Congressional Hearings on Waco

In 1994, Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress, due partly to a wave of antigovernment sentiment stirred up by the 1993 U.S. government attack on the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas. In 1995, both houses of Congress held hearings into the incident. In true Congressional style, the hearings were primarily a grand display of partisan political advantage, petty showmanship and all-around incompetence.

The U.S. House held its hearings in July 1995, announcing its report a year later. The Senate held its hearings on the last day of October and the first day of November 1995.

House Hearings

On the first day of the hearings, Democrats played up the emotional testimony of Kiri Jewell, who recounted a horrifying story of being raped by David Koresh at age ten, and of being instructed as to the best means of suicide. Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Florida, ordered the then fourteen-year-old to read her graphic testimony on nationwide television.

In another camera-ready display, Rep. Charles Schumer, D-New York, brandished an AK-47 rifle.

The hearings were sidetracked by Democrat claims that the National Rifle Association's involvement in a Waco investigation "tainted" the hearings. Of course, the Democrats had no problem with "cult busters" rambling on at the hearings.

July 25, 1995

Capt. David Byrnes, the Texas Rangers' top investigator for the Waco incident, accused the FBI of destroying crucial evidence and failing to communicate with other agencies.

Byrnes testified that bullet holes in cars parked outside the Davidians' complex could have provided evidence about bullet trajectories, and thus about who shot whom when. But the FBI destroyed the cars.

July 26, 1995

ATF negotiator Jim Cavanaugh testified, painting the ATF as outgunned underdogs ambushed by cannon-wielding Branch Davidians.

"I had a radio mike in one ear with an agent pleading for his life and I had a guy on the phone who thought he was God," Cavanaugh said. Cavanaugh claimed Davidians fired first. "Their guns sounded like cannons and our guns sounded like pop guns ... We couldn't call 911. We had to get out of this ourselves."

Poor ATF. Now let's see: the ATF trains with Green Berets on a dozen attacks on a mock Mount Carmel, brings along the press, and storms out of cattle cars blasting away, but the Davidians were the ones doing the ambushing. I see.

As to who fired first, the front door of the Davidian complex and the cars parked outside the complex would have provided evidence (bullet holes and trajectories). But for some reason the door disappeared and the cars were destroyed. Hmmm.

As to calling 911, that's exactly what Davidians did.

ATF and FBI agents all testified at the hearings that they did not believe David Koresh would ever leave Mt. Carmel willingly and would have to be forced out.

When Koresh "lined up with all the children and the women in the hallway, and they all came by to kiss his ring, he couldn't leave this place, where he was God, with unlimited sexual favors ... and walk out to a cold jail cell," said Cavanaugh.

FBI analyst Peter Smerik, however, did admit that he was pressured to change his recommendations from continued negotiation to another attack. Although Smerik earlier said that pressure came from his superiors, at the hearings he changed his tune.

"It was not any pressure from the FBI; it was pressure from myself to become more of a team player," Smerik testified. "I had received information from FBI headquarters that FBI officials were not happy with the tone of my memos from the standpoint that they felt it was tying their hands."

Experts gave testimony about the CS gas used against the Davidians in the final raid. CS gas is a highly painful (and inflammable) substance banned for use in war by international treaty.

Chemistry professor George Uhlig testified that two to four times as much CS gas as was needed to incapacitate Mt. Carmel's inhabitants was pumped into the complex. EPA toxicologist William Marcus testified that the children inside would have been most affected by the gas. Other experts testified that the CS gas probably would not have been lethal.

No experts testified as to the inflammability of CS gas.

July 27, 1995

Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI officials defended their decision to attack the Branch Davidian compound with CS gas and tanks.

Former FBI deputy directory Larry Potts said "there were extensive internal discussions that went on for a period of several weeks" before the decision was made.

Reno and the FBI said they decided to use CS gas because negotiations were failing and they feared a mass suicide. Transcripts of negotiations, however, give evidence against the suicide theory, and while success wasn't clear, negotiations were not clearly failing either.

July 28, 1995

Branch Davidian survivor Clive Doyle testified as to his escape from the April 19, 1993, fire that killed 81 Davidians, including Doyle's 18-year-old daughter Shari.

"I saw a huge fireball ... and I pretty well wrote everybody off at that point," Doyle said. "I figured that no one was going to get out of there after that. ... I personally did not see where or how the fires started. ... We were sincerely expecting to come out. We had our bags packed."

Doyle claimed that ATF agents shot first, and fired from helicopters. The FBI and ATF maintain otherwise.

Other testimony contradicted Doyle. Texas Rangers' summary of Doyle's statements after the fire quote him as saying that it started with Coleman lantern fuel inside the compound. Paul Gray, the "independent investigator" (ATF agent) put in charge of investigating the fire testified that Doyle had lighter fluid on his jacket sleeves.

Former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell and former FBI Director William Sessions testified that President Clinton was kept informed about the siege but that he did not interfere and that decisions were left to Attorney General Janet Reno and the FBI.

Hubbell, who resigned from the number-three Justice Department post in March 1994, was sentenced in June 1995 to 21 months in prison for defrauding law clients. Sessions was fired in July 1993 after being mired in a controversy over ethical misconduct.

In an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Tarrant County Medical Examiner Dr. Nizam Peerwani said he was disappointed he was not called to testify. Peerwani said that forty of the Davidians died from smoke inhalation, twenty from gunshot wounds (including some shot in the back), a child was stabbed to death, and the remaining Davidians died when the buildings on fire collapsed.

"A lot of these deaths were not consistent with a mass suicide," Peerwani said.

Senate Hearings: October 31, 1995, and November 1, 1995

The U.S. Senate hearings were much more low-key than the House's, with only three or four of the Judiciary Committee's 18 members in attendance most of the time.

One of the main points re-iterated at the Senate hearings was that the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team continually acted in opposition to the FBI negotiators. Every time the negotiators would extract a concession from the Davidians, the Hostage Rescue Team would do something to anger the Davidians into retracting. At one point, negotiators had twenty Davidians prepared to exit the next day; the Hostage Rescue Team began blaring loud music throughout the night, causing the Davidians to decide not to come out.

House Report: July 11, 1996

In July 1996, the committee announced that it would soon be releasing its report on the matter.

Rep. Bill Zeliff said, "There was a lot of rationalization of the deed that had taken place ... much of that rationalization just didn't add up; it didn't stack up." Zeliff accused ATF agents of lying to get the original search warrant: "ATF agents responsible for preparing the affidavits knew or should have know that many of the statements they were making were false."

Rep. McCollum suggested the FBI might be responsible for at least some of the deaths, saying, "CS insertion into the enclosed bunker, at a time when women and children were assembled inside an enclosed space, could have been a proximate cause of or directly resulted in some or all of the deaths attributed to asphyxiation in the autopsy reports."

The report said the President should have accepted the Attorney General's resignation at the time of the incident, and further recommended:

The "short," 110-page version of the House Report on the Waco Investigation (House report 749) is available free from House Documents, 3rd & D Street SW, Ford Building, Room B-18, Washington, D.C. 20515, phone (202) 225-3456. As of August 1996, the full report is not yet available.

Sources: July 23, 1995, Scripps Howard news report; July 26, 1995, Associated Press report; July 27, 1995, Cox News Service report; July 28, 1995, Reuters report; July 29, 1995, Associated Press report; July 29, 1995, Fort Worth Star-Telegram report.