David B. Kopel and Paul H. Blackman
No More Wacos: What's Wrong With Federal Law Enforcement and How to Fix It
Prometheus Books, 1997
ISBN 1-57392-125-4
524 pages, $26.95 hb.
Reviewed by Gary McGath
This review Copyright 1997 by Gary McGath

The definitive book on the confrontation between federal law enforcement agencies and the Branch Davidians in 1993 has yet to be written, and cannot be written until more of the facts are known. However, No More Wacos comes the closest of any book so far published to being definitive.

The previous best book on the subject, Dick J. Reavis's The Ashes of Waco, is still a very good account of the many wrongs which the federal government engaged in. Kopel and Blackman don't contradict Reavis on any important points, but they do provide more thorough documentation, commentary on other events which shed light on Waco, and suggestions for reform. Each of the books is more thorough in some areas than the other, so the two complement one another. Being published two years later, No More Wacos also covers some later events, such as the 1995 Congressional hearings.

Readers of Reavis or any other good account will be familiar with the main points that Kopel and Blackman cover: the publicity campaign prior to the assault; the horribly inept and inaccurate search warrant; the needless use of massive force in serving a search and an arrest warrant; the frustrating negotiations; the use of psychological warfare against the Davidians; the final assault, the fire, and the reckless disregard for human lives which the federal authorities showed; and the miscarriage of justice at the ensuing trial. The authors of the present book are particularly good at dealing with issues of firearms law, as well as the legal issues involved in bringing in military equipment. The latter issue is important because the BATF invented a "drug nexus" at Mount Carmel in order to obtain the use of military equipment free of charge. And as they note, such valid charges as can be found in the search warrant amount to no more than failure to register otherwise legal weapons; thus, an armed break-in by dozens of agents supported by helicopters against a house containing numerous children was conducted for a tax collection case.

In any discussion of Waco, two questions will always stand out: who fired the first shot on February 28, and what started the fire on April 19? No one has yet come up with a really convincing answer to either question, and Kopel and Blackman recognize the difficulty. They offer various alternatives regarding the first question, and note that one key piece of evidence, the right front door to the Davidians' building, mysteriously disappeared. The direction from which bullets passed through the door would have given important information about who was firing blindly. (The Treasury Department's report states that the initial shots were fired through the front door, from the inside.)

With regard to the fire, the authors argue that it is more likely that some of the Davidians started the fire than that the attackers' actions did, either intentionally or accidentally. However, the "Jonestown" theory, that the fire was an act of mass suicide, is extremely unlikely. It may be that the Davidian leaders started the fire to stop the tanks, and it's possible they expected to be divinely protected and even translated into heaven. On the other hand, the government's apparent suppression of evidence has to make us wonder. For instance, the BATF claimed that all the surveillance devices which they had planted in Mt. Carmel (without a warrant) malfunctioned before the fire started. Perhaps this happened as a result of the tanks smashing in the walls, but it does give cause to wonder. (There is also Linda Thompson's theory that the FBI equipped its tanks with flamethrowers; this is the least believable scenario of all, and the book treats it as such.)

Whoever started the fire, it is clear that the FBI was expecting one. They had inquired about the capacity of a hospital burn unit, and used FLIR (forward-looking infrared) photography, used for fire detection, as part of their observation of the attack. However, they made no provision for fire-fighting, and actually delayed the arrival of fire trucks once they were called. The stated reason for this was that the Davidians might shoot at the firefighters; but the authors note that safe alternatives were available, including fire-fighting tanks and aerial fire-fighting equipment.

The authors stress the harmful effects of CS gas even more than Reavis does, and state that "it seems likely that at least some Branch Davidians were dead before the fire began, killed by the CS." Reavis, on the other hand, places more of a stress on deaths caused by the tanks' making parts of the building collapse on people. Both books agree that the latter resulted in some deaths.

One noteworthy difference between No More Wacos and The Ashes of Waco concerns the Davidians' aborted surrender on March 2. Kopel and Blackman say that the Davidians planned "to exit the building, and, when federal agents came close, blow up themselves and the agents with grenades." Reavis argues that if there was such a plan, it was not known to many of the Davidians. Three Davidians, acting as government witnesses, stated that there was a proposal by David Koresh; others denied having heard of any such plan. If such a plan was seriously intended, this would increase the plausibility that the Davidians used fire to fight the tanks even at the cost of their own lives.

In the 1995 Congressional hearings, Charles Schumer and other Democrats disgraced themselves by diverting the hearings from the subject of massive abuse of law enforcement power to Kiri Jewell's rape charges against Koresh (a serious matter, but not one for a Congressional investigating committee) and the involvement of the NRA. However, as the authors note, the Republicans didn't do very well either, as they concentrated on embarrassing the Clinton administration rather than uncovering wrongdoing at all levels.

The book treats Waco as part of a pattern of increasing federalization and militarization of law enforcement. They discuss Ruby Ridge, the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, and various abuses of power by the BATF, FBI, and other federal agencies. They state that Janet Reno should resign, but note that "the best argument for her staying in office is that the Clinton administration would probably name an even worse replacement." They offer a number of suggestions for reform, most of which involve limiting the powers of the federal government and turning enforcement back to state and local authorities where there is no solid reason for federal involvement. They specifically note the role of victimless crime laws and civil forfeiture in encouraging abuses. The first appendix to the book is a detailed legislative proposal for federal law enforcement reform.

However, the authors do not blame the government alone. They also note the frequent hostility to "cults" in our society, comparing this to the attacks on "heretics" and "witches" in earlier centuries. This is an issue which Tabor and Gallagher discuss at length in Why Waco? In my own experience, I've found that otherwise reasonable people are outraged at any suggestion that the government violated the rights of those "religious nuts," and regard such criticism as "conspiracy theory" and therefore absurd. Waco has clearly touched a strong vein of hidden religious hatred in America.

The appendices contain a glossary of names, summaries of the negotiation tapes, a chronology of the events, and a bibliography. There is also a promotional Web site for the book, which includes links to other sources of information.

No More Wacos is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in learning about what happened in Waco, and is an important book for anyone concerned about abuses of federal law enforcement power.

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