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Official Says ATF Made Mistakes at Waco, Has Since Reformed

October 31, 1995 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The federal firearms agency made mistakes in the siege against the Branch Davidians, but has made reforms from the top down since the tragedy, a high-ranking administration official told senators today.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI, still stinging from recent Senate criticism of their conduct in the deadly Ruby Ridge standoff, are being scrutinized anew for their actions against the Davidians near Waco, Texas.

Since the 1993 Waco tragedy, the ATF and the Treasury Department, which oversees it, ``have aggressively made reforms,″ Ronald Noble, undersecretary for law enforcement at Treasury, said in testimony prepared for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

``We made mistakes, we identified them, we aired them publicly and we responded to them comprehensively,″ Noble said in his statement. ``It is the view of this administration ... that ATF plays and should continue to play a leading role in the federal government’s fight against violent crime.″

Cult leader David Koresh and 80 followers died in a fire on April 19, 1993, following a 51-day siege by federal agents.

Geoffrey Moulton, a law professor who was hired by the Treasury Department to direct its review of the Waco incident, testified that ``serious weaknesses″ in ATF’s intelligence gathering contributed to the failure. However, he said, the agency ``does a number of things very well″ and shouldn’t be disbanded because of ``a single tragic event.″

Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, called the two-day hearings essential to examine ``the systemic bureaucratic problems″ in the ATF and the FBI and ``to ensure that tragedies like the one at Waco ... are never again associated with a law enforcement operation.″

``This hearing is an opportunity to find the lessons in this tragedy,″ Hatch said.

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the committee’s senior Democrat, cautioned that while the hearings should properly assess the new policies of law enforcement agencies, senators also should ``put the incident at Waco, with all the mistakes that were made, into its proper context.″

``There’s a big difference between mistakes and malevolence,″ Biden said, noting that angry right-wing groups have seized on the Waco and Ruby Ridge failures ``to suggest that law enforcement is our enemy.″

The Oklahoma City bombing occurred on the two-year anniversary of Waco.

``I don’t believe that Waco involved any venality on the part of law enforcement officials,″ Jim Fyfe, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University, testified at the hearing.

The tragedy occurred because well established law enforcement procedures related to arrests and other matters were ignored, Fyfe said.

Nancy Ammerman, a professor of the sociology of religion at the Hartford, Conn., Seminary, said the disaster was caused by law enforcement agencies’ decision ``to treat this primarily as a military-style operation.″ Ammerman was consulted by the Justice Department during the Waco siege.

Another witness in the new round of hearings was to be ATF Director John Magaw.

Other witnesses today included three ATF agents at Waco _ among them Jerry Petrilli, who was one of the first law enforcement officials through the compound’s gate as he attempted to serve a search warrant as part of a firearms investigation. He took about 10 steps before a grenade exploded, peppering him with shrapnel.

Four of Petrilli’s fellow ATF agents were killed and more than a dozen others were wounded in that botched raid on Feb. 28, 1993, which set off the 51-day siege.

``They were murdered by members of the Branch Davidians,″ Petrilli told the senators. ``They (the Davidians) chose to create an ambush for law enforcement which resulted in four special agents dying.″

Two agencies _ the FBI and the ATF _ bore a steady barrage of criticism by Republican lawmakers this past summer in politically charged House hearings on the Waco siege.

About a month after the House hearings on Waco, the FBI and ATF took another pounding in a Senate subcommittee inquiry into the 1992 standoff against white separatist Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

But the two-day Judiciary Committee inquiry was expected to be far different from the often raucous 10 days of hearings this past summer by a special House panel, in which the majority Republicans targeted law enforcement agencies as well as Attorney General Janet Reno and President Clinton.

The Senate hearings were to be more narrowly focused, with emphasis on the policy decisions of the FBI and the ATF, according to committee spokeswoman Jeanne Lopatto and administration officials.

Topics were to include the ATF agents’ methods of gathering and processing intelligence about the Davidian compound throughout the siege, the relationship between the FBI’s negotiators and members of its hostage rescue team, and the use of military-style tactics by the law enforcement agencies.

By most accounts, the raid should have been called off. ATF officials planned to surprise the Davidians while most of them were away from their weapons. But even after learning Koresh knew about the raid, supervisors gave the go-ahead.