Former Federal Prosecutor Bill Johnson Discusses Branch Davidian Siege in Waco
Bill Johnston is a former federal prosecutor who played key roles in the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Texas and the subsequent prosecution of 11 Davidians who survived the fire that ended that 51-day standoff. Although he acted very much as a team player during those events, Johnston came to question several aspects of law enforcement operations in Waco.
Johnston, who followed his father into a career as a prosecutor, was later responsible for allowing a controversial documentary producer to look at evidence that not been seen publicly before.
Part of that evidence resulted in new questions being raised about the FBI's alleged use of incendiary devices on the day the compound burned — questions that fueled many in the antigovernment movement but also caused many of Johnston's colleagues to treat him as an "intellectual leper" who had betrayed his friends.
In January, Johnston finally resigned from the U.S. attorney's office, and he since has spoken out about the alleged problems he saw. The Intelligence Report spoke to Johnston about what the radical right has come to see as the seminal event of the 1990s in America.
Intelligence Report: How did the initial Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms [ATF] raid plan develop?
Johnston: I don't know about all the decisions. The raid [on Feb. 28, 1993] was a project that ATF out of Houston pretty much gained control over. Initially the ATF supervisors said they were going to arrest Koresh when he was away from the compound. Then they changed the plan from an arrest to a raid [on the compound].
I think part of that change was justified in that it appeared Koresh was not leaving the compound very often. But apparently he did leave some.
One difficulty was that the directives that the ATF agents started with were not the directives they ended up with. They were asked to do things they had not been prepared for — like infiltrate the group — and were not told ahead of time by management what to expect.
First they had a surveillance function [ATF agents watched the compound for weeks from a nearby rented house], and I think they did a pretty good job. But their role morphed as the weeks went by.
The changes were particularly difficult for Robert Rodriguez [an ATF undercover agent who infiltrated the group shortly before the raid], who was put in a tough situation and performed very well. The undercover agents were strained by the different functions they were asked to perform.
IR: Where were you on Feb. 28, the day of the raid?
Johnston: I was at the command post about five miles away, standing with friends from the [U.S.] Marshals Service. We heard there was a great deal of gunfire and that it was a real bad situation.
Within 45 minutes, they were reporting a number of agents killed [four ATF agents were shot to death that day]. And I said to myself, "Nothing good will come of this. Nothing."
Right before the raid, one ATF supervisor said to about 45 agents [who were assembling near Waco for the raid], "Hurry up, they know we're coming." Of course, many agents were wondering, "What do you mean, 'Hurry up, let's go, they know we're coming?'"
Robert Rodriguez desperately tried to argue with the supervisor about the importance of the element of surprise which had been lost. Rodriguez was and remains very frustrated about that whole thing. These were the conflicts early on between ATF line agents and supervisors.
I had been in contact with the Texas Rangers, and within a day or two after the raid I asked them to investigate precisely when the ATF supervisors knew that the element of surprise had been lost.
Two Texas Rangers investigated this very thoroughly. They asked the supervisors, "What did Robert Rodriguez tell you, and when, and what did you do?" The Rangers [later] believed that both supervisors lied to them and we all felt they should have been prosecuted for false statements. They never were.
Within just a few days there was a great chasm within ATF, a feeling that the supervisors had not done a good job.
IR: There have been allegations that the operation went forward despite the loss of surprise because the ATF wanted a splashy raid to enhance their budget prospects. Do you think ATF supervisors had some kind of hidden agenda?
Johnston: I've heard a lot of talk about the agenda part but I don't think there was some grand government conspiracy. It was probably just a matter of whether or not these supervisors were tactically qualified to handle this sort of thing.
Once it had gone bad, there was a real need for honesty. And that, unfortunately, did not come from some quarters. The ones who suffered were the 75-80 line agents who were tormented and butchered out there. That was a real tragedy.
IR: In your opinion, was there a later cover-up of how the raid went down?
Johnston: I really detest this whole idea of a cover-up. Two folks were sent down from the Department of Justice [DOJ] public integrity section to look into this, and they spoke with me and the Rangers. But we never heard back from them.
It wasn't that they said, "No, we aren't going to do it." They just vanished, like they were beamed up somewhere. So we never heard back from the Justice Department regarding the decision not to prosecute the supervisors.
Not only were the ATF supervisors not indicted or charged; not only were they not prosecuted; in the end [after being suspended from active duty while their actions were under investigation], they were reinstated within the ATF.
What troubles me so much is that this is exactly the sort of government behavior that leads people who dislike the government to take action.
It really worries me because I think if the government had just held those guys accountable in some fashion, by firing or prosecuting them, then people who don't care for the government would have said, "Well, at least the system works."
I know there was a lot going on in 1993 when all this was happening, but we really needed some accountability. Ultimately, the system does work. But it didn't then.
I think the mistakes and lack of accountability and the lack of openness with records exacerbated and really inflamed antigovernment thought among those who believed the government was behind some grand conspiracy. Combine those things and you get a response like Timothy McVeigh.