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Ex-colonel says FBI heard sect's fire plans U.S. officials say bugging devices weren't reliable 10/08/99

By Lee Hancock / 1999, The Dallas Morning News

Bugging devices in the Branch Davidian compound clearly picked up the voices of leader David Koresh and his followers preparing and starting fires that ended the deadly 1993 standoff, according to a now-retired U.S. Army colonel who assisted the FBI at the siege. Federal officials from Attorney General Janet Reno down have maintained for years that the FBI did not know that the Davidians were spreading fuel and preparing to set a fire throughout the FBI's six-hour tank and tear gas assault on the compound.

But Col. Rodney L. Rawlings of Austin said in an interview that "you could hear everything from the very beginning, as it was happening." Related stories Armey questions need for hearings "Bugging" excerpts FBI testimony on "bugging"

"I heard it," said Col. Rawlings, who said he heard bug transmissions from speakers in an FBI monitoring room. "Anyone who says you couldn't at the time is being less than truthful."

Among the most chilling transmissions was Mr. Koresh's order to set the fires, a command followed by the sound of gunshots, Col. Rawlings said. The bugs then broadcast the voice of Mr. Koresh declaring that God did not want him to die, and his chief lieutenant's response that the sect leader "wasn't going to get out of this," he said.

A senior FBI spokesman in Washington declined to comment on Thursday, citing an ongoing investigation by independent counsel John Danforth. "We have appropriately relinquished all of these issues to Senator Danforth and are confident he will get to the bottom of this," said FBI Deputy Director John Collingwood. Officials have told Congress that transmissions from eavesdropping devices inside the compound were too garbled to allow agents to hear the sect's discussions about spreading fuel as the tanks rammed the building.

The tank and tear gas assault began about 6 a.m. on April 19, 1993, and the Davidians began talking about spreading fuel within five minutes, Col. Rawlings said and FBI records confirm. Ms. Reno testified that she would have stopped the tear gas assault if she had been told anything about the Davidians' plans and preparations for a fire.

Jeffrey Jamar, the FBI's commander in Waco, told Congress that he and his agents "couldn't know that was happening. If we had heard 'spread the fuel,' we'd have stopped right there. We didn't hear. We didn't know that until those tapes [of recorded bug transmissions] were enhanced."

Mr. Jamar could not be reached for comment on Col. Rawlings' account. Mr. Jamar and other FBI agents have said they learned what was happening inside the compound only after the assault was over, when they analyzed tapes from listening devices. FBI agents later produced transcripts of the tapes that indicated that the Davidians talked about spreading fuel for nearly six hours before the fire began. Col. Rawlings, a combat-decorated helicopter pilot and 31-year veteran who retired from the Army in 1997, said he clearly heard those preparations as they were broadcast from a monitoring-room speaker in at the FBI's main Waco command post. He said he was there as senior Army liaison to the FBI's hostage rescue team. Working in an area adjacent to the open door of the monitoring room, he said, he heard voices of Mr. Koresh and other Davidians praying, planning the fire and preparing to die during the FBI's tank assault.

"They're using the excuse of technical difficulties to cover why they didn't react on the information they had," he said. "They had a very poor plan to begin with that allowed them nothing to fall back on in the event that things went south.

"It bothers me to no end," said Col. Rawlings, 54, now a project manager for a computer firm in Austin. "They've had the opportunity to say, 'We knew.' We've not gotten a straightforward answer." Col. Rawlings said he was sent to Waco in the last weeks of the 51-day siege from his III Corps command staff post at Fort Hood. His duties included command of 1st Cavalry Division crews sent from Fort Hood to maintain U.S. Army Bradley fighting vehicles and armored M-60 combat engineering vehicles loaned to the FBI.

Col. Rawlings said he spent the night before the FBI assault working in the command post and remained there throughout the April 19 operation. Course of events

At 6 a.m., as an FBI negotiator called the compound to announce that a tear gas assault was beginning, combat engineering vehicles began smashing into the Davidians' flimsy wooden building with long metal booms. Attached to the booms were spraying devices that pumped in powdered CS gas, a riot-control chemical that causes severe skin and eye irritation, runny eyes and nasal passages, nausea and chest tightness.

Top FBI officials have said their assault plan assumed that mothers in the compound would immediately flee the tear gas with their 20 children and that the physical effects of the gas would cause the others to surrender quickly.

