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ATF Agents Knew Before Raid That Koresh May Have Been Tipped Off

By Pierre Thomas
and Howard Schneider

The Washington Post

Authorities are concerned that the deadly raid in Waco, Texas, may have been approved although one of their undercover agents had told his superiors there that cult leader David Koresh became "skittish and nervous" after taking a telephone call inside his compound about an hour before the assault, federal firearms sources said Thursday.

Within that hour, Charles Sarabyn, tactical coordinator for the operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, was heard saying at a staging area where about 100 agents were gathered that Koresh may have been aware that forceful action was planned against him and his Branch Davidian sect members, according to at least five ATF supervisors and agents.

The assault Feb. 28 was met with fierce gunfire, leaving four ATF agents dead and 16 others wounded. An undetermined number of cult members were killed, and a standoff has continued since then.

"We felt that there wasn't compelling evidence that Koresh knew that a raid was planned for that day," David Troy, chief of ATF's intelligence division, said in an interview Thursday in Waco. Had agents known that the element of surprise was lost, the raid would have been halted, he said.

Whether agents knew that Koresh was uneasy in the hour before the raid "is going to be taken apart down to the last nut and bolt" during a forthcoming Treasury Department investigation and possible congressional hearings, Troy said.

"Quite frankly, someone may decide that we did lose the element of surprise and knew it. Obviously, we lost it ... . We will probably end up with a mixed bag" on what went wrong, he said.

Troy said the same undercover agent apparently could not determine whether the cult had a detailed and rapid response planned in the event of a raid or had more than one weapons-storage area. "I don't think he had that type of access," Troy said of the agent, who had been with the Davidians for two months.

"We had no indication, based on our undercover investigation, that there was any" such plan, Troy said, noting that the cult clearly had one.

ATF officials here and elsewhere said Thursday that agents disgruntled about the failed raid may have taken Sarabyn's comments in Waco out of context. The officials said Sarabyn might not have meant that Koresh knew the exact timing of the raid.

The officials also said that, because of Koresh's routine peculiar behavior, agents in Waco might not have been alarmed by reports of his apparent agitation. ATF officials have said that, when their undercover agent left the compound, sect members were performing normal chores and guns were locked away.

ATF personnel interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity, citing pending investigations into the deaths and whether Koresh was tipped about the raid. Sarabyn could not be reached for comment.

In recent weeks, frustrated agents have accused ATF administrators of covering up details of the raid, leading ATF Director Stephen E. Higgins to send a message to all agency personnel Wednesday denouncing such accusations and demanding an end to "spreading unfounded rumors."

A review of bureau documents and interviews with ATF officials have suggested that possible leaks about the raid could have originated in many places.

In a memorandum to select members of Congress March 16, for instance, ATF officials here said agents in Waco had told the local McLennan County sheriff's department and state public safety officials in advance about the raid. Troy said the local ambulance service and Texas National Guard also were notified.

"You can't carry out a raid of this magnitude without having coordination with local and state law enforcement," he said.

Yesterday, talks continued in the compound between Koresh and a Houston lawyer with no sign that the long standoff might end soon. The lawyer said Koresh is weak from gunshot wounds received during the raid, but he would not elaborate.

FBI officials allowed a second lawyer, Jack Zimmerman, to meet with Koresh's chief deputy, Steve Schneider, but said no more lawyers will be allowed inside.

In federal court, U.S. Magistrate Dennis Green ordered cult members Kathryn Schroeder, Brad Branch and Kevin Whitecliff held without bond until trial on charges of conspiring to murder federal agents. They are among 14 adults who have left the compound.