Firestorm in Waco
How much truth is there to the conspiracy theories that the FBI deliberately killed the Branch Davidians?
by Brian Dunning
March 22, 2016
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Today we're going to delve into the deepest, ugliest corner of urban legendry: conspiracy theories claiming that the US government deliberately attacks and kills its own citizens. In this case it's the infamous 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian religious sect near Waco, Texas resulting in the deaths of some 75 people inside. The accepted narrative is that the Davidians, intent on apocalyptic death according to their prophecies, committed mass suicide as the federal agents entered the compound with armored vehicles; while the conspiracy theory holds that it was the federal agents who set the fires in a successful effort to murder the entire population inside. Today we're going to examine the claim, and find out how we know what we know.
The Branch Davidian sect, originally an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, had been on its land outside Waco for nearly 60 years when young Vernon Howell took it over in the aftermath of a 1987 armed raid. He luckily escaped conviction, changed his name to David Koresh (telling his followers that Koresh meant "death"), and assumed the role of prophet. A few years later, a confrontation with federal authorities led to a six week siege that ended with the complete destruction by fire of the compound as tanks rolled in with tear gas, killing Koresh and 75 other Branch Davidians inside.
The conspiracy theories came thick and fast. The most prominent were popularized by a pair of independent filmmakers, Linda Thompson (who was a full-throttle conspiracy theorist best known for her film Waco: The Big Lie) and Mike McNulty (who was more measured, and received an Academy Award nomination for Waco: The Rules of Engagement). We'll take a look at the two most commonly repeated claims:
- One of the tanks used to breach the compound (actually a CEV, or Combat Engineering Vehicle) used some kind of flame thrower to ignite the buildings, seen on video;
- The FBI and National Guard used incendiary grenades to burn down the buildings.
So to understand the context in which these events are claimed to have taken place, we'll take a bit of a deeper dive into the exact history of the raid. Ever since that 1987 shootout, the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) had been investigating the Branch Davidians. A UPS driver reported a broken-open package containing hand grenades and black powder; neighbors reported automatic machine-gun fire. But the deeper their investigation went, which included undercover agents inside the compound, listening devices inside, and a surveillance house right across the street, the deeper concern grew for the underage children, particularly the girls, inside. At the time of his rise to power, Koresh had five wives as young as 12; and his first commandment upon pronouncing himself the Second Coming of Christ had been that the men turn over their wives and daughters to him. He had sex with most of them and fathered children with many. At least two near-term fetuses of his died with their mothers in the fire.
But what really turned up the heat was what investigators learned from former sect members. Koresh prophesied that they were all to die according to Revelations, and that they themselves would trigger the End of Days. They hatched a plan to assault a local McDonald's restaurant and kill everyone inside, in order to die in a hail of bullets and fire from law enforcement to fulfill the prophecy. Purifying fire, they believed, would transcend them to heaven. About 150 people lived inside the compound, and some had been there for two or three generations.
Investigators were between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they had to rescue the innocent Davidians and the children from Koresh's rapes and planned mass suicide; but on the other, they feared creating an armed confrontation would produce exactly that same outcome. No opportunities to peacefully arrest Koresh outside the compound ever materialized.
Long story short: the raid on February 28, 1993 was a disaster, as the Davidians had warning and were prepared to fight. Four ATF agents and six Davidians were killed. With the deaths of federal agents, the FBI took over and the compound was surrounded with assistance from the Texas and Alabama National Guards for six weeks. They cut utilities, played loud music at night, tried to make life inside unbearable, hoping to drive as many of them out peacefully as possible. And it worked to some degree; 35 Davidians came out during the six weeks including many children. Investigators actually bought the children two at a time in exchange for allowing Koresh to make religious radio broadcasts.
And then one day, something happened. Somewhere inside the FBI, some unknown person (or persons) decided to take matters into their own hands, with intentions about which we can only guess. Someone in the FBI gave consistent reports to Attorney General Janet Reno that children inside the compound were being beaten — something for which there was never any evidence. When directly asked for confirmation, this lie was repeated to her. This was the straw that pushed Reno over the edge and caused her to recommend to President Bill Clinton that the compounded be assaulted with tear gas. Clinton, who favored waiting out the Davidians as the most likely strategy to avoid loss of life, reluctantly agreed to her recommendation. Reno greenlit the assault, and any chance to peacefully end the siege was lost.
Tear gas was inserted into the buildings and tanks rolled to punch holes in the walls. Gunfire was heard throughout the compound as many of the adult male Davidians killed one another in consensual suicide pacts. At least three fires erupted simultaneously throughout the flimsy plywood structure and most of the women and children died of smoke inhalation. Only nine people survived — and all nine expressed remorse at not having died with the others.
Fast forward six years, during which TV networks and the alternative press eagerly promoted the conspiracy theory films. Surveys found that an incredible 61% of Americans believed that the FBI started the fire. Under public pressure, Janet Reno appointed former senator John Danforth, later the Ambassador to the United Nations, to conduct an investigation into the events at Waco. His Danforth Report (available online) is, like all official reports, fundamentally distrusted and dismissed by those whose minds are closed to any version of history except that the government intentionally executed the Davidians. As a result, claims contradicting the Danforth Report findings are all over the Internet, and probably always will be; but the difference is that these conflicting reports made do with carefully selected second or third hand anecdotes instead of direct evidence.