"A lot was hung on the hope that what each individual was going through would've resulted in a lot more confusion and would've prevented them from getting organized," Col. Rawlings said. "The FBI planned only on a total and immediate collapse and surrender." Government bugs picked up sounds of Davidians running, moving objects and yelling for gas masks, he said.

Within five minutes of the FBI's warning call, he said, he heard Davidians discussing taking their children to a central, concrete-block room that the sect called "the cooler." It had only one door and offered protection for children too small to wear gas masks.

Because the area was bugged, Col. Rawlings said, Davidians who took shelter there could be heard crying, talking and praying. He said he could also hear Davidians calling back and forth from their stations at various points in the compound. Throughout the morning, there were "a lot of prayers going on. Koresh was doing a final sermon at one point," Col. Rawlings said.

They could be heard talking about spreading and pouring fuel and keeping federal agents out of the building. That talk produced little visible reaction from anyone at the command post, Col. Rawlings said.

As FBI agents milled around the area that included the bug-monitoring room, he said, many agents seemed to listen "with great interest." But he said he heard few conversations among agents and spoke little with them because he was focused on the broadcasts and reporting what was happening to his superiors via telephone.

"It had to have registered, because of the intensity of the activity in the compound," he said. "I think they just didn't want to believe it and accept it. I didn't know what was going to happen, but I was worried."

Just after FBI officials ordered a combat engineering vehicle to drive deep into the compound and to gas the concrete block room, he said, "Koresh gave the order" to start the fires. "He said, 'OK. Our time is now. It's time to put the children away,' or 'to sleep,' or some such words. When we heard this, it was, 'Oh my God. How can anyone do this?' It got real quiet in the command center. We could not believe this was going on," Col. Rawlings said.

"After the command was given, the individuals given the task of setting fires took their stations and promptly began to do so. There was no time to move. And the FBI had no plans to do anything differently," he said. "They had no way of getting in to stop it."

Gunshots rang out, he said, and the FBI "did a quick perimeter check" in which agents surrounding the compound radioed that they were not firing and that the shots were coming from within. Col. Rawlings said he then heard Mr. Koresh tell his chief lieutenant, Steve Schneider, that he "was not ready to die, that God wanted him to continue his work."

"Steve Schneider told him, 'You're not going to get away with this. You will go through with this. Look around you. Look around you at all you've caused,' " Col. Rawlings said. "Then we heard more gunshots."

Bodies recovered Mr. Koresh's unarmed body was later found lying near Mr. Schneider's. Autopsies determined that Mr. Koresh had been shot once in the center of his forehead and that Mr. Schneider had put an assault rifle in his own mouth and killed himself. Seventeen of the 80 other Branch Davidians died of gunshots. Several, including a 3-year-old, were fatally stabbed. Bodies of the children and many of the women were in the concrete block room.

Since the standoff, FBI officials have offered little information about the bugs or where they were in the compound. Pressed by defense lawyers at the Davidians' 1994 criminal trial, an FBI supervisor testified that he knew of only two working bugs in the compound on April 19 - one near the front door and another just outside. The supervisor testified at trial that he and three other agents were monitoring the bugs that day, but government lawyers disclosed in legal filings this week that 24 FBI agents were monitors on April 19.

A video recording from that day only recently disclosed by the FBI captured a radio transmission in which Mr. Jamar discussed how a device he called "the box" was picking up Davidians' voices near the interior "cooler." On that transmission, an FBI agent can be heard telling hostage rescue team commander Richard Rogers at 7:49 a.m. that Davidians were being told "to stay low and stay ready, as if they were expecting some type of assault."

Mr. Jamar can be heard saying that Davidians were "taking their masks off and on. In fact, one person asked, 'Have we been gassed?' So there's an area that we're not getting gas into." FBI has not detailed how the bugs were inserted into the compound, but some officials have suggested that devices were sent in with shipments of milk and other items requested by the sect.

Some military experts have said that special operations soldiers assisting the FBI with the siege probably brought state-of-the-art devices utilizing lasers and other technology to capture sounds through windows and other parts of compound. Col. Rawlings said he was never told details about the eavesdropping technology. He learned of the presence of special operations personnel only last month, when a reporter showed him Defense Department documents detailing the presence of three soldiers from secret units on the day of the assault. Government lawyers recently acknowledged that a total of 10 military personnel from secret special operations units were present during the 51-day siege.

