Waco Skepticism and Counterskepticism

Gifford Responds to Jeffreys

This article appeared on page 31 of  Skeptic Magazine (Vol. 7 No.1 1999). It is my response to an earlier  article attempting to discredit my film, "Waco: The Rules of Engagement,"  printed in the magazine's 1998 3rd quarter (Vol.6 No. 3 1998, page 10)  issue.

By Dan Gifford
Producer, "Waco: The Rules Of Engagement"

"Why do you Americans demand justice when foreign governments commit  mass murder in their country but not when your own government commits mass murder in your country?"

"Why isn't Noam Chomsky speaking out about the government atrocities committed at Waco?"

"Why isn't the ACLU  interested in Waco?"

Those and other like questions were posed by  Cal Tech students and faculty following a recent campus joint UCLA-Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screening of my National Emmy winning, Oscar nominated documentary "Waco: The Rules of Engagement."

They were raising the issue of fundamental intellectual honesty.

That quality had always seemed to me the essential one a Skeptics  Society member would have to possess to even want to join. But the intellectual dishonesty displayed by Keith Jeffreys' attempts to discredit my film in his Skeptics Magazine review is a reminder that there are exceptions.

"The documentary artfully commingles facts with half-truths and outright falsehoods...ultimately distorting the history of the disaster and duping the gullible as it attempts to build a case for a government conspiracy to murder the Branch Davidians", Jeffreys writes. Strong stuff. But as you shall see, its provably wrong stuff and he knows it. So do others. Unable to discredit the film mano a mano with me, the film's producer, at the June 14, 1998 Cal Tech meeting, Jeffreys is now trying to foist the same intellectual insult his peers rejected then upon the Society's unsuspecting and much larger reading audience.

Had it not been for E-Mails from outraged Skeptics to the film's website demanding that I respond, I would never have known about Jeffreys' article until it got used (as it later was prior to the film's HBO airing) to impugn Waco:'s overwhelming evidence of an FBI premeditated mass murder of 76 Branch Davidian men, women and children. It is easily the largest domestic U.S. government mass murder of this century, and possibly the largest of its kind in American history. The enormity of that government crime is only matched by the enormity of the government propaganda effort that has covered up the actual facts.

Contrary to the official narrative which most everyone now knows by heart, the Branch Davidians were not a group of white racists. David Koresh did not start his own religion or found the Davidian religious sect. Its Mount Carmel Center church and living complex was not an armed camp (of its 130 people, perhaps 10 either owned or ever touched a firearm). The firearms "stockpile" was legal inventory used to make a legal profit and was just one of several side businesses. There is no credible evidence the Davidians were engaged in any criminal activity or that they ambushed the 100 or so federal agents of the ATF that raided Mount Carmel on February 28, 1993.

All evidence indicates trigger-happy ATF agents started the shooting (some from helicopters, which the ATF denies), forcing the Davidians to either kill or be killed. Those ATF agents also murdered a Davidian, Michael Schroeder, while in custody, destroyed evidence which contradicted their claims, and lied to those investigating their actions like the Texas Rangers. Finally, no Davidians were held against their will during the ensuing 51 day stand-off with the FBI, and the Davidians did not burn themselves to death in a mass suicide during the FBI tank and gas attack on April 19, 1993.

Infrared FBI aerial surveillance video included in my film shows how FBI agents carefully prepared Mount Carmel Center for conflagration. Once set afire with explosive munitions ( which can be clearly seen in one FLIR incident), muzzle flashes on that same video show FBI automatic weapons fire being poured into that portion of the building where most Davidians had retreated to escape the flames. Afterwards, FBI agents destroyed incriminating evidence of their actions and then lied to Congress, among others, that they never fired so much as a single shot during the entire 51 day stand off. After performing additional research since our film's release, a civil suit by former JFK U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, paints an even more horrible picture:

"At about noon [19 April 1993] FBI agents on foot entered the Church, and fired shots which struck plaintiffs many of whom were dead, or unconscious from gas inhalation. Several FBI defendants proceeded to the second floor and placed an explosive material on the top of the concrete Church vault [in which women and children were crowded on the floor] at the 2nd floor level...at about 12:20 p.m. a huge explosion blasted a hole several feet in diameter....[in] the concrete ceiling of the Church vault, crushing, cutting, burying and killing or injuring most of the approximately 30 persons in the vault...It [FBI] planned to demolish the Church building, to destroy evidence of the ATF attack on February 28, including evidence of the first shots fired by ATF at the front door of the Church and the lethal firing at the Church from helicopters which the ATF denied."