Regardless of its conclusions, the Danforth Report remains the single definitive collection of physical evidence and witness testimony. Let's have a look at what was learned about our two major conspiracy theory claims:
The "Flame Throwing Tank"
As far as a CEV spraying fire with a flame thrower, CEVs are 1960s-era Patton tanks converted into bulldozers and do not have flamethrowers. This one was taking down the gymnasium to clear a path to a tower inside, delivering tear gas at the same time, and was moving back and forth slowly because the driver feared a drop into a basement. The video which filmmaker Thompson believed showed this was taken from a great distance and is hopelessly blurry and distorted from atmospheric haze and video artifacting. In some shots, an unidentifiable building panel of some kind catches the sunlight and appears brightly illuminated. Thompson described this bright spot as a "gas jet" that "shoots fire". The Danforth Report gives the following description:
Throughout this operation, the FBI FLIR tapes showed rapid “flashes” on and around the complex and the vehicles. These flashes were solar reflections off of certain types of debris, including glass, that was strewn around the complex.
To my eye it obviously appears to be sunlight reflecting off a large flat panel and is completely different from the jet of a flamethrower, but of course what it "looks like" is a matter of personal opinion. What's not a matter of opinion is that no fire started in this area of the complex, as can be seen in the other hours of newsreel footage that are widely available. If it was a "gas jet" "shooting fire" it was a pretty impotent one. Given this fact, I'm amazed that Thompson made such an assertion and that so many cling to it.
Correction: An earlier version of this said the CEVs were "not armed". They do have machine guns and an M135 demolition gun, though none of these weapons were used at Waco. The CEVs were used extensively to squirt tear gas into the compound via a Mark V liquid insertion system, basically a CO2-powered squirt gun with a 15-meter range. - BD
The "Incendiary Grenades"
About the "incendiary grenades" used to insert tear gas, and believed by many to have been used to deliberately start the fires, this is true... sort of. Four hours before the fires started, just after 8:00 AM, FBI agents fired three XM651E1 pyrotechnic tear gas rounds in an attempt to break down a door in an area described as a "concrete construction pit". This pit was 23 meters downwind of the buildings. Moreover, pyrotechnic and incendiary do not mean the same thing. While a pyrotechnic round does explode to release its contents, it is not intended to start a fire. Incendiary devices are what start fires, and these were never used. Not even the pyrotechnic rounds were used near the wooden buildings, on Janet Reno's orders. All the tear gas rounds launched into the buildings with M-79 grenade launchers were what's called "ferret" rounds, made of plastic that breaks on impact, with no explosives at all, and has no potential to start a fire. In any event, the three pyrotechnic rounds were spent and cold four hours before the fire and were never near the wooden buildings.
Correction: An earlier version of this said the ferret rounds were dropped by the CEVs. They were actually launched from several Bradley fighting vehicles outside the compound. - BD
During those four hours, bugs in FBI-delivered milk cartons recorded dozens of conversations throughout the complex of people pouring Coleman camping fuel, spreading hay, pouring more fuel, and making preparations to light it all. Without any doubt at all, the Davidians had one plan, and one plan only, hours before the first CEV breached a wall. They were going to die by fire, and nothing could have stopped it.
However, it is worth noting that it was not until August 1999 that the FBI acknowledged the use of these three XM651E1 rounds. The Danforth Report states that this failure "constitutes, at best, negligence in the handling of evidence and information and, at worst, a criminal effort to cover up the truth."
And the government even found scapegoats, firing the two ATF agents in charge of the initial raid with the excuse that they should have known the Davidians knew they were coming, thus the deaths were avoidable. But this is a false premise. From all we know of the Davidians, and especially considering the reports of those who left the compound and survived to tell the inside story, it seems there is nothing anyone could have done to have prevented the Davidians from killing themselves. But that should never stop us from trying. Preventing loss of life, especially of children and other innocents inside, was foremost on the minds of the law enforcement on the scene.
21 of the Davidian children whom the FBI "bought" from Koresh with radio time were placed in Methodist Children's Home in Waco. From all they knew, their parents had just given them to the bad guys. They cried and suffered while psychiatrists and counselors battled with government agents trying to interview them. All they wanted was their parents. Then one day a special news report pre-empted their cartoons on the television, and they watched a fire, and black smoke, and violence.
That's a hard scene to imagine, but consider how long were the odds that any of the children would have made it out of such a twisted suicide cult. For those 21 in the home, 25 other children burned to death, or were shot, or were stabbed. 21 made it, and that's 21 more than might have. Was there a government conspiracy on that day? You're darn right there was. Imperfect though it clearly was, it was a conspiracy that managed to pluck 21 children out of the darkest depths religious extremism has ever produced.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Firestorm in Waco." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
22 Mar 2016. Web.
23 Apr 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4511>
References & Further Reading
Colloff, P. "The Fire That Time." Texas Monthly Magazine. Texas Monthly, 1 Apr. 2008. Web. 20 Mar. 2016. <http://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/the-fire-that-time/>
Danforth, J. Final Report to the Deputy Attorney General Concerning the 1993 Confrontation at the Mt. Carmel Complex, Waco, Texas. Washington, DC: United States Attorney General, 2000.
Foley, J. "Waco: Cock-up or Conspiracy?" Skeptical Vegan. Jamie Foley, 12 Jun. 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2016. <http://skepticalvegan.com/2014/06/12/waco-cock-up-or-conspiracy/>
Hirschman, B. "Agents Who Led Davidian Raid Fired." Sun Sentinel. 29 Oct. 1994, Newspaper.
Newsweek Staff. "Children of the Cult." Newsweek. 16 May 1993, Magazine.
Sturken, J., Dore, M. "Remembering the Waco Siege." ABC News. ABC News Internet Ventures, 28 Feb. 2007. Web. 20 Mar. 2016. <http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=2908955>
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