In the Eighties, shades of Jonestown fell on American soil, as
we watched a new pattern unfold within the wider cult phenomenon,
one of escalating confrontations between groups across the religious-political
spectrum and their surrounding societies. The new pattern, most
visible in conflicts involving armed apocalyptic cults, murderous
satanic sects, radical political groups and paramilitary survivalist
sects, broke out repeatedly in violent shoot-outs and flame-filled
In 1983, two federal marshals were killed in North Dakota while
attempting to arrest fugitive tax-protester Gordon Kahl, an adherent
of the ultra-fundamentalist, andti-government Posse Comitatus
movement. Kahl and a local sheriff died later in a gunfight at
an Arkansas farmhouse.
In 1985, weapons belonging to leaders of the paramilitary sect
the Order, a breakaway group from the Idaho-based neo-Nazi Church
of the Aryan Nations, were linked to the machine-gun assassination
a year earlier of a Denver radio talk show host. Federal agents
cornered suspects in the killing at a sect compound on an island
northwest of Seattle. The sect's co-founder died in a 35-hour
gun battle that ended in a fiery explosion.
In Philadelphia, the same year, authorities surrounded the inner
city headquarters of the radical back-to-nature sect MOVE, whose
members had been involved in a fatal shootout with police and
firemen several years earlier. After a protracted siege and standoff,
police helicopters bombed the building. Six adults and five children
died in the blaze that followed, which destroyed sixty neighboring
Sometimes the pattern of conflict stopped short of tragedy. In
the early eighties, devotees of red-robed Indian guru Bhagwan
Shree Rajneesh purchased a 62,000-acre ranch and took domain over
the rural community of Antelope in north central Oregon. Thousands
of disciples converged on the commune from around the world, voted
themselves into power and renamed the town Rahnesshpuram. A series
of legal challenges and angry clashes with neighbors followed,
and a siege mentality set in. Sect leaders amassed a cache of
assault weapons and, according to local authorities, "enough
ammo to supply a battalion for a year." The conflict came
to a head in 1985, when reports surfaced of a sect plot to assassinate
government officials investigating the group, but the crisis was
defused. Three sect members were arrested and charged with conspiracy
to commit murder. Rajneesh and seven sect lieutenants were charged
with federal immigration law violations. The guru pleaded guilty,
was deported to India, and the commune rapidly disbanded.
However, many other actions took the lives of sect members and
their opponents. Dissident cultists died in rural Nebraska and
Ohio, at Hare Krishna temples in West Virginia, and in a devil-worshipping
cult ritual on the Texas-Mexico border. Armed insurgencies were
mounted by followers of the anti-abortion Army of God, the paramilitary
the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord sect, and the
White Aryan Resistance. Other violent acts were committed by
members of white racist Identity Christian sects, Posse Comitatus
militias, and extremist Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi and "skinhead"
hate groups active in forty states.
In 1992, the next escalation took place, when a showdown between
Randall Weaver, a white seperatist Identity Christian, and federal
officers who had came to arrest him for firearms violations triggered
an exchange of gunfire at Weaver's mountain home in Idaho. A
decorated federal marshal and Weaver's 14-year-old son were killed.
A massive deployment followed. Four hundred federal agents,
including the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team, converged on the
scene. The next day, sharpshooters acting under loosened law
enforcement rules that permitted them to shoot, not only in self-defense
but at any armed person in sight, purportedly fired at Weaver
as he ran for cover and accidentally shot and killed Weaver's
wife as she stood holding her infant child behind a door. The
siege ended ten days later when Weaver surrendered. In the tumultuous
trial that followed, Weaver was acquitted of murder by juror members
appalled by the government's aggressive actions. Three years
later, the case was still generating criticism of federal officials
and bitter charges from the growing numbers of armed seperatist
sects and anti-government extremists.
On the surface, these escalating conflicts, ostensibly, over guns,
land and crimes of the most brutal physical nature, seemed to
have little to do with life in America's advancing information
society. However, their driving forces in almost every instance
could be located squarely in the information dimension: in the
domain of beliefs, emotions, ideologies and other messages passing
among people, in the new realm of human communication and control,
and in the effects of religious conversions and political convictions
held by individuals in states of mind that eluded, and often completely
defied, established psychological, social and legal conventions.
These vastly different confrontations could not be simply equated,
but their emerging pattern gave shape to a recurring image in
our minds. The image was a spiral turning in a widening gyre.
The winding spiral shape seemed to us to depict the almost unstoppable
momentum that seemed to gather in public confrontations with cults
and cult-like groups: the swirl of information, events, and predictable
actions and reactions that seemed to build to inevitable conclusions
in such conflicts. Repeatedly, we watched the same spiral dynamic
draw everything in its path - individuals, families, communities,
the media, law enforcement and higher government officials - into
a vortex that exploded in fury and left a trail of death and destruction
in its wake.
Obviously, every conflict was not identical - the death spiral
was as impulsive as the new sects themselves - but the pattern
repeated itself in theme and variation. Sometimes tiny pivot
points of belief or ideology marked the difference between loving
faith and warring fanaticism. In armed showdowns, the slightest
miscalculations in police tactics or timing could spin a peaceful
surrender into a fatal shootout or blazing inferno. Often fierce
confrontations erupted in a sudden runup of events no one foresaw
or ever would have predicted. By their nature, in fact, most
cult conflicts grew out of odd convergences of unruly forces and
turned on seemingly insignificant factors that only became obvious
The death spiral fit the pattern of cult tragedies with chilling
congruity. The run of recent confrontations conformed, more or
less precisely, to our model.
Then, one deceptively quiet Sunday morning in late February 1993,
true to every turn of chaos theory, a canvas tarpaulin fluttered
in the warming breeze and set off a tornado in Texas.
The Brach Davidians were a fractal branch of the 1.5 million-member
Seventh-day Adventist Church. They believed literally that the
long-prophesied Second Coming of Christ and its consequence, the
end of the world, were close at hand.
Their leader, David Koresh, was a voice in the whirlwind and a
vortex in the classical sense, a spinning tower of overheated
air that grew larger as it consumed the cooler air around it.
From the beginning, Koresh was a strange attractor, a one-man
energy center fixed in space and biblical time who both charmed
and repelled those who came near him, but his roiling persona
soon underwent a radical shift of phase from sect leader to cult
commander. Koresh sealed off the Branch Davidians from the larger
society. He controlled and overwhelmed them with interminable
preachings and sexual domination. He took up arms against the
opponents and amassed an arsenal of combat-grade weapons. In
the name of discipline, he beat his followers, starved their children
and abused them physically and sexually. He foretold a coming
holy war with the society around him and threatened violence on
an epic scale. He vowed never to be taken alive and trained his
flock for mass suicide. His outrageous behavior, apocalyptic
preachings and greed for guns surpassed the safety limits society
could tolerate - and broke the laws of that society as well.
Then the beast in Koresh's eschatology, the united States Government,
came round on cue.
On Sunday, February 28, 1993, after months of investigation, surveillance
and logistical planning, seventy-five armed agents of the Bureau
of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a division of the U.S. Treasury
Department, converged on the Branch Davidians' 77-acre compound
at Mount Carmel outside Waco. Their mission was to arrest Koresh
and search for the cache of illegal automatic weapons and other
arms reportedly amassed byt he sect leader and his lieutenants.
Like growing numbers of religious and political extremists across
the country, Koresh and his crew were venturing into the arms
trade and, according to multiple sources, making plans for armed
insurrection as well. They had reportedly spent more than $200,000
buying guns, grenades and other explosive devices, including assault
rifles, shotguns, pistols, legal semiautomatic rifles and parts
to convert them into illegal automatic firearms, an armor-piercing
.50-caliber machine gun and four tons of ammunition.
The events that followed swiftly escalated into one of the most
bizarre and tragic chapters in American law enforcement history.
The ATF assault conformed generally with accepted procedures for
raiding fortified premises and apprehending heavily armed suspects,
only this raid was staged on the scale of a military operation,
perhaps to avoid a replay of the killing of a U.S. marshal in
the Weaver raid in Idaho months earlier - or, as raid planners
feared, an orchestrated assault on federal officers. After receiving
training in communications, tactics and emergency medical procedures
from Army Special Forces instructors at nearby Fort Hood, Texas
( a consultation that was later questioned but found to be entirely
legal under such circumstances), agents equipped with assault
gear, bulletproof vests and riot control devices rolled toward
the Brach Davidian farmhouse in two cattlewagons covered by tarpaulins.
