Is Waco Investigator Onto Something Or Off His Rocker?
Will New York Voters Care?
Last August, after six years of denial, Janet Reno made the astonishing public admission that the FBI had indeed used incendiary gas canisters during the siege of Waco in 1993. It's unlikely ever to be determined whether these devices had anything to do with starting the fires that roared through the Branch Davidians' Mt. Carmel, killing more than 80 people, including 17 children. The fact remains that the FBI covered up the use of these devices; when asked by a reporter in August if she was "embarrassed" to have been "misled" by the agency for six years, Reno replied, through clenched teeth, no, she was not embarrassed, she was "very, very upset."
In quite a large part, she had Michael McNulty to thank (or blame) for that. McNulty is the chief researcher and a coproducer of two documentaries, the 1997 Waco: The Rules of Engagement and the follow-up Waco: A New Revelation, previewed for Washington press and politicians in November. He's the man who discovered the gas canisters in question while going through the Waco evidence vaults in Austin last March. It was primarily his dogged, obsessive?in another context one might say fanatical?probing of the government's role in the Waco catastrophe that forced Reno's stunning admission.
On Sept. 1, in another surprising move, Reno sent federal marshals into FBI headquarters to impound Waco documents the agency had been withholding. A week later, she appointed John Danforth, the former Republican senator from Missouri, to conduct an independent investigation of the agency's actions in 1993.
Now, six months later, embroiled in that investigation, reopened congressional probes and a multimillion-dollar wrongful death suit brought by surviving Branch Davidians, the government is being asked to admit more?much more. McNulty's new film asserts that in addition to Texas Rangers, FBI and ATF officers, the siege of Waco may have been carried out by a U.S. Army assault team. That some of this team may have shot down civilians trying to flee the conflagration inside, and set explosive charges that massacred others.
And that the trail of evidence for this operation leads, as McNulty puts it, "from the fields of Waco" through the FBI to the Justice Dept., from there to Vince Foster in the White House?and from him to First Lady Hillary Clinton, unofficially a candidate for the U.S. Senate in New York state.
And there it stops cold.
When we met with McNulty at New York Press' offices this weekend, he was quick to claim that while it may pique the interest of New York voters, Hillary's possible Waco connection "is not the central focus of the film. The focus of the film is the militarization of civilian law enforcement, and what that means. Well, in the extreme it could mean you could get dead without ever standing in front of a judge and jury. This abortion of due process is what every New Yorker should be very concerned about. When that happens, and the ATF or the DEA raids, and it's the wrong house, and this poor old man jumps up with his revolver and is blasted away because these creeps kicked his door down and he had no idea who they were, that's the issue... That's why New Yorkers should be concerned. Next time it's an office building on 5th Ave."
McNulty's a controversial character. Waco: The Rules of Engagement was widely heralded as one of the most important documentary films of the 1990s. Screened at Sundance and shown on HBO, it won an Emmy and an international documentary award, and was nominated for an Oscar. More importantly, it rekindled public interest in the government's role at Waco, a tragedy many had concluded was just another Jonestown, just another mass suicide of deluded cultists and their fanatical leader.
For his efforts, McNulty's been written off by the mainstream media as an amateur and?in his words?"a conspiracy theorist who got lucky." He's been denounced by both the far right?where folks like Linda Thompson, a real right-wing conspiracy theorist, says he's a dupe of government disinformation?and the left, where the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group with its own axes and agendas, has accused him of fueling right-wing extremists' hatred of the government.
His compulsion to keep following the Waco story caused a falling-out with the team who made the first film with him; this time out, working with a new director and coproducers, he seems very much the frontman and spokesman. He clearly enjoys the public forum. A man of deeply held conservative convictions, he's prone to go off occasionally on patriotic speeches that would ring a lot of alarms if he aired them at an Upper West Side cocktail party.
Ten years ago, McNulty was a Vietnam vet selling insurance in Southern California. (He has since relocated to Ft. Collins, CO.) In younger days he'd been a Jerry Brown volunteer; now he was a founder of something called COPS (Citizens Organization for Public Safety), initially convened to oppose new gun control legislation in the state.
