Feds learned from mistakes made in Branch Davidian standoff

Posted Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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For the first half of the 51-day Branch Davidian standoff, Gary Noesner was the lead FBI negotiator with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians.

But he would leave halfway through the siege at Mount Carmel and never come back.

No more Branch Davidians walked out of the compound after his departure, but Noesner said relations were becoming strained with Koresh by the time he left.

On April 19, 1993, the Branch Davidian compound would burn to the ground, killing 74 inside.

Noesner, author of Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, said that Koresh was clearly to blame for the deaths, but he concedes that the FBI made mistakes too.

As a negotiator, he opposed any aggressive actions that would inflame Koresh and make it more difficult to persuade his followers to come out.

"I believe David Koresh was totally responsible for the lives of those people and his bad decision-making led to those people losing their lives," Noesner said. "But there were very philosophic differences between the negotiation team and the tactical team, which pushed for a more confrontational approach. They wanted to exert more pressure. If Waco proved anything, it reinforced what we did as negotiators."

Noesner said the FBI embraced the philosophy of using force only as a last resort after the Branch Davidian tragedy.

"We don't use force just because we can," Noesner said.

Bob Ricks, who was an FBI assistant special agent in charge during the standoff and was later the special agent in charge during the Oklahoma City bombing, said he doesn't know what could have been done to avoid the tragedy.

"I guess we could have fenced it off and called it a federal prison," said Ricks, now chief of police in Edmond, Okla., but he explained that wasn't a real option.

"I don't know that there was any way to have a successful conclusion," he said.

Ricks said Koresh had given four promises to come out and reneged every time. As the days dragged on, Koresh became more belligerent and stopped talking to negotiators.

"We had intelligence that he was probably ready to bring it down," Ricks said. "... The experts believed the only way to interrupt his plan was for the FBI to come up with some sort of plan to try and get people out of there."

Those tactics failed.

"The results turned out to be catastrophic," Ricks said.

Following the inferno, Ricks said, the FBI made a mistake by going silent and not defending its actions.

Initially, polls showed the public supported the agency's actions, but conspiracy theories soon began popping up about the standoff.

Two years later, Timothy McVeigh would use the Branch Davidian deaths as a justification for the Oklahoma City bombing.

"What they didn't realize is there were groups out there constantly pounding this, blaming the FBI and the FBI made no response," Ricks said.

Ricks doesn't agree that the lessons of the Branch Davidian standoff are that law enforcement should always watch and wait. He noted that school shootings have compelled law enforcement to act immediately to try and save lives.

For religious or separatist groups, he agrees it makes sense to start a dialogue.

"I've found in most cases they'll talk to you," Ricks said. "Some of what we found out in Waco was the sheriff had gone in their regularly and generally they would invite him in and have lunch with them."

And Ricks notes that Koresh easily could have been arrested away from the compound on his regular trips into Waco. But it became much more difficult to resolve the dispute when four Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents were killed and 20 others were wounded in the initial raid.

Twenty years later, scholars are still attempting to put the tragedy into perspective.

"The simple answers really don't work too well," said Gordon Melton, a distinguished professor of American Religious History at Baylor University who organized a symposium on the Branch Davidians.

"They were not a sinister cult who got what they deserved," Melton said. "They were not a bunch of crazy, deluded people off in left field. Then, on the other side, this was not a government conspiracy to get these people."

Bill Hanna, (817) 390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna

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