Texas National Guard helicopters provided reconnaissance and
standby air cover.
When the wagons reached their objective, the Trojan cattle deployed,
but the Davidians were waiting. A butterfly in the vortex, a
local TV cameraman who had learned of the raid from a co-worker's
girlfriend, an emergency medical technician hired to support the
federal effort, stopped to ask a postman for direction and told
him the ATF was coming. The postman was Koresh's brother-in-law,
and he promptly passed word to Koresh that the long-expected raid
was standing at the front door. When they identified themselves,
he stepped back inside and a massive firefight broke out through
every wall and window. Media observers confirmed government claims
that the Davidians fired first. When the smoke cleared after
forty-five minutes of battle, four ATF agents lay dead; sixteen
more were wounded from gunfire and grenades hurled at government
forces. Inside, Koresh himself was wounded, five sect members
were dead and a sixth died several hours later.
The standoff that followed lasted an excruciating fifty-one days.
During that time, the 400 special agents of the FBI who took
over the Waco operation, an occupying army of national and global
media, and a transfixed world learned more than they ever cared
to know about David Koresh and his Branch Davidians. Koresh,
33, a.k.a. Vernon Wayne Howell, a gangly kid with wavy hair and
wire-framed glasses, was no Jim Jones. He was more like a "Generation
X" Charles Manson, an aspiring rock musician who lured his
followers with a piper's charms and who later, like Manson, declared
himself to be God.
In 1984, young Vernon Howell joined the straggling Branch Davidian
sect and promptly began wrestling for control over the group.
After a brief apprenticeship under sect leader Lois Roden, the
widow of the sect's founder Ben Roden, Howell proclaimed himself
to be the Davidians' new prophet, rallied older members around
him, and began recruiting new followers from across the U.S.,
Great Britian and Australia. In 1987, he led a shootout against
a rival sect leader and emerged the victor after a local jury
deadlocked in his trial for attempted murder. Soon after, he
claimed divine visions of a coming apocalypse and removed his
flock to the sect's secluded compound on the central Texas plains.
There he proceeded to spin out of control by degrees. He systematically
separated husbands from wives and children from parents. He took
nineteen "wives" for himself, including girls ten, twelve,
fourteen, another seventeen and, later her fifty-year-old mother.
In 1990, Howell changed his name legally to David Koresh - Hebrew
for Cyrus, after the benevolent king of Persia who welcomed the
wandering tribes of David back to Israel in the sixth century
B.C. - and began predicting that the Battle of Armageddon would
now commence in Texas. In Koresh's scenario, the American army
would attack his new Israelites and ignite a conflagration that
would bring on the end of the world. In preparation, he ordered
the sect's male adherents, who included a core group of zealous
lieutenants schooled in paramilitary tactics and retooling automatic
weapons, to arm and fortify the Waco compound and make ready for
the Final battle. He buried a bus beneath the compound and stocked
it with food for a year. Sect members practiced daily military
drills and were put on a rationed vegetarian diet. Children and
adults were instructed in the surest way to commit suicide with
For sect members inside the besieged compound, the ATF raid proved
Koresh's bona fides as a prophet of God. For lawmen outside
the cult enclave, Koresh proved to be a devil of an adversary.
Veteran FBI negotiators set up shop in a trailer near the compound.
The Bureau's crack-shot hostage Rescue Team was airlifted to
the scene. Early on, Koresh cleaned house, releasing six adult
Davidians he considered potentially disloyal and twenty-three
children of sect members. Then he dug in for the long haul, keeping
fifty adult followers and twenty-five children he claimed as his
Days stretched into weeks of frustrating, infuriating negotiations.
Koresh made and broke repeated promises to come out with his
flock. In rambling phone conversation and cryptic messages relayed
by his lawyers, he applied to federal agents the same mind-numbing
methods and manipulative ploys he plied among his followers.
Negotiations were stymied by days of biblical exegesis and entire
weeks during which Koresh claimed he was awaiting "further
instruction from God." FBI commanders ringed the compound
with razor wire, surrounded it with tanks and bathed it in white
light through the night. Koresh gave back more Bible verses.
After a month, the FBI stepped up the psychological warfare.
Loudspeakers were set up in an effort to communicate directly
with sect members. Tapes were played of those who had left attesting
to their good treatment by authorities. At one point, the loudspeakers
blared at the compound - Tibetan chants, trumpets blowing reveille,
screams of dying rabbits, Christmas carol sing-alongs - in a
bizarre attempt to beat Koresh at his own mind-scrambling game.
In reply, Koresh fired back a request for quiet through the Davidians'
Passover celebration and promised once again to come out, this
time, as soon as he had completed writing his interpretation of
the Seven Seals of the Bible's final Book of Revelation. His
lieutenant said that might take "six months or six years."
On day fifty-one, the FBI took command of the situation. Before
dawn on April 19, military assault vehicles closed on the compound,
led by a Bradley tank equipped with a long bettering ram. Holes
were punched in the wood frame walls and a non-lethal tear gas
was pumped in, as the loudspeakers informed the Davidians that
the game was over. FBI taticians were confident that the stinging
tear gas would persuade Koresh and his weary Davidians to come
streaming out and surrender. At the very least, anxious government
officials in Washington were assured, the devoted mothers inside
Mt. Carmel would not let their children suffer the sickening but
otherwise harmless fumes.
They were wrong.
The Davidians opened fire. A sect lieutenant threw the negotiating
phone out the window. At noon, Koresh and his followers made
their own exit. As the tanks continued to pummel the sect's living
quarters, flames broke out in the second floor of the building.
Whipped by gale-force winds blowing across the prairie, the compound
became an inferno in seconds. Exploding ammunition stockpiles
spewed debris and flaming mushroom clouds hundreds of feet into
the sky. First reports said a tank had knocked over a kerosene
lamp in an upstairs storeroom, but FBI surveillance tapes and
aerial photographs released later, confirmed that fires were set
in at least three separate sites throughout the compound by the
At least seventy-five people died that day, including seventeen
children ages ten or younger. Combined with the sect's earlier
casualties and the government's own dead and wounded, the deadliest
operation in federal law enforcement history now also ranked as
one of the longest, costliest and most destructive police actions
on American soil.
Pathologies of Communication. The story of Waco grew larger
than the legend that played out on television. For years afterward,
the case smouldered and caught fire anew in the public mind.
Investigators in government and the media probed and reprobed
unanswered questions. Religious and political groups made "Waco!"
the rallying cry for their private agendas. But, amid the recurring
fact-finding inquiries and search for scapegoats by special interests,
it seemed to us, no one was really addressing the deeper human
dimensions of the case.
We spent months exploring the tragedy from our perspective, talking
to people who participated up front and behind the scenes at each
stage of the action. From our vantage point as communication
researchers, the tragedy was a stunning real-life exercise in
the chaotic dynamics of the death spiral, and one in which pathological
communication contributed materially to the disaster. For a view
from inside the spiral, we spoke first with several former Branch
David Bunds became a Branch Davidian in childhood, when his father
brought their family into the group in 1970. In an extended interview
that paced through the group's history and horrific end, he described
the Davidian's transition by degrees from a small religion sect
like countless others on America's spiritual landscape into a
militant apocalyptic cult.
"I was five when our family became Branch Davidians,"
Bunds began. "They were not a very strange group at the
time. People led normal lives in different cities around the
country and the world. Some people lived at the headquarters
in Waco and every now and then you would go visit, but there was
nothing extreme or unusual going on."
He recalled his religious upbringing as a young Branch Davidian.
"It was standard stuff. We prayed like anyone else. We
met locally in California at places we would rent. We got together
on holidays. There were studies where we would read the Bible
for an hour together. As a child, I was required to sit in the
studies but I didn't really understand what they were about.
They were kind of boring."
A child of any faith might have said as much and, for the next
ten years, the Bunds led a normal life in Southern California.
Bunds' father worked in a "regular" job. His mother
tended to her family. David and his younger sister Robyn enrolled
in public schools. There was just one point of departure.
"The only thing different about my life was that we would
go to these meetings and talk about the end of the world."
