Child Abuse at Waco

by David B. Kopel

A slightly different version of this article appeared in Chronicles magazines in 1995. More by Kopel on Waco.

"For the sake of the children," has emerged as one of the most dangerous phrases in American politics. President Clinton has invoked children's alleged dependence on the federal government not just for his putatively child-oriented programs (such as the misnamed Department of Education), but also for issues that have only a tenuous connection to children, such as his prohibition on semiautomatic firearms, or his terrorism proposals for greater wiretapping and for trials with secret evidence. The most ironic, however, of all the administration's claims about its love for children is its persistent assertion that the BATF and FBI attacks on the home of the Branch Davidian children in Waco, Texas, were a noble effort to protect the children from child abuse.

And, it turns out, there really was a massive amount of child abuse at Waco, although not exactly as described by the government.

Child protection was, according to the government, the reason why the FBI could not wait to see if Koresh would keep his promise to surrender after completing a written exposition of the Seven Seals of the Book of Revelation. In April 1993, Attorney General Reno had repeatedly rejected the FBI's request for permission to end the siege by gassing the Branch Davidians' home. But at one of the FBI-Reno meetings, someone pushed the hottest of Janet Reno's hot buttons.

According to a later Justice Department Report, sometime in the week preceding the April 19 FBI tank assault, "someone made a comment in one of the meetings that Koresh was beating the babies." Attorney General Reno asked the person who made the comment if he was sure. She recalls that she was given, "the clear impression that, at some point since FBI had assumed command and control for the situation, they had learned that the Branch Davidians were beating the babies."

Who told the Attorney General about child abuse? Webster Hubbell, the second-ranking official at Justice at the time, later stated, "I remember it [the comment] specifically, but I can't remember who said it."

A few days later, after all the children had died, Attorney General Reno explained she approved the FBI assault because "babies were being beaten." White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos concurred that there was "absolutely no question that there was overwhelming evidence of child abuse in the Waco compound."

Not really. As FBI Director William Sessions acknowledged, there was "no contemporaneous evidence" of child abuse; given the many FBI listening devices inside the Mount Carmel Center, Sessions' conclusion appears accurate. As the FBI well knew, Koresh, having been wounded so severely on February 28 by a BATF sniper that he thought we was going to die soon, was in no position to physically or sexually abuse anyone in the subsequent weeks.

A few months after the fire, Reno said that she might have misunderstood the FBI comments, and there was no evidence of ongoing child abuse in the besieged home.

When public attention again turned to Waco, in May 1995, Reno offered an entirely different explanation for her approving the assault. The "first and foremost" reason was that "Individuals sympathetic to Koresh were threatening to take matters into their own hands to end the stalemate [and] were at various times reportedly on the way."

But while child abuse had disappeared as a rationale, a child welfare issue remained: "They [the FBI] told me that the conditions were deteriorating inside. I was concerned about the safety of the people inside. The behavioral experts were telling me that children--for a siege that could last a year--it would have a lasting effect on them."

Here, the FBI was clearly correct; conditions were deteriorating in the besieged home. Against the advice of government negotiators and behavioral experts, the FBI tactical commanders had in the middle of the siege decided to "demonstrate the authority of law enforcement." The FBI did so by cutting off electricity to the compound, shining lights on the compound all night to deprive the residents (including the children) of sleep, running Bradley Fighting Vehicles at the compound, and bombarding the compound with hellacious noises such as dentists' drills and rabbits being slaughtered.

The FBI's demonstration of authority had an immediate effect of consolidating the Branch Davidians, and confirming to them Koresh's prophecy that the government would ultimately kill them all. After the FBI began the noise bombardment, the exodus of Branch Davidian adults and children from their home came to an abrupt end.

Amidst the deteriorating conditions, the children had to learn to get used to the constant sound of tanks and helicopters. Still, the children continued with their home schooling, worked at their chores, and attended religious services. Children would often peek out a window or doorway, darting back to the interior of the home when a tank or other armored vehicle approached. Branch Davidian Sheila Martin described life at Mount Carmel during the siege: "We stayed close to our rooms and didn't venture down hallways as much. We tried to avoid walking past windows...We were glad when the morning came because we felt they weren't going to get us then. We stayed as close as possible to each other for encouragement. We prayed a lot and read our Bibles."

The children's deteriorating environment was hardly ideal, and Attorney General Reno was right to be concerned. Yet the deterioration was caused entirely by the FBI's "Hostage Rescue Team," which in this case was holding hostages, rather than rescuing them.

