Twenty-five years ago this year, federal agents stormed the compound of a religious group in Waco, Texas, with armored vehicles, machine guns and tear gas. Claiming the Branch Davidians were a dangerous religious cult, they killed David Koresh, the group’s leader, along with and some 70 men, women and children who were with him when the assault took place.
The ostensible reason for reducing the compound to rubble was to serve a search warrant on Mr. Koresh for illegal weapons officials believed he possessed. The issuing judge was told Mr. Koresh was a crazed paranoid who never left the compound where he and his violence-prone followers were illegally hoarding automatic weapons and represented a clear and present danger to the Waco community.
Long after the smoke cleared the facts proved that the raid was staged not because Mr. Koresh and his Branch Davidians were a threat to anyone, but as a public relations stunt by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) to be used to justify a budget increase. Everything was filmed to be shown at future budget hearings, but when things went bad, the PR stunt turned into a murderous massacre.
Surviving Davidians insisted federal agents opened fire on them first, but when investigators sought the audio and video recordings made by the BATF and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, they were informed that all the cameras had malfunctioned and the audio tapes had disappeared along with other physical evidence. The Clinton administration then prosecuted the surviving Davidians relying on testimony later demonstrated to be perjured and sent them off to prison, hoping the whole incident would be forgotten.
Later, however, following a tip from a whistleblower, the Branch Davidian’s attorney David Hardy filed carefully worded Freedom of Information requests that turned up literally tons of missing evidence that agents carted off to a sealed warehouse within hours of the assault on the Davidian compound.
Mr. Hardy, author of the recently published book, “I’m from the Government and I’m here to Kill You,” says the warehouse held all the evidence the government had insisted didn’t exist and made it clear that the BATF and FBI agents who ended up killing 70 people had come looking for trouble and when they found it, covered up what they had done and lied to the public and those investigating the incident.
Las Vegas rancher Cliven Bundy must feel, as Yogi Berra once said, it’s like deja vu all over again. Mr. Bundy refused back in 2014 to cooperate with government agents sent to confiscate his cattle because he had refused to pay disputed charges for grazing rights on federal land adjacent to his ranch. Agents from the Bureau of Land Management and the FBI confronted
Mr. Bundy and his family and neighbors in a stand-off that went on for months.
Mr. Bundy, like the Davidians a quarter of a century ago, was portrayed in the media as a crazed extremist with a “militia” ready and even anxious to shoot it out with federal agents simply doing their job. When the confrontation ended, prosecutors went after Mr. Bundy and his allies in a number of cases, most of which ended in acquittals.
The key trial which began last November included a conspiracy charge that Mr. Bundy and his family had recruited militia support by falsely claiming that they were the target of a government vendetta, surrounded by FBI snipers and in danger of being killed by federal agents who had used excessive force in arresting Mr. Bundy’s son. The government claimed these were all paranoid lies.
As the trial progressed, it turned out that paranoid or not, the Bundys had pretty well figured out what the government was up to. The FBI and prosecutors first denied and then admitted illegally wiretapping privileged conversations with one of the defendant’s lawyers and eventually admitted that, yes, they had deployed snipers just as Mr. Bundy had claimed.
The BLM agent in charge, who had a record of playing fast and loose with the rules, was later fired for misconduct in a separate case. A whistleblower informed investigators that he had indeed ordered his men to use excessive force in arresting Mr. Bundy’s son and later ordered his men to “kick Cliven Bundy in the mouth (or teeth) and take his cattle.”
As in Waco case, the government wouldn’t voluntarily turn any of this clearly exculpatory evidence over to defense lawyers as required by law. When she learned the extent of the government cover-up last month, Federal Judge Gloria Navarro declared a mistrial in the case on the basis of what she termed the government’s willful misconduct. This week she will decide whether or not to dismiss the case with prejudice.
At least this time the government agents didn’t open fire though the evidence suggests they wanted to and they didn’t have any tanks, but it’s clear they haven’t learned much in the 25 years since the butchery at Waco.
• David A. Keene is an editor at large at The Washington Times.