The Watchdogs of Waco: Defenders of State Terror

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