Part 2: Waco in Iraq
Nearly everyone who was alive and aware in the 1990s knows about Waco. But hardly anyone, it seems, has a clear idea what happened there in 1993.
And that, as it happens, affects how we think about what's happening in Iraq in 2004.
Just as with the Ruby Ridge matter of August 1992, there's so much mythology that has been built around the fatal assault on the Branch Davidian compound of April 19, 1993, that it's probably not surprising that the public's understanding of the real causes of the horrifying deaths of 74 people -- including some 20 children -- that day is confused at best, and grotesquely misinformed in many cases. (For a useful textual resource on the Waco matter, see this Web site.)
No small part of the cause of this lies with the far-right Patriot movement, which transformed the Waco and Ruby Ridge incidents into significant recruiting tools. For the remainder of the decade, the movement thrived by spinning conspiracy theories about both cases, claiming that they represented the opening steps in a massive plot to enslave all of mankind under a "New World Order" that represented the overthrow of America. Central to this theory was the Patriots' claim that the FBI itself set the flames that burned the compound to the ground. This belief still holds wide currency not just among Patriot types but is bantered about even today by such "mainstream" conservatives as Ann Coulter and Kathleen Parker.
This accusation, as it happens, has in fact been thoroughly debunked. As the jury that heard all the evidence in the case ruled, it is unquestionable that the fire in fact was set by Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and his lieutenants as a mass-suicide response to the government's assault. Video analysis and a thorough review of the actual facts of the case makes clear beyond any serious doubt that this was the case.
However, even though the government was not directly to blame for the deaths, that hardly means it did not do anything wrong in Waco. Quite the contrary. In the ensuing years, many Americans continued to feel -- conspiracy theories or not -- the federal agents' actions that day were extraordinarily misguided. For that reason, the failure for anyone in government to face consequences for Waco has also seemed like a miscarriage of justice and a whitewash.
And they are right. Because the fact is that the Waco debacle did not have to happen. And in fact, the government's wrong-headed course of action directly caused the fatal response of the Davidians.
Specifically, what happened at Waco was that the FBI had two competing factions involved in the armed standoff: a negotiating team, and a tactical unit. The former worked relentlessly to persuade Koresh and his followers to surrender peacefully -- and in fact, there are indications that this team was close to success, and might have completed a peaceful resolution to the confrontation within the following 10 days or so. However, their efforts were constantly, and ultimately, overruled by the tactical unit, which impatiently determined to enter the compound by using brute force on April 19.
The wrong-headedness of this decision was later underscored by the peaceful conclusion of the 81-day standoff involving the Montana Freemen in Jordan, Montana, in 1996. As my text In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest explains in detail, the negotiating team was given the lead position in that standoff, and their patient approach ultimately prevailed; the 25 or so people inside that compound eventually emerged without bloodshed and surrendered to federal authorities.
However, it's important for the public to understand the details of how and why things went wrong at Waco with the tactical unit -- and particularly, to understand the role of the military in the mix of the disaster.
Most of the details of this matter can be found in the exhaustive report [PDF file] by the independent commission to examine the Waco matter headed up by former Sen. John Danforth. The commission itself exonerated the government fulsomely, though many of its conclusions actually ran counter to much of the factual material contained within the report.
Jean Rosenfeld, one of the religious-studies experts consulted for the Freemen standoff (and a colleague of the similar experts consulted for Waco), examined the Danforth report carefully and concluded that, when it came to the question of the military's role at Waco, the commission inappropriately exonerated the people involved. She published her conclusions in the journal Nova Religio, in a piece titled "The Use of the Military at Waco: The Danforth Report in Context."
As Rosenfeld describes it, the popular scapegoat for the debacle, Attorney General Janet Reno -- who had only been sworn in a little over a month before -- was reluctant to approve a forceful entry for precisely the reasons that manifested themselves on April 19. However, she gave FBI Director Louis Freeh and his team the real reins in the matter. And both the FBI and the BATF (which had conducted the initial assault that sparked the standoff) had been consulting for some time with military specialists who provided advice to the tactical unit in charge. Their advice, in turn, proved to be the fatal and disastrous turning point in the standoff.
