Waco Inferno: More Than Simple Blunder?

The sabotage of an Amtrak train in Arizona last week and the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in April have a common element: a Waco connection. "Remember Waco" is the subtext to these flagrant crimes, either as true terrorist motive or red herring.

 Mistakes that the government made at Waco are likely to be long remembered. On Feb. 28, 1993, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms proceeded with their raid of the Branch Davidians' compound despite learning that David Koresh and his followers had been tipped off. Four ATF agents and five members of the religious sect died in a fierce gun battle. Fifty-one days later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation inserted tear gas into the compound despite a wind advisory issued by the National Weather Service for that day. When the forecast went unheeded, winds gusting to 31 miles an hour swept the tear gas out of the compound almost as fast as the FBI could inject it. The Branch Davidians dug in for six hours before lighting their compound on fire, killing 75 of the 84 people inside, including 25 children.

 These serious and deplorable blunders by the ATF and the FBI smack of sloppiness and poor judgment. But a close reading of the Waco record raises deeply troubling questions about whether government officials' failure resulted merely from operational snafus or something more sinister. Two rounds of House committee hearings did not resolve this issue. Hearings scheduled by the Senate Judiciary Committee for Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 now offer the last best chance to unravel the nature of the government's conduct at Waco.

 One key question is whether the architects of the ATF's Feb. 28 raid, the largest such operation in the agency's history, might have closed off their minds to less grandiose means of serving arrest and search warrants at Waco. Further legwork would have pointed to ample opportunities for nabbing Koresh outside the compound without mobilizing a small federal army to accomplish the task.

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