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Jerry Pournelle

Wednesday, April 19, 2000

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An edited version of this essay was originally published in Intellectual Capital in September, 1999.



Jerry Pournelle


Most of us knew all along, there was very little truth in the official story about the Waco Massacre. Even now as the official story is changed to cover new physical evidence - tapes of conversations, and canisters of pyrotechnically activated tear gasses - the coverup stories continue. All this thrashing does far more harm than good. Are they trying to make us believe the worst?

Napoleon Bonaparte once said "Do not ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence," and the official story echoes that. Both the FBI and the BATF are willing to admit to grievous mistakes so long as the record shows that they acted in good faith: that they are, however tarnished by incompetence, the good guys, so that the final judgment at Waco must be that the good guys won. So long as that is the bottom line, the rest is unimportant.

It's axiomatic in Washington that it's not the initial crime that gets you in trouble, it's the cover up; in the Waco case, the official story is that there wasn't an original crime. The cover up, the story goes, had two motivations, the normal human desire not to appear grossly incompetent, and secondly, to allay the fears of the public, lest there be hysterical rage leading to acts of rebellion; and lest the citizens have an hysterical fear of their own government.

The trouble is that a good part of the public no longer believes a word of it. There always was some suspicion that the real truth never came out. Now there's certainty. It has got to the point that a significant number of people now believe that the agents in charge at Waco did not mean for anyone to come out of that bunker alive; that this was hot blooded murder, quite competently carried out; that there was no incompetence at all. And while that seems fantastic, it is no longer any more fantastic than the official story; and the longer the official story is told, the more people will believe that this is a cover up of something far worse than incompetence.

The only way to lay this growing body of suspicion to rest is to get and publish the real story; and that is going to require that the Congress put aside partisan notions, depart from politics, and act as the Grand Inquest of the Nation.

I put this to Congressman Newt Gingrich during the period between the election of November 1994 and the swearing in of the new Congress. I said then that the Waco Massacre was going to haunt America until the truth, however ugly, came out. Alas, his reply was "Not interested." He had, he thought, far more important things to accomplish. There was, after all, the Contract with America. I tried to argue that the official story at Waco would undermine America's confidence in our government; but I got a repeat of the first reply, "Not interested." And that was that.

Now everyone is interested.

Consider the problems with the official story. Almost no one now doubts that the original raid was needless. There was not the slightest indication that Koresh and his people would resist agents demanding the right to inspect the premises. At least one of the Branch Davidians held a Federal Firearms License, entitling the authorities to inspect without a warrant. The Davidians knew this. The local sheriff had been to the premises without incident. Koresh himself regularly left the campus. There was no reason for a massive raid other than to generate publicity for the raiders.

 That wasn't enough. On the basis of no evidence whatever, the BATF swore they had reason to believe that there was a drug factory in the compound. This entitled them to aid from the military including helicopters, making the raid even more spectacular; but it was in clear violation of the posse comitatus act whose purpose was to remove the US military from civilian constabulary power. Having sworn to lies to obtain a no-knock warrant - having acted in malice - the BATF then carried out the raid with less than minimum competence.

No one knows who fired the first shots. Years ago in Lebanon the first shot was fired accidentally as a sergeant's pistol discharged while he climbed a ladder. Who is to say that didn't happen at Waco? One thing we can say is that the BATF agents fired wildly and indiscriminately at a house known to be occupied by women and children. Everyone watching saw one BATF agent crouching behind an automobile, his sub-machine gun firing wildly toward the house while he remained behind the car unable to see where he was shooting. This technique is known as "spray and pray" and is almost guaranteed to produce results you don't want. There were BATF agents trying to enter the house while the shooting was going one. Casualties to friendly fire are not merely possible but likely.

 So far, though, we have minor malice - manufacturing the need for a spectacular raid to impress the incoming administration - and major incompetence.

Then the FBI came aboard.

