A former CIA officer said yesterday that he learned from Delta Force commandos that members of the secret Army unit were "present, up-front and close" in helping the FBI in the final tear-gas assault on the Branch Davidian compound.
The former officer, Gene Cullen, told The Dallas Morning News that he heard the detailed accounts of the military's active involvement from "three or four" anti-terrorist Delta commandos as he worked with them on an overseas assignment in 1993.
"Whether it's the macho-bravo-type talk of guys in the field, I don't know," he said, declining to identify the individuals involved. "I have no reason to suspect that they lied. And it didn't just come from one of them. There were three or four guys that confirmed that, who were from Delta."
A Pentagon spokesman who spoke on condition of anonymity denied yesterday that any U.S. military units were involved in the assault, "as far as I know."
Use of active military personnel against civilians without a specific presidential decree is a violation of federal law.
The chairman of the Texas Department of Public Safety yesterday told The Dallas Morning News that evidence in the hands of Texas law-enforcement personnel may support the account given to Cullen.
"I'm advised there is some evidence that may corroborate" the allegation that Delta Force participated in the assault, said James Francis Jr., public-safety official.
The Pentagon spokesman confirmed that three Defense Department
"observers," whom he declined to identify, were in Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993, when an inferno put an end to a 51-day siege by federal agents trying to serve a warrant for the arrest of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh on firearms and explosive charges.
Koresh and more than 80 followers died in the fire, which arson investigators ruled was deliberately set by sect members.
The seige was sparked when four agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) were shot dead while trying to serve search warrants on the Branch Davidian compound.
The Pentagon spokesman said policy barred him from any public discussion of Delta Force, even the possibility of its existence.
A once-classified memo written to the military's Special Forces Command, which includes Delta Force, indicated that three of its personnel watched the final tragedy unfold. The May 1993 memo stated that the observers did not participate and were warned not to videotape anything that happened.
Francis said evidence in the hands of Texas law enforcement suggests that more than three Delta Force personnel were at the compound on April 19 and were involved in the assault.
"I have been advised that there are some police officers who have developed some evidence that needs looking into with regard to what the role of Delta Force was at the Branch Davidian compound," he said, declining to elaborate.
"I think it's a subject that the FBI director and the attorney general need to look into," Francis said. "The $64 question is whether they were advisory or operational, and I think some of the evidence is problematical."
An FBI spokesman in Washington said he had been instructed by the Justice Department to refer all questions on the presence of Delta Force to the Pentagon.
Tron Brekke, FBI spokesman, added that he could not say whether Delta Force might have been actively assisting the FBI in any way in Waco "because I don't think anybody knows."
On Wednesday, the FBI announced that a full inquiry was being launched to explain the use of pyrotechnic tear-gas canisters by the FBI hostage-rescue team during the final assault.
The bureau's admission that such devices "may have been used" marked an abrupt reversal of a longstanding denial that its agents used anything capable of sparking a fire at the compound.
Attorney General Janet Reno pledged yesterday that the new investigation will "get to the bottom" of why the FBI took six years to admit such grenades apparently were used on the day the fire broke out.
Meanwhile, the former senior FBI official who disclosed that incendiary tear-gas canisters were used expressed fear today that the new investigation could turn into a witch hunt.
"We should be very careful that agents who told the truth don't become the scapegoats for the Department of Justice, and I have a real fear that will occur," Danny Coulson said. "The agents did the things there that they believed they had the authority to do, and they gave statements saying they had done so."
Coulson, a deputy assistant FBI director at the time of the siege and the founding commander of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team, said that in their post-seige debriefings, agents did disclose the use of the pyrotechnic tear-gas grenades.
Why that information wasn't conveyed to high-ranking FBI and Justice Department officials in Washington - who steadfastly claimed before congressional committees and in public statements that only nonincendiary tear gas was used - is a mystery, Coulson said.
"There was certainly no cover-up," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Yesterday, Reno described herself as "very, very troubled," "very, very frustrated," and "very, very upset" by the FBI's belated admission. She said she still does not believe the FBI is responsible for those who died.
FBI and Justice Department officials have maintained that the devices could not have played a role in the fire because they were used hours before the blaze and were fired at an underground bunker adjacent to the wooden compound. The government contends that Koresh set the fire himself.
