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Waco Documentary Rewrites the Record

A new film on the standoff and subsequent fire in Waco appears to tell the story of an overreaching, violent government intrusion, but only because it twists the facts.

The film appears to tell the story of a government gone mad.

Publicity-seeking federal agents trump up charges against an innocent religious sect living peacefully in the blacklands of Texas. Unprovoked, they open fire on the sect's members and brutally storm toward their homes and church. They torture the men, women and children in the sect's compound for 51 days because they had the temerity to fight back.

Finally, in an apparent homicidal rage, the agents murder 75 men, women and children in a holocaust of flames, tear gas and machine-gun fire.

"Waco: The Rules of Engagement" proves that "mass murder by one's own government in this country is very possible," executive producer Dan Gifford says.

And apparently the critics agree. The film was nominated for a best-documentary Academy Award this year, and although it lost, it drew a series of rave reviews. "Two thumbs up," ruled Siskel & Ebert. "A doozy of an investigative exposé," The New York Times concluded. "A serious documentary," said The Washington Post.

To no one's surprise, the movie has been picked up and recirculated in a massive way by the antigovernment "Patriot" movement. It's been reviewed and advertised in the literature, Internet sites and radio programs of the extreme right. After all, the picture it paints makes a perfect fit with the conspiracy-minded movement.

But in reality, this "documentary" is little more than propaganda.

'The Truth Was Bad Enough'
Gifford, a former television reporter, ignores a vast array of facts that don't fit into his theories of the events in Texas. He and his researcher, Michael McNulty — who's also been an investigator for Soldier of Fortune magazine and surviving Branch Davidians who've filed a civil suit — mischaracterize much of the evidence they do cite.

Now the pair is telling reporters that they have information that the Davidians were murdered by secret military teams. McNulty, a former talk radio host for a Colorado Patriot radio show, plans a sequel on the subject.

Lee Hancock, an investigative reporter with The Dallas Morning News, recently concluded that the documentary "didn't get many facts right." Unlike either Gifford or McNulty, Hancock covered both the Waco siege and the conspiracy trial of 11 survivors. She also relied on a review of court records, congressional hearings and government investigations.

The film, for instance, strongly implies that during the initial raid the ATF fired first at the Davidians inside the compound. It says nothing of court testimony from three journalists that the Davidians fired first.

It ignores the mass of evidence that Davidian leader David Koresh knew of the imminent raid and prepared his followers for battle. It doesn't mention that a jury convicted eight surviving Davidians of voluntary manslaughter, or that the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals roundly affirmed those convictions.

Similarly, the documentary embraces the theory that the FBI started the fire that consumed the compound at the end of a 51-day standoff. It makes no reference to tapes recorded that morning of Davidians yelling about setting the fire and keeping it going, or to court testimony and physical evidence supporting that scenario.

Gifford says he didn't have time in the film to include such evidence.

U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., chaired Congressional hearings on the 1993 events in Waco. After reviewing some of the film's allegations, McCollum told Hancock that he found the documentary to be biased.

"Am I concerned that this [film] encourages people to believe something that I think is patently untrue? Yes, I am concerned."

None of the film's misrepresentations excuse the many mistakes that were made in the raid and the siege that followed, the disingenuous statements some officials offered or the decision to tear gas a compound in which innocent children were trapped.

But by pushing a completely one-sided view of the saga, "Waco: The Rules of Engagement" only fuels the paranoia of this country's radical right. It does nothing to serve the facts.

"The truth was bad enough," Joe Turner, the attorney for one of the Davidians during the federal conspiracy trial, told Hancock.

"Why not tell the truth?"