Civil Liberties

Today Marks The 20th Anniversary of the Waco Fiasco


Branch Davidian settlement

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the bloody mess in Waco, Texas, when federal agents staged a raid on the Branch Davidian settlement over non-violent weapons violations, and managed to botch the operation in spectacular and lethal form. The anniversary is especially worth noting since some of the usual suspects speculated early on that the Boston Marathon bombing was somehow connected to that incident, and because some of the agencies called upon in the wake of terrorist attacks also bear responsibility for the deaths in Waco. Over at the Cato Institute's National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, Timo Lynch tells us why Waco matters.

April 19, 1993 marks the worst police action in modern American history.   Here are the main things to know:

  • 76 people, including 27 children, died that day.  That loss of life is a sufficient explanation as to why this incident is important and worth remembering.
  • The federal police operation did not involve a handful of "rogue" agents.  The incident is disturbing because it supposedly involved the best units of the ATF and the FBI.  And much of the decision-making was done by the top people at headquarters facilities in Washington, DC.
  • Make no mistake, crimes were committed by federal agents at Waco.  And those crimes were covered-up.
  • If the feds can successfully cover-up the worst police action in modern American history–an event that was highly publicized and that eventually brought extensive congressional hearings and the appointment of a special prosecutor– it is frightening to consider what police agencies would be able to get away in instances where there is no media scrutiny or legislative oversight.

Lynch points to a 2001 paper he wrote for Cato about the Waco fiasco, which points out:

Although the "official" investigation of the incident now places all of the blame for the carnage on the Branch Davidian leader, David Koresh, numerous crimes by government agents were never seriously investigated or prosecuted. If those crimes go unpunished, the Waco incident will leave an odious precedent—that federal agents can use the "color of their office" to commit crimes against citizens.

Lest anybody dismiss Lynch's tough assessment of the behavior of federal agents at Waco as libertarian kookiness, let's remember that, after a jury acquitted Branch Davidian defendants at trial of the most serious charges, the New York Times editorialized a rather harsh judgment of government conduct:

The jury's mixed verdict in the deaths of four of the Treasury agents who raided the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex., has dealt another mortifying blow to Federal law enforcement. Just about the only person who does not view the verdict as a rebuke to the massive and unnecessary police action is Attorney General Janet Reno.

The raid, a year ago yesterday, was botched, as were most of the Government's efforts to arrange the surrender of the heavily armed cultist David Koresh. Along with dozens of his followers and their children, Mr. Koresh perished last April in a fiery response to a final raid, by the F.B.I.

At a time when Americans are debating the wisdom of even further increasing government control and scrutiny over our lives, let's remember that some of the agencies that exercise such control and scrutiny are the same ones that bear responsibility for Waco.