In 1993, seeing Mt. Carmel burn on tv, "What really got my attention, and a lot of Americans' attention, was watching that building go up in flames with little children inside," he says, with dramatic emphasis. Raised Catholic, McNulty had converted to Mormonism in the late 1970s, and Waco seemed all too reminiscent of the Mormons' unhappy history of shootouts with government troops in the 19th century?especially what's known as the Haun's Mill Massacre. In 1838, segments of the Missouri militia herded a group of Mormons into Haun's mill and shot them all. Mormons would later have pitched battles in Utah, where the federal government effectively waged war against them.
With this as background, McNulty says he's very interested in "the interface between government and religions," and feels that the Branch Davidians, like Mormons in earlier times, originally drew the attention and hostility of neighbors primarily because of the "peculiarity of their religious beliefs."
McNulty soon became obsessed with finding out what had really happened at Waco, and, together with his COPS friend Dave Hardy, began gathering evidence. Hardy, a former attorney for the Dept. of the Interior, had his own law practice in Arizona, where his "pet issue," according to a New York Times interview last September, was "his belief that law enforcement is becoming dangerously militaristic."
In November of '95, Hardy started filing Freedom of Information requests with the FBI and the Justice Dept., only to be stymied at every turn. He discovered in his research, however, that most of the evidence gathered at Waco was being held at the Texas Dept. of Public Safety in Austin, under the watchful eye of the Texas Rangers. His requests to access the evidence were blocked?the Rangers said he had to talk to the Justice Dept., and the Justice Dept. said he had to talk to the Rangers.
McNulty, in the meantime, had researched and helped produce Rules of Engagement, which garnered a great deal of press and refocused attention on the idea that something had gone very, very wrong at Waco. Frankly polemical, that film portrays the Davidians as, in McNulty's words, "just folks," who happen to be devout followers of a sect most other Americans would find strange. It argues forcefully that it was the two troubled federal agencies, the ATF and the FBI?the former hoping to impress Congress with its very need to exist, the latter rocked by both internal bureaucratic strife and external embarrassments like the then-recent Ruby Ridge shoot-out?that instigated the deadly standoff at Waco, resisted all reasonable efforts toward a peaceful conclusion and now bear the brunt of the responsibility for the tragic outcome. Countering the universally held notion that the Davidians had torched themselves in a mass suicide, Rules aired speculation that the feds' combined use of CS gas and pyrotechnic devices may have caused the fire.
McNulty and Hardy kept looking for evidence of those devices long after Rules was completed (and the rest of the Rules film team had gone on to other projects). Last spring, a chain of contacts eventually led them to James Francis Jr., the chairman of the Texas Dept. of Public Safety (and, it must be pointed out, a major fundraiser for the George W. Bush campaign, and for Phil Gramm before him), who allowed McNulty to examine the Waco evidence on four separate occasions. It was during those visits that he discovered spent incendiary devices, whose existence had been so long denied by the FBI.
A few months later, Janet Reno was telling the world about the gas canisters. Yes, they were incendiary, she admitted, but they were fired into a cement bunker far away from the main wooden structure, some four hours before the fire began. McNulty says he found this response "very specious."
McNulty has been sharing evidence with Danforth's investigation team. He's also been sharing it with Michael Caddell, the lead attorney in the Branch Davidians' wrongful death suit against the government. It's no secret that Caddell, in fact, has paid McNulty upward of $50,000 for his efforts.
McNulty waves off charges of conflict of interest. He says that all along, as he's gathered evidence, he's gone to great lengths to pass it along to "the proper authorities"?the Justice Dept., the Dept. of Defense, the Texas Rangers?and ask for explanations of the discrepancies between their official stories and what he's been digging up. The typical response, he scoffs, was one Justice Dept. letter that was "page after page of legal citings saying why they didn't have to answer our questions." Of Reno's continual denials of seeing the evidence he'd sent he is downright scornful. "I can only conclude one of two things: Janet Reno is involved in a cover-up of the Waco affair, or Janet Reno is kept in a small closet in the basement of the Justice Dept. and only allowed out to make appearances on television occasionally."
It does sound disingenuous when he claims it was in frustration with the government's stonewalling that he and Hardy decided to "level the playing field" and give the Davidians' lawyers the information they'd given the feds. Caddell's case had been languishing for two years while a federal judge mulled a government request for summary dismissal. Last June, Caddell was able to present the judge with new material provided by McNulty. The judge was evidently impressed: in mid-July, he cleared the way for the case to proceed to trial.
