Religion 'test' catalyst in 1993 Waco disaster

By Dixon Cartwright

SAN ANTONIO, Texas--A Houston-based expert on unusual religions says the U.S. government didn't realize David Koresh was a religious man.

That, he says, is the fundamental mistake that led to the 1993 holocaust near Waco, Texas, that killed Mr. Koresh and about 80 other members of a religious group called the Branch Davidians.

An inferno erupted in April of that year after personnel of two U.S.-government agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), decided to end a 51-day standoff by storming the headquarters of the Branch Davidians.

"The FBI thought David Koresh was a con man," said Phillip Arnold, founder and director of The Reunion Institute in Houston. "They came to that conclusion because, as reported on a Frontline television report [on the Public Broadcasting System], they gave him a test. A retired FBI agent, Byron Sage, gave David Koresh a test toward the end of the siege in which he got on the phone and said to him: 'David, I'm very comfortable with my religious beliefs.'

"And David replied, in effect, 'Well, that's fine.' "

That brief conversation, Dr. Arnold believes, set the stage for the catastrophe that shortly thereafter followed.

Dr. Arnold was in San Antonio this year for the Feast of Tabernacles, which he attended with the Amarillo-based Christian Church of God. He delivered a sermon Oct. 1.

The next day Dr. Arnold, a 1970 graduate of Ambassador College, Big Sandy, talked with a writer for The Journal about the Waco disaster, which recently hit the national news again because of new allegations that government forces--the FBI and the ATF--might have been directly responsible for starting the fire that destroyed the compound near Waco and killed the Branch Davidians.

The Journal had also interviewed Dr. Arnold after last year's Feast. At that time he stated emphatically his belief that the holocaust could have been avoided (see "Waco Eyewitness Claims 1993 Holocaust Avoidable," Nov. 30, 1998).

Adviser during the siege

During the standoff between the Davidians and the government forces, Dr. Arnold was on the scene serving as an adviser to the FBI. Later he decided the FBI was not taking his advice seriously. He believes that his counsel, if heeded, could have prevented the holocaust.

His advice was to wait for the Davidians voluntarily to exit the compound. He believed, based on statements of Mr. Koresh and a study of Mr. Koresh's religious beliefs and interpretation of Scripture, that he was serious about coming out.

After this year's Feast Dr. Arnold said that a conversation FBI agent Byron Sage had with Mr. Koresh, as reported on the program Frontline in 1995, "tilted the entire thing toward the catastrophe."

When Mr. Koresh remarked to Mr. Sage--who is retired but in 1993 was the Austin, Texas, FBI bureau chief--that he didn't mind that Mr. Sage was comfortable in his beliefs, Mr. Sage instantly concluded that Mr. Koresh was not a delusional messiah figure; he was a con man.

"Byron believed that if Koresh had been really a deluded messiah, Koresh would have tried to talk him out of his religion," said Dr. Arnold. "Since David Koresh didn't try to talk Byron Sage out of his religious beliefs, Byron Sage concluded David Koresh was nothing but a con man and that no amount of negotiation could end the standoff and that efforts at trying to understand the Brand Davidians' religion were futile and a waste of time."

The problem with that approach, Dr. Arnold told The Journal, is that "Byron Sage imposed upon David Koresh his own understanding of what a messiah would do. Byron Sage, as a good Protestant, believed--if we can believe the report on Frontline--that David would do whatever Byron's Jesus would do. His Jesus would say, 'Won't you believe in Me? Please believe in Me.' "

But Mr. Koresh simply didn't think it was necessary to get everyone to believe in him. "Koresh was pretty sophisticated about biding his time, so he would not have pressured the man."

Mr. Koresh's belief in this regard was similar to that of most members of the Churches of God with roots in the Worldwide Church of God. To most COG members, someone is not eternally lost if he does not believe Church of God doctrine. They believe, in most cases, that a person who dies without understanding "the truth" will come up in a resurrection and have his chance to learn it and repent of his sins.

David Koresh, a Sabbatarian member of a split from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, apparently believed something similar.

"To doubt that Koresh was religious just shows the ignorance of people making that claim," said Dr. Arnold. "To my knowledge, he was probably the most religious figure the FBI has ever confronted.

