Last week CNN´s Crimes of the Century — a show that has so far covered cases like the Unibomber, the DC sniper, and Andrea Yates — decided to tackle the 1993 Waco standoff between federal law enforcement and the Branch Davidian sect. And the end result, inexplicably produced by Ridley Scott, is one of the worst, most dishonest tellings of those still-controversial events that I have seen in a long time. By 2013, the usual thesis on Waco — even coming from lefties — is that it was a major law enforcement fuck-up, if not a purposeful federal holocaust. CNN has decided that the way to approach this tragic event with the right amount of sadness is to have a lot of tearful federal agents reminiscing about how they wanted to rescue those kids. And that’s all.
Here are the individuals CNN interviewed:
- Davy Aguilera, ATF
- Randy Parsons, FBI
- Byron Sage, FBI
- Jim Cavanaugh, FBI
- The then-Editor in Chief of the Waco Herald-Tribune, the paper that called Koresh ¨The Sinful Messiah¨
- Brian Levin from something called ¨The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism¨
- Errol Southerns, author of Homegrown Violent Extremism
- Clive Doyle, a Davidian who still believes, who doesn´t come off well, and whose 18-year-old daughter was ¨married¨ to Koresh. Doyle did not rescue her, or — apparently — attempt to.
- A single credible person to challenge the pro-fed narrative.
Here is a short list of nuance-building facts that CNN failed to mention in their hour:
- That the government used the baseless accusation of meth manufacturing to get access to Bradley Fighting vehicles and other military tech for the raid. (Thanks, Reagan.)
- The 911 call the Branch Davidians made shortly after the shoot-out with the ATF began. Koresh called 911 about an hour into the siege as well.
- An explanation, or a pressing question about why the ATF did not stop the February 28 raid, even after learning that the Davidians knew they were coming. Aguilera says he’s sure that the raid would have succeeded if they had had the element of surprise, and then the narrator brushes past that with a hand-waving, drama-building piece of nonsense, “the impetus to act had already reached critical mass.”
- The feds’ refusal to release the footage that David Koresh and others shot inside the building to the media, out of fears that it would build sympathy for the sect.
- The Feds cutting Koresh’s access to the media, and them being barred from Mt. Carmel and kept more than two miles away. (“In over thirty years, twenty-seven of which have been with Time-Life, I have covered wars and riots — you name it. I have never been restrained as I was in Waco, and I will say needlessly and senselessly.”– said Shelly Katz, a photographer.)
- The feds use of incendiaries, and their denial of that fact for six years.
- The fact that the feds bulldozed the site after only a week of examination.
- Any evidence of the dangers of six hours of exposure to CS gas on children.
The biggest lingering questions — who started the fire on April 19, and who shot first in the February 28 raid — are addressed in a pro-fed fashion. Allegations that the shoot-out began after agents shot the Davidians’ dogs are not mentioned. The disappearance of the front door is not mentioned. (A lot of this comes from Waco: The Rules of Engagement, but I wrote a whole damn thesis largely about the event as well, meaning I have read multiple books and media reports.) The nod to the controversy of who shot first being as such is a recording of a phone call where Koresh says the feds did it. Dead, delusional Davis Koresh gets to say it, but nobody else alive or with credibility gets to say it. We also get the Editor in Chief of the Waco Herald-Tribune saying ¨the only person who will ever know who shot first is the person who shot first” which is a little better.
The feds seem moved, some tear up, giving them the opportunity to express regret for how things went down. Aguilera says the ATF agents had candy in their pockets for the kids. Sage says he arrived after a 45 minute shoot-out and over the phone, Koresh’s second in command screamed that the feds had no right to be there. Again, the 911 calls from various Davidians are not mentioned.
The shoot-out lasted around two hours. Doyle simply says he doesn’t deny that Davidians shot back when fired upon. The footage of ATF agents screaming at and attacking a KWTX-TV cameraman is included without any enlightening narration.
The narrator moves on with ¨what started as a carefully-planned raid…¨ (That seems like it’s pushing it a bit, considering.)
The next section is devoted to a compilation of Koresh lying and putting off the time when he will come out and surrender. This is true, as far as I know. Two different religious professors wrote a book called Why Waco? which suggests that approaching Koresh from a religious perspective, as opposed to that of a conman and criminal, might have lead to a different outcome. None of this is to defend Koresh, who was a creep, a cult-leader, and a child rapist. But since the stakes for resolving the situation were as high as they were, it’s indefensible that the feds only slightly pursued this avenue of negotiation, giving up all too soon out of impatience and a conviction that Koresh’s mad opinions weren’t sincere.
For the next 51 days, the feds grow more annoyed. They harass the Davidians with the sounds of rabbit slaughter and ¨These Boots Were Made for Walking.¨ They cut the power and water, then point to the horrible situation the children are living in. Finally, they get impatient and shiny new Attorney General Janet Reno okays the use of CS gas in the infamous FBI assault.
The disturbing aesthetic of the tanks smashing the walls, the voice of Byron Sage over the bullhorn saying ¨submit to the proper authorities¨ is not acknowledged by the narration as anything troubling. Aguilera says he did not know about the FBI’s gas plan.
