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Tue, 05 May 2020 09:00
Eric Benson is a senior editor at the magazine Texas Monthly. In 2018, Benson wrote a series of articles that helped shed new light on the tragedy at Mount Carmel. He and Lindsay discuss how the event still shapes American life today.
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From Wondry, I'm Lindsey Graham, and this is American Skin. Today we wrap up our series on the tragedy in Wake Out Texas. The story began in the early 1980s with a man named Vernon Howell, who rose to power in a then little known religious group called the Branch Dividians. His leadership changed the group, and Howell, who eventually took the name David Kuresh, and began teaching a dark vision of apocalypse. Kuresh directed his followers to begin firearms training, fortify their compound in a mass and arsenal. These activities caught the attention of federal authorities, and a series of charges were brought against the group, including allegations of weapons violations. The investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms led to a shootout at Mount Carmel Center, the compound that branched Davidians called home 10 miles east of Wake Out Texas. The violence that day with the start of a 51 day standoff that ended on April 19, 1993. On that morning, a fire broke out inside the compound, and killed 76 branched Davidians, including Kuresh and a number of children. The fateful events at Wake Out have been the subject of countless articles, books, and movies, the inspiration for further violence, the subject of intense and partisan congressional investigations, and would forever change America's views about the rights of citizens and government's use of force. Today I'm speaking with Eric Benson, senior editor at Texas Monthly. In April of 2018, the 25th anniversary of the Waco siege, Benson wrote a series of articles for Texas Monthly that helped shed new light on the tragedy at Mount Carmel. We talk today about how the public viewed the events at Waco at the time, and how the federal government has since been questioned about its role in the tragedy. So, Eric Benson, welcome to American scandal. Thanks, Lindsey. It's been 27 years since the events at Waco. That's a fairly long time, and the nation was different then. So, could you give us an idea of where we were and how the public initially viewed the events at Waco? Yeah, so I think for a few reasons, it took the public a little bit of time to catch on to what was going on at the branch to Pidia in Compound. That first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 had happened on February 26th, which was two days before the initial ATF raid on the branch to Pidia in Compound. So, most of the media attention, and really the national law enforcement attention, was on that major terrorist attack in New York City, and that first ATF raid made the news, but it was really just as it became clear that this was not going to be something that ended in a day. It was going to involve a siege that it kind of became, you know, that became nightly news. Now, of course, you're dealing with a media environment where people have newspapers, and they have the television news. The World Wide Web just barely existed. There was no social media, so the kind of media that people had to find out about this event were much more limited. And how did the media shape people's narrative of what was happening at Mount Carmel? Yeah, so I would even take kind of a step back and say kind of how was the media able to cover the events at Mount Carmel? And, you know, initially, I think it was the day after the raid, the branch of audience had a way to communicate with the media on their own. You know, David Koresh gave an interview to CNN. It's kind of an amazing interview when he was still badly injured from the initial raid, you know, where he was shot twice. The anchor asked him how he's doing, and he says, Ferre de Midland, which is a real, real Texas kind of slangy saying, but then their contact with the outside world was cut off and just routed through the FBI negotiating team. And so the media was relegated to satellite city, which was about a mile away from the compound. They couldn't actually see the compound from satellite city. There was a local news station in Waco that had access to a farmer's property nearby, and they were able to do some live shots, especially as the siege went on. The media was able to cover Waco through FBI briefings that happened every day. And you can imagine that's a pretty one sided view of events. And so that really shaped how Americans heard about Waco was, you know, during the siege itself, they were getting the government's perspective on Waco, and hearing a bit from some members of the branched dividends who had left largely before the siege and largely who opposed David Kuresh. Kuresh was painted in the media as a cult leader. Was that the FBI's doing? The media's doing? What affected that have on public perception is who was at fault in this tragedy? Yeah, sure. It was part of the FBI's doing. It was partially the media. It was partially people who had been branched dividends who had kind of gone through a group called the Cult Awareness Network. You know, who thought that Kuresh's leadership was manipulative and felt that he had taken over the group and kind of bent it towards his end. But Cult is obviously a very loaded term, and it has very negative connotations. So when that's bandied about, people make a lot of associations with it. The Jonesound massacre had happened, you know, it was just about a decade and a half earlier. So that wasn't exactly fresh in people's mind. But this idea of cults and mass suicides and charismatic manipulative leaders was something that I think the American public was familiar with. And so it was easy to put correction that box. Do you think his painting as a cult leader and the pejorative connotations affected the government