Moreover, whatever long-term psychological harm the children were suffering as a result of their imprisonment was probably relatively small compared to the harm inflicted on the children when their home was attacked by BATF on February 28, 1993.

The pretext for BATF's Sunday morning machine gun, helicopter, and grenade attack was the service of a search warrant and an arrest warrant.

The warrants themselves had been procured on the basis of an affidavit that was riddled with falsehoods. For example, BATF claimed that Koresh possessed "upper and lower receivers" for "semi-automatic AK-47 rifles," although in fact such rifles have a solid block receiver, not separate upper and lower receivers.

Although BATF has authority only to enforce federal alcohol, tobacco, and firearm laws, the warrant application repeated lurid allegations of child abuse (especially sexual abuse) by Koresh. Whether the allegations were valid or not, they do not involve the federal government. The State of Texas' child abuse investigation was featured prominently; but BATF failed to inform the federal magistrate that the child abuse investigation had been closed for lack of evidence April 30, 1992, nearly ten months before the assault on Mount Carmel Center.

The September 1993 Treasury Department review offers a justification for why BATF--which is not a child welfare agency--kept bringing up stale charges from the child abuse investigation: "While reports that Koresh was permitted to sexually and physically abuse children were not evidence that firearms or explosives violations were occurring, they showed Koresh to have set up a world of his own, where legal prohibitions were disregarded freely." By Treasury's theory then, allegations of any serious criminal activity can establish probable cause that any other crime is also being committed.

The major purpose of the BATF attack, initiated with the code-word "Showtime," was to pull off what BATF agents call "Zee Big One"--a massive media stunt leading to the seizure of hundreds of firearms, just a few weeks before upcoming Congressional budget hearings were expected to consider whether BATF should be abolished. Thus, although BATF had a warrant to arrest just one man who happened to live in a building with 126 other people, BATF chose to serve the arrest warrant with a machine gun, helicopter, and grenade attack.

As a mountain of evidence has shown, BATF had numerous opportunities to arrest Koresh peacefully outside his home. Koresh had always co-operated with law enforcement investigators in the past, including child abuse investigators. Indeed, when BATF had visited Koresh's gun dealer to examine records relating to Koresh, Koresh had invited BATF to come to Mount Carmel and look around.

The BATF "service" of the search warrants was a plan for a surprise attack. There was no contingency for loss of surprise, nor were there any plans for anyone to announce that a search warrant was being served, nor were there any plans for non-violent action in case the Branch Davidians submitted to the search.

If the Branch Davidians had planned to "ambush" the BATF agents and murder them, then the agents could have been massacred as they poured out the cattle cars. It will probably never be known who fired first. The one piece of physical evidence that could have settled the issue, the bullet-ridden front door, survived the fire, but has mysteriously disappeared. A camera in BATF nearby undercover house videotaped the raid, but BATF reports that the film came out blank.

In any case, a firefight broke out, with at least some BATF agents directly violating BATF procedures by firing wildly at unseen targets.

Psychologist Bruce Perry examined the Branch Davidian children who left the Mount Carmel in the weeks following the BATF raid. One child drew a picture of a house beneath a rainbow. Perry asked, "Is there anything else?" and the child then drew bullet holes in the roof. Newsweek magazine reprinted the Davidian girl's picture of her home with a dotted roof. "Bullets" the girl explained. These pictures are supportive of the Branch Davidians' claim that BATF helicopters strafed the second story (known to be the quarters of the women and children).

A minute after the shooting started, Koresh and his aide Wayne Martin (a well-respected attorney who had graduated from Harvard Law School) made a 911 call. The normally reserved Martin frantically screamed, "There's 75 men around our building and they're shooting at us! Tell 'em there's are women and children in here and to call it off."

BATF finally agreed to a cease fire much later, when BATF had fired all but 40 rounds of ammunition.

Why had BATF "served" the warrants so violently? Only because of concern for the well-being of the Branch Davidians, BATF spokesman Jack Killorin explained: "The warrant is for an imminent threat to the life and safety of everybody in that compound. The warrant is for the illicit manufacture of explosives and explosive devices which right away is an immediate threat to the life and safety of every person in there." Whatever threat that the possible illegal manufacture of automatic weapons and grenades posed to the children was probably outweighed by the threat created by the actual use of automatic weapons and grenades against the children's home, and the resultant death of a mother and a grandfather, among other people.

As the siege wore on, the government abused, at least from the Branch Davidian viewpoint, all the children who surrendered. Children who came out with their parents were immediately taken from their parents, and placed in state custody, while the parents were almost always arrested, whether or not there was any evidence against them.

