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SWAT

Lessons Learned from the ATF Waco Raid

The ATF remembers the 20th anniversary of the Waco raid, arguably the darkest day in the history of federal law enforcement.

February 27, 2013  |  by - Also by this author

Branch Davidians fired this .50-caliber Barrett rifle at ATF agents during the Waco raid. Photo courtesy of NLEOMF.
Branch Davidians fired this .50-caliber Barrett rifle at ATF agents during the Waco raid. Photo courtesy of NLEOMF.

Thursday marks the 20th anniversary of one of the darkest days in the history of law enforcement—the ATF's failed Waco raid.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms lost four special agents—Conway LeBleu, Todd McKeehan, Robert Williams, and Steven Willis—in the Feb. 28, 1993 raid. We should celebrate these men who made the ultimate sacrifice, and thank the surviving agents for their bravery. We must also continue to a take a hard look at what went wrong to prevent something like this from happening again.

"It was a terrible event that affected the entire agency," said Francis Neeley, the ATF agency president for the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. "Since that event, the agency has transformed and progressed in a positive way."

Since that time, the Waco raid has been well studied by the ATF, journalists, authors, and documentarians—including Dick Reavis, who quit his job in 1993 to produce the book "The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation." The event has also brought plenty of conspiracy theorists out of the woodwork. I believe this is because the ATF itself has remained silent about the raid. The subject is still considered taboo within the agency, sources told POLICE.

A 50-day standoff followed the failed raid. On April 19, the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team stormed the Branch Davidian compound, which burned to the ground in a fire. Seventy-six people, including sect leader David Koresh, died.

Diagram of the Branch Davidian compound at Mount Carmel. Photo courtesy of NLEOMF.
Diagram of the Branch Davidian compound at Mount Carmel. Photo courtesy of NLEOMF.

Prior to now, the best way to hear from the agents who were in Waco that day was to turn to two retired agents who have given their accounts. Chuck Hustmyre published his in-depth account of the raid in 2003 online. And Robert Rodriguez, who infiltrated the Branch Davidian cult as an undercover agent, spoke to KENS-TV in 2010. Rodriguez sued his supervisors and the ATF in 1995, claiming they defamed him and conspired to make him a scapegoat. The suit was settled out of court and Rodriguez received nearly $2.3 million in damages.

ATF commanders hadn't spoken about the planning and rationale for the raid. That changed earlier this month. 

As part of the National Law Enforcement Museum's "Witness to History" lecture series, three retired ATF commanders who planned and orchestrated the raid gave their accounts. Their candid remarks offered the most detailed insider's view yet of the raid. They were joined by Reavis, who said the agency's search warrant was flawed.

The panelists included Pete Maslin, the raid's deputy incident commander; Jerry Petrilli, the team leader of the Dallas Special Response Team; and Bill Buford, co-leader of the New Orleans SRT. The event was hosted by Craig Floyd, NLEOMF's chairman and CEO.

Retired ATF agents Pete Maslin, Jerry Petrilli, and Bill Buford discuss the Waco raid. Photo courtesy of NLEOMF.
Retired ATF agents Pete Maslin, Jerry Petrilli, and Bill Buford discuss the Waco raid. Photo courtesy of NLEOMF.

The trio outlined several tactical errors and discussed changes within the ATF since the raid of the fortified Mount Carmel compound that rivaled a military engagement.

"One agent wrote in an account that it was like Iowa Jima," Floyd told the audience. "Agents were pinned down, hiding behind whatever they could find to block the bullets."

During a 2 1/2-hour barrage of gunfire, Branch Davidians fired 12,000 rounds at the 77 special agents who participated in the raid. After the FBI's raid on April 19, investigators recovered 230 guns, several hand grenades, and two million rounds of ammunition. Barrett .50-caliber rifles and fully auto M60 machine guns were among the guns recovered from the ashes.

The following six "lessons learned" were offered by the three commanders and other sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak about the raid.