"The government's jaw dropped," McNulty recalls. "They also, in my opinion, panicked." Thus Reno's unusual confessions in August.
McNulty wasn't through. "It's not conspiracy theory," he likes to say, and can say it with a little more justification lately. "It's facts."
The results of his ongoing efforts can be seen in Waco: A New Revelation. It is, like the first film, a flatly polemical and argumentative work, bringing a contrarian view of events to counter the official government line. It needs to be viewed as such. Also like the first film, it uses survivor interviews, scenes from Congress' 1995 Waco hearings, Branch Davidian home movies made during the siege and negotiation tapes?as well as covert audiotapes recorded by FBI bugs planted inside the Davidians' buildings.
Interesting, those audiotapes force Revelation to back away from a key thesis offered in Rules. ("There was a lot we didn't know in the making of the first film," McNulty admits.) These tapes show that Koresh and his top followers had in fact laid plans to start fires should the government's tanks breach the walls. McNulty now concedes that the leadership did evidently see themselves as martyrs, or as bait meant to draw the Beast of Babylon into an apocalyptic conflict.
At any rate, this new evidence that the FBI was listening in, knew of these plans and still made no apparent effort to defuse the situation is damning in itself, revealing at the very least an appallingly callous disregard for the lives of those inside, especially the children. It bolsters the argument that by a certain point in the standoff the feds had very little real interest in reaching a peaceful settlement. Further confusing the issue, the Austin evidence vaults McNulty researched last spring yielded two pyrotechnic flash-bang grenades that had been discovered in the ashes and rubble?at points where some of the fires began.
Yet the most striking allegation the new film raises is the possible involvement of the Army strike team, which outsiders call Delta Force, though officially it's the Combat Applications Group, stationed, under high security, at Ft. Bragg, NC. If Delta was at Waco, and if it took an active part in the siege, that would have broken the federal Posse Comitatus law, which prohibits the military from being used against private U.S. citizens.
Furthermore, the only way that Delta Force could've been in Waco would be by direct orders from President Clinton. And if they did more than observe, the President himself is guilty of breaking federal law.
And not only were Delta troops there, the film suggests, they were there with a specific combat mission. This included laying down covering fire for the tanks?gunning down as many as 15 Davidians as they tried to flee the burning buildings?and possibly placing explosive charges on the concrete "bunker," massacring the women and children inside.
Obviously these are extraordinary charges. Since McNulty and Hardy first presented their evidence in 1998, the Dept. of Defense has in fact confessed that three members of Delta Force were at Waco (McNulty insists it was as many as 16), but says they were only there to observe and advise the FBI. In depositions taken by the Waco survivors' lawyers last month and just released last week, two of those three Delta men testified that, yes, they were in fact present, but only to do high-tech surveillance, and never fired a shot. (Ironically, FBI agents deposed simultaneously claimed no knowledge of any Delta Force presence, continuing the agency's long tradition in this affair of failing to get its story straight.)
On the other hand, serious doubts have been raised about some of the witnesses and "experts" who offer the most damning testimony in A New Revelation. A man named Gene Cullen is identified in the film as a CIA case officer who claimed to have attended the meeting at which the use of as many as 10 members of Delta Force was approved. It's been reported in the Dallas Morning News that Cullen was not, in fact, a CIA case officer, but only a security officer, who never would have been at such a meeting?had such a meeting ever taken place (which the Pentagon denies).
Typically, McNulty shrugs this off as a blatant attempt to kill the messenger. He says this attempt to besmirch Cullen's credibility "just reassured me that he's the real deal." He claims that after Cullen gave interviews to CBS and the Dallas Morning News, "the FBI and the CIA came to visit him one Sunday and threatened him and his child, [saying that] the kid would have to grow up without his father because his father was going to be in prison for the rest of his life for violating his security agreements." McNulty says Cullen's now under congressional witness protection and will be testifying in the Danforth investigation.