The FBI sent back to Mount Carmel a videotape which showed the children were being treated well (by FBI standards); the children were eating candy, jumping on furniture, and watching cartoons. The Davidians were horrified by the violations of their dietary laws (based on Jewish laws, with elaborations by Koresh). The adults were also disturbed at the hyperactive behavior of the children, who were taught to be self-controlled and well-mannered.

The Branch Davidians made their own videotape, which they sent out about a week and a half after the siege started. The video contains numerous complaints about treatment of the children who were in state custody.

As a Department of Justice report later summarized, "Each person on the video -- male and female, young and old -- spoke in a calm, assured tone of their desire to remain inside, even after the experience of the ATF raid only a few days earlier....The abiding impression is not of a bunch of 'lunatics,' but rather of a group of people [who], for whatever reason, believed so strongly in Koresh that the notion of leaving the squalid compound was unthinkable...."

The FBI appropriated the videotape, refusing to release it until after the siege had ended.

Public support for government during the siege depended on the perception of the Branch Davidians as a weird bunch of child-abusing "cultists." The tape, however, portrays dozens of normal-looking men, women, and children. Based on the tape, the Branch Davidians look like the kind of people one would find at any shopping mall on a Sunday, except that the Branch Davidians are somewhat more clean-cut.

The government's failure to understand how seriously the Branch Davidians took their dietary rules was not evidence of child abuse by the government, even though the Branch Davidian adults took it as such. But other FBI actions could not have been better calculated to terrify the children and parents remaining at Mount Carmel.

At various times, Bradley Fighting Vehicles would charge at the compound. One person inside the compound reported that men in the BFVs were "shooting the finger at these kids." In one incident, the men reportedly "mooned" some Davidian girls.

Government tanks crushed children's bicycles and some expensive go-karts the children had recently acquired. The destruction helped undermine the FBI negotiators who were promising gentle treatment for children who left the compound.

The FBI's determination that it would be the only negotiator had disastrous consequences. Many relatives of the persons trapped at Mount Carmel begged the FBI for permission to talk to the people inside, either in person or by telephone. The FBI's response was "there is no room for family in this operation." All that was allowed was the occasional exchange of audio or videotapes. Family members repeatedly implored Attorney General Reno, by fax and by registered mail, to allow direct family contact. Attorney General Reno later testified that she had never learned of the families' attempts to contact her.

At one point, Koresh asked to talk to Robert Rodriguez, the BATF undercover agent who had pretended to be a college student interested in joining the Branch Davidians. Koresh was on to him from the start, and, according to Rodriguez, had nearly converted him. In exchange for talking with Rodriguez, Koresh offered to send out a six-year-old girl. The request was denied, and the girl later died in the April 19 fire.

The FBI's deception of Attorney General about on-going child abuse had been rather casual, but the same cannot be said for the deception regarding the effects of the CS chemical warfare agent. Experts assured the Attorney General that CS produced short-term discomfort, but had no long term effects and posed no special threat to pregnant women, children, or others. It was, in short, merely to cause tears, coughing, and sneezing, and at worst a feeling of suffocation and mild burns in sensitive people. She was not told those were not the only effects, particularly when the CS agent was used inappropriately--indoors.

Although commonly referred to as "tear gas," CS is actually a fine white crystalline powder. (As a powder, CS can plug up gas masks, a feature touted by its manufacturer.)

Although the federal government, during the Waco siege, was also fighting a war in Somalia, the CS gas could not legally have been used against the Somalis. Use of CS gas in war was outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the United States signed at Paris in January 1993.

According to Amnesty International, CS chemical warfare agent is "particularly dangerous when used in massive quantities in heavily built-up or populated areas...or when launched directly into homes or other buildings." One manufacturer of CS stopped selling the product to the Israeli government in 1986 because CS was being introduced, with fatal consequences for 40 persons (including 18 babies), into buildings occupied by Palestinians. The U.S. Army Manual on Civil Disturbances notes that although CS and other agents "will not seriously endanger health or cause death when used properly, their use in buildings or other closed areas requires caution to avoid producing excessive concentrations of the agent....The dispersers should not be used to introduce a riot control agent directly into a closed structure except under extreme circumstances." An Army Field Manual explains that CS "causes severe burning of the upper respiratory passages, pain, and involuntary inability to open the eyes." A different Army Field Manual states, "Warning: When using the dry agent CS-1, do not discharge indoors. Accumulating dust may explode when exposed to spark or open flame."