Years before David Koresh came on the scene, the Branch Davidians
were already preoccupied with death and the fiery end of the world
foretold in the Book of Revelation. In the new terms of chaos
science, the sect's endtimes prophecy was itself a strange attractor
- a predetermined point, fixed in history but forever receding
in time - around which the minds of sect members had resolved
since the first Davidians branched off from the Adventist church
in the 1930s/ Surprisingly, this youth was untroubled by the
thought of the world's end or his own imminent death. In fact,
he and other Branch Davidians welcomed it.
"I wasn't afraid of it. In a way, I was looking forward
to it," said Bunds. "It sounded kind of neat. There
was going to be this beautiful kingdom and we were going to live
there, and all the other nations of the world were going to be
envious of this beautiful kingdom, just like the prophecy in Isaiah.
I was just sort of floating along waiting for it all to happen.
I figured my parents knew what they were doing."
In 1980, the Bunds family moved to Texas to be close to the Davidian
headquarters in Waco. The next year, Vernon Howell came to the
group. Bunds recalled his first encounter with Howell in the
summer of 1981, when Bunds was sixteen and Howell was a stripling
"He was just like anybody else," said Bunds. "He
came looking for truth. I didn't think much about him. He talked
a lot. He would get up at the meetings and cry sometimes because
of different problems he was having. I thought he was weird."
Despite its endtimes beliefs, the sect was no haven for fanatics,
Bunds said. Vernon Howell's personality stood out in sharp contrast
to the tenor of the sect from its inception, and he quickly became
a destabilizing factor in the spiritual scene at Waco.
"We were a very reserved, very conservative group. There
were no emotional displays. Then along came Vernon Howell. I
remember my father said one day, 'Well, that guy sounds like he's
going to end up saying he's a prophet the way he's acting."
The next year, the elder Bunds became disillusioned with the sect
and its new rising star and the family moved back to California.
Then, in late 1983, word came down from Waco that Howell had
gained ascendancy over the group. Suddenly, the sect's message
and traditional center of attraction began to change.
"I remember getting Vernon's new message in the mail,"
said Bunds. "I read the letters and put them away. They
didn't make any sense to me. They did not clearly state what
the message was, which was typical of Vernon. He like to be cryptic
Early in 1984, an enterprising Howell came to Southern California
to convinve Branch Davidians in the area that he had the truth.
"He called us up," Bunds recalled. "My father
said, 'You go meet him,' so I went by myself. He presented his
message and various Biblical proof that he was the true prophet.
He used charts. One had a little beast from Revelation on it
with seven heads. He said that meant his was the seventh angel's
message - in Adventist teaching, seven is a very biblical number.
I remember thinking, Wow, the seventh angel's message. This
is the one we've been waiting for!"
Subtly, Howell made himself one with the sect's main attractor,
the Bible. Before his eyes, Bunds watched the weird, not very
likable youth metamorphore into a persuasive presenter of the
Scriptures who weaved circles around his prey with his encyclopedia
knowledge of the good book. Then slowly, outside the awareness
of everyone, perhaps even including himself, Howell began to shift
the center of attraction from the sect's biblical theology to
its brash new leader. Bunds felt the power in that initial encounter
as, one-on-one, Howell raised him to a spiritual high and convinced
him that he was in fact the Davidians' seventh and, as the sacred
seals foretold, final prophet.
"That first meeting lasted six hours," Bunds recalled.
"I went in skeptical but open-minded. I was just going
to listen, and by the time I left I had made a 180-degree turnaround.
I went home and I was going crazy. My parents kept saying, 'You
can't decide that in just a few hours.' And I said 'You guys,
I know it's true.' I was gung-ho."
That spring, Howell declared another change in doctrine that would
have far-reaching impact on the lives of Branch Davidians: he
called for the ingathering of all sect members. Bunds thought
he knew why.
"He said all Branch Davidians were required to come to Mt.
Carmel for Passover that year. That was something I learned about
Vernon. He did not like to communicate through the mail or over
the phone. He wanted to have people right there in front of him
so he could read their emotions and act accordingly. Other Davidian
leaders were content to send out mailings and collect tithes from
followers across the country. Vernon wanted to be in personal
contact with the group. He wanted to have everybody under one
In 1984, Bunds persuaded his family to move to Waco where, along
with others from the Davidian diaspora, they fell under Howell's
growing influence and personal power. It was turning point for
the group as it crossd the threshold of closure that would seal
off the sect and its members from the surrounding society. There
Howell completed the shift from sect to cult, as he commanded
his followers to attend protracted sermons and Bible study sessions
that were a far cry from the straid Davidian prayer meetings of
"Vernon's meetings would go on for hours," Bunds recalled.
"I would walk in and sit down and start listening to him
and I was just mesmerized. He was very powerful."
As his power grew, Howell's urge to control intensified. The
Davidian's twice-daily Bible study sessions became grueling marathons
streaming with hellfire and images of the Apocalypse to come.
"He said the time was short and he had a lot of Bible teachings
to go through. We were told by 1989 it would all be over with,"
said Bunds recalling Howell's first prophecied date of the world's
end. "The morning meeting would go until lunchtime. The
evening meeting would start at three and last until seven at night."
During those months, Howell consolidated his hold over the group.
He defeared his main rival in the group's first armed confrontation
and crowned himself Koresh, King Cyrus of the Davidians, his new
Israelites. Reeling with unchecked power, his own personality
began to change. Bunds traced Koresh's trail around a quickening
curve of extremist belief and behavior that would bring him into
open conflict with the surrounding society.
"In '86 he got a revelation that he should marry another
girl. That's when he started to get really radical. Rachel,
his first wife, had a younger sister. He took her when she was
twelve. He made his case from the Bible. He said, 'David had
a lot of wives, Solomon had a lot of wives,' so we accepted it,
but then he had to have more women."
That year, Bunds' younger sister Robyn, then seventeen, came to
live at Waco. She, too, was claimed by Koresh and bore him a
son. A year later, Koresh took Bunds' mother Jeannine, then fifty,
for a bride. His "wives" reached double digits, including
a dozen underage girls. Most were children of Davidian members
who were willing surrendered by their parents and later bore children
of their own with Koresh. Then, in 1989, Koresh extended his
divine profligacy. He claimed he had been commanded by God to
take as many wives as he wanted and, in the same breath, he annulled
every other marriage at Mt. Carmel. The move prompted the first
mass defection of alienated Davidians, but by then Koresh had
already started on his final trajectory.
"The weapons were the next phase," said Bunds. "By
'89, Koresh wanted to get every weapon he could get his hands
on, and he knew instinctively that when you do that you're going
to get in trouble."
Koresh primed his followers.
"He said we were going to have a confrontation with the authorities.
He said the United States government was going to come and get
is because they were enemies of the truth."
As the group grew more extreme, Bunds began to seriously question
his participation, as many cult members do sooner or later. "I
was getting doubts, but at first, I would just shelve them, store
them away," he said. He recalled Koresh's method of emotional
" He had this ability to appeal to people's base emotions
and deepest feelings, and that's what Vernon did for me initially.
He controlled you through fear, hope, love, want, desire."
Like other cult leaders, Koresh intuitively employed a mix of
positive and negative controls, but to keep his followers in line,
negative emotions were his instruments of choice. "The fear
was dominant," said Bunds. "He was always putting things
in the negative, always threatening. He would describe hell and
start screaming in the most horrible way to show people what it
was like to burn in hell."
Like Charles Manson, Koresh acted out his threats. "He used
very graphic descriptions," said Bunds. "He would portray
all kinds of things and people were scared. Sometimes he would
be all upbeat and describe all the good things we would get when
we got our reward, but most of the time he was negative, beating
on people's heads, trying to whip then into shape."
And like Jim Jones, Koresh reinforced his mental and emotional
controls with physical punishment. Children were the first targets,
beginning at the age of eight months. Sect members were given
wooden paddles and told to whack their children's bare behinds
for any disobedience. Some children were beaten badly, others
were deprived of food, others confined in dark spaces. Koresh
and his henchmen got violent with adult Davidians as well, assaulting
some with their bare fists and others with a large boat ore.
Bunds witnessed several incidents during his waning months in
"Those last ten months were the worst time I'd ever had.
He was really cracking down, putting the screws on the group.
He would not tolerate any disagreement, and the threat of being
beaten was there."
