The chairman of a Senate panel investigating the Branch Davidian siege near Waco, Texas, said Wednesday that federal law enforcement agencies have lost the public’s confidence by “reckless and overly aggressive tactics.”
Closing two days of hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said many Americans have lost respect for federal law enforcement agencies as they have become more and more “militarized.”
“During the past three years, I’ve become particularly aware of a number of growing problems in law enforcement,” Hatch said to a group of top FBI officials called to testify.
“These problems include the increased militarization of law enforcement agencies, the inability of agencies to gather and assimilate gathered intelligence and act on it, the public loss of confidence in law enforcement, the lack of organization between negotiating and tactical wings of law enforcement and the reckless and overly aggressive tactics of field commanders.”
Hatch said law enforcement efforts during the standoff at Waco “failed as a direct result of these problems.”
Cult leader David Koresh and about 80 of his followers died in a fire after law enforcement officials had inserted tear gas into their compound on April 19, 1993.
But a former FBI negotiator told Hatch that the situation at Waco was “almost beyond repair” by the time his agency became involved after the start of the 51-day siege.
“The government did not trust David Koresh, and the Davidians learned not to trust us,” said Clint Van Zandt, an FBI negotiator at Waco.
But Van Zandt acknowledged that arguments between FBI commanders and the agency’s negotiating team in Waco led to problems.
“Instead of cooperation, we got discord,” Van Zandt said. “The lack of cooperation between the tactical team and the negotiators further exacerbated an already bad situation and added emotional fuel to the final physical fire that consumed the Davidians.”
The standoff began Feb. 28, 1993, when agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to serve Koresh with a search warrant. The agents claim they were met by gunfire, although Davidians say the agents fired first. Four agents and six cult members were killed in the gunbattle. The FBI then was put in charge to negotiate an end to the siege.
Van Zandt was an FBI negotiator for 20 years before retiring recently.
He complained that the FBI’s special hostage rescue team, a tactical unit, often frustrated negotiators with forceful tactics aimed at rousting and disorienting subjects involved in standoffs such as that near Waco.
Van Zandt said the Waco hostage rescue team used loud rock music and severed electricity to the compound, making negotiations more difficult.
Another witness, William Esposito, assistant director of the FBI’s criminal investigation division, acknowledged that FBI negotiators and its hostage rescue team have not worked smoothly in the past.FBI Director Louis Freeh told Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., who chaired a House panel that conducted its own inquiry into Waco in July, that the FBI would refrain from using tactics that have no “legitimate basis.”
He said the FBI’s crisis management operations all have been reorganized and expanded.