The FBI plan which the Attorney General approved called for a 48-hour "tear gas" attack. The government also knew, as an affidavit filed the previous day showed, that gas masks were available. But gas masks are not manufactured for small children. (One reason is that infants lack the lung capacity to breathe through gas masks.) Thus, the degree of suffering from the CS attack, as the FBI must have known, would be in inverse proportion to the criminal culpability of those exposed to it.

Dr. Alan Stone, one of the independent reviewers of the Department of Justice report on Waco in the fall of 1993, noted the case history of a baby suffering a two to three hour exposure to CS, the exposure resulting in first degree burns on the face, severe respiratory distress typical of chemical pneumonia, and an enlarged liver. "The infant's reactions were of a vastly different dimension than the information given the AG suggested," Stone noted. "It certainly makes it more difficult to believe that the health and safety of the children was our primary concern." In another case cited by Dr. Stone, a half-hour of exposure to CS indoors caused the death of an adult.

With regard to the idea that the CS was supposed to drive the Branch Davidians out of their house, an Army Field Manual explains: "Generally, persons reacting to CS are incapable of executing organized and concerted actions and excessive exposure to CS may make them incapable of vacating the area."

The Army textbook Civil Disturbance Operations notes that CS, inserted into enclosed places like buildings, may immobilize by causing nausea, vomiting and vertigo; may hamper movement of rioters because of severe onslaught of symptoms; and should not be used "where innocent persons may be affected...[or] where fires may start or asphyxiation may occur."

The massive amount of CS inserted was, if evenly dispersed throughout the building, half the amount needed to kill every adult inside; the impact on small children, unprotected by gas masks, would obviously be very severe, and perhaps lethal.

As with the children at Auschwitz, incineration followed the gassing.

Attorney General Reno had "directed that if at any point Koresh or his followers threatened to harm the children, the FBI should cease the action immediately." If the FBI had obeyed the Attorney General, it never would have launched the tank and CS assault, since several FBI behavioral experts had predicted that an FBI attack could cause a mass suicide. During negotiations, Koresh, consistent with Branch Davidian theology, had repeatedly told the FBI that the FBI attack that Koresh was expecting would lead to a massive fire by which God would destroy the attackers.

According to FBI listening devices, some Branch Davidians began spreading flammable materials during the morning of the tank assault. In case of risk of harm to the children, Attorney General Reno had commanded: "Get the hell out of there. Don't take any risks with the children." This command was flagrantly violated.

As the chemical warfare attack progressed, the masked adults went on with their chores; some women did laundry or cleaned; others read the Bible. All of the children stayed with their mothers.

Joyce Sparks, leader of the team from Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services that had investigated the Branch Davidians for child abuse, had objected to the child abuse case being closed. The FBI alerted her in advance to the gassing plan; the FBI and she agreed the FBI would call her on the day the plan would be implemented; her agency would then bring portable showers and a change of clothes for Davidians who fled the compound.

Later, the government listening devices broadcast to the FBI the voices of Davidians praying the 23rd Psalm: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." The listening devices recorded the voices of children calling for their parents, and the Davidians' frantic pleas for negotiations and for an end to the chemical warfare attack.

"Plan A" had been based on gassing the Branch Davidians for 48 hours. When the Davidians fired futile rifles shots at the tanks, Plan B went into effect (Plan A having lasted for less than ten minutes), and pace of gassing was greatly accelerated. Later in the morning, in a deviation from Plan B, the tank drivers were ordered to drive all the way into the building to the cold storage room, where it was (correctly) expected that people would have retreated. (All the children and their mothers were there.) The person who gave this order has not yet been identified.

Twenty-seven children and sixteen mothers were found dead in the concrete cold-storage room in the center of the house. As a result of the tank attack on the building, the room had collapsed before the fires broke out. All 43 people were thereby trapped inside. Two of the children died from blunt trauma consistent with being struck by rubble from the collapsing building. Several others, mostly children, were reported by the medical examiner as having been buried alive. The mothers had wrapped their children and themselves in sleeping bags, apparently for protection from the flames.

What were the final hours of the children like? Benjamin C. Garrett, the executive director of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, states that as a result of the incessant chemical warfare barrage, "It [the chemical warfare agent] would have panicked the children. Their eyes would have involuntarily shut. Their skin would have been burning. They would have been gasping for air and coughing wildly. Eventually, they would have been overcome with vomiting in a final hell."