response? Well, the initial government response, you know, the initial ATF raid, I don't think that was not in response to anything that the public thought of Kuresh. The branched dividends within the community of Waco, you know, were viewed as a kind of millennialist religious group that would come into town. But I don't think they were not viewed in Waco as people to be scared of. There were, of course, people who had left the branched dividend community who accused Kuresh of child abuse. And that played a role in the initial ATF raid. It wasn't the principal reason that they raided, but it was in the affidavit for the raid. Even though as people appointed out, that's not a federal crime. So the ATF shouldn't have been this charge of child abuse, which was unsubstantiated probably should not have been used in the initial affidavit for the raid. But yeah, but as it went on, sure, you can speculate a lot about why the FBI's tactics, particularly from the hostage rescue team were what they were. And, you know, I think those tactics were overboard and probably, you know, probably were influenced by it being easy to make the branched dividend seem other. And having Kuresh as this cult figurehead was easy to make that group seem other. Another group that seems other are Texans themselves. I'm a native born Texan, and it's known for its love of liberty. The Waco siege became a rallying cry for those who thought that the government was overreaching. What was Texas like before the Waco siege happened in terms of its stance towards government intervention? Yes, so Texas famously is the Republic of Texas. It was an independent country before it became part of the United States and was annexed. So yes, Texas has an independent streak. It has a strong history of gun rights. It has this kind of wary view of federal intervention. So those things do run strong in Texas. Texas has a very strong private land ownership history. Unlike most Western states, Texas is almost entirely held in private hands. And that's part of its history and how it came into the nation. So the branched dividends had set up shop in Mount Carmel because land was cheap and they'd be left alone. And that is how it had been for a long time up until February 28, 1993. When suddenly they were not left alone at all. So let's talk about the Waco siege and how it shaped anti government sentiment in Texas and throughout the United States afterwards. Yes, so I think what's interesting when you actually look at what was happening in real time, Waco became a really, really major event in American history. Waco was not in the headlines of newspapers for very long after the fire. Waco was something that I think a lot of people at the time thought was an event that was going to kind of fade into a sort of a hazy collective memory. But there was a group of people for whom it was a major rallying cry. And you started to see kind of homemade documentaries come out on the Waco siege. You know, most of them are, you know, have wild factual inaccuracies. You know, they're extrapolated from little bits of videotape and really go down the conspiracy rabbit hole. But, you know, they also do raise some legitimate questions about the government force that was used. And really the event that made Waco into something that we remember today was the Oklahoma City bombing. That was when Waco really came back into the news in a big way. And the Oklahoma City bombing was done by kind of militia affiliated. He was not actually part of a militia, but kind of sensitive to Timothy McVeigh was, it was kind of a fellow traveler with a lot of people who had militia affiliation. And he blew up the the federal building in Oklahoma City on the second anniversary of the Waco siege. And you see right after that attack, even before people have kind of figured out exactly who McVeigh is, that people think this has to do with the right wing militia movement. And it also causes a kind of re appraisal of what happened at Waco. And that's a media re appraisal. And that's also congressional re appraisal. You know, the Waco fire was April 19th, 1993. But there weren't congressional hearings on what happened at Waco until after the Oklahoma City attack nearly two years later. You know, and that's when you have these very high profile, very partisan hearings where everyone who was involved in the Waco siege is brought before Congress. In many ways, Oklahoma City seems to be the most important consequence of the Waco siege. But I'm interested in knowing how did right wing militia groups pick up Waco as a rallying cry? What is the overlap in the manifestos here? Yeah, it's interesting because the group itself, the branched dividends, are not a right wing militia group. You had sieges in the 1990s where there were explicitly kind of anti government, pro gun right wing militia groups where there were sieges. A year before, you had the weaver family in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where there was a siege and a standoff that ended, you know, really tragically, which an FBI sniper shot Randy Weaver's wife, one of Randy Weaver's sons was also killed. But that event, which we remember now, was also an event that was kind of not a big news event at the time because it happened at the same time as Hurricane Andrew hitting Florida. So that was what Hurricane Andrew was what people were reading about in 1992 while the Ruby Ridge siege was happening. Just as at the beginning of the Waco siege, people were reading about the World Trade Center attack. But the branched dividends were religious group and they were not extremely concerned with with earthly politics. But the initial raid was justified on the grounds that there was a warrant that the branched dividends had illegal weapons. They had automatic weapons. They had the beginning of the investigation started when a package full of inert grenade casings that was headed to the branched median compounds allegedly spilled out. And that was