After Reno ordered the new investigation, FBI Director Louis Freeh assigned 40 FBI agents to re-interview everyone who was at the scene.
Republicans in Congress also moved toward new hearings on the issue.
A pending wrongful-death suit filed by surviving Davidians and families of the dead has alleged that agents launched pyrotechnic devices into the compound and fired into the building. The government vehemently denies those allegations.
Cullen, who said he worked as a CIA case officer from the 1980s to 1995, said Special Forces experts watched events near Waco with interest immediately after the four ATF agents were killed.
At the time, he said, he was a supervisor in the CIA's special-operations group and had frequent contact with members of Delta Force, the U.S. Navy Seals and civilian tactical experts such as the FBI's hostage-rescue team.
Before joining the CIA, he said, he had worked as a deputy U.S. marshal, so he was particularly interested in exploring the problems faced by civilian law enforcement near Waco.
Immediately after the Branch Davidian standoff began, Cullen said, he learned from associates within the CIA and Special Forces that the FBI had called in Delta Force personnel "as observers."
"The bureau was very concerned. They weren't quite sure what David Koresh had inside that building anyway," Cullen said. "They were leaning on Delta. If there was something that blew up in their faces, they were interested in having Delta on the scene to respond and be fully equipped, operational and ready to go on a moment's notice."
In mid-March 1993, Cullen said, officials with his group called a meeting of about 20 special-operations experts, including FBI and Delta personnel, to discuss Waco because it represented a useful case study on how tactical experts might respond to hostage situations.
He said he attended no other formal meetings on Waco, but he later learned in conversations with special-operations colleagues that authorities had ruled out any operation that involved sending personnel into the compound.
"It was more: `Contain 'em. We're going to get 'em out.' There wasn't any type of talk about trying any type of rescue," he said.
In the months after the Waco tragedy, Cullen said, he heard from associates in Delta Force that the secret unit's involvement there amounted to far more than observation or tactical discussions.
While he was deployed overseas on an assignment, Cullen said, Delta operators told him that the unit "had 10 operators down there, that they were involved in the advanced forward stages of (the FBI's April 19) operations."
"When they explained to me the depth to which they were involved down in Waco, I was quite surprised. They said basically they were out there in the vehicles, the Bradley (fighting vehicles), the CEV (tanks)," he said. "They were active."
Documents released under the Federal Freedom of Information Act to a Tuscon, Ariz., lawyer indicate that the military's Special Forces Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida was heavily involved in helping the FBI in Waco. Military personnel provided technical and equipment support, the defense records indicate.
The command oversees Delta Force, the Seals and other units.
A May 1993 Special Forces memo stressed that the military in Waco played only "a supporting role." It was written by an officer who helped the FBI persuade Reno to approve the tear-gas assault.
The officer, whose name was blacked out, stated that the discussions with Reno before the assault did not include any mention of "the use of the military."
The memo stated that Special Forces observers who stayed in Waco through April 19 understood the legal restrictions on their activities.
Other defense documents indicate that some Special Forces officials feared that even watching law-enforcement activities in Waco might violate federal prohibitions on domestic military activity.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.
The Branch Davidian standoff
When: Late winter and spring 1993. The final showdown was April 19.
Where: A rural area outside Waco, Texas.
Who: Federal authorities surrounded the compound of the Branch Davidians, a religious group led by David Koresh.
What happened: Federal authorities tried to arrest Koresh on weapons charges on Feb. 28; four agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and six of the Davidians were killed in the following shootout. After a 51-day standoff, authorities punched their way through the wall of the main wooden building and fired in tear gas. The compound caught fire. Koresh and about 80 of his followers died, some from gunshots, some in the fire.
Conflicting versions: The government said that by pouring in tear gas, authorities were only trying to persuade those inside to come out peacefully and that one or more people inside set the fire. A lawsuit filed by surviving Davidians and relatives of some of the dead challenges the conclusions that the Davidians started the fire and shot first during the initial raid.
Current controversy: The FBI admits two potentially incendiary canisters were fired on the final day but says they were aimed away from the main compound hours before the fire started and could not have ignited the blaze. Some critics say the fact that the FBI is changing its story after six years - officials up to Attorney General Janet Reno had denied the use of any incendiary devices - makes other agency statements about the standoff suspect. Reno has ordered a new investigation.
The Associated Press