  • Overly confident planning involving an unknown threat. The Branch Davidians presented a new kind of threat to law enforcement—a heavily armed doomsday sect. Raid planners didn't adequately address Koresh's apocalyptic beliefs and willingness to defend the compound to the death. The ATF also had a nearly flawless track record using entry control teams without a full-fledged tactical unit. "We had never failed before," Maslin said. Buford added, "We were going to go in there, kick a little booty, and be home by noon. It didn't work that way."
  • No sniper teams. At the time, the ATF didn't have SRT snipers who could have ended the carnage sooner. Following Waco, the ATF supplemented these tactical units, establishing permanent tactical commanders and adding specialized roles to SRT such as snipers, K-9 units, and tactical medics. The agency eliminated its 24 field division SRTs in favor of five regional tactical units.
  • Lack of quality intelligence before the raid. ATF commanders decided to proceed with the raid, even though the Branch Davidians were expecting them. The agency had lost the element of surprise, after a postal carrier tipped off sect leaders. The ATF had hired an ambulance company to provide medical support, and an employee leaked it to a television reporter who asked the carrier, who was Koresh's brother-in-law, for directions to the compound. Rodriguez learned his cover was blown and relayed this information to commanders. When agents emerged from horse trailers at the compound, Branch Davidians opened fire from more than 40 firing positions, including from atop a water tower.
  • Limited medical resources. Only two of the ATF agents involved in the raid were trained in tactical medicine. They provided life-saving care; however, the agency later created a tactical medic unit that undergoes extensive training, including training at the Casualty Care Research Center/Bethesda Naval Hospital and John Hopkins Medical College/Hospital.
  • Agents were outgunned. ATF agents were mostly armed with shotguns, revolvers, and 9mm pistols. Several had semi-auto MP5s and AR-15s. ATF SRT operators now carry M-4s and .40-caliber semi-auto pistols. Petrilli said the Branch Davidians fired first and ATF agents returned fire "in defense of yourself or a fellow person."
  • No contingency plan. Buford said he didn't develop a plan for a strategic withdrawal if the raid went sideways, and ATF agents only began to pull back when they began running out of ammo. "You can't make a snap decision when you're under fire," Buford said. "We were like lost sheep leaving the compound." A strong contingency plan is now required on every ATF raid.

ATF is honoring the four fallen agents at a Thursday memorial ceremony. Their names have been added to the National Law Enforcement Memorial and the ATF Memorial at the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Tags: Waco Raid, ATF, NLEOMF, Building Raids, Warrant Service, Duty Deaths, FBI, Religious Sects


Comments (19)

Displaying 1 - 19 of 19

Leonard Mather @ 2/28/2013 2:26 PM

It is no surprise that the ATF kept silent after the raid. They had relied on their past history of success and assumed it would continue in the WACO bust. Who expects a .50 caliber Barrett machine gun as well as a host of .30 caliber machine guns to greet them from 40 different positions as ATF entered? Tipped off by a postman Koresh had the upper hand in this battle. Now throw in adverse reactions from liberal Wussies focusing on finding fault with ATF to begin with and we end up with an imbroglio lasting 20 years. Wimps hate to focus on "who was wrong from the git go?" God forbid Law Enforcement was right!

Rich @ 2/28/2013 3:38 PM

They found out later that the "machine guns" were actually semi-auto clones of machine guns and were legal to own. The story also doesn't address how Delta Force illegally took part in the final assualt and how several of the killed and wounded agents were shot by friendly fire when agents shot at each other through a wooden wall.

John @ 3/1/2013 1:08 AM

With the exception of postal inspectors, customs inspectors at border crossings and a few federal agency fraud investigators, I do not believe we should have federal law enforcement in this country. It is ridiculous how many federal agencies there are in this country. The federal agencies, district/appeal courts and U.S. Attorneys are nothing more than the political enforcement arm of the administration. Much like Hilter's SS troops. There is way too much federal land, federal law enforcement and federal money going to Washington D.C. The politicians take their cut and then return a small fraction of the money back to the states with strings attached in the form of grants. The system erodes state sovereignty and often ties the hands of local law enforcement. Example: the federal government doesn't want to enforce immigration law, nor do they want state or local law enforcement to enforce immigration law. Unfortunately, the states, local governments and even private businesses have to pick up the tab for education, health care, court costs, jail space, etc. Each state police agency would be better off forming an interstate crime liaison office than depending on the feds.

DEADMAN @ 3/1/2013 1:38 AM

Not to throw stones,but,wasn't the A.T.F. also responsible for Fast and Furious.
I was only a patrolman for 28.5 years,acting supervisor for 14 months but even i recognized the major screw-ups with WACO,RUBY RIDGE and now Fast and Furious.One more thing,I always talked about any ajor arrest or felony arrest,not to brag but for training enhancement,it's important to learn from other peoples mistakes and successes,otherwisw you're doomed to do it again.Here is a major hint for everybody,when conducting an operation,like the hunt for dorner or other serious matters,the school shooting at Newtown,keep the media blocks away and treat those people like the scum they are,treat them like mushrooms,keep them in the dark and feed them BS.Tell them it's in the next town,you all saw how ravenous they were at Newtown,keep them away from victims,victims families,witnesses and officers involved,arrest them if you have to.
Don't be like cleveland mayor,chief and safety director,throwing their men to the wolves before a preliminary investigation was completred and keep the media away until you are ready with a statement.