reported to the ATF and that's how this happened. So the raid on the branched median compound on Mount Carmel was a gun raid. And so that made it for people for whom the idea that the federal government was here to get your guns. The ATF raid was a raid about going into Mount Carmel and searching for illegal firearms and getting them. But Waco became a rallying cry for the militia movement during the siege. You know, Timothy McVeigh famously came to Waco during the siege to just kind of observe. And there were right wing groups that were around Waco. They couldn't get very close, of course, to Mount Carmel itself. But who were around is kind of self appointed observers of what was going on to make sure that the government didn't overreach. Of course, they had no power over what the government was doing. But yeah, it was an in real time galvanizing effort for the militia right. And to be clear, what are the issues that these militia groups stood up for and saw being trampled in the Waco siege? I think that what the militia groups fell to was invasion of private property and gun ownership. Probably to some extent religious liberty, although the dividends were were obviously a religious group. And a lot of militia groups had ties to both kind of right wing Christian elements and with white supremacist elements. That's not you can't characterize all militia groups that way. So I think really just kind of fundamental civil liberties issues that you'd find in right wing groups for a long time and continuing it to today. Gun rights, property rights. 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Join Wondry Plus on Apple podcasts or on the Wondry app. Back in 2018, you did a retrospective of the events at Waco for Texas Monthly on the 25th anniversary. In one of those stories, you interviewed Byron Sage, a former FBI agent who was also a lead negotiator with the Branch Davidians. When you spoke with him, how did Sage respond to the legacy of the siege? And how did he tell the FBI side of the story? Yes. Byron Sage is a really interesting figure in the Waco story. He was the lead FBI agent in Austin during the Waco siege, but also had extensive negotiating experience and was called up to be part of this very large team of FBI negotiators who were talking with Kuresh. Sage took on a leadership role within the negotiating team. He wasn't in charge of the negotiating team, but he was effectively the lead negotiator because the person in charge of the negotiating team was not often on the phone. He was more directing the effort. So Sage was there for all 51 days of the siege. And he was the one at the end who was telling the Branch Davidians to leave their compound when it was on fire. He had really extensive conversations with David Kuresh, including he had the only face to face negotiation of the Waco siege when he and the sheriff of McLean and County Jack Harwell went and met face to face with Steve Schneider and Wayne Martin actually kind of in the middle of the Mount Carmel between the FBI post and the actual compound itself. But Sage has since really the end of the siege and since it became a real flashpoint, has been a very vocal defender of the FBI. He has criticized some of the tactical side of the FBI because there was a negotiating side and then a tactical side. The negotiators were on the phone. The tactical side were in armored vehicles and had their guns trained on the Branch Davidian compound. He's criticized some of the tactical tactics but his feeling is very strongly that there is nothing that the FBI could have done to change the ultimate outcome of the siege. And he's most people that I've spoken to in the FBI feel the same way. And I think that's part of the culture of the FBI and part of him having been there for all of that time and tried to do as much as he did to get people out. But certainly not everyone agrees with it and not even everyone involved with law enforcement agrees with that. In the same series for Texas Monthly, you also interviewed Sheila Martin and Clive Doyle, both Branch Davidians who escaped dying in the fire. Do you get a sense that the two of them have been able to move on from the tragedy or are they perhaps stuck in it defending their own side of it? Yeah, so Clive Doyle and Sheila Martin, who I spent some time with, I've known Clive for a few years and Sheila I just met two years ago. But yeah, there I believe the last two members who are alive of the Branch Davidian sect who still who are still in Waco and still believe that David Kuresh was a god chosen figure. They haven't rejected David Kuresh. And yeah, I don't think that either of them have moved on. And how could they, Clive Doyle lost his daughter in the Waco fire and Sheila Martin lost almost her entire family? She lost, I believe, two sons and she lost her husband. And so for them, it was an immense personal tragedy as well as seeing their community essentially end. But they still believe in the same things that they believed in then religiously. And so I don't think either certainly Sheila Martin, but really in my conversations with Clive Doyle, they're not that concerned with litigating exactly what happened at Mount Carmel. They're mostly concerned with carrying on that particular religious tradition, which at this point is very small and without intervention from something that they believe in, we'll probably end with them. One of the points that was probably the most litigated of this whole thing is the very end. How did the fire start? Can you lay out to us what we know, what we suspect, who thinks what? Yes, how the fire started has been the most litigated point, both literally litigated and certainly bandied about in the media and by different stakeholders in what happened at Waco. I'll say because we talked about the media earlier, one thing that's really fascinating to me, as someone who, I'm 35 years old, I was young and not a big news consumer with a branch of idiom and siege