Crisis Negotiation Stories #4 – The WACO Texas Siege
Updated: Jul 7
The Waco siege occurred over 51 days between February and April 1993 when Mount Carmel Centre, a compound belonging to the religious sect Branch Davidians, was surrounded by U.S. law enforcement, and the military. The authorities suspected the group of stockpiling illegal weapons and had obtained a search warrant for the compound and arrest warrants for the group’s leader David Koresh and other group members.
The standoff began when the authorities attempted to raid the ranch. An intense gun-battle erupted, resulting in the deaths of four government agents and six Branch Davidians. After a siege lasting 51 days an assault was launched to force the Branch Davidians out. During the attack a fire engulfed Mount Carmel Centre. In total, 76 people died, including 23 children and the group’s leader David Koresh.
The events of the siege and attack are disputed by various sources, in particular over the origin of the fire.
In February 1993 a local Waco newspaper began publishing articles alleging that Koresh had physically abused children in the compound and had committed statutory rape, by taking multiple underage brides. The paper claimed that Koresh had fathered at least a dozen children, and that some of these mothers became brides as young as 12 or 13 years old. In addition to allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct, Koresh and his followers were suspected of stockpiling illegal weapons. Interestingly, the Branch Davidians partly supported themselves by legally trading at gun shows and took care to have the relevant paperwork. One of the group was even a federally-licensed firearms dealer, and the group operated a retail gun business called the ‘Mag Bag’.
The authorities began investigating, in particular, the illegal guns. It is alleged that Koresh offered the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms) agency to examine their guns and the paperwork, but this offer was rejected by ATF, who then began a very thinly-veiled surveillance operation from across the street. ATF also believed that Koresh was operating a methamphetamine laboratory – which turned out to not be true. Subsequently ATF obtained a search warrant for the Mount Carmel Centre – which had to be executed "on or before February 28, 1993".
ATF had planned their raid for Monday, March 1, 1993, with the unfortunate code-name "Showtime", and there is evidence that they the date scheduled for the raid was pushed forward because of the allegations being made in the local press, with calls for action.
Initial ATF Raid - February 28
The ATF attempted to execute their search warrant on 28 February 1993. Any semblance of surprise was lost when a local TV-new reporter who had been tipped off about the raid asked for directions from a U.S. Postal Service worker who was coincidentally Koresh's brother-in-law. Despite being informed by a covert agent that the Branch Davidians knew a raid was coming, the ATF commander pushed ahead. ATF clearly expected a fight - ATF agents had their blood type written on their arms or neck before the raid, because it was recommended by the military to facilitate speedy blood transfusions in the case of injury.
The ATF arrived in a convoy dressed in SWAT-style tactical gear. ATF agents stated that they heard shots coming from within the compound, while Branch Davidian survivors claimed that the first shots came from the ATF agents outside. At least one ATF agent later alleged that the AFT had fired first. During the attack three army helicopters were used as “aerial distraction”, and all took incoming fire. The shooting continued for two hours.
The local Sheriff contacted the ATF and negotiated a ceasefire, but there is evidence that the ATF agents withdrew only after they ran out of ammunition. In all, four ATF agents were killed during the firefight, and 16 were injured. 5 Branch Davidians were also dead.
The Siege Begins
Once the AFT withdrew the FBI Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) took over negotiations with the Branch Davidians. At first the Davidians had telephone contact with local news media, and Koresh gave phone interviews, but soon the FBI cut Davidian communication to the outside world. For the next 51 days, communication with those inside was by telephone by a group of 25 FBI negotiators. The final Department of Justice report found that negotiators criticised the tactical commanders for undercutting negotiations.
In the first few days, the FBI believed they had made a breakthrough when they negotiated with Koresh an agreement that the Branch Davidians would peacefully leave the compound in return for a message, recorded by Koresh, being broadcast on national radio. The broadcast was made, but Koresh then told negotiators that God had told him to remain in the building and "wait". Despite this, soon afterwards negotiators managed to facilitate the release of 19 children. However, 98 people remained in the building.
During the siege, the FBI sent a video camera into the Centre. On day nine, Monday March 8, the Branch Davidians sent out the video tape to show the FBI that there were no hostages, and that everyone was staying inside of their own free will. This video also included a message from Koresh.
The negotiators' log showed—when the tape was reviewed—that there was concern that the tape's release to the media "might gain sympathy for Koresh and the Branch Davidians". Videos also showed the 23 children still inside the compound, safe and well.
As the siege continued, Koresh negotiated more time, allegedly so that he could write religious documents which he said he needed to complete before he surrendered. His conversations—dense with Biblical imagery—alienated the federal negotiators, who treated the situation as a hostage crisis; just amongst themselves, the negotiation teams took to calling these diatribes "Bible babble".
As the siege wore on, two factions developed within the FBI, one believing negotiation to be the answer, the other believed that force was the only option. Increasingly aggressive techniques were used to try to force the Branch Davidians out. For instance, sleep deprivation by means of all-night broadcasts of recordings of jet planes, pop music, chanting, and the screams of rabbits being slaughtered. Outside the compound, nine army tanks began churning up the surrounding land – destroying perimeter fencing and outbuildings and crushing cars belonging to the Branch Davidians. Armoured vehicles repeatedly drove over the grave of a Branch Davidian despite protests by the Davidians inside, and the negotiators.
