I was recently interviewed for one of my favorite podcasts, The Conspiracy Skeptic podcast, about the 1993 federal siege and subsequent deaths of the Branch Davidians at Mount Carmel Center near Waco, TX. These tragic events were surrounded by conspiracy claims from the very beginning and ultimately formed the basis of a lot of far right-wing paranoia and militancy in the ’90’s.
On February 28th 1993 federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms attempted to serve a search warrant for illegal weapons, including automatic firearms and grenades, on a religious group called the Branch Davidians led by a man named David Koresh (born Vernon Howell) at their Texas ranch/compound. The tragic events that followed launched the relatively small city of Waco, TX into the national spotlight and eventually birthed a plethora of conspiracy theories that live on to this day. The Davdians evolved as a break off of the Seventh Day Adventist church whose main theological focus was the end times and in particular a section in Revelations know as the seven seals that contain prophecies of the end of the world. The Davidians believed that in the end times a messiah, or Lamb, would be sent to reveal and explain the true meaning of the seals. This Lamb, they believed, was David Koresh. Koresh had wrestled control of the group and their property, known as Mount Carmel Center, from the son of of the former prophetess in 1987. But soon Koresh’s apocalyptic rhetoric, questionable firearms purchases, sounds of automatic gunfire coming from the compound, and rumors of polygamy and child abuse involving under age girls began to worry law enforcement and the local community. It was these concerns, especially those about illegal weapons, that resulted in a several month investigation and eventual raid on the group.
Unfortunately for federal agents on the morning of February 28th Koresh had been tipped off about the coming raid and the element of surprise lost, but too much work had gone into this and the ATF believed that Koresh was valid threat so the agency decided to go ahead with the plan anyways. Arriving to the compound in cattle trailers, agents unloaded and headed to the building. What happened next is a matter of dispute and little evidence appears to exist that could settle the question. The ATF claim that Koresh and several followers answered the door armed and shot first. Koresh claimed that it was the agents who shot first, either intentionally or accidentally. Either way the result was what may still be the longest shoot out in US history. For 2 hours both sides exchanged fire until a ceasefire was negotiated. At the end of that first day six Davidians lay and four ATF agents laid dead, with many more wounded. The ATF retreated and because federal agents had been killed the FBI took over. For the next several weeks the FBI laid siege to the building trying everything they could think of to get the Davidians to come out peacefully. They even facilitated the national broadcast of a one-hour audio tape of a religious message from Koresh. They were successful in negotiating the release of a number of children as well as convincing a several adults to come out initially. But over 70 adults and children remained inside. Communication between the negotiation and tactical teams was poor and Koresh was resistant to more traditional negotiation techniques. The FBI simply didn’t know how to handle a group that devoutly believed that they were living out biblical prophesy. At the end of 51 days the patience of the FBI had worn thin and concerns for the children inside increased. A plan was drawn up to use CS gas to drive the Davidians from the building. Beginning on the morning of April 19th armored vehicles began spraying CS gas into holes created in the walls of the building while loudspeakers announced their intent. The gassing continued to little apparent effect for several hours. Some Davidians sheltered in more protected locations while others fired on the armored vehicles. Then around noon three fires broke out near simultaneously in different parts of the building. Flames quickly engulfed the building and reduced it to ash. 76 adults and children died that day, some of smoke inhalation but others shot themselves/were shot and one child was stabbed to death. Only 9 Davidians escaped the flames that day.
Before the embers of Mount Carmel had even cooled conspiracy theories that the FBI intentionally set fire to the building and murdered the Davidians were already flying. These claims were bandied about of early internet message boards and then popularized by the release of number of documentaries such as Waco, The Big Lie and the award-winning Waco: The Rules of Engagement. I watched these documentaries while growing up and personally found them quite convincing. It wasn’t until a number of years later that I really began to question the story I had come the believe. As I engaged with the skeptical literature more I started to ask myself if there were things that I believed for which I lacked good reason or evidence. Once I chose to set aside my anti-government bias and look at all the available information I quickly found counter arguments to the conspiracy claims, though thoroughly sifting through and comparing the arguments and sources took much longer.
Ultimately the evidence appears to clear federal agents of murder and does not point to any kind of grand conspiracy. Koresh resisted efforts to end the stand off peacefully at every turn and broke every promise he made to come out. Instead of turn himself over to the authorities he chose to play out his part as a sacrificial Lamb, setting fire to the compound and taking many of his followers with him. This does not mean that there was no wrongdoing on the government’s part. As widely recognized, the initial raid was fatally bungled and subsequent siege poorly managed. To make matters worse a small number of agents were found to be dishonest in the course of the investigation, though not about anything that would implicate the government in starting the fire or murdering the Davidians. Some agents were disciplined, other weren’t, guidelines and protocol were reviewed but the agencies would forever be tarred by their association with the events at Waco.
To me the events at Waco show the importance of being able to direct our skepticism inward as well as outward. Also that one need not naively trust the government (or media) 100% to question conspiracy claims. I still believe that not everything politicians or law enforcement say or do is entirely honest or in the public interest. But in the end grand conspiracies (as opposed to short lived, petty criminal conspiracies) are exceedingly rare. The events at Waco are perhaps best understood by invoking Hanlon’s Razor, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity“, though I prefer the more pity, “Cock-up before conspiracy.”