happened. Before I was asked to look into this for a movie project actually about five years ago, I had only a very hazy view of what the Waco siege was, who David Kuresh was. But when the Waco fire happened, the polling after immediately after the fire, 93% of people in it, this was in a CNN Gallup poll, thought that David Kuresh was responsible for what happened. You have by 1999, after there have been quite a few documentaries, congressional hearings, importantly the discovery that there was a pyrotechnic round used at Waco, the public opinion had almost completely flipped, 61% of people who were pulled in 1999, thought that the FBI started the fire, which was part of the reason why there was another federal investigation after the initial federal investigations and the congressional hearings, a special counsel investigation that Janet Reno, then the Attorney General, hired John Danforth, who had been a Republican senator from Missouri to conduct. With a fire, there was a fire that started at around noon on the day that the FBI was injecting tear gas into the compound. The FBI on April 19th basically decided that the siege was over and that the branch of Indians were coming out. They brought in basically army tanks, fitted with tear gas injectors and started punching holes into the building and injecting tear gas, trying to force the branch of Indians to come out. For the first six hours none of them came out. Then you have a fire start in the compound and very quickly sweep through the compound, burn it to the ground by an hour later. There's really not much more of the branch of Indian compound and the fire of course burns for a while and kills 76 people. As far as what we know, I think I would say that they're basically three theories of the fire and I'll tell you frankly which I what I think kind of has the most evidence. One theory is that the government intentionally started the fire either to drive the branch of Indians out or to kill all of them. That's a theory that started almost immediately after the fire. I believe the kind of first big airing of it was in a documentary called Waco the Big Lie which is not a very credible documentary. It showed kind of reflections that were happening of sunlight off the tear gas injectors and it made it look like the tear gas injectors were shooting flames into the compound. I don't think that anyone who's looked at the evidence thinks that that's credible. I think the video evidence doesn't seem to support that there were flame throwers on tanks shooting flames into the compound. There's a sort of separate theory that FBI snipers were shooting at branch either into the compound or were shooting branch to Indians who were leaving the compound. That was something that I'm relatively sure that people in the compound were afraid of. There was a documentary that was a very widely seen documentary that used footage from a spy plane that was going overhead to support the idea that there was muzzle fire from FBI snipers. The Danforth report refuted that. I personally think that it's quite unlikely that the FBI was firing into the compound. There's another theory that the branch to Indians of course their electricity was cut off. They had Coleman lanterns filled with oil and that's how they were kind of lighting the inside of the compound. There's a theory that as the tanks rolled in, they might have knocked over these fuel canisters and turned the compound into a place that was ready to light on fire and then it took almost nothing just a spark or something like that to light the whole place up. It was almost prepared for fire. It's a theory that I think some people have taken some comfort in because it makes the whole thing seem completely accidental. I'm not aware of a lot of evidence to actually support an FBI tank knocked over all enough Coleman lanterns to spread enough fuel to that a spark could have lit the compound on fire. Then there's the third theory which is the one that the FBI has stuck to which is that the branch to Indians or a group within the branch to Indians intentionally lit the compound on fire. There are two big pieces of evidence to support that. One is the testimony of an FBI sniper who says he saw someone inside spreading fuel and you can kind of take that at what it is. If the FBI had acted nefariously, certainly a member of the FBI would have a lot of incentive to lie about what he saw. But it is something that an FBI agent testified to. I think the harder piece of evidence to refute is the testimony of Graham Craddock who was a member of the branch to Indians who said repeatedly that he saw people spreading fuel inside the compound. Exactly what happened, how it all went down, the people who lived, the people who left the compound during the fire, either didn't see it, weren't part of a plan. They all accept for Craddock seem to have no knowledge or don't want to discuss what happened with the fire. Craddock has not kind of gone out of his way to blame the branch to Indians and Kharash but he has mentioned the fuel. I think that's the most likely scenario. I think the mistake in saying well the branch to Indians started the fire or some groups of the mighty men group within the branch to Indians started the fire which I think is probably true. I think the mistake with just saying that and stopping there is that it blames the branch to Indians for everything that happened. I think there's no doubt that the HRT tactics were wildly irresponsible, that there was no reason that the FBI should have gone in with tear gas on that morning. I think that's been borne out because as when there were a future, when there were seages later on, the FBI was even more patient. It was a total disaster and a total disaster for the FBI, a total tragedy for the branch to be in community. You mentioned that FBI tactics changed after Waco and certainly also public opinion changed. Waco has inspired militias, Waco has inspired the government to investigate