Several times, Bunds challenged Koresh's twisted interpretations
of Scriptures. Against Koresh's wishes, he courted and married
a young woman in the sect, and when Koresh announced his sexual
Anschluss on the Davidian women, Bunds wife rejected his
propositions. Through it all, however, the couple made no effort
to leave. Ultimately, it wasn't Bunds who forced the break but
"He had to kick me out. I didn't leave on my own. He kicked
my wife and me and my child out and left us with nothing. He
was just tired of our rebellious attitude. We were breaking his
Marc Breault followed a different path in, and out of, the Branch
Davidian fold. Breault joined the group in the mid-eighties,
at the age of twenty-two, and became a ranking member of the cult
leader's inner circle until he parted company with Koresh and
led the first mass defection of Davidians in 1989. In contrast
to David Bund's view from the sect's bottom ranks up, Breault
gave us a rare look into the Davidian death spiral from the top
Breault, who is legally blind but not sightless, had himself trained
to be a Seventh Day Adventist minister but was passed over. "I
was told there was no need for a blind person to be a minister,"
he said. He recalled his recruitment soon after by long-time
Davidian Perry Jones, the sect's vice president and the father
of two of Koresh's teen brides, in a Southern California town
with a large Adventist population.
"I met Perry Jones in a supermarket in Loma Linda. I was
wearing a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt, so he thought I was from Texas,
and that's how he started making conversation. He said he was
a religious journalist. He said he believed in the gift of prophecy,
what he called 'inspiration.' That made sense to me. The Bible
was full of prophets. Then he said he believed his son-in-law
was inspired by God. He never used the word 'prophet,' because
he knew how I would react to it, but that's what he was saying.
I figured, okay, I'll give this guy a hearing."
Several days later, Breault met Vernon Howell.
"I met Vernon in January 1986 in Loma Linda. He was wearing
faded trousers, a blue shirt, unkept hair. He seemed very down
to earth. He offered to give me a Bible study. He claimed he
would show me more in three hours than I had probably learned
in four years of college. That struck me as something a prophet
would say - prophets in the Bible were never known for their tact."
Breault recalled Koresh's mastery of the Bible and sheer physical
endurance that attracted him to the Davidian message.
"That session lasted three hours. He went through the books
of Daniel and Revelation. I had always been interested in both
books and this guy was putting them together for me in a way I
thought, yeah, this might be prophecy."
The two hit it off and, within months, Breauly became an eager
recruiter himself. That spring, Breault went to Hawaii, where
he had grown up and still maintained many close friendships, to
start a new Davidian branch. "No one thought anything would
come of it, including myself, but I recruited quite a few people
and everybody was stunned. I would go in and establish a small
group, the same way Vernon did. I would go somewhere for a week
and just watch people and say, who is most likely to be receptive?"
While in the sect, Breault helped to enlist many of the young
diehard disciples who formed a firewall around Koresh at Waco.
Among his first recruits was an old friend, Steve Schneider,
who became one of Koresh's most militant and loyal lieutenants.
"Steve was in a similar situation to mine," said Breault.
"He had studied to be a pastor but he was passed up. The
Adventist church is not a church for rebels and Steve was very
independent. He didn't just accept things."
Breault described what both men, in their separate spiritual quests,
found in the Davidians. For starters, Koresh brought a youthful
new outlook and iconoclastic spirit to their established Adventist
"A good example was the music," said Breault. "Vernon
was a musician and we wanted good music in the church. We had
nothing against 'Rock of Ages,' but we were tired of it. We wanted
to bring guitars and amplifiers and keyboards into the church."
Koresh also brought new energy to the ritual practices of the
said sect. However, in the Davidians, as in other Bible cults,
the traditional practice of reading the Bible grew pathological
in the hands of the group's new prophet. Breault recalled how
Koresh turned the sect's biblical "message" into a consuming
mind control process that dominated every thought, belief and
daily activity in the sect.
"When I joined the group, I was very enthusiastic about Vernon's
Bible studies. They went on for two hours in the early days and
just got longer and longer. Eventually, your whole life revolved
around the Bible. When you talked to people, you shared the message.
When you met people, your whole aim was to introduce them to
the message. Even when you ate, you studied the message - we
had strict dietary laws so you would always have the Bible in
In addition to Koresh's marathon sermons and group Bible studies,
sect members spent hours each day in intensive individual prayer.
Amid the many deprivations Branch Davidians endured, that arduous
ritual practice, which emerged in our studies as a core component
of cult mind control, was almost universally overlooked by investigators.
"The prayer thing was very intense, I realize now,"
Breault said. "Vernon spent a lot of time praying, a couple
hours a day, and others did, mostly those of us who were newcomers
to the group."
During one of those intense rituals, soon after he joined the
sect, Breault had the first of many snapping experiences which
he, like Koresh, called "visions." One vision, born
of hours of immersion in Koresh's apocalyptic theology and anti-government
preaching, was thick with images of a fiery end.
"We were in Jerusalem, the whole group, and there were American
troops all over the place. The city was in ruins. There was
obviously some sort of war going on, which we believed would be
the case from Daniel, and we were in hiding. Then we heard a
sound like thunder in the distance coming closer and the earth
began to shake and everyone was scared. We went out and saw this
huge, I suppose 'chariot' sounds a little too biblical, whatever
you want to call it, and it was surrounded by white lights and
energy. It was huge, like the throne of God described in Ezekiel,
and as this came toward us it shook and trembled and mountains
were leveled and this voice said to 'Come hither' and this cloud
came down and surrounded us. Then I just relaxed and reached
up and got sucked up into this cloud and rose above the earth.
As we were going up, there was this huge wind. We saw the whole
earth shaking off its axis and graves were opening up and the
dead were coming up from hell."
His waking dream bore chilling resemblances to the nightmare sect
members would live out seven years later. Breault explained
how such images flowed naturally from life in the group and the
drumbeat of Koresh's daily teachings.
"Other people experienced these things, I was by no means
the only one. Your whole life revolved around theses teachings
to the point where they became a fixation."
As Koresh's controls intensified and Koresh himself grew more
grandiose, Breault, like Bunds, watched the group's focus of attraction
shift from the Bible to Koresh's increasingly strange persona.
"About 1987, things began to go downhill. We had worked
together as a team but then Vernon needed to be in total control.
I noticed in his Bible studies that everything he was saying
about the Bible was centering around him. Before it was centered
around God, God's word and God's mission. Now it was, 'Look at
me. The Bible says I'm this, I'm that,
this is going to happen to me.' We believed he was a prophet,
even in the early days, but that was never the big thing; then
it gradually became the whole purpose of the Bible to talk about
Breault's words mapped verbatim onto our chaos model. Like a
storm in the making, as Koresh's power increased, he began to
swell. As the group grew more insulated, the sect began to feed
on itself and the turbulance within accelerated. Like Jim Jones
at his Ukiah commune and later in the Guyana jungle, Koresh developed
a thundering paranoia atop his apocalyptic mindset. Breault tracked
the storm front gathering over Waco.
"At first it was a slow progression. Vernon was off in California
or South Carolina, traveling all over the place, so he wasn't
as isolated. Then, when everyone moved to Mt. Carmel, things
really started going bad. At Mt. Carmel, he was king of this
little kingdom. He made all the rules. There was no external
checks or balance, and there was no police force to make sure
everyone was okay."
As Koresh got crazier, Breault's own inner alarms began sounding,
but like others in the sect, he was helpless to act on his feelings.
"Vernon would give Bible study after Bible study, for thirteen,
sixteen hours, and I wrestled and wrestled with the doctrines
he was teaching. I knew I did not like who Vernon was becoming,
but I couldn't separate myself from the group."
Koresh went too far when he announced his new teaching that he
"owned" all the women in the sect. Breault's wife Elizabeth,
also a Davidian, was visiting family in Australia at the time,
but the new doctrine threw Breault into a crisis.
"The problem was forcing my inner turmoil to calm so I could
thing logically," he remembered. Eventually, he managed
to assemble two mutually exclusive, although not entirely logical,
"I thought to myself, maybe Vernon was right. This new
talk of violence and Vernon having all the women is what God really
wants and, therefore, I should hang in there and endure until
paradise. But then I thought, If this is what God wants,
that God isn't worth worshipping. My only other option was
that Vernon was wrong and that I should take steps to leave the
He recalled the moment several months later when he made the connection
in a sudden awakening we had come to recognize as a reverse "snapping
out" process - a true enlightenment experience.