Eventually the FBI cut all power and water to the compound, forcing those inside to survive on rain water and stockpiled military rations. Criticism was later levelled at the tactic of using sleep-and-peace-disrupting sound: "The point was this – they were trying to have sleep disturbance and they were trying to take someone that they viewed as unstable to start with, and they were trying to drive him crazy. And then they got mad 'cos he does something that they think is irrational!"
Despite the increasingly aggressive tactics, Koresh ordered a group of followers to leave. Eleven people left and were arrested as material witnesses, with one person charged with conspiracy to murder. The children's willingness to stay with Koresh disturbed the negotiators, who were unprepared to work around the Branch Davidians' religious zeal. However, as the siege went on, the children were aware that an earlier group of children who had left with some women were immediately separated, and the women arrested.
During the siege, a number of scholars who study apocalypticism in religious groups pointed out that the siege tactics being used by government agents would only reinforce the impression within the Branch Davidians that they were part of a Biblical confrontation with cosmic significance. This would likely increase the chances of a violent and deadly outcome. The religious scholars pointed out that the beliefs of the group may have appeared to be extreme, but to the Branch Davidians, their religious beliefs were deeply meaningful, and they were willing to die for them.
Koresh's discussions with the negotiating team became increasingly difficult. He proclaimed that he was the Second Coming of Christ and had been commanded by his father in heaven to remain in the compound. One week prior to the April 19 assault, FBI planners considered using snipers to kill David Koresh and possibly other key members of the group. The FBI voiced concern that the Branch Davidians might commit mass suicide, as had happened in 1978 at Jim Jones’ Jonestown complex. Koresh had repeatedly denied any plans for mass suicide when confronted by negotiators during the standoff, and people leaving the compound had not seen any such preparation.
Newly appointed U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno approved recommendations by the FBI Hostage Rescue Team to mount an assault, after being told that conditions were deteriorating and that "children were being abused inside the compound" – an allegation was not proven at the time and was vehemently refuted by survivors.
Because the Branch Davidians were heavily armed, the FBI's arms included high-calibre rifles, CS gas, explosive devices, and armoured vehicles. After an initial assault holes were punched into the building and increasing amounts of CS gas were fired in, to flush-out the Davidians – over 400 rounds in total.
At around noon, three fires broke out almost simultaneously in different parts of the building and spread quickly; footage of the blaze was broadcast live by television crews. The government maintains the fires were deliberately started by the Branch Davidians. Some Branch Davidian survivors maintain that the fires were accidentally or deliberately started by the assault.
Only nine people left the building during the fire. The remaining Branch Davidians, including the children, were either buried alive by rubble, suffocated, or shot. Many were killed by smoke or carbon monoxide inhalation and other causes as fire engulfed the building.
All the official investigations concluded that there was no wrongdoing on the Government side, but in 1994 eleven surviving members of the Mount Carmel community were tried on charged of conspiracy to murder, murder. The jury acquitted all defendants of conspiracy and murder charges. 5 were convicted of aiding and abetting manslaughter, and 7 were convicted on various firearms charges. The judge imposed the maximum sentences possible for those crimes.
* The government overreacted to bad information and fatally misdiagnosed the siege on the Branch Davidian compound as a hostage situation. [#Mediators: get the parties to agree as soon as possible what the dispute is actually about.]
· Raid planners didn't adequately address Koresh's apocalyptic beliefs and willingness to defend the compound to the death. [#Mediators should try to understand the motivation of the parties, even if it appears to be illogical.]
· Lack of quality intelligence before the raid. ATF commanders decided to proceed with the raid, even though the Branch Davidians were expecting them. The agency had lost the element of surprise, after a postal carrier tipped off sect leaders. The ATF had hired an ambulance company to provide medical support, and an employee leaked it to a television reporter who asked the carrier, who was Koresh's brother-in-law, for directions to the compound. Rodriguez learned his cover was blown and relayed this information to commanders. When agents emerged from horse trailers at the compound, Branch Davidians opened fire from more than 40 firing positions, including from atop a water tower. [#Mediators: ensure the parties are aware of the facts- and consequences - before they take any actions that could make the situation worse.]
· No contingency plan. Buford said he didn't develop a plan for a strategic withdrawal if the raid went sideways, and ATF agents only began to pull back when they began running out of ammo. [#Mediators should encourage the parties to consider all possible “what if’s” to keep negotiations going.]
· Truth is almost always more nuanced than myths. In particular the reason that so many died was inextricably linked to the Davidian’s deeply-held religious beliefs. To the FBI, the religious ramblings of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh were gibberish and inconsequential. They had Koresh and about 100 of his followers, whom they suspected of child abuse and possessing illegal weapons, surrounded and were convinced government firepower and intimidation would force a surrender. The authorities kept calling this a hostage situation. But these people strongly believed they were protecting their home. They didn't want to leave. There was a worldview mismatch between the FBI’s secular, scientific worldview on one hand, and the sacred revelatory worldview of the Branch Davidians on the other. [#Mediators need to try to put each of the parties in the other party’s shoes…to really understand the conflict from the other side’s perspective.]
· Although one of the major justifications for ordering the final attack was to protect the children from abuse – all 22 children in the compound died in the attack. There is evidence that some died from cyanide poisoning (probably from CS gas being used in a confined space). [#Mediators: Parties should be reality-checked before embarking on a one-way trip.]
· When red flags prompt authorities to suspect wrongdoing within a religious sect, they should seek expertise from the academic community that studies the beliefs and behaviours of unconventional religions. [#Mediators: one of your missions is to get as much clarity on the facts as is possible. Call in other experts if you think that could help.]