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Former FBI Official Byron Sage on the Waco Advisory Verdict

July 19, 2000

(CNN) -- Former FBI supervisor Byron Sage joined Law Chat on Wednesday, July 19, to talk about the advisory verdict in the Branch Davidian civil lawsuit against the federal government. Sage was the FBI's principal hostage negotiator in the Branch Davidian standoff at Waco, Texas, in 1993.

On Friday, July 14, a five-member advisory jury concluded that the federal government was not to blame in the deaths of 80 Branch Davidian members in a 51-day standoff that culminated in a shootout and fire at the Davidian compound near Waco. A federal judge will make a final decision in August.

The plaintiffs' attorney, who represented surviving sect members and families of those who died on April 19, 1993, when the compound erupted in flames, argued that the government had used excessive force and abused its power.

The U.S. attorney argued that the Branch Davidians, led by sect leader David Koresh, set fire to the compound to avoid surrendering:

Chat Moderator: Are you satisfied with the verdict in the trial?

Byron Sage: I am satisfied with it, but I am not comfortable that we had the opportunity to get as much information out to the American public as I would like. Also, it's important to note that this is a partial resolution. The court's final verdict will probably not be entered until August, and we don't know what that will be.

Chat Moderator: Why do you think the jury took less than three hours to reach its verdict?

Byron Sage: I think the reason for the rapid verdict was a clear indication that there was no substantive proof behind the allegations that the plaintiffs' attorneys had presented to the court. They presented a great deal of allegations, but very little evidence or substantial testimony to support those allegations.

Chat Moderator: Can you tell us about some of the evidence that was presented in this case?

Byron Sage: I think the most powerful evidence was introduction of the court-authorized microphone intercepts from the communications inside the compound. The reason I focus on that is because here the court received, and hopefully the public received, the first glimpse of actual statements of intent by the Davidians themselves.

Instead of the government saying that they did this or that, you actually have the Davidians talking about setting the fire, spreading the fuel, and everything that caused the tragic incident of April 19, 1993. Some of the conversations actually went back as far as March 15, 1993.

Question from denise: Do you suspect the plaintiff's attorneys will appeal this verdict and the likely final verdict? Or will they come to the realization finally they have no case?

Byron Sage: I think that there will be an appeal, but I don't think that they will prevail. The only reason I say that with such confidence is that the facts are not present to support the allegations. What they are alleging simply did not happen. We did not shoot into the compound. We did not start the fires. We gave the people inside that building every opportunity to exit safely. They chose to perish inside.

Question from Chicago: Mr. Sage, do you think the jury was persuaded by comments like "you always wanted to be a charcoal briquette"?

Byron Sage: Yes. That was a quote from Steve Schneider, a Davidian. He actually makes this comment after coming from a meeting with David Koresh. I think it's a powerful statement in the context of how it was made. It was made the night before the fire on the April 19, and it was expressed almost in a joking or light-hearted fashion. There was laughter involved.

These people are actually talking about setting the building ablaze and killing themselves, including the children. To me, that was absolutely chilling. I have no doubt that it had a significant impact on the jury. Again, these are the Davidians making these comments on the tape, not the FBI representing what was said. That's very powerful.

Question from denise: What did the autopsies show as the exact cause of death? Weren't they primarily the result of gunshot wounds and one stab wound? Also, what type of weapons and ammunition were found in the compound?

Byron Sage: First, the causes of death ranged from close contact gunshot wounds, approximately 20 deaths caused by gunshot wounds (one lady received many gunshot wounds), to stabbings, including one infant stabbed in the chest, to smoke inhalation and asphyxia as a result of the fire.

With regard to the second question, I believe there were approximately 307 weapons (guns) recovered during the crime scene search of the compound, including approximately 50 weapons that had been modified to fire full automatic. In addition to these guns, several live hand grenades and other improvised explosive devices were recovered from the scene. The weapons (guns) ranged from 9mm handguns to 2 .50 caliber Barrett sniper rifles, and multiple M-16 and AK-47 shoulder weapons, a total of 307 firearms.

Chat Moderator: Do you believe that the sect members themselves were suicidal or do you believe Koresh decided that death was the only outcome?

Byron Sage: I think the sect members felt that their actions on the April 19 were the ultimate demonstration of faith. I don't think, from interviews of Branch Davidians that came out during the siege or after, that in their mindset, they viewed their actions as suicidal.