It gets worse.

Secret anti-terrorist U.S. Army Delta Force and British SAS soldiers  were present at FBI invitation as "observers." But reports of those troops illegally killing Americans on American soil persist from sources that have provided accurate information in the past. So do reports of classified weapons testing on the Davidians that was being micro managed, along with everything else, from Washington. A confirmed June, 1997 "Soldier of Fortune" article by ABC Nightline contributor James Pate tells how FBI agents who crept into Mount Carmel on April 17th to plant electronic devices had a chance to arrest Koresh. But then Associate Attorney General Web Hubbell ( the defacto U.S. Attorney General ) passed word back from then White House counsel Vince Foster ( Hubbell testified that the late Vince Foster kept President Clinton apprised of events at Waco ) that Koresh was to be left in the building.

As for the child abuse claims, we found no credible evidence that Koresh or anyone else there molested children. Those assertions came from disgruntled apostate Davidians and were amplified during the 80s child abuse hysteria by the Cult Awareness Network. Two years of investigations by Texas authorities found no evidence of Davidian child abuse. Despite all that, federal officials used the allegations to inflame public opinion and to justify their actions even though they lacked jurisdiction.

Remember the child molestation story against Koresh read by Kiri Jewel before Congress? According to her grandmother (who was not a Davidian), Kiri told her the event never happened. She says the story was fabricated by her former Davidian father, originally as part of an acrimonious child custody dispute with Kiri's mother who died in the fire. The father then retold his concocted story to get publicity for himself for a showbiz career he was trying to launch then, according to Kiri's grandmother.  Mr. Jewel got TV face time by appearing with his daughter on shows such as "Oprah" and "Phil Donahue."

Those and many other facts which contradict the "official story" have regrettably withstood critical examination ever since "Waco: The Rules of Engagement" received initial kudos at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, "an enthusiastic two thumbs up!" from Siskel and Ebert, glowing reviews from The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times ( named one of 1997's top films) and London's Sunday Independent, to name just a few. Among many other honors, Waco: was named the lead film in the Human Rights Watch World Film Tour, received the International Documentary Association's top award, and has been shown twice by The Simon Weissenthal Museum of  Tolerance.

That the "mass suicide" and other Waco myths persist is owed to the deadly power of carefully chosen newspeak. There was "compound," "cult," "cult leader," "bunker," "stockpiling weapons," "arsenal," "child  abuse," "racists," and "anti-government." By larding their story with those words, police and political PR spokespersons knew Koresh and the Davidians would be demonized beyond redemption. So does Jeffreys, as evidenced by his disingenuous non-confrontational article.

If passive aggressiveness seems an unconventional tactic for a former Special Forces man like Jeffreys, remember that SF training emphasizes independent adaptive thought and unconventional tactics. Remember too that his old SF compadres are an integral part of the same FBI Hostage Rescue Team (raising "see no evil" questions akin to the police "blue wall of silence" ) that came up with two of the most unconventional tactics ever at Waco. They tried to entice Davidian women and children to flee "child abuser" David Koresh for the safety of HRT agents who publicly mooned and fondled their genitalia before them. When that didn't work, they saved the children by murdering them. That general appeal to authority is fortified by Jeffreys own authority status on matters militaire.

As a former SF member it is natural to assume he knows what he is talking about. This powerful double appeal to authority exploits most modern American's lack of experience with either firearms or military combat, as well as their inherent desire to believe their officials. It is the essential reason police testimony almost always carries more weight in court than a defendant's, even though police evidence fakery and perjury, as Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz most recently testified before Congress, are a known national epidemic.

Despite the parade of FBI officials the camera catches in obvious lies about events at Waco during sworn testimony to Congress, Jeffreys keeps the faith. Lets take a look at the half-truths and outright falsehoods Jeffreys believes will be set straight by an FBI that has refused to provide key evidence for independent examination because of "national security."

"Video footage taken by the BATF shows an organization far more concerned about obtaining publicity to generate congressional appropriations than it was about executing a well-planned and implemented raid to serve a warrant for weapons violations and child abuse."