Trigger @ 3/1/2013 8:19 AM

This was an screwed up mess, fortunately some good has come out of the ashs as are described in the "six lessons learned"

Capt David-retired LA Cou @ 3/1/2013 10:35 AM

What a mess since they could have arrested Koresh at his local restaurant most any morning. But no, they had to show the world how their SWAT, Tach Team, or whatever they called themselves, could perform, and boy did they show us all with their devastating results. I met an ATF agent at a rest stop in Arkansas shortly after the incident. He was wearing a t-shirt that said "We showed those Texans what a real BBQ is". This was one of the very few times I have ever punched out another LEO.

Hal Adelman @ 3/1/2013 11:48 AM

Grab your paint barrels: the govt statements are just a continuing whitewash. The initial raid was an illegal publicity stunt, with the deaths due to BATF "friendly fire" in the illegal raid. The second "raid" was a planned massacre, using incendiaries and murdering the few people who escaped the fire. The perpetrators, particularly Janet Reno, should have faced prison for life, or the death penalty. It is notable that the feds were so hasty to destroy the evidence, by razing everything and plowing it under before independent HONEST experts could examine the evidence, which would have revealed the government wrongdoing.

The feds got away with murder, and continue to lie about it and blame the victims.

Maj. Jim @ 3/1/2013 12:53 PM

As a 39-year LEO, I have tried hard to believe the ATFs version of the events at Waco. Obviously, serious planning and tactical errors were made. But one particular aspect of the case really baffles me: How did they "lose" the front door of the compound, which could have definitively proven or disproven the Davidian contention that the ATF fired first through the door from outside? I don't know how it is even possible to "lose" a piece of physical evidence that big.

Ofc Pyatt @ 3/5/2013 2:04 AM

The BATF has proven it's more of a politically controlled agency than a law enforcement agency.
Unfortunately with the corruption in the Justice department with a lying scum like Eric Holder at the helm, things aren't going to change any time soon!!
Add far as I'm concerned, this is more political theater than news, used to try to justify their illegal, Unconstitutional actions!!

prk @ 3/5/2013 7:28 PM

DEADMAN, did you forget Elian Gonzalez

sixnine @ 4/5/2013 10:04 AM

The ATF is the epitome of a corrupt bureaucratic federal law enforcement agency that is completely out of control.

Bob @ 4/5/2013 1:41 PM

Winner write history

Bob @ 4/5/2013 1:41 PM

Winner write history

Me @ 4/6/2013 3:07 PM

Wow Leonard a .50 cal Barrett machine gun? I didnt know they made those. Jackass

IdahoMan @ 4/6/2013 8:38 PM

So they are still lying through their teeth to this day, and the "lessons" they learned were to increase their thug-mussle for the next time when attacking US citizens.

ATF is a terrorist organization.

Mike McNulty @ 4/7/2013 5:29 PM

Well, this is all very interesting...for an alternative point of view please go to my blog: http://copsproductions.com .
I think you may find it informative.
Regards,
Mike McNulty
CEO COPS Productions est. 1989

Jason @ 2/14/2014 4:30 AM

My kudos to the fallen and wounded ATF officers. Really sad that most of the comments here are by pathetically delusional anti-government and anti-law-enforcement wackos.

Jim @ 3/22/2014 7:43 PM

"Really sad that most of the comments here are by pathetically delusional anti-government and anti-law-enforcement wackos."

Uhm, speaking of whackos, you might count yourself as one Jason. I see one or two comments that are a bit whacked out. The rest accurately reflect what various investigations and indeed peer reviewed analysis have shown, that this was a seriously botched law enforcement operation where lack of planning caused a huge number of deaths including of children.

You are being delusional by implying that criticism of poor planning and ignoring many established rules did not occur.

And it was the ATF, who already knew better that claimed a "50 call machine gun" was used by Koresh's people
1) it wasn't a machine gun
2) no one was killed by it in Waco
3) There is only one case of a 50 cal ever being used to kill anyone in the entire US, and that was third degree (negligent homicide).

Joe Zingher @ 8/27/2014 8:13 AM

Why did Bill Clinton authorize the use of military personnel and equipment at Waco? Who told him what to get him to sign the authorization? The Posse Comitatus Act requires the president to personally approve their use. He should have been told that "decapitation" is the preferred method of taking on a group like the Davidians. By arresting Koresh FIRST, then surrounding the compound, they'd have been left without their leader to organize a resistance. He should have been told that just surrounding the compound was guaranteed to create a siege situation which increases the risk for everyone, Davidians and law enforcement. He knowingly chose the more dangerous plan. The only explanation for that is he wanted a high profile raid to kick off the Brady Bill, lots of cameras, lots of excitement, great hollywood stuff.

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