Unfortunately, I think this is more an issue of semantics than anything else, because ultimately, their actions resulted in the death of approximately 78 human beings, on the April 19, including approximately 21 precious young kids. Those children did not have the opportunity to make their own decisions. That's the true tragedy of this event.

Question from Tobers: When was the FBI brought into the siege?

Byron Sage: Initial FBI response, including my own arrival at the scene, was as early as 11 a.m. on the first day (February 28, 1993). I responded from Austin, Texas, to Waco to provide assistance in the area of crisis negotiation. Additional resources arrived at the scene throughout the next several days, but the FBI was not asked to assume overall responsibility or command until the March 2, 1993. That request came directly from the secretary of the treasury, to the attorney general of the United States, who directed the FBI to assume overall command and responsibility to attempt to resolve this situation peacefully.

Question from Chicago: Mr. Sage, playing devil's advocate for a moment, sure the FBI was cleared. But do you think mistakes were made in how the siege was handled? Could things have been handled differently?

Byron Sage: Absolutely. I think that's an appropriate question. I think a great deal was learned from the manner in which the situation was handled. Never before in the history of law enforcement has such a horrific event faced law enforcement.

As a direct result of the events at Waco, the FBI has formed what is known as the "critical incident response group" (CIRG), headquartered at Quantico, Virginia. This group has received additional training in crisis management and coordination of critical assets including negotiations, tactical response, and technical coverage to address major critical incidents. All of these elements are now under one central command.

The purpose is to insure that all of these elements are functioning in concert with one another and that their actions are coordinated, focused on a successful resolution. That coordination was a major problem at Waco. But ultimately, in my opinion, it did not contribute to the final outcome. It's more of an administrative coordination issue than it was a problem in contributing to a safe resolution at Waco.

Negotiations and tactical elements on several occasions sent mixed signals to the Davidians. In hindsight, that was very detrimental to the overall effort to convince them to come out. Ultimately, it was their decision not to exit. I think it's important to note that 35 Davidians, including 21 precious young children, did exit during the siege and were treated professionally in spite of expressed fears by some of the Davidians that they would be mistreated. The issue of perception is critical in these events. That's where the majority of the changes have been made.

Question from remou: What is your opinion on the disappearing of photos and video documents?

Byron Sage: The problem is that the documentation and the photographs and the audiotapes have been produced on three separate occasions: the initial criminal trial in February 1994, the subsequent testimony before Congress in 1995, and now the civil trial. During the course of the handling of that evidence, which was incredibly voluminous, some of these items were apparently misplaced or mishandled.

Don't misunderstand me. This is an explanation and not an excuse. The FBI has always been noted for its ability to administratively handle, categorize and produce evidence. That level of professionalism is expected, and should be expected, by the American public. The overwhelming majority of the evidence in this case has been produced in a timely and accurate fashion.

What has been focused on in the media has been the rare exception to that rule. I think the criticism is proper but it should be analyzed in the full context of the sheer volume of evidence in this case. The more facts the American public knows, the more it will appreciate the overwhelming and significant efforts undertaken by law enforcement, including several agencies, to safely resolve this issue without any further loss of life. I welcome, and I think the FBI welcomes, any legitimate effort to thoroughly analyze the events that took place at Waco. The American public deserves it, and should expect nothing less of the agencies that are sworn to serve this country.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

Byron Sage: The final thought that I have is a concern. That concern is that based upon information that has been made public, or made available to the public, that inaccurate representation of facts in the form of "documentaries" has in essence re-written history in an inaccurate fashion.

I would only ask that the American public thoroughly review the facts in this case, because I'm concerned that based upon the misperceptions, extensive damage has been levied with regard to the perception of professionalism and integrity of the FBI and other agencies.

I can state matter-of-factly and with full candor and honesty, that the level of professionalism and the commitment to absolute integrity is intact, and that the American public should have confidence in the professionalism of the FBI in this matter and other matters in the future.

What I'm asking for is not blind support of the FBI's actions, but an informed and accurate assessment of the extraordinary efforts that law enforcement put into trying to resolve this case successfully. It was a tragedy, without question. But the events that occurred at Waco, and the ultimate loss of life, were the direct result of decisions made by David Koresh, not the FBI.