"I'll never forget that moment. I felt as if a great weight
was lifted off me. I felt lighter. But most of all I felt free,
like I was my own master again after so many years of being controlled.
It was as if I had been another person less than a second before,
then I reached this conclusion and the change was almost instantaneous.
I was a different person and I felt better than I had in years."
Breault shared his new awareness with his wife when she returned.
The pair confronted Koresh and, soon after, walked away from the
sect. They relocated in Australia and later helped more than
thirty Davidians to leave Koresh's degenerating New Jerusalem.
Others snapped out of it as he did, Breault told us - providing
ample roof that Branch Davidians at Waco were subject to debilitating
mind control practices that impaired and physically diminished
their capacities to think, feel and chose.
"One woman said it was like 'a controlling spirit' had left
her," Breault reported. "She said she felt as if she
had been hypnotized, and the instant she concluded that Vernon
was wrong, she woke up."
Many suffered great guilt after leaving the group. Others left
filled with fear from Koresh's preaching that apostates were destined
for unending torment and divine punishment. Amid reports that
Koresh kept a hit list of defetors targeted for death by his loyal
corps of "Mighty Men" some of who left went into hiding,
like those who left the Peoples Temple, and remained hidden after
Marc Breault and David Bunds walked us through the confrontation. In 1990, Breault, his wife and their group of mostly Australian ex-members brought their concerns to the attention of U.S. government authorities. Two years and many futile efforts later, out of
frustration and growing fear for those still in the sect, like
the concerned relatives group whose warnings to public officials
fell on deaf ears before the Jonestown disaster, they turned to
the media. An Australian TV crew was the first to discern that
the once-docile Davidians had become a dangerous armed cult. Worried
relatives and child welfare agencies crowded in. The death dance
began - two accelerating spirals of building energy and information
turning in steadily opposing directions. Soon turbulence began
to appear at the perimeter. Armed guards circled the encampment
around the clock. Neighbors alarmed by sounds of gunfire complained
to local authorities. A shipment of grenade casings split open
en route to Waco and started an investigation by local lawmen,
who soon appealed to federal firearms officials for assistance.
Late in 1992, in another pattern with parallels to Jonestown,
the Waco Tribune-Herald started work on a multi-part series
about the sect. As the publication date neared, Breault and other
ex-members were contacted by ATF investigators. Breault cautioned
the agency against adding heat to the reaction.
"The ATF agents I spoke with were quite good," he recalled.
"They said they wanted to get Vernon on his own, to lure
him away from Mt. Carmel and arrest him. Their other scenario
was a raid on Mt. Carmel. I said if they were going to do a raid
they had better have the element of surprise or they would end
up with an armed confrontation."
Within hours of the raid, Breault received a call in Australia
from FBI agents on the scene who had moved in to manage the crisis.
"It was pretty chaotic. I talked with an FBI negotiator
for half an hour. He asked what I thought Koresh would do. I
said I thought it would end in massive death, a mass suicide.
I explained Vernon's belief about the fifth seal of Revelations,
which said there had to be a certain number of martyrs before
the end could come."
But that knowledgeable warning and others like it went unheeded.
Like Breault, David Bunds watched in horror as the events unfolded.
Prior to the raid, he too, had been interviewed at length by
ATF agents planning the government's actions.
"I said, 'Don't go in there with your guns. It won't work,"
he recalled. "And they said, 'Oh, we're not going to do
When the siege began, FBI field agents pumped Bunds for information
but never asked for his advice. When the end came, Bunds was
at a loss to understand the government's reasoning and how things
had gone so tragically wrong."
"Here we are in the 1990s," he said. "We have
all this information on cults and the way they work, yet the FBI
didn't have a clue. They thought they could pressure them into
surrendering. I knew like my own self that wasn't going to work."
He laid out the fatal theology outsiders were not privy to, the
pathological thought process at the center of the Branch Davidian
cult that government tacticians obviouslt had failed to take seriously
"Koresh taught then that when they started to burn they would
be glorified. They would be transformed into radiant beings and
ascend into heaven. In their minds they believed they weren't
really going to die. They were going to be transformed. They
were going to get their reward. Then they would come back and
take over the world."
Bund's sister Robyn and her four-year-old son fathered by Koresh
left the sect in 1990. His mother left a year later. His father,
the first to join and to criticize Koresh, stayed. On the morning
of the ATF raid, he went into Waco and was taken into custody
by the ATF when he returned. The fate of the others is public
record. Perry Jones, the Davidian elder who recruited Marc Breault,
was killed in the ATF raid. Jones' daughters Rachel and Michelle,
Koresh's first wives, along with Breault's friend Steve Schneider,
Schneider's wife Judy, her two-year-old child with Koresh and
seventy more perished in the flames.
Post-mortem. The official post-mortems fleshed out the
chaos at Waco. Autopsis revealed that at least twenty-seven Davidians
died of bullet wounds. Seven were shot in the forehead at close
range, including Koresh himself. Children took special abuse:
a three-year-old was stabbed in the chest, three children were
shot in the head, others appeared to have been beaten to death.
Yet investigators could not say whether those killings were part
of a planned mass suicide, whether some sect members were killed
while trying to escape Koresh's lieutenants, or whether some killed
themselves and their children to escape the horror of death by
Government sources provided other information. In the first public
testimony, ATF agents wounded in the initial raid claimed their
superiors knew in advance that the critical element of surprise
was blown but sent their team into a near-certain ambush anyway.
At the ATF and FBI, evidence emerged of attempted cover-ups and
official misrepresentations all along the chain of command. Only
U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who came to her post halfway
through the FBI siege, publicly accepted responsibility for the
And everyone swore there was no evidence to support the possibility
of a Jonestown-style mass suicide occurring at Waco.
Two executive branch inquests, six congretional hearings, and
our own follow-up inquiries under the Freedom of Information Act
painted a very different picture. Along with the sworn testimony
of public officials and the documented chronology of events, our
inquiries revealed how little homework the government had done
in response to Congress' call after Jonestown for a concentrated
program of research and training on cults. Our FOIA searches
confirmed that, throughout the Waco standoff, the entire FBI knowledge
base on cults, culd mind control and related subjects consisted
of a lone twelve-page white paper titled "Cults." The
paper, a superficial summary of identifying characteristics of
cult leaders and methods, was all cribbed from one obscure academic
work on the subject. We learned later that it was not even prepared
until weeks after the ATF raid and the start of the FBI siege.
The official inquests, conducted in-house by the ATF's and FBI's
parents, the U.S. Treasury and Justice Departments, produced two
final reports totalling nearly 800 pages and released within days
of each other in late 1993. The Treasury report was excoriating
and self-reprimanding. "The decision to proceed was tragically
wrong," it concluded. The report acknowledged that senior
ATF officials made misleading statements to Congress and doctored
records relating to the planning and execution of the operation.
The ATF director resigned, his two deputies and the bureau's
intelligence chief were forcibly retired, and the two senior agents
who led the raid were fired.
The Department of Justice inquest was more problematical. DOJ
investigators chronicled a long list of judgment errors and tactical
mistakes. Their review found widespread confusion, disagreement
and breakdown in communication among FBI personnel involved in
the Waco operation, but reviewers refused to assign blame or responsibility.
No heads rolled. No ranking FBI or Justice Department official
was even reprimanded.
The New York Times and other critics dismissed the report
as a "whitewash," however, the DOJ report contained
many revealing insights. Significantly, the report illuminated
the role of the FBI's discreet Behavioral Science subunit, headquartered
in Quantico, Virgina, in the play of events on the Texas plain.
During the first weeks of the siege, two behavioral science experts
prepared a series of memoranda recommending specific strategies
for the government to follow in the standoff. Special agents
Peter Smerick and Mark young called for a de-escalation of "tactical
pressure," and for patient negotiations aimed at facilitating
a peaceful surrender. They warned that a "strong show of
force" could "draw David Koresh and his followers closer
together in the 'bunker mentality' and they would rather die than
In contrast to the FBI's earlier representations, the bureau's
own experts had in fact warned explicitly, more than a month before
the final conflagration, that "mass suicide ordered by Koresh
cannot be discounted." From the outset, Smerick and Young
cautioned against high-pressure tactical options that, they believed,
might result in "Davidians fighting to the death and tremendous
loss of life." However, those views were rejected by FBI
commanders on the scene.
