The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Lee Hancock

Behavior experts blast FBI over cult Suicide risk was known, they say

WASHINGTON - Behavioral scientists assessing the Branch Davidian siege say the FBI ignored warnings of the sect's suicide risk and failed to reach out to experts who could have helped them understand the cult.

Analysis by experts in religion, sociology and psychology will be part of an upcoming Justice Department review of the FBI's handling of the 51-day siege near Waco.

The siege ended April 19 after FBI officials tried to force a peaceful surrender by using tanks to bash holes and insert tear gas into the sect's compound. Within hours, a fire broke out that left cult leader David Koresh and more than 80 of his followers dead.

FBI officials have declined to comment pending public release of the review, which has been postponed several times in the past month.

FBI officials' efforts to understand the Branch Davidians' psychology and religious motivations during the standoff - and their failure to heed their experts' warnings - may be among the most critical sections of the upcoming Justice review, some officials say.

The FBI commanders in Waco did not seek out recognized experts in marginal religious groups and apocalyptic sects who might have been able to explain Mr. Koresh's mindset and his possible reactions to their tactics, said Nancy Ammerman, a sociology and religion professor who was among 13 outside experts assisting in the Justice review.

FBI officials also ignored their behavioral specialists who warned early in the standoff that Mr. Koresh posed a serious suicide risk that would only be exacerbated by increasing pressure, said Dr. Ammerman, a visiting professor at Princeton University.

The FBI's behaviorists "were saying to their negotiators and tactical people very early on that increasing tactical pressure was counterproductive," she said. "I think they had a very decent level of understanding and were passing that information to their superiors. It then disappeared into the system."

After the in-house experts wrote memos warning of suicide in the early days of the siege, she said, "it was not repeated, because after the first memos hit the command structure, they were silenced."

That contradicts statements made by Justice and FBI officials after the siege that their behavioral consultants did not consider Mr. Koresh a suicide risk.

Dr. Robert Cancro, chairman of New York University Medical Center's psychiatry department, said increasing physical pressure may have pushed the Branch Davidians closer to their ultimate end.

Repeatedly, he said, FBI commanders sent mixed messages - urging the cult to surrender while cutting power, blaring loud music and shining bright lights on the compound, and ultimately, assaulting it with tear gas and tanks.

Dr. Ammerman said bureau officials should have considered "loosening rather than tightening the perimeter, getting their presence down to an absolute minimum." Such a tactic would have diffused tensions and eased a sense among Branch Davidians that Armageddon was at hand, she said.

She also said she does not accept arguments by some FBI and Justice officials that the siege had to be ended because the lengthy standoff had exhausted the bureau's hostage rescue team.

"There was an overall level of, `Let's get this over with,' " she said. "But the hostage rescue team was trained to do what they were doing. They had enough folks to carry this operation without exhausting anybody."

The Justice review was originally scheduled to be released Tuesday but has been delayed by ongoing arguments between federal prosecutors and Justice officials about its possible effect on the trial of 11 sect members.

The 11 are accused of conspiracy to kill federal agents, weapons violations and other federal charges in the Feb. 28 deaths of four agents who tried to serve search and arrest warrants on the group's rural compound.

A Justice review chronology of the resulting siege includes transcripts of negotiations with cult leader Koresh and conversations picked up by bugging devices slipped into the compound.

LeRoy Jahn, one of the federal prosecutors overseeing the Waco case, said Sunday that she and other prosecutors were allowed to review the chronology last month.

"Our main concern was the degree to which negotiation and . . . (wiretap) tapes were being quoted. A lot of those would not be admissible in court," she said. "We were afraid that the tenor would be prejudicial to defense and could affect our seating a fair jury."

"Everyone's very sensitive to the fact that we're trying to prosecute a case. I guess they feel that they have other obligations as well."

A Treasury Department review released Thursday criticized the ATF action that led to the standoff for poor planning and a fatal decision to execute the raid even after commanders learned that its secrecy had been compromised.

The raid's two Houston-based commanders and three other ATF senior officials were placed on administrative leave Thursday after the review contended that they lied to investigators, the public or officials in Washington about key issues of the raid.

Two of the officials, ATF associate director Dan Hartnett and deputy associate director Dan Conroy, submitted their resignations Saturday to protest the review's findings. In a prepared statement, the officials said they never misled anyone.

Assistant Treasury Secretary Ron Noble, who oversaw the five-month Treasury investigation, said Sunday that he stands by its findings.