The Book Of Koresh

ON APRIL 19, AS FLAMES CONSUMED the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, one cult member jumped from a second-story window. The woman, Ruth Riddle, survived, as did a computer disc she was carrying in her pocket, containing the first installment of David Koresh's interpretation of the Seven Seals of the Bible's Book of Revelation. A few days earlier Koresh had promised that he and his followers would emerge as soon as he had finished the manuscript. But FBI officials, exasperated after the 51-day siege and by Koresh's constantly shifting demands about the terms of his surrender, doubted that the manuscript even existed and went ahead with the raid.

Last week NEWSWEEK exclusively obtained the manuscript in question. Expounding upon Koresh's central belief that he was the "lamb" of God who alone could open the mysterious book sealed with seven seals, the 13-page text includes a poem, an introduction and a turgid opening chapter interpreting the First Seal. The introduction concludes, "Gems of most sacred truth are to be uncovered, golden promises never before seen are to be brought to vie,",, for when has grace ever been needed more than now in the time of which we live?" The poem, entitled "Eden to Eden," is full of allusions both to sex and the kingdom to come. One stanza states: "She bird is mine," the hunter said, /"'Twas this bird I raised and faithfully fed."/'Twas he bird who released her from her cage, I/ Sought her womb in youthful age. it all sounds a lot like Koresh's interminable apocalyptic preachings during the standoff with the FBI. But two religious scholars who won Koresh's trust during the standoff have analyzed the manuscript, and say that far from the ravings of a madman, it is a serious exegesis, carefully organized and reasoned. James Tabor of the University of North Carolina and Phillip Arnold of the Reunion Institute in Houston also believe that Koresh did intend to keep his word, and surrender once he had finished his manuscript. They point to one passage in particular: "Should we not eagerly ourselves be ready to accept this truth and come out of our closet and be revealed to the world as those who love Christ in truth and in righteousness[?]"

Whether or not Tabor and Arnold are correct about the implications of the text, its existence does show that FBI officials had been relying on faulty intelligence when they claimed that they had evidence proving Koresh had not even begun the book. As their tanks were amassing around the compound on the night before the attack, Ruth Riddle says, Koresh was busily dictating the text to her, in a loud, slow voice that should have been picked up by FBI bugs.

Could the entire debacle, in which 85 Davidians died, have been avoided if the FBI had given Koresh one last chance? Should agents have known that he and his followers might set the compound ablaze rather than surrender in the face of attack? A Justice Department review scheduled for release this week was supposed to examine those questions, but officials have postponed the date. According to early leaks, the report was set to fault lower-level FBI agents in Waco who pushed for the assault rather than pursue further negotiations. It also reportedly absolved senior officials in Washington of any significant errors in judgment in the assault, even though Attorney General Janet Reno herself gave the order and repeatedly claimed full responsibility in the aftermaths.

In sharp contrast, the Treasury Department, in its own internal review fast week, excoriated top officials of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for botching its initial raid on the compound Feb. 28, then lying about it in the aftermath. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen replaced ATF chief Stephen Higgins and suspended five other top officials. He also renewed his support for the administration plan to merge the embattled agency into the FBI and the IRS. ATF leaders were "left to twist in the wind," as one Treasury official put it. "But that isn't to say they didn't deserve it."

Indeed, the Treasury report banished any conceivable doubt that the ATF knew it had lost the element of surprise before the February raid. in fact, the operation was probably doomed from the start. A local TV station had learned of the raid from an ambulance-crew member hired by the agency. The cameraman lost his way and asked directions from a mail carrier, who happened to be Koresh's brother-in-law. He rushed to the compound and got a warning to Koresh, who told his followers: "Neither the ATF nor the National Guard will ever get me!" An ATF undercover agent at the compound that morning slipped out and warned ATF field commanders what he had heard. But they gave the go-ahead anyway, sending agents into an ambush that left four of them dead and 20 others wounded along with six Branch Davidians. Even then, ATF supervisors kept insisting they would have aborted the raid if they'd known the cult was expecting them. And though the report did not charge ATF chief Higgins himself with tying, it did say that he chose to stick by the deceptive accounts, ignoring mounting evidence to the contrary.

Immediately after the botched ATF raid, President Clinton ordered the FBI to assume responsibility. As the standoff wore on. FBI officials were concerned chiefly with avoiding more casualties. They consulted a range of experts-including psychiatrists, behavioral scientists, cult deprogrammers and theologians - trying to make sense of the threats, promises and religious discourses Koresh was issuing. Tabor and Arnold offered their expertise to the bureau early on - the FBI men were so ill versed in Scriptures that one thought the Seven Seals were the seagoing creatures with whiskers, Tabor wrote in the Bible Review. Both scholars saw reasons for optimism in some of Koresh's letters from the compound, but both claim that the FBI never took Koresh's religious beliefs seriously. Arnold says that writing the message of the Seven Seals meant everything" to him. "To the people inside, it meant that they could finally come out. But it was too great a leap for the authorities to understand that their beliefs meant that much to them."

Tabor and Arnold, however, weren't the only experts pelting the FBI with advice. And many of the others had come to the opposite conclusion: that Koresh would never surrender, and that he was actually laying plans to lure FBI agents into a trap. In the end. the FBI listened more to its tactical experts than to those who advised patience. "We talked with cult experts--and some were bizarre, believe me," says Clinton Van Zandt, the FBI chief negotiator on the scene. Special Agent in Charge Jeff Jamar also concluded that Koresh's talk of the manuscript "was just another stall," and he began making plans for tanks to ram holes in the compound walls, interjecting tear gas designed to force cult members out.

Meanwhile, top FBI officials from Washington toured the scene in Waco and discussed the assault plans with jamar and Van Zandt. When they returned to Washington, they and other senior Justice Department officials held intense discussions about the strategy, with Reno herself presiding and asking questions. The day before the raid, it was Reno who assured President Clinton: "Yes, sir, it's my responsibility, and I think it's the best way to go." That raises questions about how the Justice Department's report could conceivably exonerate Reno and other top officials.

But will it? It is no longer certain when the final report will be issued or exactly what it will say. Justice Department officials said last week that they belatedly realized transcripts of wiretaps and autopsy reports, which are critical to the report's conclusions about who set the fire and how some cult members died, cannot legally be made public if they are to be used as evidence in an upcoming trial. The department scrambled to find a way to release the report without jeopardizing the government's case against the 11 Davidians accused of conspiring to murder the four ATF agents. By the weekend no new date for the report had been set, and the Clinton administration was still a long way from putting the Waco disaster to rest.