Blunders in Waco


Washington -- THE MORE Bill Clinton and administration stooges plead that replaying the Waco, Texas, shootout besmirches U.S. lawmen, the phonier their damage control sounds.

What if inept air controllers were causing jet-liner crashes?

Or corrupt Internal Revenue Service agents letting zillionaire taxpayers off the hook?

Wouldn't airing the truth clean house and blow away paranoia?

But with congressional hearings on Waco halfway home, you can understand the president's thin skin about the screw-up on his watch.

You didn't have to be a militia member or National Rifle Association zealot to suspect someone goofed, that there was a tragic dance between wacko messiah David Koresh and macho law agents.

The more you hear about Waco, the incompetence, confusion and lies of those in charge of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raid become sickeningly clear.

Sometimes a witness speaks with such electrifying passion and clarity, you know he's spilling bitter truths and damning the lies.

This one was Robert Rodriguez, a broad-shouldered, dark-haired ATF agent for 18 years. Vitally, he was the undercover agent inside the Waco compound who last saw and heard Koresh.

Recounting publicly for the first time those moments before the Feb. 28, 1993, raid, Mr. Rodriguez was often near tears. But he wasn't bluffing when he looked his former bosses in the eyes. Liars, he called them.

Key question: Did the ATF honchos shrug off a warning that Koresh had been tipped before they bulled ahead with the raid?

Mr. Rodriguez, who gained Koresh's confidence posing as a college student, dramatically left no doubt that he sent red flags flying.

He remembered Koresh returning from a phone call "breathing real hard, shaking so much he couldn't hold the Bible."

Koresh lifted a window shade, peered out and said, "They're coming, Robert. This is our time. The ATF and National Guard aren't going to get me, Robert."

Undercover man Rodriguez rushed from the compound in near panic. He phoned an agent leading the raid, Chuck Sarabyn.

"Chuck, Chuck, they know. They know we're coming, Chuck," he recalls saying. Unable to convince Mr. Sarabyn, he rushed to the ATF command post, but found the raid in progress.

"I went outside and sat down and cried," said Mr. Rodriguez, stunned when told four agents were killed, 20 wounded.

"These two men know what I told them," Mr. Rodriguez nodded at his ex-bosses, Mr. Sarabyn and Phillip Chojnacki. "They've publicly lied about it. But I'll remember my words to my dying day."

"I didn't know whether he [Mr. Rodriguez] was speaking physically or metaphysically," said Mr. Sarabyn, who's flipped his story. (Sixty-one witnesses testified to the Treasury Department that Mr. Sarabyn told his raiders, "Hurry up, Koresh knows we're coming.")

"Did you expect Koresh to invite you in for tea and cookies?" snapped Chairman Bill Zeliff, R-N.H.

But a deadly mistake isn't necessarily punished in the Washington bureaucracy. The raid's ATF orchestrators, Messrs. Sarabyn and Chojnacki, were fired, then rehired with back pay.

The Waco script, in hindsight, gets darker. Texas social worker Joyce Sparks, who spent hours inside the Waco compound where Koresh prattled of biblical firestorms, also tried to steer ATF guys off their SWAT-style assault.

"They'll get their guns and kill you," Ms. Sparks told the ATF. Nobody paid attention.

A nagging question: Why not arrest Koresh on the street instead of a door-bashing raid?

Astonished, the ATF's Mr. Chojnacki said, "Well, we would still have had to go get the guns." But ex-ATF deputy Dan Harnett had the ultimate twist: Blame the media.

"If that TV cameraman hadn't tipped them off, not a shot would have been fired," said Mr. Harnett angrily.

Maybe. But it's usually ATF, FBI or drug agents who invite TV crews to film what will presumably be a glorious public relations event.

Clinton loyalist Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., parrots the administration line: "Republicans use Waco to cripple the ATF for the National Rifle Association."

That's political babble. Waco was an enormous blunder. So far I've heard no assurance that when trigger-happy lawmen encounter the next armed cult, there won't be another Waco.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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