Lessons Learned from the ATF Waco Raid

A trio of ATF commanders have offered new details about the failed Waco raid and outlined changes within the agency since 1993, as the agency remembers its four fallen agents on the 20th anniversary.

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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.

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