Congress Failed to Hold DOJ, FBI, ATF Accountable for 1993 Waco Disaster. Something Like It Could Happen Again.
Thirty years ago last month, on April 19, 1993, a 51-day siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, ended in a conflagration that claimed the lives of 76, including 25 children. Other accounts put those numbers at 82 and 28, respectively.
Three decades later, the federal agencies and officials responsible for that tragedy have yet to face accountability—and the federal government is more weaponized than ever before, due in no small part to congressional failures.
In 1995, Congress purported to launch an investigation of unprecedented scale, demanding answers from then-Attorney General Janet Reno, as well as from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, for their actions at the Branch Davidian religious cult’s Mount Carmel compound.
What followed was not a scathing rebuke of federal agencies for their use of military-style tactics against American citizens, but a self-contradictory report meekly suggesting that the FBI and ATF implement less “confrontational” tactics going forward.
On one hand, the report admitted that ATF agents intentionally lied on the affidavit justifying the initial raid on Mount Carmel, claiming that there was evidence of a methamphetamine lab at the Waco compound, despite no such evidence existing.
At the same time, however, the report insisted that the ATF had probable cause to search the Davidians’ residence. Similarly, in spite of overwhelming evidence of the potential harm that CS gas could cause to children and pregnant women, the report— without explanation—confidently asserts that Reno thought that the gas was harmless.
The report failed to determine why the ATF purposefully chose the most aggressive, confrontational tactics available. It also failed to determine why the ATF was so insistent on obtaining military aid that it used inaccurate information on an affidavit.
Perhaps most stunning of all, the report glosses over how Congress failed to obtain any analysis of the weapons seized from Mount Carmel. Those weapons were in Justice Department custody, yet Congress did nothing when the DOJ failed to fulfill its promise to analyze the weapons.
Absent the fabricated drug-manufacturing allegations, the Davidians’ alleged possession of illegally modified firearms was the only justification for the ATF’s raid.
In 1999, documents revealing the FBI had used incendiary tear gas rounds at Mount Carmel prompted a second congressional investigation into the cause of the fire, but any hopes that that investigation would be any more successful were soon dashed.
The second report, issued in 2000, found that the DOJ had possessed documents revealing the use of those rounds since 1995, but failed to deliver the documents to Congress. Yet Congress refused to entertain the notion that these critical documents, which were conveniently left out of reports submitted pursuant to the 1995 investigation, were withheld intentionally.
Ultimately, despite acknowledging the FBI’s use of incendiary rounds at the Waco siege, Congress once more asserted that the fire was set by the Branch Davidians themselves.
The tragedy at Mount Carmel and Congress’ subsequent failure to bring the FBI, DOJ, and ATF to account remain relevant today. During the 1995 congressional hearings, then-Sen. Joe Biden without evidence stated that the Branch Davidians “set fire to themselves.”
“The government did not do that,” he insisted.
David Chipman, now-President Biden’s initial, but failed, nominee for director of the ATF, falsely claimed that the “cult members” at Waco “used two .50 caliber Barretts to shoot down two Texas Air National Guard helicopters.” A Barrett is a .50 caliber, shoulder-fired, semiautomatic sniper rifle.
Most disturbing of all, however, are the comments of then-Rep. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., at the 1995 hearings. Now a senator, Schumer launched into a tirade against his fellow congressmen, stating that the hearings must not “twist the facts” to make the FBI and ATF into “villains.”
Comments such as those from the now-president and now-Senate majority leader should give all Americans pause. After all, it was the ATF that chose a military-style assault on Mount Carmel instead of arresting cult leader David Koresh on one of his frequent jogs. It was the FBI that demolished Mount Carmel with tanks. It was the FBI and the now-deceased Reno who concocted the plan to use CS gas—used to train U.S. military troops—against women and children.
If Biden and Schumer would run cover for the federal government after Waco, it would seem like there’s no act of federal overreach, no violation of the rights of American citizens, that they would not defend.
After the tragedy at Waco, Congress had an opportunity to uproot major issues within federal law enforcement and pump the brakes on its weaponization. Instead, today, the FBI and DOJ are more politicized and weaponized than ever before, targeting pro-life groups, Catholics, and other conservative Americans.
In light of this pervasive weaponization of the federal government, Congress must learn from the mistakes of the past to avoid repeating them.
In particular, the House Oversight and Accountability Committee and the Select Committee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government must be willing to use the full power of Congress to confront the FBI, DOJ, and other weaponized agencies.
Those committees must not take officials at their word, but rather confront them for misleading statements. Most importantly of all, Congress must be willing to use its funding power and contempt charges to punish rogue agencies for their willful defiance of elected representatives.
If they don’t achieve reform through accountability, it’s only a matter of time before another Waco-style tragedy occurs.