The Slow Burn

Waco: The Rules of Engagement


In this visual age, seeing is believing. But it's our lying eyes that become the background and text of a documentary, Waco: The Rules of Engagement, which opens Friday at the Dobie Theatre. Despite its length -- nearly three hours -- Waco has played to packed houses and holdover runs ever since its momentous debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Since then, the self-distributed film has played commercial runs in San Francisco and Berkeley, and gained key festival exposure at the USA Film Festival in Dallas and the Santa Barbara Festival in California. It is slated to open New York's Human Rights Film Festival in June. It's a hot film because it carefully lays out its thesis: that the government abused its power during Waco's Mt. Carmel affair four years ago -- and also that perhaps, once again, the government is not as popular as it once was. But whether the documentary presents the viewer with the Finally Revealed Truth or just another lie, one might say, remains to be seen.

Waco: The Rules of Engagement is the work of independent documentary filmmakers. Dan Gifford, its co-executive producer and narrator, is a former news reporter for the McNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, CNN, and ABC; 20 years ago, he was a local television newsman in Houston. The other co-executive producer, Amy Sommer Gifford, began her career at A Current Affair and The Maury Povich Show. The husband-and-wife team head a talent management and production company called SomFord entertainment. Director William Gazecki worked as a Hollywood sound mixer until Waco came along. Michael McNulty, the film's chief researcher, three years ago sold insurance for a living. Last January, when Waco premiered out-of-competition at the Sundance Film Festival, more than one cinema sage said, "Who is them?"

The film is not a typical, technically awkward "cause" documentary. It has a soundtrack, uses surprisingly little narration, and even includes forays into what the news trade calls "journalistic balance." It wasn't cheap, either: Expenses came in at close to $1 million, and because the filmmakers are presently feuding over credits, money, and editorial control, the ticker may still be running, now on the costly fuel of lawyers' time. The Dobie screening presents a rare opportunity (the film has yet to open in New York or Los Angeles) to witness this documentary.

Millions think that they know what happened at Mt. Carmel on April 19, 1993 because they were watching television about noontime, as Mt. Carmel burned to the ground. On CNN, we saw smoke turn to flames, live and in color. We did not see any FBI agents start any fires nor did we see agents shooting at the residents, killing as many as a dozen of them. Yet the thesis of Waco is that we did not see what happened. This film shows us footage of a different kind that tells a story with a different upshot. The FBI is already denouncing the film as "irresponsible" and inflammatory, I think because, unlike CNN coverage, Waco makes viewers rethink.

That we cannot believe what we see was proven, in a backhanded way, within months of the 1993 Waco events, by a home video entitled, Waco: The Big Lie. Produced by Indianapolis attorney Linda Thompson, and based on television outtakes pirated from satellite feeds, it became an underground classic almost overnight because it showed flame-throwing tanks setting fire to the place.

But a burgeoning cadre of Mt. Carmel experts (me included) soon pointed out that The Big Lie took its evidence from footage that was shot between 9 and 10am -- two hours before Mt. Carmel erupted in flames. The "fires" that are visible in Thompson's video, almost everyone now believes, are actually reflections from insulation material clad in aluminum foil, that snagged on the booms of the tanks as they poked holes in Mt. Carmel's walls. Thompson's video mainly showed that you can't believe what you see with your own eyes.

In 1994, when the federal government brought 11 Mt. Carmel survivors and believers before the bar in San Antonio, it tried a gambit of the Thompson kind. The defendants were charged, among other high crimes and misdemeanors, with having set their home, friends, and family on fire. To prove their point, prosecutors played excerpts from a set of enhanced audio tapes made by bugging devices. Voices were heard shouting such things as, "Pour the fuel," and "The fire's been lit." Just in case anyone missed the trick, ABC's Nightline re-enhanced the tapes for a 1995 segment timed to coincide with Congressional hearings on the Mt. Carmel affair.

But you can't believe your ears, either. The recordings of the incendiary shouts were made between 6 and 7am on April 19 -- five to six hours before the fatal blaze.

Waco opens by giving the viewer a context for analyzing the Mt. Carmel affair. Using old stills and footage -- including a visually comic clip of David Koresh's one-time rival, madman George Roden -- it traces the history of the religious encampment back to 1934. It nearly proves that helicopters fired upon the community at the start of the hostilities on February 28, 1993. The filmmakers call upon such august figures as Harvard's law and psychiatry professor Alan Stone -- a former head of the American Psychiatric Association -- to say that David Koresh was not a sociopath and that the trouble at Mt. Carmel was mainly born inside the government's head. Using recycled C-SPAN footage of the 1995 Congressional hearings on Waco, the film documents a dozen unpunished abuses of power. It also shows clips from a Mt. Carmel home video, produced during the 51-day siege and suppressed by the FBI: Thanks to Waco, the viewer at last gets a chance to see and hear the adults and children who lived inside.

