ATF: February 28

Inside Raid Headquarters

A video obtained through FOIA shows the raid headquarters in the final hours before the operation began. Conditions are not what one could call tense. Personnel slip coffee, read the Sunday comics, snap photos of each other, and generally display somewhat less concentration than is found in a Cub Scout pack preparing for an outing. The only serious work appears to be unloading videotapes and preparing cameras (pity that they'll all vanish before the raid is over). The muster of a hundred agents and military preparations will look nice on the evening news, but no one seems to expect much in the way of conflict. It's a countdown to "Showtime," after all. Click here for the Quicktime movie (1.7 megs download; can take 15 minutes).

The raid plan was, under the circumstances, near insanity: agents would be packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, inside cattle trailers, which would approach the building in broad daylight. At the cry of "Showtime!" the agents would pour out, divide into four columns, and storm the building. Some would surround the building, others would take ladders to the right side, go in the second floor with flash bang grenades, and still others would storm the front door with battering rams. The dogs would be sprayed with fire extinguishes and, if they did not depart, shot on the spot. The raid plan overlooked the fact that humans were involved. Both sides might be armed as the agents came running up; over a hundred persons would be looking down the muzzles of each others' guns, hands shaking, adrenalin pumping, tunnel vision setting in, each person convinced that if shooting broke out they would be the first hit.... a sitation where one gunshot would result in everyone present, on both sides, yanking the trigger. All in all, not a setting for setting off stun grenades and shooting dogs. And the dogs were indeed shot, as agents later testified.

The raid plan assumed that all male Davidians would be outside and behind the building, working on a construction project, and thus in a position to be cut off when the cattle trailers pulled up at the front. In fact, the intelligence reports said only that many Davidians were often working on the project. The plan assumed all the firearms were in a second-floor room on the extreme right of the building; a special team would dramatically scale ladders and seize that room to cut off all access to firearms. In fact, the intelligence was years old; the firearms had been moved months before to a first-floor room in the central building. Men would die storming an empty room. Under the raid plan, three National Guard helicopters would race in at the back, just before the raid began, to distract everyone as the cattle trailers pulled up in front.

The helicopters were late, arriving only as the raid and the firing began. An audiotape of ATF radio traffic (which the agency admits was not revealed to Congressional investigators) shows why. To listen to the tape, click here. The two raid commanders got on different radio channels and could not converse. The radiovan tries to sort out the confusion, instructing the commanders to reset their "Sabres" (portable encrypted radios), without success. For nearly four minutes before the raid begins (the transmitted announcement of "Showtime!"), the ground commander (Cavanaugh) is calling to the air commander (Chojnacki, pronounced "Wynaski") in increasing desperation for the helicopter support.

The arrival of the helicopters poses another critical question. Several Davidians state that the first shots came from the approaching helicopters; government witnesses, in contrast, deny that any shots were fired from the aircraft--although a memo of the training exercises mentions using gunshots from aircraft to add to the distraction. The video made from the helicopters has, however, an interesting soundtrack... with gunshots audible. To view the Quicktime video, click here. (1 meg.; can take 8-10 minutes to download). If you would just like to hear the soundtrack, click here. Note that (according to the pilot's testimony) the helicopters never got closer than 350 yards to the building.The pilots I've spoken with suggest hearing groundfire at the distance, over the helicopter's engine, rotor, and transmission noise, is highly unlikely. Further (although the helicopters are rapidly approaching the ground battle) the sound of gunshots ceases, rather than becomes louder, as they pull up and pass the building. It'd be strange gunfire which was audible at 500 yards, yet inaudible at 350.

Within seconds of the agents' dismounting, a major gunbattle was underway. The government version of the incident was that the Davidians, bent upon homicide, sprang an ambush. But inside the building, Wayne Martin calls 9-1-1 and reports"there are 75 people around our building and they're shooting at us!" Government witnesses contend the agents were raked by full automatic fire from multiple positions--and on this basis six Davidians were sentenced to long prison terms for using fully automatic weapons. The audiotape made from the radio van--within hearing range of the gunfight--shows, however, only semi-automatic fire, with one exception. A full twelve minutes into the fight, there is a burst of full automatic, which shocks the radio van crew. A minute later, a garbled radio transmission comes in and the agent listening proclaims "Hey, heh, we got the machinegun!" The logical inferences would be (1) one person did indeed fire a full auto, after considerable delay; (2) He was promptly hit by return fire. But since none of the six Davidians convicted were hit on February 28, it seems unlikely that they were that person, and certainly all six could not have been firing the one full auto. The theory upon which six were convicted is inconsistent with the audiotape--which, the agency admits, was not revealed even to Congressional committees.

The firefight raged for a period of time variously estimated at twenty or at forty minutes, then petered into occasional exchanges of shots. At the end, the agents were running short of ammunition. With a lake at their rear and flat ground to either side, there was no possible retreat. They would survive only if the Davidians allowed them to withdraw. The 9-1-1 operator called the building, reached a skeptical David Koresh (click here for audio) (His skepticism is understandable: he had been shot through the groin, the bullet blasting an inch-wide hole through the bone of his pelvis). Koresh, the 9-1-1 operator, and ATF agent Cavanaugh negotiated an agreement to send in a team to withdraw the wounded. The first ceasefire broke down. New gunshots are audible, and Wayne Martin (click here for audio) reported that ATF had resumed firing; that the helicopters were shooting as well. In the end, a new ceasefire was arranged. The radio van used loudspeakers to tell the agents that they could withdraw. Audiotrack of withdrawal.


ATF pulled back; their Deputy Director invited FBI to take over the case. The decision was not popular with ATF--the Deputy Director was widely disliked and sometimes despised, and the logical interpretation of the order was that he judged that FBI was better than his own agency. There are rumors in Waco of fistfights in hotel hallways between adrenalin-charged ATF and FBI agents. But on to the FBI conduct of the siege.