As the standoff wore on, outside experts from the FBI's approved
roster of contract consultants were called in to advise the ground
tacticians. The FBI's high-profile Hostage Rescue Team carried
more clout and ultimately carried the day. The outcome hardly
have been worse, but it was by o means unforeseen. By the end,
in addition to the bureau's in-house advisers, four of six FBI
consultants in psychiatry and psychology, along with Marc Breault
and others with first-hand knowledge of the sect, had warned that
a group suicide was not only possible but probable - despite Koresh's
solemn assurances to negotiators that suicide was against his
religion. The last signals came only a month before the final
assault, when the Houston psychiatrist who interviewed the children
freed early in the siege reported that several had drawn pictures
of the compound being consumed by flames. Others told him that
"everyone is going to die," that sect leaders were planning
"to blow you all up" and that, as they left the compound,
their parents had promised to "see them in heaven."
Public sensitivities were shocked by the bungled ATF raid and
the FBI's military-style aggressions. Despite overwhelming evidence
of the Davidians' illegal arms and documented abuses, including
Koresh's own acts that constituted statutory rape, a felony in
Texas, many Americans were sympathetic toward Koresh and even
defended the sect's violent actions. On the far right, a cottage
industry sprang up among anti-government ideologues, conspiracy
theorists and propagandists promulgating heinous claims and some
patently false reports. Among their many assertions defied by
the facts: that the Davidians had no illegal arms, that the ATF
agents were killed by their own teammates, and that government
commandos in flameproof suits secretly murdered the sect members,
shot, stabbed and clubbed the children, and lit the fires that
consumed the compound.
In the trial that followed, sect survivors charged the government
with persecuting them for their unorthodox religious beliefs
and for exercising their constitutional right to bear arms. As
in the Weaver trial, all eleven Davidian survivors were acquitted
of murder charges, although nine were convicted on lesser counts
and sentenced to prison terms up to forty years. In other actions,
the two fired ATF agents sued the government and were reinstated
to civilian jobs in the agency. Civil suits were filed against
those who managed the Waco action, including a $500 million wrongful
death suit against Attorney General Reno and twenty-five other
federal officials. A 1995 congressional hearing, packed with
witnesses, consultants and peripheral figures allied with the
powerful national gun lobby, tried hard to turn the tragedy into
a political triumph for the far right, but by all accounts the
effort backfired and, in many way, affirmed the government's actions.
Lost in the legalizing was a clear view of how the U.S. government
became the other arm of the twister that tore through Texas.
In late 1994, before the tragedy turned into a political football,
we interviewed officials who participated in the action and others
who later investigated it. They described first-hand how the
conflict was apprehended, and misapprehended, by government officials
who were legitimately focused on serious law enforcement matters
but, at the same time, blind to the perils of their own questionable
law enforcement strategies. We also learned how well-meaning
civil servants concerned for the safety of American citizens,
and the lives of federal officers as well, were sucked into the
vortex by their own institutional pathologies of communication
- or, as they were frequently described by government evaluators,
"communication breakdowns." These included: the tough-cop
culture of law-enforcement entrenched in both the ATF and the
FBI, which fed both bureaus' reactions to Koresh's defiance and
manipulations; official ignorance and erroneous assumptions about
the new phenomenon of cult control, which government agencies
had denied for decades and which affected every aspect of the
government's actions; and, behind the scenes, misplaced concerns
for religious-political sensitivities among the public and powerful
special interests, which hounded the government throughout the
Waco operation and long afterwards.
These patterns and others created their own forms of closure,
control and confrontation that probably cost some live needlessly,
and, no doubt, changed many more forever.
We spoke first with former Deputy Attorney General Philip B. Heymann,
who headed the Justice Department's inquiry into FBI operations
in Waco. Like other DOJ officials, Heymann entered the picture
late in the action. He arrived at Justice the day the fire broke
out in Waco and, a month later, he was asked to manage the DOJ
review. In our talk after the report was completed and he had
returned to teaching at Harvard acknowledged that the FBI went
into Waco unprepared for a major cult confrontation.
"The FBI was trained to deal with terrorists," said
Heymann, "but it wasn't trained to deal with a religious
group with a messianic leader. There was no precedent of the
FBI's handling such a situation and there had been no planning
From the outset, Heymann said, he wanted to make the government
inquest, not an exercise in blame-placing, but a constructive
review with an eye toward any future eventualities that might
arise on the domestic scene. He had in mind, not only cult showdowns
like Waco, but more ominous acts of religious-political terror
like the World Trade Center bombing that took place just two days
before the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound.
"I wanted to see that we were organized in such a way that,
if this situation came up again in any form, including an extreme
Islamic fundamentalist group, we could understand how to think
about them, how to talk to them, when to put pressure on and when
not to put pressure on, all the things that go into negotiations."
We told Heymann that we detected much ambivalence in the government
on the issues of cults. He acknowledged that, from the outset,
there was reluctance among officials to confront the cult aspects
of the Waco standoff, to engage the concept of cult mind control,
or even to use the word "cult" in the government's investigation.
"You're absolutely right. I hesitated to use any of those
terms," he admitted. "We tried to avoid labeling the
group as a 'cult' suggesting crazies. There was a purposeful
attempt to not give the group one label or another. The general
understanding was that we were dealing with a, you know, a group
that had passionate beliefs, that was extremely suspicious of
Was his hesitation caused by concerns of legal terminology or
"It was in relation to religious sensitivities," Heymann
said candidly. "We wanted to avoid having to dispute the
people who, on the one side, treat groups like this as just another
fundamentalist religion and, on the other, regard then as a dangerous
form of mind control. I did not want to come down on one side
or the other of that debate."
His explanation sounded reasonable enough but bespoke deeper political
considerations. In our view, the official silence from beginning
to end on the mind control factor in the conflict, and the government's
persisting avoidance of the entire subject of cult control, were
two critical breakdowns in the communications process that contributed
significantly to the chaos at Waco and the public confusion that
abounded in its aftermath.
A related concern to us were numerous factual errors that were
disseminated in the official record of events at Waco. We cited
several errors we had documented in the DOJ report that seriously
misrepresented the extent of FBI contacts with cult experts and
former Branch Davidians. Those errors were relevant, we said,
because of persisting questions about the nature of Koresh's control
over his followers and the many warning flags raised by ex-members,
and by experts within and without the FBI, about the cult's potential
for mass suicide. Apparently, concerns over the politically sensitive
cult issue caused some to ignore those warnings and even deny
receiving them. Heymann did not defend the government's sources.
"I think you have to assume that any organization after a
result like this is going to try to play down their responsibility,
but we ought to have picked that up in our report and I'm disappointed
if we weren't skeptical enough."
Another part of the report dismissed the entire body of scientific
knowledge on the nature and effects of cult control. One outside
expert Heymann had selected to aid in the DOJ review asserted
that "the notion of 'cult brainwashing' has been thoroughly
discredited in the academic community" and castigated federal
agents for "failing to recognize the free choice those people
had made in following Koresh." We suggested to Heymann that
the work of respected social scientists and mental health professionals
- knowledge and clinical expertise that could have been of practical
value to negotiators and for future contingency planning - had
been disparaged, while cult propaganda that had been exposed long
ago was disseminated with the government's imprimatur. Heymann
was silent for some time before speaking.
"Yes, I understand what you're saying," he told us.
"We wanted each expert to say what he or she thought. We
certainly didn't want to censor or edit them in any way, but we
weren't embracing all their views."
Heymann assured us that the government had learned important lessons
from Waco and would be better prepared to deal with future contingencies
on the fractious boundary between law and religion. However,
his closing comments made clear to us that, when it came to the
legal dilemmas of cult control and other issues in the sensitive,
and increasingly political, arena of religion, understanding was
still lacking and the government's position was far from resolved.
"I think we're going to be prepared to confront any obvious
illegality done in the name of religion," said Heymann.
"If someone commits a serious crime, like killing government
agents, there's no doubt that the government will be prepared
to use force to make an arrest. But if they haven't, if it's
a question of whether people have been brainwashed, I think you'll
continue to see the same history we've had for the last twenty
or thirty years. We don't really have any way of deciding whether
brainwashing is holding someone against one's will or not, or
what to do about it."