We can assume the Congress competent to ask the obvious questions about the conduct of the siege. Why were supposed adults playing recordings of the sounds of death? Why were the dying screams of animals being broadcast to a house full of children? Was it seriously supposed that doing this would cause a frightened group of religious people to trust that their government meant them no malicious harm? Was this supposed to increase the Branch Davidians' confidence in the FBI? These are the obvious questions, and we can trust the Congress to ask them.

Some questions aren't so obvious.

Not many people had heard about the Ruby Ridge tragedy while the Waco incident was playing out to its fiery end. Still, the final act was gruesome enough, an unarmed mother shot to death while holding an infant. The official story was that this was a regrettable accident. No malice at all, and only minor incompetence. Later that story would change, and courts would award the survivors substantial damages. But from the beginning the one thing all could be sure of was that something went very wrong. Officers of the United States are not supposed to shoot down unarmed citizens in their homes. Whatever happened at Ruby Ridge should not have happened, and it shouldn't happen again.

Except that it was bound to.

At the time few of us were aware that the FBI commander at Waco was Richard Rogers, the same man who had been in charge at Ruby Ridge. Rogers had been in command of an operation that went very sour. Here was a chance to do far more damage. Why let him command?

What none of us knew was that Lon Horiuchi, the trigger man at Ruby Ridge, was also present at Waco. This puts things in a far more sinister perspective. Not only do we have the man who changed the rules of engagement from "return fire" to "shoot on sight", but we have with him, in a position of authority, armed with armed subordinates, West Point graduate Lon Horiuchi, the man willing to carry out the "shoot on sight" order.

That is an important question the Grand Inquest of the Nation should ask: who brought in the butcher of Ruby Ridge and gave him a gun? Who thought it a good idea to have Lon Horiuchi present? Why did Rogers want him there?

Another question: we are told that the pyrotechnic grenades were not fired at any flammable part of the compound, and their purpose was to "close off an avenue of escape." This sounds plausible until you think about it; then it comes apart. Close off an avenue of escape? Escape to where? The place was surrounded. No one was going to leave the vicinity. There was no escape to freedom. If the purpose of all that operation was to get people to come out, why fire grenades in an attempt to prevent just that? Just what were they escaping? Flaming death?

We have the commander at Ruby Ridge, assisted by an officer he knows will not hesitate to shoot to kill, commanding an operation against a wooden structure. The wind is hot and dry and rising. The only light inside the buildings are kerosene lamps, and not only is the structure highly flammable, but bales of hay have been used in lieu of armor. The place is a tinder box and any damn fool would know there was a risk of fire: so the Fire Department is kept a long way away. This is at best depraved indifference, but it gets worse. Lon Horiuchi is out there with a gun in his hand. Tanks tear down the structure.

One would think any rational person would predict uncontrollable fire under those circumstances. And when the place burns down with 17 children inside, the doors are removed as evidence and "lost", the building is bulldozed, the soil and debris including any evidence of pyrotechnic grenades is removed to places unknown. The BATF flag is hoisted above the smoking ruin. Later an American flag is raised as well. One wonders if anyone thought to sing about the land of the free and the home of the brave as the Stars and Stripes rose over the site of a massacre?

And for six years we are told that no pyrotechnic grenades were fired. Yes, yes, we know that the Symbionese Liberation Army was burned out by use of those devices, so certainly we wouldn't use them here. Unfortunately, the chance to prove they weren't used is gone because the debris was removed, but trust us, we're from the FBI. Would we lie to you? Only, it turns out, for six years we have heard lies.

I don't know what happened at Waco. I do know that Richard Rogers and Lon Horiuchi were there, and they were already responsible for one of the most shocking incidents since Reconstruction. Why, given their record, were they there at all? Do I really believe that officers of the United States deliberately pursued a 'allow none to escape' policy? That they intended that everyone die in the fires? Not really. Yet - if that happened, the very people you would expect to see were in charge. The evidence that might negate those charges was removed, hidden, in some cases destroyed. Why?

The Waco massacre will remain a festering sore until it is lanced; until the truth, however horrible, comes out. It doesn't take any special investigators. It doesn't take a national commission. We have an institution for getting to the bottom of things. The Congress of the United States has always been the Grand Inquest of the Nation. Let it be so now.

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