How and Why the Government Manipulated the Media at Waco

By Anthony Gregory

 

Note: The following is an excerpt from Anthony Gregory’s forthcoming e-publication, “God Help Us, We Want The Press”: The 1993 Waco Disaster and Government -Media Relations. If you want to be notified about it when it’s ready and available, please drop me a line.


Well before February 28, 1993, when the national press first showed an interest in Waco, the ATF showed an interest in the national press. The Bureau had publicity problems. The Bureau had a long history, originating during the 1791 Whisky Rebellion, gaining notoriety during 1920s alcohol Prohibition, and eventually coming to regulate firearms and enforce tobacco taxes in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. Throughout the 1980s, it had a questionable reputation as a rogue agency with inadequate oversight and was targeted for elimination by President Ronald Reagan. Reagan and others who did not like the agency eventually decided that abolishing it might open the door to something worse.[1]

Shortly before the Waco raid, the agency’s public image had hit an especially low point. Back in October of 1992, some African American agents accused the agency of discrimination at a House of Representatives subcommittee meeting – specifically claiming that their superiors assigned them to more dangerous jobs than their white counterparts and denied denied the same opportunities to job promotion as whites received. They filed suit. These allegations of racism were not the end. Female workers from the ATF had also made allegations of sexual harassment, and said they faced retaliatory punishment for voicing their complaints. The ATF announced that it would launch an investigation as a result, two months before the assault at Mount Carmel.[2] A couple of CBS’ 60 Minutes exposés had focused on the harassment charges, including one before the Waco raid and one a month after in which a reporter found, “Almost all the agents we talked to said they believe the initial attack on that cult in Waco was a publicity stunt – the main goal of which was to improve ATF’s tarnished image.”[3] This would explain the codename of the raid, Operation Showtime. [4]

Meanwhile, the local newspaper, The Waco Tribune-Herald, was preparing a seven-part series entitled “the Sinful Messiah” on the Branch Davidians, mostly based on accounts from defected sect members.[5] The series demonized Koresh and the Davidians, and in their investigation for the piece, editors of the Herald came to the conclusion that the sect was beyond eccentric, but rather genuinely dangerous, and worthy of law enforcement and public attention. Bob Lott, editor of the newspaper, said a day after the initial assault that their story “contained a lot of information that the public ought to know. We decided to let the public know about this menace in our backyard.”[6]

The ATF, however, did not want the Herald to print the articles before the siege began, because it might stir up attention and somehow spoil the raid. At the ATF’s request, the Herald delayed publication for about a month, and then decided finally to print it – giving the ATF one day’s notice.[7] The ATF, planning at first to attack on March 1, later said they moved the assault one day back because of the Herald article, and that doing so was no major inconvenience.[8]

When the first piece in the “Sinful Messiah” series came out on the morning of February 27, readers got the first glimpse of an image of the Davidians, and especially David Koresh, that would persist and dominate during the length of the siege and its news coverage:

“[David Koresh] has dimples, claims a ninth-grade education, married his legal wife when she was 14, enjoys a beer now and then, plays a mean guitar, reportedly packs a 9mm Glock and keeps an arsenal of military assault rifles, and willingly admits that he is a sinner without equal.”[9]

 

The piece went on to make some statements and accusations that also colored public perception of Koresh and his followers, for the rest of the standoff and to this day. It said that authorities “know the cult has weapons and plenty of them” and took defected sect member Marc Breault’s word that Koresh “abused children physically and psychologically” and even hit babies “until their bottoms bled.”[10]

If the ATF did not want an untimely publication of the Waco Tribune-Herald’s piece to interfere with the success of their raid, they sure did not mind the newspaper’s presence. An ATF agent called the newspaper, and though not revealing the agency’s exact plans at least ensured, in editor Bob Lott’s words, that the newspaper got “wind that something was going to happen.” ABC and NBC also said later that the ATF told them to be there for the raid, and so they were.  The assignment editor for ABC’s Dallas affiliate, Gary Nichols, later confided that Sharon Wheeler, a public information officer for the ATF, called and told him, “we have something big going down.” Other press officials from local television stations also arrived at the scene, prompted by the Waco Tribune-Herald edition the morning before, which they said made them think something would happen there soon. [11] Sharon Wheeler later admitted in testimony that she called the media contacts, telling them to be at the scene, but denied that it had anything to do with publicity.[12]

And so the stage was set for Operation Showtime. The ATF planned to raid the Branch Davidian home to search for weapons and arrest Koresh. The ATF could have easily accomplished these two goals without military arsenal or intense publicity. Instead they chose to carry out a lavish operation while press officials from ABC, NBC, and the Waco Tribune-Herald  would be there to watch, just in case ATF pulled the raid off in a successful performance of such skill, heroism, and bravery as to redeem their public image. They targeted  a “cult,” who also had a pubic image, conveniently tarnished in the local daily newspaper the morning before.