Interspersed with storytelling scenes and sounds are comments by key players in the events. Reclusive and leathery sheriff Jack Harwell of Waco is one of the movie's stars: He says that Mt. Carmel's residents were "good people," who were "highly protective of their property." Survivors of the siege (including five who face lifetimes in prison), lawyers, academics, and authors (I am one of them) also get their say.

The crowd at the USA Film Festival screening in Dallas hissed Janet Reno and laughed aloud at statements from other government officials. Viewers drew together outside the theatre after the screening to discuss -- some of them, for hours -- what they'd seen. As in Berkeley and San Francisco and at Sundance, Waco blurred the lines between liberals and conservatives, news junkies and the newsless. I had not witnessed such grassroots anti-government sentiment since the days of the Vietnam War. "Waco should be the subject of teach-ins," former Vietnam protest leader Jeff Nightbyrd of Austin told me a couple of years ago. Waco: The Rules of Engagement is the teach-in that protesters of both Left and Right have wanted.

Because it has expository as well as accusatory aims, Waco doesn't get to its unique, and most brain-banging, message until more than 90 minutes have passed -- a span longer than most movies. Its flurry of rhetorical punches opens with a review, by chemists and inhalation toxicologists, of CS gas and methylene chloride (one of its components) and of the effects of cyanide-laced smoke, which felled several residents. But the unique blow thrown by Waco -- the move its makers see as its knockout punch -- is an examination of a novel piece of visual evidence that Waco researchers call "the FLIR tape."

FLIR, or Forward-Looking Infrared Radar, is a technology developed for military uses, especially night vision. FLIR cameras produce black-and-white images which look like ordinary photographs. The images are produced, not by varieties of reflected light, as in a photo, but by differences in heat. Our eyes and ordinary cameras don't see the acceleration of a diesel engine, for example. But because exhaust emissions are hot, they are visible on FLIR tapes as bright white plumes, called "signatures" in the argot of military analysts. Unfortunately, like photographic cameras and our eyes, the FLIR can also play dumb. The presence of human beings does not necessarily show on FLIR tapes; it depends on just how much body temperatures differ from those of their surroundings.

During Mt. Carmel's last hours, a fixed-wing aircraft flew over the scene, filming with FLIR equipment. The first news of its activity came in connection with the 1994 San Antonio trial. It provided scientific information, of service to both the prosecution and defense. But before your brain can understand what the FLIR saw, you've got to become suspicious of what your eyes may have seen on the television screen.

The television cameras that brought the 51-day siege of Mt. Carmel to the public looked across the prairie from a spot a little more than two miles southwest of the site. Their telephoto lenses had only a partial view of the building, a flimsy structure that, lamentably, had not been erected with regard for the cartographer's axis of north and south. To describe its contours, FBI agents sensibly named its sides after the colors of the spectrum. In their vocabulary, the "white side" was the building's front, the "black side" its rear. Mt. Carmel's northwest end was its "green side," its opposite the "red side." Television viewers saw only the action on the "white" side and at the building's "red-white" corner, because that's all that cameras could capture from their vantage point. What was happening on Mt. Carmel's "black" (or back side) was out of view, except to G-men at a "black" sniper post -- and the FLIR camera overhead.

Between 11am and noon on April 19, a tank was ramming holes into Mt. Carmel's gymnasium, a part of the building that was two stories high. Ultimately, the tank tracked into the gym's interior, and the FLIR tape -- and a few still photos from the "black" or rear sniper post -- show that as the tank backed away, the gym's roof collapsed. Seconds later, a bright flash appears on the FLIR at the gym's "black green" corner. The flash on the time-stamped FLIR comes at 12:08:30, within seconds of what appears to be the first flame "signature" at the building's "red-white" corner.

At the San Antonio trial, the prosecution introduced the FLIR tape because it shows evidence of three fires arising within three minutes of each other at different points inside Mt. Carmel. Since multiple fires can rarely be spontaneous, the government's experts argued that the FLIR tape proved that, as President Clinton had said, "a bunch of religious fanatics burned themselves up." But the San Antonio defense attorneys instead used the tape to argue that the exiting tank -- or someone inside it -- may have set a blaze which traveled as a fireball from one end of Mt. Carmel to another.