Heymann directed us to other officials still in the Justice Department.
Richard Scruggs, Assistant to the Attorney General, assembled
the official chronology of events for the DOJ review. He recalled
the mood at the Justice Department when he came to work at the
midpoint of the Waco standoff.
"The AG started here two weeks into the siege. I arrived
two weeks later and, by that time, planning was already well underway
to get the people out of the compound. After the fire, I was
called in to try to figure out what the hell had happened. We
did a thousand interviews. We got every piece of the story from
We asked Scruggs a key question: had the Attorney General been
given the full range of evidence and opinion on the chances of
mass suicide by the sect before she approved the final assault?
He described the process by which this crucial information was
relayed up the chain of command from bureau resources and senior
"The whole issue of suicide and the psychological makeup
of Koresh and his followers was obviously something we looked
into," said Scruggs. "The bureau sought dozens of expert
opinions and many more were offered. There were literally hundreds
of people calling in with advice, not just people off the street
but people from recognized institutes and universities. The result
was that FBI commanders, both in Waco and in Washington, had so
many opinions, ranging from 'they'll commit suicide as soon as
you make any move at all' to 'they'll never commit suicide,' that
it really allowed them to pick whichever experts confirmed their
own point of view. The experts FBI officials judged to be the
most accurate were those who said suicide was unlikely, which
turned out to be wrong."
How much of that range of opinion did the Attorney General receive?
Scruggs confirmed our suspicion.
"She only got the no-suicide opinion."
He insisted that the Attorney General was indeed aware of the
cult's suicide potential, but that FBI officials only cited the
"no-suicide opinion" in their final briefing. Scruggs
offered two explanations for the lapse, one more sinister, one
"My first impression was that someone made a conscious decision
to keep this information away from the AG. It certainly looked
that way. On the other hand, sometimes these things just happen,
one decision leads to another, and nobody really thinks things
through. I think the people who were putting together the material
truly believed there was a low chance of suicide and then simply
picked the materials that confirmed what they wanted to believe."
No doubt government officials preferred that more benign explanation,
although serious questions remained about exactly what information
FBI officials provided to the Attorney General. Either way, we
recognized two more major breakdowns in the government's patterns
of communication. One, commonly referred to as "Groupthink,"
was the familiar phenomenon by which conformity is maximized and
dissension minimized among people in organizations. Another,
known as "dissonance reduction," part of the classic
communication theory of "cognitive dissonance," described
the internal process by which people unconsciously rationalize
ill-fated actions and decisions after they have made them. In
the process of dissonance reduction, new information that threatens
accepted ideas and structures of understanding, information that
causes, "psychological discomfort," in out colleague
Dr. Gary Cronkite's terms, or in our perspective information stress,
is systematically eliminated from the pool of plausible options.
Similar stress reduction strategies apparently were employed by
people all along the chain of command in the Waco operation.
The same communication processes lower down in the FBI command
chain caused Waco field officers to reject the suicide warnings
of their own in-house behavioral experts Peter Smerick and Mark
"Oh yes, absolutely," Scruggs agreed. "Smerick
and Yound got wiped out by the on-site commander, who wanted a
combination of negotiation and increasing pressure on the compound,
the so-called 'carrot-and-stick' approach."
Scruggs attributed those tragic errors of judgment and tactics,
along with many other snafus at Waco, to a plague of "information
overload" that reportedly descended on stressed-out FBI commanders,
negotiators and agents in the field.
"There was the most massive flood of information coming in
that you could imagination," he went on. "Did a lot
of stuff get filtered out as it went up the line? The answer is
yes. But I think it's more reflective of the way every bureaucratic
initiative goes through. The bureaucracy scrubs out dissent.
I think what happened was more of a bureaucratic scrub, if you
We asked Scruggs if a similar "bureaucratic scrub" might
have caused government decision makers to ignore the crucial mind
control factor, and the discomforting issues it raised legally
and politically, in their strategic thinking and contingency planning
for resolving the Waco crisis.
"Oh, no. The bureau believes strongly in mind control, believe
me," said Scruggs, "oh, absolutely." His statement
struck us as a minor revelation after decades of categorial denials
by government officials. He pulled back the curtain on the FBI's
internal assumptions the reigned throughout the standoff. "There
was a great debate going on in the bureau whether Koresh was a
con man or whether he really thought he was some kind of messiah,
but whichever he was there was no doubt that he was effectively
controlling the rest of the people. Everybody assumed that."
Yet apparently that assumption was not for public consumption.
"Everybody believed he did it through some kind of brainwashing
or mind control. We scrubbed the report of words like that, but
the bureau used them. They fully understood that."
Scruggs said that understanding extended to FBI commanders in
the field and to the bureau's elite Hostage Rescue Team. He cited
it as a rationale for the use of the loudspeakers and the psywar
"Most people in the bureau believed Koresh and his core supporters
would never come out. But even up to the tear gas insertion on
the last day, they had hopes that, by making it very uncomfortable,
they could overcome the control Koresh exercised over the rest
and get out a large number of the women and children. They even
used the phrase 'the motherhood instinct.'"
It was a plausible theory but a poor place to test it, and it
made us wonder even more what government officials meant when
they alternately denied, then acknowledged, the reality of cult
control. In this instance, the FBI's actions seemed only to prove
how powerful such control was that it could overwhelm the most
basic human instincts.
"Yes," Scruggs acknowledged, "in that case it may
By that point, however, the other options available to FBI commanders
were even less attractive. Scruggs gave a glimpse of some alternatives
government officials considered, then quickly dismissed.
"The options were minimal. They could have killed Koresh
- the Israelis couldn't understand why he didn't do that. The
HRT had Koresh in their sights fifty times. They could have killed
him and all his leaders and that would have been the end of it,
but that was not an option. They looked into all kinds of other
things. One official had heard rumors that the government had
a secret weapon, like a laser weapon or sound weapon, that could
vibrate people in some non-lethal way and get them out of there.
We didn't. We found out later there was a microwave weapon,
but they couldn't use it because it affected people differently
based on their body size and weight. It didn't do much to big
people but it tended to cook little people."
The anecdote showed the depth of the government's frustration
and its powerlessness to counter the new mind control methods
by conventional matter-and-energy means. During those tense weeks,
and in public debates for years afterwards, everyone and his brother
seemed to have a sure-fire strategy that would have saved the
day, but for Scruggs and other officials we spoke with, Waco was
a no-win situation. He summed up the damnable dilemma of the Waco
debacle as he saw it.
"I'm not saying that mistakes weren't made, because they
were, but I became firmly convinced in my own mind, after looking
at this sixteen hours a day for six months, that it was Koresh's
game. He was, in effect, controlling us no less than he was controlling
his own people."
The death spiral cut both ways. Its chaotic dynamics consumed
the sect members at its center and pulled public officials from
the top of the system downward into the vortex. Our last interview
took us into the other eye of the storm. Carl Stern, Director
of Public Affairs for the Department of Justice, was present at
those crucial decision-making sessions held in the office of Attorney
General Janet Reno in which the FBI presented its tear gas assault
plan for her approval. He recalled his personal predicament,
shared by all the new administration appointees in Washington,
of coming cold to events in progress, and the tumult of meetings
and decisions during that final weekend before the culminating
events of Monday, April 19.
"I arrived here on Tuesday and had my first meeting on Waco
fifteen minutes after I walked in the door," Stern told us.
"Two people from the criminal division were advocation the
tear gas plan. I took the other position and we argued it in
front of the Attorney General. The next day I attended a meeting
where I really felt the idea had been turned off. I was confident
that nothing was going forward. Then on Saturday it got turned
around 180 degrees."
How did that happen?
"I'm not certain," Stern said, truly puzzled. He was
called late to the Saturday meeting of senioe Justice and FBI
officials, and by the time he arrived the assault plan seemed
to have gained a new and unstoppable momentum.
"The AG was there with her deputies, the FBI Director was
there with his deputies, and they were going through the whole
thing all over again."
Stern summarized the long list of official priorities that weighed
in favor of the action.
"The FBI was concerned about deteriorating health conditions
in the compound. There were dead bodies on the premises. The
building had no indoor plumbing. People were defecating in buckets
and dumping it in a pit out back and, after fifty days, there
was real concern that there would be a massive disease outbreak
and the first ones to get sick would be the kids. They were
concerned that the perimeter of the compound was highly unstable.
