Waco, Texas, in 1993
Waco, Texas, in 1993

Events at Waco, Texas, in 1993 have been the subject of numerous conspiracy theories. Many simply involve allegations of government misconduct and subsequent cover-up, but others, particularly those from within the American Patriot movement, suggest a more extensive conspiracy on the part of the U.S. government to make the United States part of a global “New World Order.”

First, the events themselves: On 28 February 1993 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) attempted to serve a search and arrest warrant on David Koresh, the leader of a religious sect called the Branch Davidians that was based at Mount Carmel, near Waco.

The sect, an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, had first moved to Mount Carmel in 1935, and about 130 Davidians lived on the site in 1993. The BATF suspected that Koresh and his followers were involved in the manufacture and sale of illegal weapons and explosives.

There were also concerns that children were being abused at the site and that it contained a drug-making laboratory. The secrecy of the planned operation had not been maintained, however, and when the BATF agents entered Mount Carmel, accompanied by three Texas National Guard helicopters, a gun battle erupted.

It is disputed whether the Davidians or the federal agents fired first, but four BATF agents were killed and twenty more were wounded during the shooting. Five Davidians were also killed—two by the BATF and three by fellow Davidians—and five others were wounded.

Following the failure of the initial raid, the FBI was called in to take control of events. A standoff lasting fifty-one days then ensued, as over 700 officers from various government and law enforcement agencies surrounded the Davidians’ property.

During this time, unsuccessful negotiations took place to persuade the Branch Davidians to surrender peacefully. The standoff was brought to an end on 19 April 1993 when armored tanks, modified for demolition duty with battering rams, began punching holes in the walls of the Davidian complex to inject CS gas, in the hope of “flushing out” the Davidians.

Over 300 canisters of tear gas were pumped into the complex for over four hours. Finally, a fire broke out in which at least seventy-four men, women, and children were killed. The whole operation was broadcast live on U.S. television.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, there was much speculation as to whether it had been caused by the CS gas, or whether it had been started deliberately by the Davidians themselves, perhaps as part of a suicide pact. More conspiratorial explanations also abounded, but a report by Special Counsel John C. Danforth has concluded that it was the Davidians who burnt down the Mount Carmel complex.

In addition to Danforth’s report, there were several other investigations and inquiries into the events at Waco, including a fire investigation, congressional hearings in 1993 and 1995, a 1993 Department of Treasury report about the BATF’s role in the affair, and a 1999 General Accounting Office report on the use of armed forces.

In 1994 eleven survivors from the fire stood trial in San Antonio for conspiracy to murder federal agents and other lesser offenses. Five were convicted of voluntary manslaughter, two were convicted of weapons charges, and four were acquitted of all charges.

Waco, along with the siege at Ruby Ridge in Idaho in 1992 and the passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993, was a crucial factor in the creation and subsequent growth of the U.S. militia movement.

Two of the most important militias, the Michigan Militia and the Militia of Montana, both of which were formed in early 1994, claimed that the “attack” on the Branch Davidians served as a “wake-up call” for them.

They saw it as evidence of a conspiracy within the U.S. government to attack and disarm its own citizens, arguing that Waco was only the beginning of the attempt by “global elitists” to impose a “New World Order” or “one-world government” on the United States.

Two videos produced by Linda Thompson’s American Justice Federation were instrumental in spreading these kinds of conspiracy theories throughout the United States, influencing both the militia movement and groups within the wider Patriot movement.

Waco: The Big Lie and Waco II: The Big Lie Continues contended that the FBI had deliberately started the fire that destroyed Mount Carmel; that federal agents had killed children during the “siege”; that “black helicopters” had fired on the Davidians; and that the federal government had conspired to lie and cover up what had really happened. The Internet-based Waco Holocaust Electronic Museum (WHEM) also believes that the Branch Davidians were deliberately killed by the U.S. government.

It argues that the whole operation was a “test” for a future “military/police occupation of civilian society” under a National Response Plan, and that the fire at the complex was started by the Special Operations Command of the U.S. military to cover its murders of the Branch Davidians (WHEM 2001b). According to WHEM, many of the Davidians were already dead before the 19 April “tank attack and fire.”

Their bodies, it says, were “selectively beheaded, mutilated and incinerated (‘laundered’) to disguise the time, cause, and circumstances of death.” The tank attack and fire were “diversions to hide the truth and destroy the death scene” (WHEM 2001a).

The Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was convinced that the government was covering up its atrocities at Waco. He visited the site during the fifty-one-day standoff, watched and was influenced by Thompson’s video Waco: The Big Lie, and sold videos and pamphlets with titles such as “U.S. Government Initiates Open Warfare Against American People” at gun shows.

The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City took place on the second anniversary of Waco on 19 April 1995. It was intended as a warning to the United States that the nation was in danger of becoming a police state, and McVeigh hoped that it would prevent any further “Wacos” in the future.

The blast killed 168 people, and injured over 500. Fresh concerns about what happened at Waco arose in August 1999, when, after six years of denials by government and law enforcement officials, the founder of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, Danny O. Coulson, admitted that the FBI had used pyrotechnic devices during the 19 April raid on Mount Carmel.

A Time magazine poll on 26 August 1999 indicated that 61 percent of the American people believed that federal law enforcement officials had started the fire at the Branch Davidian complex. On 9 September Attorney General Janet Reno appointed former U.S. senator John C. Danforth as special counsel to investigate the events at Waco.

Danforth investigated allegations that federal agents had caused the fire that destroyed the Davidian complex; that they had pinned children in the burning building with gunfire; that they had illegally employed the armed forces of the United States; and that they had lied and covered up their alleged misconduct.

The investigation lasted fourteen months, employed seventy-four personnel and cost approximately $17 million. One thousand and one witnesses were interviewed and over 2.3 million pages of documents were reviewed.

Danforth’s final report, published in November 2000, concluded that government agents did not start or spread the fire at Waco; that they did not direct gunfire at the Branch Davidian complex; that they did not improperly use the armed forces of the United States; and that they did not engage in a massive conspiracy and cover-up.

Responsibility for the tragedy at Waco rested, the report said, with certain of the Branch Davidians and their leader, David Koresh, who had shot and killed four BATF agents and wounded twenty others, shot at FBI agents trying to insert tear gas into the complex, burned down the complex themselves, and shot some of their own people, including at least five children.

Danforth was critical of the FBI and Department of Justice officials who had failed to disclose the use of pyrotechnic tear gas rounds until August 1999, but overall he noted that “what is remarkable is the overwhelming evidence exonerating the government from the charges made against it, and the lack of any real evidence to support the charges of bad acts” (Danforth, i).