Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Waco Siege Prompts Scrutiny of Agency Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Faces Heat over Tactics

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Waco Siege Prompts Scrutiny of Agency Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Faces Heat over Tactics

Article excerpt

MARCH has been a month of momentous publicity at both extremes for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), a law enforcement agency that until now rarely captured the public's attention.

On the positive side, the ATF may have helped to crack the biggest terrorism case in United States history. Its arson experts, investigating the bombing of the parking garage of New York's World Trade Center, found clues that led to several arrests less than one week after the blast.

On the negative side, last week the bureau lost four agents, the most ever killed in a single operation by the ATF and its predecessor organizations since 1920. Sixteen other agents were wounded by the greatest fusillade reportedly ever directed at federal lawmen.

Believing that a religious sect called Branch Davidians possessed explosives and illegal firearms, some 150 ATF agents attempted on Feb. 28 to storm Mount Carmel, the sect's 77-acre compound 10 miles east of Waco.

During a 45-minute shootout, the Branch Davidians successfully repelled the assault. Another gun battle broke out later that day.

In all, the sect suffered three confirmed fatalities and possibly 10 or more. Meanwhile, the ATF called in reinforcements, including the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team and FBI negotiators.

As the standoff drags into its second week, hundreds of lawmen from a score of agencies ring the compound. No further shooting has taken place, and the FBI says it is willing to wait as long as necessary for the Branch Davidians to give up peacefully.

The FBI negotiates constantly with sect leader David Koresh, who has allowed 21 children and two elderly women to leave the compound. At press time, he says 90 adults and 17 children remain inside.

The fiasco at Mount Carmel has prompted sharp criticism of the ATF's tactics. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, for whom the ATF works, has called for an investigation, as have key members of Congress. Bureau director Stephen Higgins has promised "a full and complete report," says ATF spokesman Lester Stanford.

Questions about the raid, which the ATF says was preceded by four months of planning, focus on the bureau's timing and tactics. …

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