The fire burned for only about 25 minutes, but reached about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, "approaching cremation temperature," as a government medical report later put it. The report noted that "Most of the burned bodies were unrecognizable as humans." A forensic scientist later recalled, "There was a particular instance where all that remained was the arm and hand of a mother clasping a small child's hand and remains of arm. You could see how tightly the child's hand was being squeezed by the mother."

Whatever the government knew about the fire apparently did not leave the government with enough confidence to have the fire independently investigated. Texas state fire marshals were denied access to the scene. The "independent" arson investigator chosen by the U.S. Attorney's Office to head the review, Paul Gray, is married to a BATF employee, and socialized with his wife's colleagues, including one of the agents killed in the BATF assault on Mount Carmel Center, Steve Willis, whose funeral he attended. Additionally, Gray's office used to be in BATF offices in Houston, and he carried a card identifying himself as a BATF special agent. He had also served on BATF's National Arson Response Team.

One of the last structures to fall at the compound was the flagpole holding the Davidian flag (with its Star of David). The government promptly mounted the blue "A.T.F." flag, along with the American and Texas flags, amidst the wreckage of the building, where lay the dead adults and children.

From start to finish, charges of child abuse against Koresh were used as justification for the government's aggressive actions. Was there really child abuse?

According to child psychologists who talked with the children released from Mount Carmel (and who were consulted with by the FBI prior to the final assault on April 19th), children were taught that they might have to commit suicide.

David Koresh took as wives in his polygamous "House of David" girls at least as young as twelve. While girls of such age have often been brides in other cultures or other eras, Koresh's actions violated the statutory rape laws of Texas. None of the Branch Davidian girls contacted by state child abuse investigators were willing to testify against Koresh.

Another component of abuse was physical violence against the children. Children were expected to be absolutely obedient; they were spanked often. This would not legally constitute child abuse in some other cultures, or in any generation of Americans before the current one, although many modern Americans would consider it abusive.

Koresh himself was reported to have inflicted vicious beatings on several infants and toddlers. Such beatings would clearly be abusive. All of these incidents occurred long before the BATF attack.

The children who came out of Mount Carmel were interviewed by the chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital. He concluded that the children were physically abused, but not so severely as to warrant state intervention. He found that "the children released from Ranch Apocalypse do not appear to have been victims of sexual abuse." (This finding does not disprove that older children, such as teenagers who had become Koresh's wives, were not sexually abused, since statutory rape is sexual abuse.) The psychiatrist also concluded that the children were friendly, happy, likable, and had good interpersonal skills and were open to other people.

The Texas Department of Children's Protective Services also examined the children. The Department found no evidence of child abuse. Instead, the children were "surprisingly happy, healthy, well adjusted, well educated, and only wanted to return as soon as they could to their friends and relatives in the compound."

As Dade County, Florida, District Attorney, Janet Reno had prosecuted several sensational child abuse cases. In one notorious case, outside specialists were enlisted by the Dade County District Attorney's Office to "help" (pester and intimidate) allegedly abused children into "disclosing" what had happened. Under pressure from the investigators, many children finally "disclosed" what the investigators apparently wanted to hear, and told lurid tales of ritual abuse, in which a fourteen-year-old church babysitter killed and ate babies, led naked dances around a campfire, took the children to cemeteries where Freddy Krueger came out of a grave, and introduced them to flying witches. Many of these activities supposedly took place while daytime church services were in progress at the church where Bobby Fijnje was a volunteer babysitter.

After spending 20 months in jail awaiting trial, Bobby Fijnje was acquitted on all counts. The child abuse, it turns out, was perpetrated by Janet Reno's well-meaning but misguided efforts that jailed an innocent youth and implanted horrible false memories in several small children. At Waco, Attorney General Reno was deceived into harming the very children that she had meant to help.

David Koresh, née Vernon Wayne Howell, was physically and sexually abused as a child. (Among other things, as a juvenile he was repeatedly raped by a male relative.) He, in turn, physically and sexually abused others. If David Koresh had been captured, he would have been prosecuted, and probably convicted, of child abuse.

Yet the most egregious child abusers at Waco remain free. These abusers launched an unnecessary machine gun attack on a children's home for publicity purposes, held the children captive in miserable conditions, and then attacked the children with a dangerous chemical warfare agent, knowing full well that their actions would put the children's lives at grave risk. Trapped in an inferno, children and their mothers could not flee because government tanks, in violation of all plans and orders from the Attorney General, had destroyed the escape route.

If President Clinton really cares as much about children as he says he does, then he will appoint a special prosecutor who will bring these child abusers to justice.


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