Congressional hearings on Waco focused Friday on warnings that federal authorities did not heed, including the forebodings of a Texas social worker who feared that a federal siege would surely fulfill the Branch Davidian leader’s vision of Armageddon.
Joyce Sparks of the Texas Department of Child Protective Services told a joint hearing of two House subcommittees investigating the federal raids that Davidian leader David Koresh had told her of his vision: “The enemy will surround the camp and the saints will die,” she said he told her. “There will be blood and fire and an explosion.”
Though federal agents knew of his vision, she said, once they sought to end their 51-day siege with a tear-gas assault, “the rest was inevitable.”
Sparks, who had conducted several separate interviews with both Koresh and children at the compound, was one of a number of federal and state officials who had openly feared that the siege might end in disaster. Another was Roger Altman, then the deputy Treasury secretary.
But his warnings to Lloyd Bentsen, then the Treasury secretary, were not passed on to Attorney General Janet Reno, who authorized the April 1993 raid that led to the deaths of about 80 Branch Davidians, including about 20 children.
With some success, Republicans on Friday sought to portray a broken chain of command at the highest levels of the Clinton administration as one cause of that disaster.
But once again both sides spent as much time bullyragging one another as they did questioning witnesses; once again the inquiry sought more hindsight than insight, and produced little information that enriched the public record on the Waco tragedy.
Questioning Bentsen, and Steve Higgins, the former head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which led the first raid on Feb. 28, 1993, the Republicans established that the two had never met one another at the time, five weeks into the administration.
The firearms agency is part of the Treasury Department, and Bentsen, had he known in detail of the agency’s plans, theoretically could have called off or changed plans for the first raid, in which six Branch Davidians and four firearms agents died after a furious gun battle.
The Republicans, led by Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida and Bill Zeliff of New Hampshire, also questioned Bentsen about a memorandum he received from Altman shortly before the second raid on the Waco, Texas, compound in April 1993.
The memorandum from Altman said, in part, that Attorney General Reno had to decide whether to launch the second raid, which was led by the FBI. It warned of “the risks of a tragedy” inherent in the raid. “You will be formally notified if Janet Reno OKs it,” the memorandum said. “My rough guess is that she won’t.”
The fire that followed the tear-gas assault on the compound, much evidence suggests, was set by the Davidians to fulfill their leader’s prophecy.
Under occasionally querulous questioning, Bentsen said he did not talk to Reno about the letter, despite its warning, because it was her decision.
McCollum, a Republican who is the panel’s co-chairman, said in an interview that the inquiry established a “hands-off attitude” at the Treasury Department with respect to the firearms agency and the Branch Davidian crisis that was “the height of irresponsibility.”
But Higgins, who lost his job as head of the firearms agency after the raid, said that links in the chain of command were less than perfect simply because many officials in the fledgling Clinton administration were strangers to one another.
“Those who think there’s a great conspiracy in the government don’t realize how little we knew each other,” he said plaintively.