Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Davidian Raid 15 Years Later

April 19 will mark the fifteenth anniversary of one of America’s most shameful events; the murders of dozens of helpless victims, including two pregnant women and twenty-one children, at the Branch Davidian compound assault in 1993. While at the time the FBI repeatedly insisted, even under oath, that they used no incendiary devices nor fired any gunshots, overwhelming evidence since the raid has proven that the FBI and BATF were directly responsible not only for the destruction of the Davidian buildings, but also for shooting unarmed Davidians, then using their official positions to conceal and destroy evidence of the crimes. The evidence includes not only witness testimony and video coverage (including FLIR footage), but also casings at the scene and the admission in 1999 of the use of M651 CS canisters (after repeated denials under oath)during the assault(during which time loudspeakers attached to the tanks could be heard declaring “this is not an assault” as they ran into walls of bedrooms and tore out sections of the structure).

Forensic evidence was largely destroyed by the government immediately following the raid, including the bulldozing of the area to prevent recovery of ballistics and other objective data which could have supported key Davidian claims. Even so, autopsy evidence indicated that several Davidians were run over by armored vehicles, none of them found with any sort of weapon; the FLIR footage shown on the documentary provides compelling evidence that the FBI started the fires which destroyed the building, although this appears to have been unintentional; the video footage of the assault shows that federal agents surrounded the compound and fired into the building, preventing opportunity to flee the death trap (CS tear gas used in an enclosed space metabolizes to hydrogen cyanide), eventually firing CS gas into the kitchen storage area, which had no windows or exits, and where dozens of women and children fled; the FBI had no fire trucks on site during the raid; and despite agents’ insistence that saving children was their top priority, there is not even one case of an FBI agent saving a child from the building during the raid. Not one.

The FBI defended itself, basically, by lying about the facts and the evidence for years, destroying what it could, and then won in court because the Davidians could not produce exculpatory evidence the FBI had locked away or destroyed. The Branch Davidian raid became a touchstone for every conspiracy theory and worry of totalitarian government. I would go so far as to suggest that every major domestic uprising since 1993 has a connection to the Branch Davidian raid. Timothy McVeigh admitted that the Davidian raid strongly influenced his decision to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City. Even the April 19, 1995 attack date was chosen to recall the Davidian raid’s date. The Montana Freemen became much more militant and active following the Davidian raid, apparently in fear that the government would soon begin cracking down on anyone who got out of line. Politically, the raid was a disaster for the Clinton Administration. Attorney General Reno took full responsibility and offered her resignation, which President Clinton refused to accept. The Davidian raid and the deaths of 4 federal agents and 92 Branch Davidians gradually faded from the public eye, to be obscured by other media events and political scandals.

It would be easy to go overboard with this story, either as evidence for a conspiracy theory or to attack the Clinton Administration. There have even been attempts to connect Hillary Clinton to the deaths of the women and children at the compound, demonstrating just how rabid some of the claims have become. I even wrote the first part of this article with a lean towards the evil-government conspiracy angle. The matter takes on a different look when we step back a bit.

To be sure, the elements I cited are all true and have been painstakingly established over the last decade and a half. But there is more to the story, which needs to be considered.

First, the conflict began with an ATF raid on the Davidian compound on February 28, 1993. The raid was based on fears that the Branch Davidians were a “doomsday cult”, planning a violent attack on neighboring Mount Carmel or even Waco, Texas. While no evidence was ever produced to support the claim that the Branch Davidians intended to attack anyone, the group had come into possession of several hundred semi-automatic rifles, and while all of the known purchases were legal, there was an anonymous claim made that some of the rifles had been modified to fire as fully automatic weapons. Because of this claim (also never substantiated by evidence or any credible sitness), a search warrant was issued for the Mount Carmel compound, and because a large amount of firearms were involved, the ATF came armed to the teeth, with a lot of armed men and helicopters. The problem was, the ATF was sloppy in its surveillance and the Branch Davidians expected the raid, if not the specific tactics. What happened exactly, when the ATF tried to serve the warrant depends on who you ask, but there is no question that a lot of shooting happened, and a number of people were killed, including four federal agents and six Branch Davidians. The ATF set up a perimeter and a 51-day standoff began. The first salient factor to the tragedy, thus, was the assumption by each side that the other was violent and could not be trusted.