 

Once the raid transformed from an orchestrated publicity stunt into a catastrophe, the ATF became hostile toward the press. Authorities asked some reporters to move away or outright leave the scene. According to Jim Long, program director of television studio KGBS, reporters from his station followed these orders without hesitation: “All they had to do was tell us to leave. What did we do? We left. How could we hinder the process?”[13] Eleven reporters later gave similar accounts of ATF hostility once the raid went awry.[14] Sometimes, officials even used violence. ATF agents physically and verbally assaulted KWTX-TV cameraman Dan Mulloney while he was trying to leave the scene, nearly knocking him to the ground.[15]

Not only did ATF agents begin to vent their anger at the press, some of them even pinned blame on the media for the failure of the raid. At first, ambiguous suspicion arose that the Waco Tribune-Herald ultimately caused the ATF’s failure. A relative of an injured agent went so far as to say, “It’s not responsible journalism. It’s murder. [Herald editor Bob Lott] pulled the trigger just as sure as those people in the compound did.” Officially, the agency had a more ambivalent opinion: ATF spokeswoman Sharon Wheeler – who had told the reporters to be at the scene in the first place – declared that the bureau had no official qualms with the reporting.[16] In spite of this “official” position, the ATF were unhappy with the press enough by March 2, two days after the raid, to order the press to move several miles away from the scene.[17] For the duration of the siege up until its deadly end, reporters would not get closer than 6,000 feet to the subject of their reporting.[18]

Reporters also quickly lost the direct contact with Davidians inside that they had for the first few days of the standoff. On the day of the initial assault, David Koresh conducted an interview with CNN that lasted twenty minutes. That same day, he also spoke with A Current Affair, a television tabloid.[19] On the second day of the standoff, Koresh spoke on the radio and presented his angle on the situation, complete with religious fervor.[20] Officials said they allowed Koresh these privileges of media access in exchange for his promise that he would come out on March 2. When Koresh reneged on this deal, saying that God told him to wait longer, the government officials lost patience and cut him off from the press.[21] This isolation from the media lasted the rest of the siege. The government now had the upper hand in media coverage. The Davidians on the other hand could not get their story out to the world, to explain their perspective to the court of public opinion, for the remainder of the seven-week standoff. Frustrated, the Branch Davidians gave the world a message on March 9 by hanging a banner outside a window, visible to reporters and photographers who by this point began using super high quality lenses to see the standoff from far away. The banner read, “God Help Us. We Want the Press.”[22] The media could probably assume the general meaning from the message, but as implied in the message itself, journalists could not understand the intricacies of the message’s expressed desire.

The FBI found amusing neither the Davidians’ obsession with the media, nor the media’s obsession with the Davidians.  FBI official Bob Ricks said on March 10 that attempts of the media to contact the Davidians inside diverted the negotiation process “from trying to gain release of all those inside to Mr. Koresh’s attempts to gain access to the media.” He called this “counterproductive,” and explained that the FBI “found that [Koresh] loves the attention. If he sees he can get the attention of the media, the longer he will hold out.”[23]

As the standoff continued and became more embarrassing, the FBI continued to keep the press at a distance from the scene, even when new developments emerged. When several Davidians left the building under siege, the New York Times had to admit its inability to describe the events well: “It was difficult for reporters to determine what was happening inside the compound, because the Federal authorities cut off outside lines and prevented the four adults who had come out from being interviewed.” The Davidians hung a third banner on March 14, which read, “F.B.I. broke negotiations. We want press.” The New York Times again admitted its limited comprehension: “It was unclear what prompted the message.”[24] Perhaps it was unclear to the Times because as a member of the press, they were not getting the whole story – just as the banner implied. And perhaps they were not allowed the whole story because the F.B.I. broke negotiations.