"I was responsible for every military guy out there. Not knowing that they were there would not relieve me of any responsibility if they were involved in misdeeds," said Col. Rawlings, whose military decorations include three Purple Hearts, 37 Air Medals, two Distinguished Flying Crosses and a Bronze Star with a V for valor in combat. "They should have at least reported their presence to me." CIA role

David Byrnes, a retired Ranger captain who led the Davidian criminal investigation, said CIA officials appeared at the compound immediately after the fire and sought the Rangers' help in recovering their equipment from the burned building. Those officials were particularly eager to find a device they said was about the size of a small laptop computer, Mr. Byrnes said. He and his investigators assumed they were for eavesdropping. "They told us what they were looking for, and they wanted to be sure it was found or destroyed," said Mr. Byrnes. "We never did find anything." FBI tape recordings of the bug transmissions were first made public at the 1994 criminal trial of surviving Branch Davidians and were later played for Congress.

Among the last statements on tape transcripts was an unknown male saying, "I want a fire around back," just after 11:40 a.m. Six minutes later, another voice said, "Let's keep that fire going." According to FBI logs, the bugs stopped transmitting at 11:57 a.m. The compound fires erupted 10 minutes later, at 12:07 p.m., according to FBI infrared tapes. FBI agents issued a 911 call to local firefighters at 12:13 p.m. Mr. Jamar, the FBI's overall commander in Waco, told Congress that the agency did not expect a fire and did not believe Mr. Koresh would lead his followers in mass suicide. "Fire was a definite possibility. There was no question the place was a tinderbox, but we did not expect a fire," he said. "Had we expected a fire, we would have had a whole another approach." FBI agents have never fully explained why the bureau, before the April 19 assault, called Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas to ask how many beds its burn unit had available. Some experts have questioned how the FBI could have missed warning signals from the apocalyptic sect. On the day before the fire, Mr. Schneider taunted one negotiator with the phrase, "Haven't you always wanted to be a charcoal briquette?" FBI records indicate. That same day, FBI agents saw Davidians holding up a sign in a compound window that read "flames await." "That they didn't have reason to expect what happened, that is the worst lie of all," Col. Rawlings said. "They had warning for days that fire was a possibility. As they debriefed the individuals who did come out, they learned about suicide plans. They knew." One day after the fire, federal officials told The Dallas Morning News that authorities had heard the Davidians discussing fire plans on April 19. But Mr. Jamar and other FBI leaders told reporters that they would not discuss surveillance or what it might have detected. A later speech Four months after the siege, the FBI's Waco spokesman gave a Tulsa, Okla., civic group a detailed account of the sect's last moments. "Based on evidence we have now," said Bob Ricks, then head of the FBI in Oklahoma, investigators believed Mr. Schneider killed Mr. Koresh because he believed his leader was a fraud and was trying to escape the fire. Just before Mr. Koresh died, Mr. Ricks told listeners at the time, the sect leader first yelled orders to start the fires, then screamed for his followers not to light them when he realized FBI agents were not coming in. No tapes or transcripts reflecting such conversations between Mr. Koresh and his chief lieutenant have ever been divulged by the FBI. Mr. Ricks said in a recent interview that his account of the final moments was "my own interpretation of the thing." Mr. Ricks said that although he heard some bug transmissions on April 19, he could not discern any of the sect's fire discussions. Like other FBI officials, he maintains that transmissions from the bureau's bugs were poor because their signal was being relayed five miles from an observation house near the compound to the command post. "The value was lost in the transmittal," Mr. Ricks, now commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, said in a recent interview. He noted, however, that FBI agents stationed in an observation house just across the street from the Davidian compound could have clearly heard the Davidians' conversations if they had been listening. "They would've heard a much stronger signal and would've heard the statements about spreading fuel," Mr. Ricks said. Pressed on the matter before Congress in 1995, Mr. Jamar said, "I'm trying to find a plausible explanation. I've been searching this forever. I would love to have known what was going on. "I can tell you the monitors didn't hear it. The people monitoring didn't hear it," he said. Col. Rawlings said that was implausible. The FBI had access to the government's best technology in the siege, including CIA and military special operations equipment. "They had enough electronic gear in there, they could have relayed it to Hawaii and you still could have heard what was going on in that compound," he said. "The FBI is going to deny that they have all this recorded. They are not going to want to compromise any of the technology they have used to gather and eavesdrop. But it was clear," Col. Rawlings said. "Saying they couldn't hear is a crock."