"The FBI tends to look at religion in terms of values, as if to be religious means to be good, nice or kind. They are only now learning that to be religious may have nothing to do with one's demeanor or character, but it has primarily to do with one's belief system. I think they learned a little bit about that in Montana."

In Montana in 1995 and 1996, FBI agents confronted a group called the Freemen involved in another standoff. Since some of the freemen were "maverick Mormons and therefore people of religious faith," Dr. Arnold contacted the FBI, which agreed to fly him to Montana to study their belief system and give the FBI advice about it.

Pyrotechnic devices

A former Republican U.S. senator, John Danforth of Missouri, is heading an investigation into allegations that the government forces, possibly including even the secret Delta Force of the U.S. Army, fired pyrotechnic devices to launch gas grenades at the Davidians. Such devices, some believe, could have started the fire that burned down the Mount Carmel compound.

Until recently the FBI had denied such allegations.

"But the FBI has admitted that they had used such devices," said Dr. Arnold, "and this contradicted what they had said before and opened up, obviously, a can of worms. Now their credibility is damaged, and people are wondering: If they didn't tell the full story about that, did they lie about other things?"

But one question that hasn't sunk into the public's consciousness concerning the Branch Davidians was whether they really would have come out in a few days, as David Koresh had said they would.

"I would like to see the public become aware of the fact that the Branch Davidians were ready to go," said Dr. Arnold. "They were coming out safely with all the women and children within a few days. I would like to see the public recognize that as a reality and that the tragedy is much worse than people realize."

Does Dr. Arnold think that could happen, that the public will become more aware?

"It's possible. If we can find a crescendo of lies building up, then if people become aware that David Koresh had said he would come out as soon as he had finished writing about the seven seals of Revelation--he was writing about the second seal when the government attacked--then the public might think, Well, someone hid that information from [U.S. attorney general] Janet Reno and from the public as well."

Dr. Arnold does not think the attorney general knew the FBI had allowed the firing on the compound.

"If the FBI had allowed firing on the community, I doubt that Janet Reno knew about it."

The Army's alleged involvement

Another major issue, said Dr. Arnold, is whether the Army was directly involved in the events in Waco.

"According to the Posse Comitatus Act [of 1878], the armed forces of the United States cannot be used against civilians, so Mike McNulty, who produced the film called Waco: The Rules of Engagement, and others claim it's possible that the secret Delta Force of the Army was used against the Branch Davidians."

Mr. McNulty believes an infrared videotape exists that shows Army personnel disembarking from the belly of a tank and firing at the Davidians.

"Whether this is true," said Dr. Arnold, "I don't know. If it is true, then we have a really serious problem. If the armed forces were used against civilians, you can have a violation of the Constitution. If you've got that serious a problem, that calls for immediate punishment."

Many people think, noted Dr. Arnold, that the Branch Davidians committed murder and suicide by starting the fires rather than submitting to capture by the government.

That is not true, maintains Dr. Arnold. David Koresh and his followers did believe, because of their understanding of a prophecy in Zechariah 2:5, that "God would be a wall of fire around His people."

Dr. Arnold thinks it quite possible that the Davidians set "one or two small fires" in a "misguided effort to protect themselves from the tanks because of Zechariah 2."

If that's what happened, he said, "then they believed they were protecting themselves in the faith. Now, they did not do this until about noon on April 19. That's about the time the tank entered the building and threatened the women and children. The tank was coming in to gas the women and children who were hiding in a little room. They [the government personnel] knew where they were and wanted to gas them to make them run out."

The women and children, said Dr. Arnold, were "in there praying and reading the Bible. In their act of misplaced faith, Koresh and others may have started one or two fires to protect themselves from these tanks. Instead, this would have caught the building on fire. The winds whipped it through; the gas made it easy to spread.

"The women and children see the fire and think it's the government killing them. So they can't surrender then. They have to stay in there and trust God to protect them."

Dr. Arnold said a baby was born to one of the women as she and the child died in the flames.

Other fires may have started because of tanks knocking over lanterns.

"But what we do know is that members of the government precipitated a fire due to its ignorance of the Branch Davidians' religious beliefs and its cynicism that they were even religious."

Write Dr. Arnold in care of The Reunion Institute at P.O. Box 981111, Houston, Texas 77098, U.S.A., or send him E-mail at

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