Through the middle of March the FBI maintained that they wanted to limit coverage of the event because Koresh wanted publicity – presumably an ignoble goal for religious extremists, if not the ATF. [25]  FBI agent Bob Ricks explained simply that they would deny Koresh access to the press “until [they] are sure he has come out.”[26] In the following few days, Koresh reportedly read news accounts that he considered unfair, and wanted desperately to have a chance to give his perspective. Ricks held his ground, reiterating that “if [Koresh] wants it told his way, he’ll have to come out.”[27] What the government initially planned as a mechanism for winning over the hearts and minds of America’s television enthusiasts had by now become a tool for luring Koresh out, which would, incidentally, serve the initial purpose as well.

 Not only did the FBI want the press kept away from the Davidians, they also wanted to silence whistleblowers who might give accounts of the raid inconsistent with the government’s official story. Some ATF agents began to tell the press anonymously that the agency had inappropriately given certain media representatives information about the raid before it began. Such allegations would make it hard for other agents to blame the press for ruining the assault, if the government asked the press to be there in the first place. ATF and FBI leaders also did not want their employees criticizing each other’s agencies. On March 12, FBI Directior William Sessions and ATF Director Stephen Higgins delivered a joint statement voicing their unease with “unnamed agents speaking to the media about aspects of both operations and critical of the other agency.”[28] On March 15, concern about whistleblowers came from up top, when Washington D.C. sent a memo to agents warning them that those who talked to the public about what happened would risk being fired, punished, or even prosecuted. Because of this, all accounts from agents to the press critical of the way the government handled the raid – and such accounts did exist – were anonymous.[29] This might have made their words less credible to some than those of the named government approved operatives mouthing official stories.

As government-media relations became increasingly important to authorities, the Waco Tribune-Herald controversy also persisted. ATF agent John Risenhoover, wounded in the initial attack, began accusing the Herald of responsibility for the raid’s failure, implicating the newspaper in tipping off the sect before the assault. On March 17, he and others officially filed suit, blaming the Herald for leaking information to the Davidians because they “wanted a conflict that would make a good news story.” Editor Bob Lott responded to the allegations by saying, “The injuries to Agent Risenhoover and the deaths and injuries to others are regrettable. But they were not caused by this paper.” The ATF itself was not officially behind the suit; Risenhoover’s superior said, “We’re unhappy with the timing of the suit, obviously, because there is an ongoing criminal investigation…. We asked them not to file the suit, but we could not order them [not] to.” [30] Risenhoover also complained that the Herald promised not to publish the piece, but did so anyway. The Herald and the ATF said no such promise had been made.[31] Other agents may have also blamed the newspaper, but perhaps vented their anger in other ways. FBI agents in a tank flattened a truck belonging to the newspaper, but claimed they did so accidentally. Bob Ricks explained: “We are not professional tank drivers. We are FBI agents who are driving those vehicles.”[32]

As the standoff ensued, the press continued to get most of their information from the government. The FBI conducted daily press conferences, in effect holding a monopoly on sources of information for the media and the public. These conferences were at least as much used as a weapon against David Koresh as they were used to portray the FBI in a manner favorable to the agency. Hodding Carter, a State Department official who had acted as the government’s voice during the Iran hostage crisis, told reporters, “Almost everything [said at the press conferences have] more to do with that one-person public [Koresh] than with the larger public.”[33]

On March 28, the New York Times published a powerful article, outlining many aspects of government incompetence and negligence and inconsistencies in government claims. Many of the sources were anonymous agents who spoke under anonymity out of fear of being harassed by the government.[34] In spite of the fact that the government had kept the press away from the Davidians, and had threatened their own agents to keep them away from the press, some disturbing facts came out.

In the daily press conferences that followed, reporters mainly asked questions about issues brought up in the March 28 article, or arising from a general skepticism that began to grow toward the end of the standoff. Specifically, the questions pertained to whether the ATF had initiated a raid even though they knew that Koresh was aware it would happen – a concern brought up in the March 28 Times piece. Around the same time that authorities became heavily and detectably annoyed with the standoff, they also revealed a loss of patience with the press, who became increasingly skeptical of the government. On Saturday, April 11, ten nine days before the fire, ATF intelligence chief and press conference regular David Troy stopped holding the meetings with reporters altogether.[35] Not until the April 19 fire would the agency again show interest in talking with the press.

 

 



[1] Stephen Labaton, “Saved from Extinction, New Agency Faces Peril,” Dallas Morning News, March 4, 1993.

[2] Same.

[3] “Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Harassment; Female ATF Agents Say Sexual Harassment within the Agency is Rampant and Unchecked,” CBS News Transcripts, 60 Minutes, May 23, 1993, cited in James Bovard, “Feeling Your Pain”: The Explosion of Government Power and Abuse in the Clinton-Gore Years (Palgrave: New York, 2000), 269.