By the time of the April 19 raid, the authorities involved in the standoff included the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Guard, and an unspecified number of officials from the Treasury Department, Justice Department, the Attorney General’s office and the White House. This created the second salient factor to the disaster, a lack of clear command and simple communication.

The law enforcement and government agencies also had problems deciding media’s role in the crisis. The media by 1993 had exploded in capability and appetite, with 24-hour coverage and non-stop commentary. This exponentially increased pressure on law enforcement, as officials were badgered over and over for new updates and action. In addition, neither the ATF nor the FBI were equipped or trained for a prolonged siege on territory controlled by their adversary, and as the days turned to weeks, the authorities felt increasingly compelled to act, even without a clear and well-developed plan or worst-case analysis. This was the third salient factor in the crisis, an imperative to act whether or not the plan’s assumptions had been tested.

The combination of these three factors, in my opinion, led to the needless deaths of 76 people on April 19, 1993. They also helped to create a fear of discovery by the ATF and FBI, which led to destruction of evidence and a series of false accusations against Davidians to prevent a public outcry against the FBI and the ATF. That did not work out, however, as outrage from the raid’s casualties continued in the media, the Internet, and in virtually all public venues. This led to unexpected consequences for the authorities, the Clinton Administration in particular. It may be that seeing the results of the Davidian raid, the Clinton Administration decided to avoid any conflict where the outcome was not in firm control. It would explain Clinton’s sudden reticence to increase the U.S. military presence in Somalia, his delay in sending military aid to Rwanda, and the reason why Clinton was so late in keeping his promise to send troops to Bosnia. In the light of heavy casualties at Mount Carmel, where he had been given no reason to expect them, it is not at all surprising that President Clinton refused to take unilateral military action under any circumstances, and never again showed trust in his forward commanders. While the later military decisions may be criticized on their own merits, it should be noted that the Davidian raid was not the fault of the Clinton Administration. The available records show that AG Reno made clear that the children’s safety was the top priority, and when the April 19 raid was planned she asked for confirmation that the CS tear gas would not contribute to a possible fire. The Clinton Administration was in its early months and would not have yet become familiar with drill-down processes for checking claims by subordinates, especially in such an unanticipated domestic stand-off. It should also be noted that no appropriate agency existed to deal with a situation posed by the Branch Davidians, who represented no military threat yet refused to surrender, whose agricultural compound was well-suited for a prolonged siege while the FBI had to find ad-hoc accomodations. The records show that in addition to the ATF, the FBI and the National Guard, members of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team and Delta Force were also present during the siege, showing that the government agents sensed that they were not in control of the situation, but unable to find a group trained and experienced in just this kind of situation. The Branch Davidians were not hostages, and interviews with Davidians and tapes of negotiations show that they were not intent on aggression, despite the media spin. The FBI was in charge but did not know what to do, and it appears the SAC was not at all willing to admit this to the Attorney General. It remains to be seen what will happen, the next time a large domestic group chooses to resist government attempts at mass arrest by force.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sorry for the Silence

Over at Right Wing News, John Hawkins observed some time ago that a successful blogger needs to blog steadily. Thus, I suppose, is one cause of my drib-drab numbers. Then again, I wouldn’t say I blog for popularity, and surely it does not pay the bills. I write when the Muse strikes me - which in my case may be described as an irresistible itch to post some of the stuff I write, because I write a great deal more than I post, in consideration that few enough people are really that interested in the political implications of Sox implementation protocols, or the cyclical nature of news themes. Anyway, I try to post what might have some interest for readers.

