This April 19th is the 25th anniversary of the final assault that ended the FBI’s standoff with the Branch Davidians, an apocalyptic religious group led by Vernon Howell, better known as David Koresh. The standoff lasted for 51 days and by the time it was over 4 federal agents and more than 80 Branch Davidians were dead—many of the latter killed in a fire that broke out on April 19th as the FBI sought to end the stand-off. The Waco siege would have reverberations throughout the 1990s. Timothy McVeigh, one of the domestic terrorists responsible for the Oklahoma bombing in 1995 that killed 168 people, chose April 19th as the date of the bombing in an effort to cast the attack as retaliation for Waco. Within the FBI, the siege precipitated self-reflection and reform, prompting changes in how the Bureau responded to hostage crises.

The siege is the subject of a fresh investigation in The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security before and after 9/11, a book that traces the FBI’s interactions with various religious communities over the course of its history. In a chapter devoted to the Waco siege, Catherine Wessinger, a leading scholar of new religious movements, offers a new description of what happened in light of evidence not considered in an official report commissioned by Attorney General Janet Reno in 1999—evidence which Wessinger describes in the excerpt below. A quarter century later, the Waco siege still provokes debate and conspiracy theories. The memory of what happened there fuels a sense of grievance amongst certain far right groups to this day, and misunderstanding of the event has been compounded by a recent television productions. The evidence presented by Wessinger shows that there is still aspects of this event that have yet to be fully understood and questions yet to be fully answered.

—Steve Weitzman, co-editor of The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security before and after 9/11 

The FBI’s “Cult War” against the Branch Davidians
By Catherine Wessinger

Despite the publication in 2000 of special counsel John C. Danforth’s final report, which claims to settle the matter by putting all the blame for the fire on the Branch Davidians, the question of what happened at Mount Carmel is far from clearly determined.

The various analyses, strategies, and goals of different groups of FBI agents can be discerned in internal FBI documents found in the archival collection of Lee Hancock, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, at Texas State University in San Marcos. These documents indicate that FBI agents had gathered relevant “intelligence” about the Branch Davidians and their beliefs, and therefore that FBI officials were well informed about the Branch Davidians’ apocalyptic theology of martyrdom when they made decisions to implement “stress escalation” against the Branch Davidians.11 What amounted to psychological warfare, along with increasing physically destructive actions carried out by agents on the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), undermined FBI negotiators’ strategies, which were succeeding in persuading Branch Davidian adults to come out and to send their children out. FBI agents in Waco were constantly reporting to FBI officials in the Strategic Information and Operations Center (SIOC) in the Hoover Building in Washington, D.C. The FBI’s internal documents in the Lee Hancock Collection prompt the question of why FBI officials and commanders made decisions about handling the Branch Davidians that contradicted well-known FBI and law enforcement protocols to obtain the safe exit of barricaded subjects.

As a reporter with the Dallas Morning News, Lee Hancock covered the 1993 conflict between the Branch Davidians and federal agents. Hancock’s investigative reporting on the Branch Davidian case also covered the criminal trial in 1994, congressional hearings in 1995, the wrongful death civil trial in 2000, and the investigation by special counsel John C. Danforth. Someone in the FBI provided Hancock with internal FBI memos, reports, and logs. She used many of them in her important news stories, but she did not utilize all of the information available in these documents. I contacted Hancock for an interview in 2003, which turned out to be when she decided her research on the Branch Davidian case had concluded. She sent boxes of documents to me, and they were placed in the Loyola University New Orleans archive. In 2009 these materials were relocated to the archive of Texas State University, where they are now available to the public.

The internal FBI documents in the Lee Hancock Collection provide a wealth of information on the ways that FBI agents investigated David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, analyzed them for the possibility of mass suicide, and persuaded Attorney General Janet Reno to approve an assault by the FBI’s HRT that endangered all the residents of the building, especially the children. These documents indicate that the FBI decision makers were well aware of the apocalyptic theology of martyrdom taught by David Koresh. Consideration of these FBI documents in conjunction with the Branch Davidians’ conversations recorded by surveillance devices (“bugs”) inside the building prompt the following questions: Given that FBI decision makers were cognizant of the Branch Davidians’ apocalyptic martyrdom theology, why was the tank and CS gas assault carried out on April 19, 1993? Since there was a strong likelihood of fire erupting as a result of tanks driving through and dismantling the building—even if the Branch Davidians had not held a theology of martyrdom—why was this particular form of assault carried out? Why did FBI agents fail to inform Attorney General Reno that on April 14 David Koresh had proposed and was implementing an exit plan according to which he would be able to maintain his commitment to God’s word and also come out? Why was Reno not informed of the analysis of the FBI’s own behavioral scientists indicating the likely violent outcome of an assault carried out by the FBI? Materials held in the Lee Hancock Collection shed new light on these questions.

The collection contains a number of documents of interest in this chapter: (1) two documents summarizing the results of investigations into the probability of the Branch Davidians committing mass suicide, (2) two documents summarizing the results of investigations into the importance that the Branch Davidians attached to Passover, (3) a series of memos written by FBI behavioral scientists (“profilers”), the WACMUR Major Event Log and the WACMUR April 19, 1993, log, and (5) the Reno Briefing File. This chapter reviews this new information in order to show that FBI agents were evaluating the Branch Davidians for the possibility of group suicide up to the day before the FBI’s tank and CS gas assault on April 19, and that the information given to Attorney General Reno by FBI officials was slanted to prompt her to approve the ill-conceived assault. The massive fire on April 19 would not have been a surprise to the FBI officials who had seen these reports and the related FBI memos or to those who had either heard or seen the reports of surveillance device monitors regarding Branch Davidians’ conversations about prophecies being fulfilled by an assault. Whatever lessons are to be learned from the FBI’s conflict with the Branch Davidians must be based on an accurate understanding of what actually happened; what follows, drawing on this new information, is an effort to contribute to that understanding. Learn more.