[4] Dick J. Reavis, The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 33; James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher, Why Waco: Cults and Religious Freedom in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 103. The unofficial codename, used by most ATF officials, was “Operation Showtime.” The official codename was strangely “Operation Trojan Horse.” Agents thought about the raid in terms of the unofficial name, yelling “showtime!” as the raid began.

[5] Lee Hancock, “Questions Arise on Media’s Role in Raid,” Dallas Morning News, March 1, 1993.

[6] Bill Carter, “After Gunfire Dies Down, Questions Arise on Newspaper’s Role,” New York Times, March 2, 1993.

[7] Same.

[8] Dallas Morning News, March 3, 1993.

[9] Waco-Tribune Herald, February 27, 1993, reprinted in San Francisco Chronicle, March 1, 1993.

[10] Same

[11] “After Gunfire Dies Down, Questions Arise on Newspaper’s Role,” New York Times, March 2, 1993.

[12] Waco: Rules of Engagement.

[13] Terrence Stutz, “Cult Displays Banner Seeking Talk with Rights Group,” Dallas Morning News, March 11, 1993.

[14] Stephen Labaton and Sam Howe Verhovek, “U.S. Agents Say Fatal Flaws Doomed Raid on Waco Cult,” New York Times, March 28, 1993.

[15] Described in Carol Moore, The Davidian Massacre: Disturbing Questions About Waco Which Must Be Answered (Legacy Communications: Franklin, Tennessee, 1995), 149, citing trial transcripts. Actual footage of the assault, recorded on Mulloney’s camera, can be seen in Waco: the New Revelation, prod. Rick Van Vleet, Stephen M. Novak, Michael McNulty, dir. Jason Van Vleet, MGA Films, 1999, videocassette.

[16] “After Gunfire Dies Down, Questions Arise on Newspaper’s Role,” New York Times, March 2, 1993.

[17] Don Terry, “Shootout in Texas Goes on After Cult Chief’s Broadcast,” New York Times, March 3, 1993.

[18] Dallas Morning News, April 20, 1993

[19] “After Gunfire Dies Down, Questions Arise on Newspaper’s Role,” New York Times, March 2, 1993.

[20] “400 Law Agents Are in Standoff with Texas Cult,” New York Times, March 2, 1993.

[21] Lee Hancock and George Kuempel, “U.S. Agents Seem Ready for Long Wait,” Dallas Morning News, March 4, 1993.

[22] George Kuemple, “McLennan Sheriff Joins Talks with Cult Leader,” Dallas Morning News, March 10, 1993.

[23] David McLemore, “Agents Claim Control: Man Arrested Outside Cult Site,” Dallas Morning News, March 11, 1993.

[24] Robert Reinhold, “Members of Texas Sect Hint Resolve is Weakening,” New York Times, March 15, 1993.

[25] Lee Hancock, “Officials Use Secrecy as Siege Tactic,” New York Times, March 16, 1993.

[26] Todd Copilevitz, “Up to 20 in Cult Want to Leave, FBI Agent Says,” Dallas Morning News, March 18, 1993.

[27] Victoria Lee and Lee Hancock, “2 Leave Sect Compound; Koresh Talks to Agents,” Dallas Morning News, March 20, 1993.

[28] Bruce Nichols, “Lawyers Complain About Secrecy on U.S. Documents About Cult,” Dallas Morning News, March 13, 1993.

[29] Stephen Labaton and Sam Howe Verhovek, “U.S. Agents Say Fatal Flaws Doomed Raid on Waco Cult,” New York Times, March 28, 1993.

[30] Lee Hancock, “Inquiry Shifts to Media, Dallas Morning News, March 18, 1993.

[31] Sam Howe Verhovek, “Agent Injured by Cult Gunfire Blames Texas Newspaper in Lawsuit,” New York Times, March 18, 1993.

[32] Christy Hoppe, “FBI Challenges Koresh to Let Followers Leave,” Dallas Morning News, March 19, 1993.

[33] Victoria Lee, “Between the Lines: FBI Uses Briefings As Tactical Weapons,” Dallas Morning News, March 25, 1993.

[34] Stephen Labaton and Sam Howe Verhovek, “U.S. Agents Say Fatal Flaws Doomed Raid on Waco Cult,” New York Times, March 28, 1993.

[35] Victoria Lee, “Koresh Threatens to Smite His Enemies,” Dallas Morning News, April 11, 1993.