You watch, we'll sort them out: The FBI's disastrous handling of Waco was disturbingly predictable, says Peter Pringle

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The Independent Online
NEW YORK: Janet Reno, the US Attorney General and the highest law officer in the land, had the decency to come right out and say it within hours of the terrifying, fiery climax to the Waco stand-off. With hindsight, she admitted, the decision to attack the compound of the cult leader David Koresh with tanks and tear-gas was 'obviously wrong'. At her desk in the Justice Department only a few weeks, she sportingly offered to resign - if that's what President Bill Clinton wanted. 'I made the decision. I'm accountable. The buck stops with me,' she said.

You couldn't fault the general tone of her apology, but then she is clearly an honest woman, unlike some other attorneys general this great country has known, and everyone says she is very smart and a great lawyer. This makes it even more difficult to understand how she could possibly have reached the conclusion she did when the FBI asked if it could 'ratchet up' the pressure on the demented Koresh and his fanatical followers.

She said - and in my view she should leave office for this sentence alone - 'Obviously, if I had thought the chances were great of a mass suicide, I would never have approved the plan.'

On Monday, everything went according to 'the plan'. Under the direction of the FBI's director, William Sessions (who is not apologising, by the way; he stands by what he did), the tank flying the Stars and Stripes went up to the front of the compound, punched a hole in the wall and then blew tear-gas through it.

Not one of the scores of military, law-enforcement, religious, social, psychological and legal advisers who were consulted by the Justice Department before the plan was approved appears to have considered the likelihood that Koresh and his 90 or so followers might not be too well-versed in the sophisticated ways the FBI concocts to 'ratchet up' pressure on uncooperative cult leaders. Nor did they countenance the possibility that, instead of coming quietly, the cult members might think the tank represented an extremely hostile act with some dramatic, and terminal, end in mind.

They, and Koresh, took one look at the big tank demolishing the walls of their modestly built home and understood that Armageddon had arrived. Everything that Koresh had ever told them about the FBI being Satan had come true, they figured. And when the fire came, however it was started, they understood that Koresh had been right all along when he kept on quoting from the Book of Revelation: '. . . and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them.'

Bob Ricks, the FBI spokesman in Waco, was incredulous. He recalled the 'shock and horror' that he and other agents felt when they saw the flames. 'It was, 'Oh my God, they're killing themselves.' '

During the 51 days of the siege the FBI, in its massive operation, had interviewed former cult members all over the world. They had reportedly said they were sure that David would not do it, that he was not a Jim Jones; there would not be a mass suicide.

The miscalculation by the FBI, its advisers and Ms Reno looks, on the morning after, about as total as it could have been. It is not only the tank tactics that can be faulted. It is also the FBI's use of CS gas - especially in front of the children. Although the bureau is convinced the cult started the fire, that will be hard to prove. And the reason given by the FBI for starting the operation at all - that the impasse 'had to be brought to a logical conclusion at some point' - will be held up to ridicule for ever.

The FBI said that the hostage rescue team attending the Koresh compound was getting too tired to do its job effectively, and there was no group with the specialised training needed to take these people's places; they had to attack. As one US columnist observed: 'It now takes a neurosurgeon to guard an empty field.'

So where can one look - apart from in the box of macho Democratic leaders trying to appear tough - for reasons in US society that might begin to explain this extraordinarily ill- advised showdown with an unbalanced adversary? It is tempting, though not enough, to talk about the United States being a violent society in which the use of massive force against acts of civil disobedience, criminality and religious nuttiness is grounded deep in its history, and will not go away for the foreseeable future.

Through that looking-glass we can see the Pinkerton men shooting down labour rioters in Pennsylvania in 1892, the National Guard troopers shooting Kent State students in the 1968 protests, troopers storming the Attica prison in 1971 and the mayor of Philadelphia ordering his police to drop a bomb from a helicopter on a terraced house in which the Move cult had barricaded itself in 1985.

The doctrine of massive force, seen in Lyndon Johnson's bombing of North Vietnam, Ronald Reagan's raid on Grenada and George Bush's Gulf war, is alive today. General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will not send GIs to Bosnia unless he has a force of at least 500,000 men. It would be silly to think that this doctrine does not filter down to the smaller, but still heavily armed forces that carry out drugs raids and take part in cult stand-offs. Americans know very well how many agents are used on a drugs raid, because the agents take along the television cameras.

And here, perhaps, is the most disturbing aspect of the Waco stand-off. The bungled attack by federal agents that started the siege at the end of February was filmed, live, on television. How did this happen? The media were alerted that something 'big' was going to occur that weekend somewhere in Texas. It did not take a reporter to figure out where. As part of the increasingly ghoulish compact between television and the police, the agents wanted their raid to be filmed, and it was.

The death of four agents, the wounding of several others and the killing of at least two cult members was there, live, on screen. And there on Monday, was the inferno of the compound, live again on all the networks. One over-active anchorwoman got the mother of a cult follower on the phone as flames licked the fragile building and incinerated 17 children and 80 adults. 'Wouldn't it be a wonderful moment,' she said, 'if her son came out now?'

There was trouble on the phone line and no reply, but 'wonderful'? For the mother, yes, but how could one think of a word like that with this human bonfire before your eyes?

Could it have been a 'wonderful' moment for television that the anchor was thinking about? Yesterday's tragedy will, of course, be tomorrow's entertainment. As fire devoured the cult in Waco, the television pictures were being watched by members of another network, NBC, who are making a movie about the cult for television. They were sitting in Oklahoma on the film set, an exact replica of the compound. 'We had quite a surreal kind of day,' observed the producer. 'It's been a sobering experience for all of us.'

(Photograph omitted)