Twenty years ago, on February 28th 1993, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) launched an assault on the Branch Davidian religious compound just outside Waco, Texas. The resulting siege ended more than seven weeks later, on April 19, but not before claiming the lives of 80 men, women and children -- many burned to death in the final inferno that destroyed the compound.
Even today, videos of the burning buildings remain vivid reminders of an assault gone horribly wrong, from start to finish; and, lessons from what has become known as the “Waco Tragedy” should be borne in mind by all Americans lest a similar tragedy occur in the future.
Although I was not yet a formal candidate for the United States House of Representatives in February 1993, two years later in early 1995, I was a member of the House Judiciary subcommittee that led a series of lengthy hearings into the Waco tragedy. In the immediate aftermath of the 1993 Waco siege, then-President Bill Clinton, through Attorney General Janet Reno, accepted “responsibility” for the results of the raid on the Branch Davidian compound. Unfortunately, the difficulty we in the Congress encountered in obtaining answers from Administration witnesses to our many questions regarding its execution of the operation showed the true hollowness of this acceptance of “responsibility.”
Evidence clearly established that Branch Davidian leader David Koresh (who died in the final conflagration) was a charismatic figure who took advantage of the many devoted followers at the Waco compound for his personal gratification. However, of primary concern to many of us in the Congress was the justification for, and actual conduct of, the government’s assault and lengthy siege of the religious compound.
The government claimed it possessed pre-raid evidence that Koresh and his followers were stockpiling illegal, automatic firearms, and was manufacturing illicit drugs within the compound’s several buildings. Ultimately, no evidence was ever revealed establishing that any automatic firearms were located, or being produced, at the Waco compound although this provided the legal basis for the ATF investigation and initial raid.