- While U.S. law prohibits the "direct participation" of the military in police operations, it permits such "indirect support" as "offering expert advice" to law enforcement agents. It does not, however, allow military advisors to "grade" a tactical plan. During the first week of the standoff, FBI directors developed an emergency tactical plan that called for armored vehicles to punch holes in the building and insert gas, providing "avenues of escape" for those who wanted to leave. Variations on this "initial template" were discussed for the next five to six weeks by FBI and Justice Department directors, White House presidential aides, and, on April 14, by Delta Force officers. Because the crisis "defied traditional assault methods," the FBI developed two scenarios for a final assault, one that called for the gradual insertion of CS gas (tear gas) over a period of two to three days and one that called for the total and rapid insertion of gas into the residence. If the Davidians did not exit along prescribed routes, the FBI would tear down the walls to insert gas in the center of the building.
Waco Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey Jamar and HRT Commander Richard Rogers both favored the rapid insertion gassing plan, while FBI directors preferred the gradual insertion of gas. On April 12 President Clinton asked for a military review of the FBI?s final version of the gassing plan, which resembled one proposed by HRT Commander Richard Rogers when he was HRT commander at Ruby Ridge in 1992. The Rogers plan at Ruby Ridge had been rejected by FBI Deputy Assistant Director Danny Coulson because it was too much like a "military assault plan." However, the rapid insertion plan, which Jamar and Rogers reverted to on April 19 after the Davidians reportedly opened fire, was an even more aggressive scenario than the rejected Ruby Ridge plan.
Even before the President?s request, Commander Rogers and the FBI had arranged to bring two Army Special Forces officers to Washington. They are referred to in the Justice report as the "current and former commanders of Delta Force" who met with Janet Reno on April 14. They were selected for the meeting "because of their tactical training and experience." Danforth reveals that one of these officers was Brig. Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker of the III Army Corps at Ft. Hood. The other was an Army Special Forces colonel from Ft. Bragg who remains unnamed in the government reports.
On February 28 Gen. Schoomaker advised Texas governor, Ann Richards, about military equipment. On March 1 he drove to Waco, met with HRT commander Rogers, and "discussed the situation in general terms." At Rogers' request, Gen. Schoomaker returned to Waco on April 13 for an aerial tour of Mt. Carmel. Rogers and Schoomaker then flew to Ft. Bragg to pick up a Special Forces colonel and continued on to Washington to answer Janet Reno's questions about the FBI's plan to gradually insert gas into the Davidian residence. On the way to Washington, Commander Rogers asked Gen. Schoomaker to comment on the gassing plan, and Gen. Schoomaker declined. Gen. Schoomaker also told Janet Reno that he could not "grade" the specific tactics of the gassing plan, because that would be illegal. Gen. Schoomaker and the colonel did tell the Attorney General, however, that if the HRT were military troops under their command they would:
- -- Recommend that the HRT team "stand down" for rest and retraining
-- Focus on "taking out" the leader (Koresh)
-- Conduct a rapid, total, and violent gassing and demolition of Mt.Carmel
One of the two officers later testified before the Subcommittees that he had never been to the Branch Davidian residence before April 13, and the other testified that he had not ever been to Mt. Carmel, but the Danforth interim and final reports place General Schoomaker at Waco on March 1 and April 13. From the government's own reports, one can piece together a pattern of consultation between Delta Force and the FBI on March 1 and on April 13-14, 1993.
The FBI wanted to assault the Davidians on April 14, but the Attorney General delayed her acceptance of the gassing plan until after she met with military advisors on April 14. She signed a document on April 17 permitting the gradual gas insertion plan, but agreed to allow the on-scene commanders to make all tactical decisions once the operation commenced. It was later claimed that the document included the proviso that if the Davidians fired on the HRT drivers of the two CEVs inserting the gas, they could switch to the rapid gas insertion plan favored by onsite FBI Commander Jeff Jamar, HRT Commander Rogers, and the Delta Force officers. Commanders Jamar and Rogers felt they had to revert to the rapid-insertion-of-gas plan once a sniper-observer reported the Davidians firing at HRT forces nine minutes after the assault began.