It's also been pointed out that retired Air Force Gen. Benjamin Partin, who offers the film's expert testimony on the explosive charge alleged to have destroyed the bunker, very definitely is a conspiracy theorist: he's the same man who first came forward with the theory that the government?and not Timothy McVeigh?was behind the Oklahoma City bombing. And it's curious which Waco survivors McNulty doesn't interview?like David Thibodeau, whose book A Place Called Waco McNulty says he hasn't even read yet.
Vince Foster was the deputy White House counsel at the time of the Waco siege. What's more, he was the President's point man on Waco, the man in the White House the Texas Rangers and FBI were told to go to.
"We were very concerned when Vince's name came up," McNulty claims, "because there's so much reaction to anything..." He searches for the word, "'Fosteresque.'"
Foster killed himself just 90 days after Waco. His widow told the FBI that he was deeply troubled by what happened at Waco and "felt responsible" for the deaths. The film infers that he may have had good reason. McNulty sums up the argument:
"There was a letter he was drafting the day that he died, about Waco. There was a file marked 'Waco' in the security lockup next to his desk. There was an envelope marked 'Attorney general Reno's Eyes Only' in the national security safe in [White House counsel Bernard] Nussbaum's office. We recently found out that Mr. Foster and others were briefed by two Delta Force officers at the White House during the course of preparation of events. We find that these documents must contain significant information about the White House's role in Waco. So isn't your natural inclination to say, 'Let's take a look at these documents'?"
There's the rub. In the film, both a Secret Service agent and Foster's then-assistant claim that on the night of Foster's death Maggie Williams, who was Hillary Clinton's chief of staff, and Nussbaum went into Foster's office and hauled out a box of files and documents, which were carried up to Mrs. Clinton in the private residence area of the White House.
Williams, unsurprisingly, has denied this.
"Now, it is fair to say that those documents could have been about a number of things," McNulty goes on. Hillary Clinton and Vince Foster could have conferred on any number of projects the documentation of which she might prefer not be seen. There was "Travelgate," there was Casa Grande, there was what was about to become "Filegate"?and maybe there was Waco. And, as one of the film's FBI informants points out, no matter what was in the box, it was evidence in the criminal investigation of Foster's death, and therefore should not have been removed, even under the cover of "executive privilege."
But we don't know, because the box, if it existed, disappeared into Hillary's care, never to be seen again.
"Hillary is the last person known to have physical custody of these documents," McNulty says. For New York voters, he argues, "the first question right out of the box ought to be, 'Hillary, where are the damn documents? What do they say? Why did you remove them? Does this imply that you had some involvement in the Waco affair in the White House?' She has to answer those questions." Removing evidence is "what a guilty person does."
McNulty, of course, denies that he's just a right-wing attack dog out to get the Clintons. Indeed, he claims to deplore the politicization of the whole affair.
"The way I put it, when it entered the hallowed halls of Congress in 1995, the issue was, as it most often is, redefined by the politicians. Instead of the issue being the question of the performance of federal agents," he says, "the question became for the Republicans, 'Can we get Clinton?' and for the Democrats, 'Can we protect Clinton?' Totally the wrong point of view from both perspectives. I was deeply disappointed by both parties."
The film, he insists, "is not about Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton... I did not make these films to defame the President and the First Lady." He goes on, "It's also not about whether David Koresh diddled little girls?which I believe he certainly did. But I thought we had stopped burning social heretics at the stake?with their children?in the 12th century. Perhaps we didn't."
To sophisticated New Yorkers who long ago wrote off Waco as just another bunch of religious fanatics getting themselves killed, he suggests you imagine that instead of targeting Branch Davidians in Texas, "The federal government decides the Lubavitchers are a threat to national security because they're very pro-Israel and this administration isn't so pro-Israel anymore." He asks you: You're going to let them come into Brooklyn and burn down a synagogue full of these kooky cultists?
Government investigations into Waco are proceeding, despite continuing FBI resistance. The Davidians' wrongful death suit may reach a courtroom in May.
Sundance, which is going on this week, declined to show Waco: A New Revelation. This past weekend, McNulty was speaking to HBO about airing it, and had a meeting at Cinema Village, where the first film premiered in New York.
You can find the first film in video stores, but not this new one so far. You can buy it on video, for $24.95 plus s&h, from 1-877-GET-WACO or www.waco-anewrevelation.com.