First, child abuse had nothing to with the warrant. Rumors of it were used by ATF officers in an affidavit requesting the warrant to inflame the judge against the Davidians. Second, the ATF wasn't just "far more concerned" with generating publicity, it was almost totally consumed with generating good publicity. With no legitimate probable cause for a search warrant, it had to lie to obtain one. ATF officials lied again to obtain military equipment and training for its agents. Racism and anti-Semitism provided additional motivation. From the agency that gave us the widely reported "Good Old Boys Roundup"complete with signs like "NO NIGGERS ALLOWED," came ATF agents livid about Davidian miscegenation, the large Star of David on the Davidian flag and the group's "kike practices." An unreported fact: half the Davidians were Black and another 10% Asian. Another: Koresh had done Hebrew and religious studies in Jerusalem, and the Davidians celebrated many of the Jewish Holy days.

Jeffreys: "[O]nly brief mention is given to the Davidian apocalyptic vision." I would call a half hour out of the film's 136 minute running time a rather substantial mention. Together with supporting background video and other interviews, University of North Carolina religion professor and "Why Waco?" author James Tabor explains the Davidians belief system in detail. Jeffreys: "[N]othing is said of David Koresh's previous use of violence in a gun battle in 1987 with rival George Roden, the son of Koresh's one-time lover and mentor Lois Roden...the importance of this factual omission cannot be underestimated." "The untold incident indicates that Koresh's rise to power had as much to do with his willingness to use guns as it did with revelations from God."

The Koresh vs. Roden armed confrontation is mentioned. The Koresh-Lois Roden sex story is a rumor started by son George (an insane ax murderer who recently died trying to escape a Texas prison mental hospital) who originally claimed Koresh raped his mother.

Jeffreys: "In support of this interpretation of the FLIR tapes, an expert points to bright flashes, stating that they are gun shots. Yet in each instance, the positioning, duration and direction of the flashes present problematic evidence. For example, in one series, the expert points to flashes of apparent weapons fire emanating from a CEVs rear deck. Unfortunately, the CEVs construction undermines the allegation. The rear deck sits atop the engine and behind the turret. There is no space in the engine compartment for a shooter and placing him atop the rear deck would expose him to incoming fire."

The deck area reference is a general one. Viewers can clearly see the muzzle flash is actually coming from the tanks port side just to the rear of its midsection. There is ample space for a person to ride on the fender covering the tank tread. It's done all the time, there are plenty of photos from wars past to verify that, and I've done it myself. As for the specific deck, it is a grate covering the tank's noisy diesel engine. And while it would be too hot for a sunny Texas day, that engine heat feels pretty good during a cold morning.

As for a person being exposed to incoming gunfire if in that position, Jeffreys is correct. But that takes us into another issue. The FBI has claimed the Davidians were shooting at them so heavily that sparks were being struck on the tanks armor. We could find none of that. The inescapable conclusion is that whoever is shooting from that exposed position isn't worried about Davidian gunfire.

Jeffreys finally tries to claim that neither the anti-riot agent CS, or the methylene chloride in which it was dissolved when sprayed into the Davidian building as a fine aerosol mist, are flammable, or that CS produces hydrogen cyanide when burned. He goes on to say that "without conclusive tests demonstrating cyanide presence in the cadaver, the assertions [that any Davidians died from cyanide] can only be regarded as inference."

Whether his first point is ignorance or intellectual dishonesty, I don't know. But the manufacturer's literature on these materials says otherwise as should the practical knowledge of anyone who didn't sleep through high school chemistry. Regarding the second point, tests did show lethal levels of cyanide in some bodies. But also be aware that the same FBI that destroyed physical evidence of all government crime at Mount Carmel also interfered with the autopsy findings.

Was Koresh weird? Were the Davidians? In my book, yes. But the willingness to uncritically regurgitate official demagoguery manufactured to manipulate or inflame public opinion for political gain or careerism simply encourages the technique's repetition to justify and hide heinous official acts. It is now painfully apparent how well that was done at the Davidians' expense. Through study and practice, savvy police and political PR professionals know that facts are seldom allowed to prevent a profitable news scare---particularly when the designated heavy is a person or group whose lifestyle or belief system is a repugnant cliché or stereotype to most.

But then, real skeptics already know that.

Dan Gifford is president of SomFord Entertainment, a former reporter for CNN, The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour and ABC News and a Board of Directors member of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California.