The Academy Awards may give Texas’ most famous cult something its members never achieved: mainstream credibility.
Among the nominees Monday night for best documentary is “Waco: The Rules of Engagement,” a 165-minute film that re-examines the events during the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound just outside Waco.
Many say the film gives an inaccurate, simplistic picture of a highly complex tragedy that took the lives of more than 80 Branch Davidians and four federal agents.
Whatever the outcome at the awards ceremony, it likely will refocus attention, at least briefly, on April 19, 1993, and one of the most debated domestic police operations in the nation’s history.
Conspiracy theories about the government’s role in the Davidian debacle are not new. They began wafting across the Central Plains shortly after the Feb. 28, 1993, raid by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that led to the siege and eventual fire.
Critics alleged that the FBI had fired on the group, started the fire and intentionally blocked avenues of escape.
At the time, however, most of those conspiracy theorists were perceived as fringe elements - individuals who had long aligned themselves with anti-government groups.
But Dan Gifford, co-executive producer of “Waco: The Rules of Engagement,” is a former journalist with ABC News, the McNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and CNN. He recently told the Albuquerque Journal that the film “really does prove that mass murder by one’s own government in this country is very possible, as long as the victims are properly vilified and dehumanized ahead of time.”
Many see it differently.
A congressman who was a chairman of the 1995 Waco hearings said he and colleagues reviewed the film and found no merit to its most explosive charge: that the FBI orchestrated the compound fire and shot Branch Davidians to keep them in the inferno.
“Am I concerned that this encourages people to believe something that I think is patently untrue? Yes, I am concerned,” said U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla.
Even one of the sect members’ defense lawyers said he was disturbed by the film’s conclusions, because they were unsupported.
“I think that everybody really wants to put this horrible story on the government because they’re dissatisfied with the government’s performance in this. But the truth was bad enough. Why not tell the truth?” said Joe Turner of Austin, Texas.
Truth or not, the work’s nomination for the film industry’s top documentary award may signal that distrust of the federal government is now firmly rooted in middle America.
To at least one former FBI agent who played a public if not key role during the siege, the critical praise carries no weight.
“I see nothing there that stands out as a quality production other than an anti-government bias that perhaps could lead to another Oklahoma City (bombing),” said former FBI agent Bob Ricks, who helped conduct daily press briefings on what the government and Davidians allegedly were saying and doing during the raid.
“If that’s their goal, then perhaps they were successful there by putting out a total piece of propaganda.”
Now commissioner of public safety in Oklahoma, Ricks said the anti-government bias may be just the edge the film needs to win an Oscar.
“That’s just unfortunately the nature of the arts crowd,” Ricks said.
“They tend not to be very supportive of FBI, and if they come up with something negative regarding the government, then they certainly would be more leaning toward that.”
He has seen the film and doesn’t think very highly of it.
“Totally biased, one-sided and without factual basis,” he said in a telephone interview.
“Obviously they went in with preconceived ideas and found people who are willing to do anything for sums of money to try to reinforce those preconceived ideas.”
He cited in particular the comments of Edward Allard, a specialist in infrared surveillance photography. Allard reviewed the FBI-produced videos - taken by helicopters from overhead during the FBI’s tank-and-tear-gas attack on the cult’s headquarters - and interpreted the repeated flashes of white light as machine-gun fire directed at the building by government agents.
Allard’s analysis, Ricks said, “is absolutely laughable, because it wasn’t occurring.”
“That’s absolutely bogus and a hoax and they know it.” he added.
Ricks, though, still toes the official FBI line: The situation inside the cult compound was very volatile and deteriorating and the government had to do something to disrupt Koresh’s hold over his followers. Without government intervention, he maintained then and now, Koresh either would have massacred his followers or led them to mass suicide.
“After 51 days, everyone understood … that things were getting worse,” he said. “All the psychologists that were working for us said (Koresh) was ready to explode and it was going to be on his terms and conditions unless we did something to disrupt that. And what we did was about the most minimal use of force we could, which is used every day somewhere in the United States, and that’s using tear gas.
“In the final analysis, instead of letting people escape his control, he assassinated most of them in there.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Film’s failings Addressing the fire that destroyed the Branch Davidian compound, the film, “Waco: The Rules of Engagement,” dismisses the government’s finding, endorsed by a House inquiry, that Branch Davidians started the blaze. The fire erupted about noon on April 19, six hours after the FBI tanks began bashing holes in the compound and inserting “CS” tear gas. An FBI airplane using a heat-sensitive or infrared video camera captured the fire starting in three places in three minutes. Investigators later determined the blaze was fueled by five kinds of flammable liquids found along with opened fuel containers throughout the compound wreckage. FBI transmitters picked up voices of compound occupants discussing pouring fuel and setting fires throughout that morning. The last transmission, recorded at 11:48 a.m. said, “Let’s keep that fire going.” The film doesn’t include that or two surviving Branch Davidians’ statements about hearing voices yelling about lighting fires just before they escaped the blaze. The film states that the intercepted fuel talk occurred “in the early morning” hours before the fire. It suggests that FBI tanks spread fuel by crushing fuel cans in the building and added more flammable vapors with a component of its tear gas. Not mentioned are testimony and letters to Congress from chemical experts stating that the cited tear gas component is a fire retardant that couldn’t have been flammable in the concentrations sprayed in the compound. The film says the FBI started the fire, probably with an incendiary device. It states that the blaze jumped through the building in the form of two fireballs seen by two surviving Davidians. FBI officials said repeatedly that no incendiary devices were used on the day of the fire. James Quintiere, a University of Maryland professor who led the arson investigation, said the fireball stories are scientifically impossible. The fireballs would have been detected by the FBI infrared camera if they had happened, he said. - Dallas Morning News