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No easy answers: Law authorities puzzle over methods to end Branch Davidian siege

The Dallas Morning News, April 15, 1993, front page.

By Lee Hancock / The Dallas Morning News

WACO-For the armchair tactician, forcing an end to the 46-day Branch Davidian standoff might sound easy enough.

Lob tear gas or other chemical agents in until the Branch Davidians are too incapacitated to fight and have no choice but to stagger out to waiting agents.

Expose and limit their hiding places by crushing outer walls of the cult's sprawling Mount Carmel compound with Bradley fighting vehicles and 37-ton Abrams M-1 tanks.

Pick off cult leader David Koresh with sniper fire as he peers from a window and then take the compound while his followers flounder.

Although some law enforcement officials say a tactical operation may be inevitable, they add that federal officials managing the Waco standoff are still trying to find an aggressive option that works both practically and politically.

Mr. Koresh pledged Wednesday to give up after completing a religious manuscript, federal officials say, but there is no guarantee that the cult will surrender peacefully.

Officials probably will continue debating whether federal agents can-and should-risk aggressively forcing an end to the siege.

"Negotiations haven't worked in three weeks," one official said, "But there's no clean solution. Anybody who is thinking about a nice, clean solution is kidding themselves."

That official, and others who spoke on condition of anonymity, say those managing the Branch Davidian siege have not found any tactical plan that can meet a Clinton administration goal of no further bloodshed.

Complicating the situation even more is the presence of 17 children. "The question . . . that has been constant throughout is we've got to do it (any forceful action) in a way that we think will put the fewest numbers of those children in peril,' FBI Agent Richard Swensen said Wednesday.

One FBI official in Washington said the agents overseeing the standoff have a "fair amount of operational leeway. . . . We certainly can't do things to hamstring them in a way to endanger people's lives.'

The FBI official conceded, however, that major tactical options must be reviewed in Washington. "Between Waco and Washington, we're trying to run this by consensus,' the official said.

Tactics fail

Seven weeks of talking has chiefly produced frustration among federal law enforcement officials, as traditional psychological tactics used to end other standoffs have not worked.

"Obviously they've got a tiger by the tail,' said Robert K.

Ressler, a retired FBI official who helped found the agency's behavioral sciences unit and taught many of the hostage negotiators now in Waco. "This is obviously the longest wait-out they've ever encountered, so you're delving into a new area of hostage-type situations.'

Trying to weaken Mr. Koresh's resolve by altering or chipping away at his belief system has been ineffective.

"One of the things you can sometimes do in negotiations, especially if you have someone with a delusional system, is to point out the weaknesses and the fallacies in the delusional system,' said Wayman Mullins, a hostage negotiating expert who has closely followed the Waco siege. "Koresh's is so well-developed, it just wouldn't work.'

Said one federal official: "This guy is absolutely, totally committed. He believes he is Christ incarnate.'

But the traditional tactical options used in past standoffs also pose significant problems. Any direct assault on the compound would face the same firepower that stopped the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' Feb. 28 raid.

"How the people inside would react to a full assault is really difficult to say now,' one official said. "You don't know what their mindset is now, but given the letters Koresh has sent out, you'd have to assume it's belligerent.'

Despite estimates that cult members fired more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition from at least 47 different locations during the gunbattle, officials believe that the cult still has plenty of ammunition.

Assaulting such a fortified, heavily defended position would also be difficult because the compound sits on open, rolling prairie with few trees or other natural cover, said a 20-year special forces officer who now teaches special operations tactics to federal agencies. psubard to attack Determining the layout of the compound's interior and where everyone is inside-intelligence vital to any new assault-has also been difficult, officials concede.

Jack Zimmermann, a lawyer who has been inside the compound, said sect members have reinforced windows to protect themselves against assault, and federal officials speculate that the cult also has altered the compound's interior in other significant ways during the siege.

Trying to incapacitate Mr. Koresh to force a surrender also is not likely because it would have highly unpredictable results, the official said.

"David has been seen standing in the windows several times within the last week. Two or three times snipers spotted him looking out. They had him in their sights,' the official said.

Killing Mr. Koresh might create a leadership vacuum allowing individual cult members to decide to give themselves up. But it also could lead his followers to kill themselves or try to provoke federal agents into doing so.

Shooting Mr. Koresh unarmed would raise serious legal questions.

"It's not going to happen that way anyway,' the official said. "They're not going to get a green light.'

Using some form of tear gas or chemical irritant is considered the most viable tactical option, several officials said, but even that could endanger the lives of children still inside.

"That's the only thing that's on the table,' an official said.

"Obviously they haven't come up with an acceptable plan.'

Mr. Mullins said it would be difficult to penetrate the compound's warrens of rooms and bunkers with gas. "They may even have gas masks,' he said. "And tear gas is an irritant. It's not going to put them down and out. You could still have resistance.'

Some children interviewed after leaving the compound said they had been taught how to put on gas masks.

A tactical expert with a federal agency not involved in the standoff said FBI officials might consider using chemical agents that induce vomiting.

"I don't think it would endanger kids beyond the normal level of dehydration associated with nausea,' the official said. "But I don't know if those folks are ready with the chemical suits their agents would need.'

FBI agents have repeatedly refused to discuss publicly whether they have considered driving the Branch Davidians out by knocking down the compound around them.

One federal official said that option has not been used so far because there is no guarantee that it won't provoke a new firefight.

Peter Divasto, a tactical expert and hostage negotiator for the Department of Energy, said knocking down some sections of the buildings might help increase the discomfort level of those inside, and could isolate cult members both from each other and from their food supplies.

"But if they do a Tiananmen Square number, blocking the tanks with people, obviously you're stymied. Put one pregnant lady holding a baby in front of the tanks and the tanks stop,' he said.

"It's just that anything they do now involving the use of force is going to draw criticism. That's why they need to look at raising the level of discomfort without being confrontive.'

Building a fence, reducing federal manpower and waiting the Branch Davidians out might eventually be the most viable, cost-effective option but is not likely to be considered soon, some federal officials said.

Last weekend, federal officials strung a 3-foot, razor sharp wire fence to contain the compound. Officials will not rule out eventually replacing the fence with a more permanent enclosure.

Big contingent

But heavily armed agents would still be needed around the clock to protect the compound's perimeter and prevent infiltrators from trying to help those inside, the official said. Even seven weeks into the siege, ATF and FBI officials say their agencies have no immediate plans to reduce either agency's contingent of several hundred agents in Waco.

"Barbed wire does afford some protection both to people going out and coming in. It's not any kind of foolproof security, nor will it stop any kind of firepower,' the FBI official said.

Such downscaling might not be politically feasible after so much time and effort has been poured into the Waco effort, said Mr. Ressler. "You're dealing with a lot of political problems here.'

So for the foreseeable future, law enforcement officials involved in the siege and outside tactical experts say, there is little the federal agencies can do but talk, try to make the Branch Davidians' lives miserable-and wait.

Said one federal official: "I think we're basically down to two choices: One is some kind of limited tactical operation such as a gas to try and get them out, to force some if not all out.

"As long as that doesn't fly, the only other option is a complete containment policy. Put up another big strand of concertina on poles so it's a jail, ring it with an outer perimeter, pull out the hostage rescue team and negotiators, and sit and wait,' the official said.

"You make it the Mount Carmel federal correctional institute. You

say, "We'll be here until you're ready to come out.' '

      © 1996 The Dallas Morning News
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