It was a large perimeter. There had been several breaches of
it. There were rumors that armed pro-Koresh groups might come
from Houston or California or elsewhere to put an end to the siege.
Finally, the Hostage Rescue Team had been there for forty-nine
days at that point - the longest they had ever gone before was
four days. They were in sniper positions around the clock. They
were losing their edge, not training, sitting out there in mudholes,
and they were afraid if something went wrong in the rest of the
country they would not be able to respond."
Stern talked own reports that false claims of new child abuses
by Koresh were the determining factor in the decision to attack.
"The AG asked a number of questions and this became the legend
of what she was concerned about. She asked first about sanitary
conditions. She asked next about sexual assault and child abuse.
The FBI replied that if Koresh was still doing what he had been
point prior to the raid that if Koresh was still doing what he
had been doing prior to the raid he was legally committing statutory
rape. Third, the question of beatings came up. As recently as
March 21, youngsters had been released who described having been
beaten. The consensus was that, at a minimum, the government
was not adequately protecting these children, but all that got
We asked about discussion of the risks associated with the tear
gas assault, particularly the threat of suicide by Koresh and
other Davidians. Stern confirmed that the protest was firmly
dismissed by FBI officials and played no role in the final decision-making
process. Was the AG told about the many expert assessments to
the contrary? He replied as a witness to history and official
"What the Attorney General heard was the assessment that
he was not suicidal."
He offered other insights into traditional law enforcement thinking
and the historical tough-cop culture of the FBI, which later evaluators
cited as central factors in the proposal by bureau commanders
to attack the compound with tear gas.
"Remember, four officers had been killed, the FBI had never
waited so long in the hostage situation, and from their perspective,
it was really untenable that people who had killed federal officers
were going on week after week thumbing their noses at law enforcement."
However, Stern also acknowledged that the assault plan which was
presented and approved was at odds with the operation as it was
"Please keep in mind that there was no plan to demolish the
compound. As we said at the time, it was not D-Day. The original
plan was a two-day plan for gradual insertion of gas to progressively
shrink the usable space and continually encourage people to come
Instead, when the Davidian met the tanks with hundreds of rounds
of automatic weapons fire, ground commanders responded by stepping
up their timetable and increasing the flow of tear gas into more
areas of the compound - all, apparently, to no avail. Stern claimed
that unforeseen factors, the inevitable precursors to chaos, played
havoc with events that day.
"No one anticipated the wind," he said. "The tanks
were not supposed to strike the building, but because of the wind,
the gas wasn't getting in and they had to get closer and finally
insert the booms through the window millwork. In the course of
doing so, they struck the walls and the roof."
By that time, no one was anticipating David Koresh either. Stern
recalled the scene as the FBI command center in Washington when
the standoff spiraled into its death throes.
"I was in the SIOC [Strategic Intervention Operations Center] when the fire broke out. At first, Floyd Clarke, the FBI's Deputy Director, thought an engine had blown on one of the vehicles they had rented from the Army. They didn't realize what had happened. Then, when it became clear that it was a fire, they all sat there waiting for the people to come out. They were saying, 'Come on baby, come on out, come on out.' They were expecting people to come flooding out and there were no people coming out and they were absolutely incredulous. Even when it was over, they were still assuming they would find the kids in the bus they had buried underground."
That assumption, too, proved tragically wrong. Stern made no
excuses for the FBI's failure to take the suicide threat seriously.
"All I can tell you is that, given the atmosphere at the
time, it was a surprise the suicide occurred. Remember, by then,
most of the children in the compound were Koresh's own. The thought
that he would permit his own children to be harmed was inconceivable."
For us, that assumption, and many others that were perhaps justicfiable
in dealing with more conventional criminal minds, showed up the
fatal flaw in the FBI's thinking - and the overriding problem
with the government's approach to the social problems posed by
cult control groups. Reading between Stern's carefully metered
lines and those of other officials, our gut feelings told us that
ranking FBI officers, tired of being manipulated by Koresh and,
no doubt, genuinely concerned for the precedents they were setting
for future confrontations, may have misguided the Attorney General
into giving ground commanders too much leeway in the execution
of the final assault plan - leeway that, as the tank and tear
gas assault progressed, unleashed the full destructive potential
of Koresh and the people under his control. However, in our view,
that gaping hole in the government's strategy was not wrought
by any battering ram or armored vehicle. Amid the push and pull
of the government's internal debate, the failure of FBI officials
in Washington and Waco to heed warning that the cult's destructive
urges would ignite under pressure hastened the demise of the doom-bent
Stern offered his own closing argument in an effort to, if not
excuse, at least account for the trust in government that, for
many Americans went up in flames at Waco.
"The Attorney General had only been on the job five weeks,"
Stern reminded us. "She didn't even have her own staff yet.
She was really flying solo. She had to rely on somebody, so
she relied on the FBI and their vaunted Hostage Rescue Team.
Those of us who have been around town a little longer know that,
while there's much to admire about the FBI, it does not have an
unblemished record. There are times when they have been mistaken.
They're not perfect. In the world of cats and dogs, sometimes
they're closer to dogs than cats. If she had been Attorney General
for two years and had more experience dealing with the bureau,
she might have solicited more information."
The lessons of Waco cannot by simply drawn, but some conclusions
can be made from the evidence and supporting testimony: the actions
of David Koresh and his followers placed the government in a position
where some intervention was called for to apprehend a suspected
lawbreaker with a history and declared plan of violence who posed
a danger to those around him and, potentially, to a much wider
population. However, the challenge of defusing a delusional cult
leader with scores of armed followers under his control was never
fully comprehended or accurately informed and, as a result, it
led to the exact outcome it had sought to avoid.
The same chaotic volatility ruled throughout the FBI siege. Strategic
errors considered of negligible concern to negotiators had major
ramifications. The assumption that sect members were merely "hostages"
allowed the crucial question of cult control to be altogether
ignored. The erroneous "mother instinct" assumption
proved fatal to mothers and their children. The FBI's tactical
teams, ground commanders and field negotiators, many of whom were
them selves physically exhausted, mentally overloaded and utterly
frustrated by Koresh, dismissed the warnings of ex-members, independent
witnesses and their own experts and played a long-shot in the
no-win game they had inherited. In the process, the entire command
chain gave way to its own set of chaotic dynamics: to closed institutional
thinking, subtle internecine struggles, serious errors in judgment
and - not to forget - genuine differences of opinion among people
acting in good faith and with the best intentions.
The lessons of Jonestown and Waco need to be grasped sooner rather
than later, for those conflicts were microcosms auguring larger
conflicts that have already begun to turn in pre-chaotic patterns.
Our chaos model offered one tool for mapping the communication
dynamics of social confrontations with cults and other ideologically
controlled groups, for determining when critical thresholds were
being approached and crossed, and when crucial windows were opening
and closing for appropriate interventions by law enforcement,
social services and mental health professionals. However, in
our view, the greater lesson for people in America and elsewhere
was this: without new understanding of the vulnerabilities of
the mind and new legal protections for the basic human freedom
that must come before any other in an information age - freedom
of thought - freedom itself becomes just another strange attractor
in the lands of artful manipulators drawing individuals and societies
downward in destruction.
288 Factual errors
extent of FBI contacts with cult experts
and former Branch Davidians: "Report to the Deputy Attorney
General on the Events at Waco, Texas, February 28 to April 19,
1993," Washington, DC, October 8, 1993, pp.190-193. The
report states that Breault was not contacted by the FBI and misrepresents
the nature and extent of consultations with deprogrammer Rick
Ross. Documentation supplied to us confirms that FBI negotiators
in Waco contacted Breault in Australia after the ATF raid, and
the bureau personnel initiated contact with Rick Ross in Dallas
on March 4, 1993 and had at least eighteen discussions with him
during the siege, the last on April 13. Personnel communications
with Marc Breault and Rick Ross, 1994.
One outside expert: Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist affiliated with
the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Decatur,
Georgia, claimed to have studied the factual evidence, consulted
with academic colleagues and "reviewed
on 'New Religious Movements.'" She also admitted to receiving
unspecified information from "various political and lobbying
groups." Nancy T. Ammerman, "Report to the Justice
and Treasury Departments regarding law enforcement interactions
with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, September 3, 1993, oo.1-10.
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