Sage now says “I don’t think we — the FBI, the ATF — ever had any control over how this was going to end. I I think the only control we truly had was when it was going to end.”
Levin, from ¨the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism¨ says “Koresh had his playbook already decided in advance, that he would destroy his followers rather than give up to the evil armies of the federal government.” Sage says, ¨We banked on the fact that parents would “move heaven and earth to get them to a position of safety. We were wrong.” Soundtrack is is a dramatic heartbeat. There is footage of the burning Mt. Carmel. Parsons said he thought “thank God those mothers will bring their children out now.¨ And they didn’t.
Waco: The Rules of Engagement (watch it!) delves into questions of whether any feds fired on the Davidians who were fleeing. I am not comfortable saying anything definitive on that, but the FLIR footage with the bursts look much more like gunfire than the supposed sunlight. And it’s worth looking into that allegation, or at least mentioning its existence.
Ricks talks about the feds starting the fire rumor, or FBI shooting people. Sage says we didn’t do everything right, but “we didn’t set the fires, we did not murder anybody.” A news report from April 19 has Wolf Blitzer saying “all indications are that the fire was set from within, presumably by some of David Koresh’s followers.” (This kind of immediate trust in the feds´ spin was not unique to CNN. CBS was also very bad. Weekly news magazines were bad and went full-on apocalyptic cult. Newspapers like The New York Times were best.)
Sage says seven of the nine Davidian escapees had accelerants on their clothing. Doyle doesn’t know who set it, if Davidians did “is it our fault for being bent on dying, or is it the FBI’s fault for taunting David?” Doyle might be an awful person, or an awful interview, or just was badly edited here. (Maybe all three.)
Parsons says Steve Shneider, Koresh´s number two, shot Koresh, them himself. Ricks: “The children themselves were mostly executed. They were either beaten to death, stabbed to death, or shot. David Koresh was never going to walk out of that place on our terms. It was doomed, from day one, that that place — which went by the name Ranch Apocalypse — was destined to end up in flames.”
A 1995 episode of Frontline quotes the county medical examiner, Dr. Nizam Peerwani, as saying, ¨Altogether, there were 20 people who died as a result of gunshot wounds that particular day. Some 27 additional bodies were buried deep within the bunker. These were co-mingled bodies and all of these were women and children. They were huddled together, some of them. They were covered with blankets. Some of them had face masks. And most of them had died as a result of smoke inhalation or suffocation, but there were at least three kids who had been shot to death and one was stabbed to death.¨
The covering of faces suggests a desire to have the children survive — albeit without the parents going outside and surrendering — and there is no mention there (or anywhere else I have seen) of children having been ¨beaten to death.¨
Things wrap up quickly in the episode. Various feds talk about the kids they wish they had rescued. Nothing about the trial of the surviving Davidians is worth commenting upon, but it is important to mention that the Waco paper was a Pulitzer finalist for their reporting.
But the takeaway of all this, besides sad feds is, says the narrator:
“In the aftermath of the tragedy, not another Waco became a rallying crime for the ATF. The agency improved intelligence gathering and reporting methods. And changed policy on who makes on the ground incident decisions. The FBI made changes as well — forming a crisis response group to ensure complete communication between its negotiators and tactical response teams.”
Then there’s that infuriating Janet Reno footage where she says she is taking responsibility. (Rhetorical responsibility and that is all.)
McVeigh is mentioned twice — first that he was in the crowds watching the stand-off, and was inspired to murder 168 people in Oklahoma City because of what he saw. At the end, the narration mentions that there are three monuments at the remains of Mt. Carmel today — one for the victims of the OKC bombing (nice gesture, but sort of annoying at the same time), one for the 76 Davidians, and, says the narrator ¨The third — the smallest stone of all — remembers the four ATF agents who perished on February 28, 1993.”
Davy Aguilera tears up and mentions each ATF agent by name. (Note: the hideous TV movie made about Koresh after the raid, but before the fire, and whose screenwriter has entirely disowned it, was dedicated to those agents.) He says “…they were heroes. When I hear taps, or when I hear a bagpipes, I just break down. I’ll take this to my grave.”
We cut to footage of dejected ATF agents leaving the raid. Their hands are up, some are backing away. The final shot is of a petite female agent looking back at the camera.
In short — which this post wasn’t — this was an inexcusably light treatment of a horrible, controversial event in recent history. According to CNN’s narrative, the only thing that matters about Waco is how it affected law enforcement. From their sadness over the dead children, to the lessons learned in tactics, what matters is how they felt about the event.
The failure of the media at Waco — something I wrote a score of pages on for my thesis — was not entirely its own fault, in that they were simply not allowed to see and judge for themselves. But that’s not an excuse for their trusting, lapdog responses. In general, the press’ pathological inability to admit that they don’t know what happened often kills any chance at honest reporting — at Waco and at other big news events. They just can’t admit when they don’t know, and they rarely acknowledge that police and government officials — particularly ones who were one half of an event, and were rigidly controlling access to the other half — are not divorced, ivory-tower experts on the issue, but people with bias and spin like anyone else.