's ATF office, could not be reached for comment.

But Mr. Hartnett, the agency's senior official in Waco after the raid, added that overall raid commander Phil Chojnacki's statements "have remained consistent. . . . As commander, when he went in, he never felt that we lost the element of surprise."

Other federal officials say, however, that treasury investigators believe Mr. Chojnacki's account of what happened also has been inaccurate.

Mr. Chojnacki, head of ATF's Houston division, also could not be reached for comment Monday.

Mr. Hartnett, one of five ATF officials under fire in the review, said he never knowingly misled anyone and added that in early March, he asked the Texas Rangers to conduct an independent investigation of how the cult was alerted to the raid. The Rangers' involvement was to avoid even appearance of a cover-up and to address "what transpired between the commanders," he said.

"That shows the opposite of any intent to mislead anyone," he said.

Federal officials have said that five senior ATF officials - including the agency's two top law enforcement managers and the two raid commanders - faced administrative leaves or other disciplinary action arising from the Waco review.

Agents who participated in the raid, plus one of the agency's staunchest Capitol Hill supporters, said Mr. Higgins' problems appeared largely due to a failure by ATF officials in Waco to keep him properly informed of exactly what had gone wrong.

"In my judgment, he relied on field people, and while the buck stops with the boss, the errors were not his," said Sen. Dennis De-Concini, D-Ariz.

In a letter delivered to Mr. Bentsen early Monday afternoon, the ATF director said he felt compelled to step down because he disagreed with "conclusions reached and actions proposed" by the Waco review.

Although he did not provide details of his disagreement, Mr. Higgins wrote that treasury officials "apparently see what happened in Waco as an indication that ATF needs to make significant changes in direction and focus. In my view, Waco was a tragic event from which all law enforcement can learn, but I believe ATF was and continues to be an outstanding law enforcement agency."

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., one of the agency's strongest supporters in the House, also said he was not surprised by Mr. Higgins' announcement because the director had privately acknowledged this summer that he might not survive the fallout from the Branch Davidian raid.

"He felt that it might be inevitable that he might have to take responsibility and retire early so the agency could get new leadership and new direction," said Mr. Hoyer, who heads a House appropriations subcommittee that held June hearings on the raid.

Treasury officials said they had not held specific discussions with Mr. Higgins about his future before his announcement.

But Mr. DeConcini said the Treasury Department's terse public reaction Monday suggested disappointment that Mr. Higgins "was going to get canned and they didn't get to can him."

"Nobody came to his defense, and he had the treasury gag rule, so he couldn't defend himself," Mr. DeConcini said, referring to a treasury order issued in early April that barred Mr. Higgins from responding even to congressional questions about what went wrong outside Waco.

Former FBI Director William Sessions "got into Waco and 80-some people died, and everybody was up here defending the FBI," Mr. DeConcini said of congressional hearings held after the Branch Davidian tragedy.

More than 80 Branch Davidians died April 19 in a fire that consumed the compound after FBI agents launched a tear-gas assault to force an end to the 51-day standoff.

Federal officials and independent arson investigators have said the fire was deliberately set, and a recent federal indictment of 12 surviving sect members alleges that Mr. Koresh ordered the arson.

Rep. Jim Lightfoot, R-Iowa, said Mr. Higgins was unfairly victimized by a situation out of his control.

"As far as I'm concerned, Steve Higgins strikes me as one of the most decent guys that I've ever had a chance to meet," said Mr. Lightfoot, ranking minority member of the House subcommittee that held hearings on the raid in June. "I think Steve's been put under siege from several different directions.

"It just looks like somebody is out to get him."