To go through every single claim made about the events at Waco would take far too long but below I have at least detailed the major claims made by the most popular Waco conspiracy movies, Waco, The Big Lie and Waco, The Big Lie Continues by Linda Thompson, and Waco: The Rules of Engagement, Waco: A New Revelation, and The FLIR Project by Mike McNulty.
Major Conspiracy Claims:
In Waco, The Big Lie (1993) & Waco, The Big Lie Continues (1994) Linda Thompson claims that:
(1) The ATF agents (Steve Willis, Robert Williams, Todd McKeahan, and Conway LeBleu) killed on the first day were former Clinton bodyguards who were executed by friendly fire and that,
(2) a US tank with a flame thrower set the building on fire.
(1) While the agents do appear to have been assigned at one point or another as bodyguards to Clinton, the claim that they were executed in the middle of an intense gun fight is made without any real evidence. It also ignores the wounding of 16 other agents that day. This claim is probably best understood as part of a larger conspiracy theory called The Clinton Body Count. The autopsy reports for the four agents kill at Waco can be viewed here.
(2) Thompson bases this claim on a very short segment of low quality video tape taken out of context. When others, including other prominent conspiracy theorists, have viewed the uncut tape it shows no such thing. What Thompson cites as flames is in reality insulation or building materials which have fallen on the tank as it penetrated the building. There is no evidence that any flamethrowers were in operation at Waco. The evidence points fairly clearly to the Davidians as intentionally setting the fire (also see references under claim number 4 below).
The big lie by John Blanton
Waco: The Big Lie Revealed As Hoax by Dean Speir
Because YouTube said so… by Gary Hunt
The House Report (search the words “flame thrower” and “flamethrower”)
While Thompson’s outlandish documentaries found favor mainly in the far rightwing fringe another set of films about the incident received much more widespread support. In his three main films about Waco, Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1997), Waco: A New Revelation (1999), and The FLIR Project (2001), Mike McNulty claims that:
(1) FBI agents fired on the Davidians from the ground as their compound went up in flames,
(2) that federal agents fired on the Davidians from helicopters,
(3) that FBI agents placed an explosive charge on top of and blew a hole through the roof of the room in which many of the women & children were (“The Bunker”)
(4) that FBI agents caused the fire intentionally.
(1) This claim is based on interpretations of flashes seen on infrared (FLIR) video being taken on April 19th. Under proper examination and testing flashes on the FLIR were determined not to be gunshots but to be reflections.
FLIR by John Blanton
FLIR: Mike McNulty responds by John Blanton
Debunking the Waco FLIR by Ian Williams Goddard
Danforth Report, pages 17-27 & the following appendices:
Expert Report of Mr. C. M. Mills (Video)
Expert Report of Mrs. Lena Klasén and Mr. Sten Madsen (FLIR Systems and Video)
Expert Report of Vector Data Systems (U.K.) Ltd. (Imagery Analysis)
(2) No evidence was found to support this claim. As with the above claim it is based primarily testimony of some of those inside that saw bullets holes in the ceiling as well as references to video/infrared footage. Agents present that day do however have a fairly logical explanation for the presence of bullet holes in the ceiling. Agents who attempted to breach a second story room in the compound reported coming under fire from the central four-story tower (as well as possible shots from below). Additionally agents were on the ground firing at an upward angle. The preponderance of the evidence, including testimonials and video, do not support the idea that any helicopters strafed the compound with machine gun fire. There in fact appears to be no strong evidence that any shots were fired from helicopters at Waco.
House Report: Were shots fired from the helicopters?”.
Danforth Report, pages 24–25 (footnote 26), 33, 42–43, 132, 134.
“Trojan Horse: Inside the ATF Raid at Waco, Texas” by Chuck Hustmyre
(3) This claim is pure speculation based in part on an explosion seen during the fire, attributable to a gas tank, and a hole in the roof of the remaining concrete structure. However actual examinations of the hole and room show no forensic evidence of any high powered explosives.
Danforth Report, pages 32-33 & the following appendices:
Expert Report of Dr. Gerry Murray and Mr. David A. Green (Explosives)
Expert Report of Dr. Jerry Havens (Gas Dispersion and Fire)
(4) many pieces of forensic, audio, video, and eyewitness evidence attest to the fact that the Davidians spread fuel and lit the fire themselves. Davidians were caught on tape discussing starting the fire. Both survivors and agents present that day reported seeing or hearing Davidians pour fuel and starting the fires. Accelerants as well fuel can punctured by knives or hand tools were found at the origin points of the fires (as well as on the clothing of some survivors). Further evidence shows that a number of the Davidians died from close-range, small arms fire consistent with a suicide or murder/suicide.
Danforth Report, pages 6-16 & the following appendices:
Expert Report of Mr. Walter Wetherington (Fire)
Expert Report of Dr. Ulf Wickström (Fire)
Expert Report of Dr. Jerry Havens (Gas Dispersion and Fire)
More General Links on Waco:
A linked list of Government investigations and hearings
A Chronology of Waco from PBS’s Frontline
Waco, The Inside Story from PBS’s Frontline (a documentary presenting the mainstream version of events)
Ashes of Waco (an archive of audio and documents related to Waco, including sermons from Koresh)
The Sinful Messiah By Mark England and Darlene McCormick