According to FBI log-books, within seven minutes of launching the assault on Mt. Carmel at dawn on April 19, the Davidians opened fire, and the FBI abandoned the gradual gas-insertion plan in favor of a total, rapid injection of gas by CEVs and Bradley vehicles. In order to minimize danger to their agents, the HRT had to risk their objective of saving the children. Women and children sought shelter in an interior room, where many of them were "buried alive" or died of "smoke inhalation." Thibodeau reports that the Davidians' gas masks did not fit the younger children.
- -- Recommend that the HRT team "stand down" for rest and retraining
It is important, of course, to understand that the Waco disaster -- and the government's smug refusal to face up to its mistakes and the responsibilities for them in its aftermath -- proved to be a nearly direct proximate cause of the largest terrorist attack on American soil before Sept. 11 -- namely, the Oklahoma City bombing precisely two years after Waco on April 19, 1995.
The acknowledged bombing conspirators, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, both referred to Waco as the precipitating event in their decision to take up arms against their own government. McVeigh himself traveled to Waco and talked to federal agents at the scene even before April 19; he later described to the authors of American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing how the events of April 19 completely radicalized him and set him on the path of the mass murderer he became. He watched and rewatched the bogus Patriot conspiracy-theory tape Waco: The Big Lie (which purported to show FBI tanks shooting flames into the buildings) and even sold the tape -- along with BATF ballcaps into which two bullet holes were stitched -- at the gun shows he frequented around the country. The selection of the date and the target (the Murrah Building was believed, somewhat incorrectly, to have housed many of the agents who were at Waco) speak for themselves.
This is intrinsic to the nature of modern terrorism. It is inspired not just by fanaticism, but fueled in many cases by unaddressed grievances, many of which are not simply matters of fantasy but may be grounded in actual fact (mingled, inevitably, with the usual doses of irrational belief). And among the most egregious and radicalizing of these grievances are those involving violent attacks that appear to target deeply held religious and political beliefs. This is as true of Oklahoma City as of Sept. 11 -- and will remain true well into the coming century.
This is, in fact, the dynamic currently at work in Iraq -- particularly the increasingly volatile situation in an-Najaf, the city now under control of the followers of the Shiite sect headed by Muqtada al-Sadr. Indeed, al-Sadr is beginning to look a lot like David Koresh; and the response of the United States is beginning to look a lot like that of the federal government at Waco.
Which should not be a surprise, since some of the same people responsible for the Waco disaster -- the same people whose careers probably should have ended there because of their role in encouraging the catastrophic course of action that was taken -- are now running the show in Iraq.
Rosenfeld discussed this at length in an unpublished op-ed I ran recently -- pointing out that, in fact, both Peter J. Schoomaker and William G. "Jerry" Boykin, key players in the Iraq drama, were the same two men whose advice as Delta Force officers led to the FBI's use of the worst possible tactical approach at Waco. Schoomaker is Donald Rumsfeld's hand-picked Army chief of staff and one of the chief overseers of the Iraq occupation; Boykin -- whose bizarre religious comments last year sparked a brief controversy -- is the deputy undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, the man charged with tracking down terrorist leaders and cracking down on insurgents in Iraq.
As Rosenfeld put it:
- I believe that the hard tactical approach being contemplated in an-Najaf, if negotiations now under way do not result in al-Sadr's surrender -- is the same approach contemplated and executed at Waco. Capturing or killing al-Sadr will not neutralize what he is regarded as symbolizing to Shiites angry at "occupiers" in Iraq or in Israel. It will only amplify it. There are better ways to defuse the problem of al-Sadr. We should not take a tactical approach because it suits the politics or flawed strategy of the current administration. We may have to change our strategy in Iraq to accommodate new realities instead. This may be tough political medicine, but it will save us from terrible consequences down the road.