itself. There are countless books, articles, movies and now Netflix has rereleased 2018, many series to an even greater audience. Waco is a thing. What do you think the siege at Waco's lasting influences on the public and the government? Yeah, so the Waco's Seagers lasting influences are really interesting question. When I think about what happened at Waco, it is like a distillation of all of these trends that have been happening in American society from the very beginning of the nation. It's this religious liberty, it's private property, it's gun ownership, it's the role of the federal government. It's really this quintessentially American event and American tragedy. It's place in the American popular consciousness, I think, has ebbed and flowed since 1993. I think it had a pretty quick drop in people paying attention to it. The Oklahoma City bombing kind of brought it back. The Oklahoma City bombing also had the inverse effect on militia membership. Militia membership spiked after the events at Waco and dropped considerably after the events at Oklahoma City. But it has been through the 1990s, certainly it was the subject that was intensely debated and kind of culminating in the second major federal investigation, the Dan Fourth Report. I think it what happened on 9.11 and the subsequent wars and that ended the public's fascination for a while with what had happened at the branch divinity in compound. There were several different documentaries. Some of them I think quite excellent. And the miniseries you referenced, starring Taylor Kitch as David Kuresh. I think it definitely represented a kind of high point for the FBI's actions against militia groups. I think it fundamentally changed the way that the FBI operated. Waco was part of a series of events. It was the final in a series of events. Ruby Ridge was a major event that preceded it where an FBI sniper had killed a woman as she went outside of compound and was unarmed. There had been a few smaller incidents involving militia groups in the 1980s and federal law enforcement. And after Waco ended so disastrously for the FBI, I think they decided that they would bend over backwards to avoid what had happened at Waco. And you saw that right up until the I think the kind of closest recent analog was the the Aiman Bun D lead standoff in Oregon. Where one man was killed. But the federal government, I think, basically was going to let them be there as long as they were going to be there. To the point where I don't think anyone looking at that event thought it was the federal government was about to get tanks and storm the Bun D compound where they were holed up in that federal land. The FBI would hopefully not do that today. And I think it's just not the way that they operate after Waco. It was such a black eye for the agency. Many of these issues, these uniquely American issues that you identify, the the Waco distilled are still obviously with us today. And clearly the government's role in protecting its citizens is still there as well. What is the frontier for the next rebellion if anything? And what do you think the government's response will be? Yeah, that's a tough question. I think a lot of the issues around individual, the balance of individual liberties, the role of the state, the role of law enforcement are, you know, are all issues that very much still face us today. You could imagine, I mean, just what we've seen over this last month, two months with the federal and state response to the coronavirus pandemic and the way that certain people protested that. You know, people that there has always been, and I think always will continue to be a strain of people for whom it is very, very important to assert their independence from the state and law enforcement, you know, at almost all times, you know, often, often citing people like, you know, early writings of founding fathers and Thomas Jefferson. So I don't know, you know, I'm not smart enough to know what the next big issue will be. Hopefully, it won't be a wake up because of the lessons that were learned at wake up. But, you know, you saw with the bundys, it was about, you know, the federal ownership of land in the west, you know, whether the federal government should be, should be holding all of this land and deciding who got to use it. You know, you could imagine it in maybe not in this pandemic, but, you know, future events where the government, you know, curtailed individual rights, you know, as they indisputably have done during this pandemic, you know, and people deciding that the more important thing is the preservation of individual rights, you know, as a small, very small, but, you know, pretty vocal group has. So I think a lot of that, that's just kind of fundamental attention in American society between very strong protection of individual liberty, you know, and, you know, and a complicated and vast modern state apparatus. You could see that conflict playing out, you know, all sorts of different venues. And just, you know, hopefully, you know, it won't be a deadly conflict. Eric Benson, thank you so much for coming on American Scandal. Thanks, Lindsay. It was great to be here. That was Eric Benson's senior editor at Texas Monthly. His 2018 series on the Tragedy and Awaco and many other articles can be found at TexasMonthly.com. From Wandery, this is episode seven of seven of Waco for American Scandal. In our next new series, criminals and Pittsburgh have a plan involving gambling and manipulating the scores of college basketball games. But to pull it off, they'll first need some help from the basketball players themselves. American Scandal has hosted edited and executed produced by me, Lindsay Graham for Airship. Sound designed by Derek Barrett. This episode was produced by Audrey Mowe. The Waco series was written by Michael Canyon Meyer, edited by Christina Mallsberger, produced by Gabe Riven. Executive producers are Stephanie Jens, Jenny Lauer Beckman, and her nonmopez for Wandery.