In 1995, civil attorneys for the survivors, who are suing the FBI, took the FLIR tape to a new set of experts -- not fire experts, but FLIR experts. Chief among them was Edward Allard, the former dean of the Pentagon's night vision laboratory. Allard saw in the FLIR something that the arson experts hadn't seen: the signatures or plumes of gunfire blasts, coming from outside of the building, aimed at its interior. Allard doesn't say that the FBI planned the murder of the 76 people who died at Mt. Carmel that day. But the implication of Waco is that a half-dozen rogue agents may have carried out murder, perhaps on a moment's decision.

Last year, an investigator for one of the civil attorneys took Allard's report to the producers of 60 Minutes, the CBS news magazine program. CBS researchers sent the FLIR to their own experts at a New England infrared firm called Infraspection. Its findings jibed with Allard's claims. Alarmed, television's humble servants laid the charges before the FBI. When the Bureau barked that Allard's suspect plumes were only reflections of sunlight, 60 Minutes let the subject drop, without a minute of air time. Waco: The Rules of Engagement presents the narrative and footage that 60 Minutes wouldn't dare to create.

Like a weatherman before a satellite map, physicist Allard sits for the camera in Waco, pointing to features of a digitized version of the FLIR. The suspect plume, he shows, is not from a single, but a double flash. A double flash, he asserts, is the signature of a rocket launcher, the kind of device that the FBI used on April 19 to fire tear gas grenades -- and perhaps incendiary grenades as well.

But most of the talk is about gunfire. A series of bright white flashes appears, in one instance, atop or from inside a tank that is approaching the gym. Yet another plume is momentarily visible at a probable sniper position on the "black" side. An additional pair -- in parallel formation -- comes into view at the peak of the blaze, at a spot just outside the cafeteria. The residents whose bodies were found in Mt. Carmel's cafeteria, the narration suggests, couldn't flee the building. The FBI was shooting at their back door.

So startling is the evidence presented in Waco that two reporters at The Washington Post -- Richard Leiby, an old Waco hand, and Jim McGee -- started investigating its claims. They reported their findings, such as they are, in a lengthy article in the April 18, 1997 edition. Leiby and McGee began by requesting a rebuttal from FBI authorities. In response, the Bureau brought the impertinent reporters and the original, pristine FLIR together in a room in which seven lawyers -- but no FLIR experts! -- explained it away.

Not satisfied, Leiby and McGee consulted a dozen FLIR gazers from across the country, including today's night vision don, Fred Zegel, a former colleague of the retired Allard. But the technoheads rendered mixed verdicts: some favoring, some contesting the Allard/Infraspection reports. They even differed on an important theoretical question: Can sunlight reflections generate enough heat to generate an image on FLIR?

Zegel, who is still a government contract provider, at first denounced Allard's findings. But just to keep him honest, the two Post sleuths took him to Allard's home, where the savants spent four hours viewing and debating its footage. "By the end of the night," Leiby and McGee reported, "Allard and Zegel had found a couple of instances to agree on. In four spots of the tape, they disagreed. Adding no certainty except this: Everyone sees things differently."

Or in other words, only our facility of reason -- if anything -- can sort out the facts.

Everyone who invests the time that it takes to watch the two hours and 45 minutes of Waco will either be enraged with our government, or will engage in the process of seeing behind one's eyes -- or both. Neither of these is a simple act of mind, and one is left wishing that the task could be simplified by those who witnessed the inferno with their own eyes and ears.

FBI spinmeisters deny that the Bureau's agents fired weapons of any kind. But they won't make public the after-action statements taken from the more than 50 agents who were on the scene. The seven men and two women who came out of Mt. Carmel amidst the flames -- two of whom describe fireballs in Waco -- profess not to know how the fire began. If there is any clue to the mystery, it is only that all nine are alive because they escaped via the building's chapel or sleeping areas: Nobody escaped from the cafeteria or gym.

Waco is a potent film, not because it shows the smoking guns of Waco -- though it may -- but because it nettles the viewer to think, to decide and to believe for himself. As the audio and video history of the Mt. Carmel affair sadly demonstrates, most of us, at one time or another during the public discourse on Waco, have let our eyes and ears command our brains. Waco: The Rules of Engagement is an inoculation against all of that.


Dick J. Reavis is a Dallas writer and author of The Ashes of Waco (Simon & Schuster, 1995). He was a lead witness at Congressional hearings on Waco and was interviewed for Waco: The Rules of Engagement. He will be signing copies of his book at the Dobie screenings this Friday and Saturday night.

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