The FBI yesterday released a second infrared videotape confirming the use of potentially incendiary military tear gas cartridges during the early stages of the 1993 assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex., as Attorney General Janet Reno said she remained convinced that the fire that later engulfed the compound where about 75 people died was started by the Branch Davidians.
At her weekly news conference yesterday, Reno was asked whether the disclosure last week that the FBI used military tear gas at Waco cast doubt on her long-held conviction that the fatal fire was started at the direction of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh.
"I think that's what every piece of information I have seen clearly shows," Reno replied. "And it is important, again, to put it in perspective. But it is also important that we pursue any confusion, any question, in order to provide the American people with the truth."
The grainy, black-and-white videotape, shot from a surveillance aircraft through wispy clouds that sometimes obscured the ground, also recorded ground radio traffic among FBI agents. In an earlier portion of the tape that was released Thursday, Richard M. Rogers, the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team, can be heard authorizing the use of a military tear gas cartridge in an attempt to penetrate the entrance to an underground storm shelter that was about 50 yards from the main compound structure.
Rogers gave his authorization at 7:48 a.m. In the later portion of the tape that was released yesterday, the operator of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle designated "Charlie 1" reported to Rogers at 8:08 a.m. that the attempt had failed.
"Yeah, the military gas did not penetrate that bunker where the bus was," the operator told Rogers. "It bounced off."
Later in the recorded conversation, the operator of another Bradley vehicle designated "Echo 1" made suggestions on how "Charlie 1" could reposition itself to get a better shot at the target. But the outcome of later attempts to penetrate the shelter using military tear gas cartridges was not recorded on videotape. According to the FBI, at 8:24 a.m. the audio portion of the videotape was disconnected at the request of the aircraft's pilot.
It appears, however, that later attempts also failed. According to an FBI official, a 1996 memo from the Hostage Rescue Team to the FBI general counsel's office that came to light last week reported that "two, possibly three" military tear gas cartridges were used during this stage of the assault and that they "bounced off and landed in the open field well behind the main structure."
FBI officials argue that the videotape supports their assertion that the military tear gas cartridges did not start the fatal fire. They note that Rogers gave his authorization and the first round was fired and failed a little more than four hours before the fire began at 12:07 p.m.
But the episode has become a painful embarrassment to the FBI, largely because of the bureau's insistence until last week that no military tear gas cartridges or other potentially incendiary weapons were used during the assault. Reno has said the FBI assured her of that both before and after the operation and, based on those assurances, she testified before Congress to that effect.
Civilian law enforcement agencies generally use tear gas cartridges that do not generate heat. These are plastic cartridges that contain CS gas in liquid or powder form that is spread when the cartridge shatters on impact on the target.
The M651 military tear gas cartridges that the FBI now acknowledges using at Waco usually are made of aluminum or some other hard metal and contain CS in a solid form. After they are fired from a grenade launcher, a fuse inside the cartridge ignites and begins turning the solid material into a gas that escapes through a vent in the bottom of the cartridge.
According to Charles Cutshaw, an editor of Jane's Defence Information and an expert on this kind of weapon, these military tear gas cartridges are not intended to start fires. He said he was not aware of any studies or reports on how often such cartridges may have caused fires.
Cutshaw said a photograph of one of the spent military cartridges at Waco showed that the surface was not scorched or blistered, suggesting that the cartridge did not become hot enough to ignite a fire. "But let's presume that instead of landing on a hard surface, it landed in a pile of hay. Then I can assure you it would start a fire. If it was fired into a closed space with fuel fumes, say, from gasoline, it could start a fire. In fact, it could cause an explosion. Without knowing further details, I can't tell you whether that round started a fire at Waco."
Rogers, the agent who gave the authorization to use the military rounds, also was the Hostage Rescue Team commander during an earlier siege against white separatist Randy Weaver in August 1992 in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in which Weaver's wife, Vicki, was shot and killed by an FBI sniper. "Rules of engagement" drafted by Rogers, which allowed agents to shoot armed suspects on sight, were later deemed illegal by a Justice Department task force. As a result of his role at Ruby Ridge, Rogers was issued a 10-day suspension in 1995 and voluntarily accepted reassignment to a non-tactical management job. He has since retired from the bureau.
Yesterday, federal agents tried to prevent Texas Rangers from entering a Waco facility where evidence from the siege is being stored, but a federal judge intervened to allow them access, according to the Dallas Morning News.
The rangers were trying to locate one of the spent military tear gas cartridges, which had been photographed in 1993, but they were denied entry by agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms until U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr.'s intervention. Texas officials said they did not find the missing cartridge at the storage facility.
On Thursday, the same judge had ordered the Justice Department to turn over all evidence the government has on the assault on the compound for possible use in a wrongful-death suit, scheduled for trial next month, filed against the government by heirs and estates of the dead Branch Davidians.
"The court's purpose is to secure the evidence so that neither the parties to the pending civil litigation, the media or the public will perceive that the government may have the opportunity to conceal, alter or fail to reveal evidence," Smith wrote in the order.
Revisiting the Assault
David Koresh and about 75 followers, including
25 children, died in a fire that started four hours after the FBI
fired tear gas at the Branch Davidian compound on April 19, 1993.
6 a.m. Two Combat Engineer Vehicles, modified M-60 tanks, punch holes in the compound and pump tear gas inside while Ferret non-incendiary tear gas rounds are fired through windows.
7:48 a.m. FBI authorizes the firing of two military M651 tear gas cartridges into the storm shelter.
8:08 a.m. Agents report that the first M651 cartridge failed to penetrate.
9 a.m. CEVs breach walls near the main entrance and near a trap door to an underground tunnel.
12:07 p.m. Fire begins in the compound.
The FBI now acknowledges it used military tear gas cartridges. The cartridges produce extreme heat as they release gas.
M651 40mm cartridge
Fired from grenade launcher.
Can penetrate 3/4-inch pine wood.
Releases tear gas after penetration.
SOURCE: U.S. Army, news reports