I have to admit that I also get distracted. Three classes again this spring means a lot of work in Finance and Economics, which I find interesting but not even many of my fellow students seem to do so, which is a warning against posting too much of my school work on the blog. Also, my mother’s breast cancer has recurred, and she will have to have a double masectomry next week. The situation seems to be relatively under control, but I have to admit I have spent some more time with family for obvious reasons.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Obama Swift-Boats Himself

In the late spring of 2004, things looked bright for the Democrats. Media spin was making Americans doubt the war in Iraq, ignore the war in Afghanistan, wrongly believe the economy was in trouble, and the Democrats had settled on Senator John Kerry for their presidential nominee, a decorated veteran who fought in Vietnam. Polls showed Kerry in good position and the Democrats were sure that they were about to regain the White House.

Then it all fell apart. The economy’s strength became impossible to deny, the successes in the Middle East wars reminded many Americans that the cause was worth its price, but even so the Kerry campaign felt it had a good chance. Then Kerry’s boastful war record finally came under serious scrutiny. While some Republicans tried to discredit everything Kerry did in uniform, and some Democrats tried to blame everything on a Conservative conspiracy, the facts revealed by other Swift-Boat veterans from the Vietnam conflict raised reasonable doubts about the veracity of Kerry’s hero claims, forced him to backtrack from a false claim to have fought in Cambodia in 1968, and reminded America of Kerry’s shameful hypocrisy as a war protestor, not because of his stance against the war, but such things as throwing “his” medals over a wall then somehow displaying the same medals in his office years later, or attending unsanctioned and illegal negotiations with the North Vietnamese government while still commissioned as a U.S. Navy officer. What did Kerry in, though, was not his position or actions in themselves, so much as it was his refusal to admit false claims or apologize for insults to the U.S. military and the nation. Democrats refused to accept the fact that Kerry had damaged his own campaign through his actions and behavior, and denounced the collapse of Kerry’s credibility as ‘swift-boating’, a term which has clearly different meanings to different audiences. The objective verdict for the Kerry campaign would have to say that the man shot himself down, in part because his character in fact was much different from the image he sold to voters.

Back to 2008 and Barack Obama. Enjoying a commanding lead over rival Senator Clinton for the Democratic nomination race, wanted to close her campaign out in Pennsylvania. Most political race followers know what happened then: Playing the class envy card that has become the hallmark of the modern Democrats, Obama discussed why believed Pennsylvanians were unhappy with the present condition, saying that they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

That, folks, is a very, very stupid thing for any candidate to say. But in Obama’s case it’s much worse, because Senator Obama has run on a claim that he rises above the cheap rhetoric, that he stands for the ideals held by all Americans, that he wants to focus on what unifies and advances America. That statement, no matter how he tries to backtrack or rephrase it, effectively proved that Obama is by no means the man he claims to be, that his prime claim to credibility has been proven a lie in front of the whole nation. Obama’s “clarification” during this week has been received for what it is, a self-serving and dishonest attempt to duck what he really said, and denial about the damage he did to his own reputation and credentials.

With that said, no one should believe this seriously damages the Obama run to the Democratic party nomination; Obama’s numbers are still too much for Clinton to catch. And Obama’s base is going to stick with him all the way through the fall. This blunder won’t cause lifelong Democrats to back off their man. Where it hurts is where it happened – Pennsylvania and states just like it, where folks may be Democrat or Republican or whatever, but they hold hard and strong to certain values and rights, and a politician who does not support gun rights and freedom of expression and religion, a politician who does not respect the laws protecting our borders, while at the same time understanding that new citizens are welcome and valued, well, that politician is just not going to get support there. It’s not just what he said in Pennsylvania a week ago, but the whole message that is starting to come out about Obama, his hate-filled pastor of two decades, his class warfare rhetoric when he panders to areas with high unemployment, and Obama’s shocking inability to understand the values of small-town America. His behavior of the past month, coupled with lame excuses in place of squarely admitting his wrongs and asking for forgiveness, has demonstrated a callous character in Obama that will, in the general election, cost him three or four states that he would have won if he had spoken more as the man he claimed to be. And that kind of self-inflicted injury could easily prove the fatal cost to the fall election. But just like Senator Kerry before him, we can be sure that Senator Obama will simply pretend that he was a victim of conspiracy, never admitting that his own worst enemy looked back at him every time he saw a mirror.