I believe [the Bush administration's] approach is similar to the tactical one taken at Waco against another "messiah." It resulted in many deaths and a legacy that led us to the "commemoration" atrocity in Oklahoma City. As one of many scholars who study these cases of religion and violence and who have not seen our findings incorporated into law enforcement (we did have some input into the FBI's millennium approach) or the military, I am very concerned that the standoff in an-Najaf has the potential to become "another Waco."
- " 'If the occupying forces disregard the internal political, social and security situation in Iraq and launch military operations in the holy cities, including Najaf, then this will only lead to increasing clashes and the present crisis will only escalate. In fact, this will also lead to the emergence of serious popular resistance and will confront the occupying forces with serious problems. In that case, one can only predict the increasing lack of security in Iraq and the crisis will escalate to all the other parts of Iraq.' "
Cole's most recent post suggests the direction the situation is taking, ever since Schoomaker and Co. decided to attempt to shut al-Sadr down:
- My guess is that the US will gradually encroach on Najaf and will eventually try to capture Muqtada. He gave an interview to the Italian La Repubblica on Monday, in which he predicted that if the US arrests or kills him, the Iraqi people will unleash on them the fires of hell. It seems to me likely that his cadres will in fact launch a long-term, low-grade guerrilla war in the South if the US captures or kills Muqtada. The question is whether, in putting down this insurgency to come, the US will alienate other Shiites, setting the stage for further failures. The US shouldn't have gone after Muqtada to begin with.
The al-Najaf problem is a microcosm of the larger problem of the Bush administration's misbegotten approach to dealing with terrorism. Rather than recognize the assymetrical, often corpuscular nature of terrorism and come to terms with its origins in unaddressed grievances with an intelligent strategy that undermines those sources and does not inflame and worsen them, Bush has taken a course precisely 180 degrees removed: Use the brute force and bludgeoning power of the military, largely in the vain hope of asserting American dominance as a way of discouraging anyone from challenging it.
In that sense, the entire misadventure in Iraq resembles the fiasco at Waco: Too impatient to let inspections and diplomacy work their course, Bush ordered a military invasion of another nation without reckoning all of the consequences of doing so. Most significant among those consequences is the high likelihood of actually undermining any serious effort at actually attacking terrorism at the source.
Similarly, of course, it is not Bush or his minions who will pay the price for this foolishness, but the American people, as well as the soldiers we keep shipping to Iraq and whose bodies keep being shipped back here in coffins.
After all, Oklahoma City followed Waco. It is difficult to calculate just what horrors will follow any brute-force attack on al-Najaf, but it seems certain that they will be horrors just the same.
Moreover, if Bush continues to wage a "war on terrorism" that repeats this pattern not just in the Middle East but everywhere else, then it is nearly certain that we are doomed not just to failure but to unmitigated disaster.
If we are to avoid this catastrophic course, it's going to be essential to come to terms with the nature of terrorism. Because Sept. 11 was the work of Muslims from overseas, the event itself has been used to muddy the public's understanding of the challenge the nation faces for the foreseeable future. As Dana Milbank's recent Washington Post piece explained:
- Political strategists and public-opinion experts say a good part of this resilience of public support for Bush and the Iraq war stems from the president's oratory. They say Bush has convinced Americans of three key points that strongly influence overall support for the war: that the United States will prevail in Iraq; that the fighting in Iraq is related to the war against al Qaeda; and that most Iraqis and many foreign countries support U.S. actions in Iraq.
The latter two of these assertions, of course, are dubious at best if not downright duplicitous (and the first is looking less likely the longer Bush's incompetence remains in play). But because the administration and the media have consistently come to portray terrorism as something originating from abroad and deriving from other nations -- rather than the amorphous and assymetrical threat it actually is -- the public has been misled almost too easily.
One of the reasons that most Americans misconceive the nature of the terrorist threat, though, may lie in Oklahoma City. Because just as they have only a dim understanding of what happened at Waco in 1993, they have even a less clear picture of what happened two years later.
The reality is that the nation has never fully come to terms with what happened at Oklahoma City. That reckoning is not merely overdue -- it may prove essential to our long-term survival.
Next: The Murrah Mystery
[Cross-posted at The American Street.]