The Watchdogs of Waco: Defenders of State Terror

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To
best understand why agents of the federal government massacred the
members of a small Texas church, it behooves the conscientious WACO
historian to closely examine the social forces lurking behind this
unprecedented disaster. If there is one sustaining thread which
runs throughout this deadly exercise of state power, it is an endless
pattern of deception.

From
the very outset, the public was falsely led to believe a multiracial
spiritual community was largely comprised of gun-running “rednecks”
steeped in violent apocalypse theology and martial rhetoric. As
if to further darken the picture, thinly veiled allegations of child
abuse and cultic phenomenon were widely circulated on television
and in the mainstream press. This egregious use of what media analysts
refer to as “negative framing” would seal the fate of the controversial
7th Day Adventist sect when it was deemed politically expendable
by Washington officials. Evidence suggests that these unsubstantiated
claims which continue to shade our perception of the events at Mt.
Carmel can be attributed to a small cadre of para-political “watchdog”
groups.

There
is nothing intrinsically wrong with citizens banding together to
expose government waste, combat police brutality, or warn the public
of faulty or dangerous products. However, in the lucrative realm
of public policy activism lurk a number of pro-government advocacy
groups whose very existence rests upon the notion that cult activities,
political extremism or some other unnamed evil constitutes a dangerous
threat to state power. In order to identify the alleged thought
criminals in our midst, operatives aligned with these private surveillance
networks infiltrate unconventional spiritual or religious movements,
maintain files on American citizens, and work closely with both
media and law enforcement to target individuals and organizations
whose beliefs run counter to establishmentarian beliefs. In essence,
these ersatz defenders of human rights act as de facto spokesmen
for our emergent surveillance society. It's COINTELPRO redux, only
this time with help from a network of dubious, yet-well compensated
agents.

One
such organization is the Cult Awareness Network (CAN). Although
the legendary cult-busters have since disappeared from the public
spotlight after suffering a ruinous civil judgement, the once prominent
watchdog group still enjoy an infamous place among WACO researchers.
Indeed, the first stirrings of the Koresh investigation began when
a CAN affiliate named Rick Ross allegedly “deprogrammed” various
former Davidians and contacted BATF officials with lurid tales of
child abuse and illegal machine guns.

CAN
officials would subsequently advise BATF officials prior to the
ill-fated February raid and act as flacks for the state once the
lengthy standoff began. “Ross and CAN officials…helped shape the
public image of the Davidians during the siege, presenting their
theories on doomsday cults to a baffled public through the corporate
media” writes author Jim Redden (Snitch
Culture
, 2001). This would include CAN President Patricia
Ryan's suggestion to the Houston Chronicle that trigger-happy federal
cops should use any means including “lethal force” to arrest David
Koresh.

Few
bothered to question the credibility of an organization which has
flung the “cult” smear at Catholic monasteries, yoga groups, and
even Karate classes! Instead, the public recoiled at the stunning
accusations leveled against the besieged religious group. Meanwhile,
far below the media radar, longtime critics of CAN noticed a familiar
modus operandi. Citing outspoken CAN opponent Dr. Gordon Melton,
Carol Moore notes that the organization “has found two successful
methods of disrupting groups: first, false anonymous charges of
child abuse and second, kidnapping and u2018deprogramming' members.”
(The
Davidian Massacre
, 1995).

In
the aftermath of the tragic conflagration, Ross would justify the
fatal tank attack in a self-serving letter to former Attorney General
Janet Reno. “One thing is sure, David Koresh was an absolute authoritarian
cult leader who exercised total control over his followers/victims.
In the final analysis, he decided to end the conflict.” However,
Ross would later be subjected to the withering cricism of Princeton
University religious scholar Nancy T. Ammerman in a report prepared
for the Department of Justice which challenged CAN’s ersatz expertise:

“Although
these people often call themselves u2018cult experts,' they are certainly
not recognized as such by the academic community. The activities
of CAN are seen…as a danger to religious liberty, and deprogramming
tactics have been increasingly found to fall outside the law. At
the very least, Mr. Ross and any ex-members he associated with should
have been seen as questionable sources of information.”

Despite
this scathing (and authoritative) analysis, CAN refused to back
down from its initial findings. Nevertheless, by 1994 the organization
was forced to relinquish its assets after a bungled deprogramming
attempt resulted in a costly civil judgement. This unexpected reversal
of fortune served as a welcome end to a group of power-hungry individuals
who had long lost their ethical compass. Unfortunately, CAN weren't
the only quasi-governmental group willing to justify the militarized
assault.

With
the Justice Department facing a myriad of difficult questions relating
to the inexplicable “disappearance” of key pieces of evidence and
conflicting testimony undermining many claims made by the FBI as
to whether its agents fired on the Davidians, another set of watchdog
groups stepped forward to wholeheartedly endorse the state-sponsored
death of over six dozen men, women, and children. At the vanguard
of this misinformation campaign was the Alabama-based Southern Poverty
Law Center (SPLC) whose spokesmen equated principled opposition
to the government's actions at WACO to “anti-government extremism.”

Utilizing
its formidable propaganda apparatus and impeccable media credentials,
the multimillion dollar non-profit adeptly cast a dark shadow on
those willing to decry the ignominious body count incurred during
the 1993 tank assault. “Nothing shows the federal agents murdered
those people and set the fire (at Waco). I think it’s a disaster
that they (filmmakers) have gained a lot of credibility,” SPLC spokesperson
Mark Potok whined to Susan Aschoff of the St. Petersburg Times in
an attempt to downplay producer Mike McNulty's award-winning investigative
documentary Waco:
The Rules of Engagement
.

When
the award-winning producer later unearthed evidence proving that
the FBI fired highly-incendiary pyrotechnic rounds into the Mt.
Carmel structure, Potok lamented this monumental find. Apparently
“the anti-government movement” and its affiliates were “going to
get a boost out of this” and for this reason he deemed the discovery
“a tragedy.” This sentiment was echoed by his colleague Mark Pitcavage,
a self-styled anti-racist activist who uses his “Militia Watchdog”
web page to question the supposedly sinister agenda of determined
Waco investigators. “These guys have ulterior motives” complained
the pro-government activist to New York Times reporter Jim
Yardley.

Needless
to say, few members of the press have bothered to question the “ulterior
motives” of organizations like CAN, the SPLC and Militia Watchdog.
Indeed, in light of the sustained media blackout which has greeted
well-substantiated allegations of official malfeasance in regards
to the Office of Special Counsel's flawed (and possibly corrupt)
WACO investigation, it would seem the watchdog offensive has not
been unsuccessful. Although the highly dubious “mass suicide” theory
has become factually untenable in the intervening years, these seasoned
political operatives remain determined to consign this disturbing
series of events to the public’s collective “memory hole.”

Thus
it is imperative that we closely scrutinize the information disseminated
by the watchdog element and its relationship with government agencies
– lest we witness further atrocities (and the ensuing cover-ups)
on American soil.

August
25, 2001

Cletus
Nelson [send him mail]
is a journalist in Los Angeles.

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