From the FBI mailbag: Waco, 1993
America's ideas for handling the Waco standoff, as found in FBI FOIA files
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The other day I ran across a cache of stuff I downloaded several years ago—FBI files of the hundreds of letters the public sent in during the FBI/ATF standoff at the Branch Davidian compound outside of Waco, Texas, in 1993.2
How did I come across these? Glad you asked!
Let’s go all the way back to the year 2016 and I’ll introduce you to a man named The Faucet Guy(TM). I am terrified of my landlord, so when something breaks I panic and try to fix whatever it is myself, even if it is complicated. I was not prepared to replace the valves on my bathroom sink in the 3 days before I left town for Thanksgiving. On a cold, gray November Saturday, I therefore found myself at a plumbing store called The Faucet Guy, slightly manic with fear and wearing damp clothing. I actually went to the store three times that day, first to buy the thinger to replace the valve with, and then because I realized I needed a tool I did not have, and I threw myself on the mercy of The Faucet Guy, who let me leave my driver’s license with him and borrow whatever the tool was, and then I had to go back to return the wrench or whatever.
I spent a lot of time with The Faucet Guy that day, is my point, and a lot of time reading the newspaper clippings taped to the counter. Included were a couple of obituaries for Mitch Miller, a legendary Columbia Records producer and bandleader and, for nearly twenty years, the best-selling recording artist in the United States. Sing Along with Mitch was also a television show. Anyway, by the time Miller died in 2010, the critical consensus was that his stylings were, uh, corny as fuck. Proof? A Sing Along with Mitch Miller record was among the albums the FBI played at full blast in an effort to flush David Koresh and his followers out of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco in the spring of 1993.
Suddenly I had an ardent desire and desperate need to know everything about what I now thought of as the Waco playlist and I submitted a FOIA request for any records relating to music played at the compound during the siege. I got a few references, mostly news clippings— not anything I hadn’t seen. I only found a few references to the recordings; they included Nancy Sinatra’s "These Boots are Made for Walking," an Andy Williams album, a loop of the Reveille, Buddhist chanting.) But I also got an enormous file of hundreds of letters from the public sent to the FBI during the crisis. That’s where I discovered that a lot of people (a LOT) wrote to offer their suggestions for what the agency should do to end the standoff. Some of my favorite selections follow. They are a rich cultural text, proof of the extent to which this event captured the cultural imagination.
A couple of writers did suggest some audio. This writer recommended “loud and wild gospel songs,” a “wild Banshee scream or the 1812 overture, followed by ‘Hard Rock’ music.”
Get rid of Bob
This one was fairly straightforward: get rid of the current head of the operation (sorry, Bob Hicks) and appoint someone with “the ‘balls’ to terminate that ‘comedy of errors!’”
Shower … the compound with confetti?
The confetti gambit was only one of the eleven suggestions this correspondent offered to the FBI. They also recommended setting up a “drive-in sized rear-projection movie screen” in front of the compound and showing movies of “what tanks and assault weapons can do to houses” in order to capture the imaginations of the children—but to simultaneously “tell them again and again by loud speaker that you will never do this.” Alternately, the FBI could screen “movies of happy children in kindergarten, school, eating together at a table,” or “happy couples dancing, banquets, kite flying, Halloween, and holiday scenes.” Or, they suggested, launch “a skyrocket display as a substitute for a shootout in their psychics [sic].”
Find the underground tunnels
I … yeah.
Beat the man at his own game
A few people recommended speaking to Koresh in the language of Christian symbols and beliefs that he and his followers spoke, by
citing Bible verses that would “prove to David Koresh that he is not Jesus Christ”
and/or dressing an agent up in a white robe and sending them to the compound to declare “Jesus has spoken to me. Please come out.”
and/or playing a Billy Graham speech over the loudspeaker, thereby giving cult members the words of “a very relegious [sic] man whom they can trust to speek [sic] words of truth.”
Koresh didn’t ever claim to be Jesus, though, and anyway people with messianic fantasies usually can’t be talked out of them?
Another writer suggested that because Koresh is a “hypnotist,” the FBI and the ATF should bring in another “qualified hypnotist” to deprogram him while somehow also remaining in control of the negotiation.
Call him “Vernon Howell”
I thought this one was funny: they should just refuse to call him “David Koresh.” (On reflection, though, I have wondered in the past couple of years why the media calls Robert Kelly by his stage name, R. Kelly, when reporting on his crimes and the subsequent criminal legal proceedings, so obviously I can see something like this working. Perhaps I should write to The Times.)
Take a page from my novel
This writer suggests shutting off the utilities to the compound, which is not that interesting by itself. He goes on to say, however, that he used such a scenario in a novel he wrote in order to “bring out a barricaded group that was making demands on the President, a descendant of slaves who had become President in the course of events.” (I can’t find any record of the novel.) He adds, generously, that they need not credit him—“just get those bums out of there.”
Knock the whole building down
The FBI eventually did try to compromise the compound by force, but this particular writer included these illustrations with the note “(excuse my bad drawing’s).”
Wow, no thank you
All of the correspondence was filed with the FBI’s responses. The formal reply was usually a diplomatically worded variation of this: “Your interest in sharing your views with us is appreciated.” Great use of the passive voice here.
Big Nana energy
This is my favorite item. After the disastrous siege ended the standoff, one lady sent this Hallmark card to “Mr. [William] Sessions & agents who were involved at the compound at Waco,” writing in the salutation above the printed message, a move that has big Nana energy, right?
Thanks, Grandma. I’m sure the FBI appreciated your support!
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Shortest précis I could manage about Waco: Texan George Roden founded the Branch Davidians, a Seventh Day Adventist splinter group, in 1955. There are some ups and downs over the next 25 years (failed prophecies of apocalypse can really set back a group dynamic). In 1981, a new member, Vernon Howell, challenges Roden’s son for leadership. Fils Roden forces Howell and his followers from the property. A lot of murdering and some arson and some armed confrontation and some unpaid taxes etc follow. By 1990, Howell—now David Koresh— controls the compound. He fathers 13 children with several women in the community (no idea if the “wives” consented—some may have been under 18 and therefore could not consent) and began stockpiling weapons for some sort of holy war.
Government officials claimed the compound was rife with child sex abuse, but this was never proven. In February 1993, the ATF attempted to raid the compound in search of the weapons cache; the deaths of 4 federal agents gave the FBI license to get involved. The 51-day standoff ended with an FBI-led siege, authorized by Attorney General Janet Reno, who claimed, later, that the Justice Department had had “specific evidence that babies were being beaten.” On April 19, ATF and FBI agents released tear gas, used a battering ram, and held on through a prolonged gun battle. A fire erupted (unclear who started it; government says it was the Davidians; government also used flammable tear gas) and magnified the casualties exponentially. All told, 79 people were killed (20, including Koresh, were shot or stabbed; the rest perished in the fire), about a quarter of whom were under 16. It was a horrible nightmare. More? Vox, TX Observer.