ATF agents’ suit over media negligence at Waco will go to trial
TEXAS–Claims by federal agents that the news media negligently caused the injury or death of several ATF agents at the 1993 Branch Davidian siege must go to trial, a federal District Court judge in Waco, Texas, ruled in early April.
In his denial of a motion to dismiss the case, federal judge Walter Smith criticized the actions of reporters from the Waco Tribune-Herald and KWTX-TV as dangerous to the covert operations of the federal officers. The judge found that “the media arrogantly descended on the [Branch Davidian] compound as if the First Amendment cloaked them with immunity from acting as responsible individuals.”
He criticized KWTX-TV cameraman James Peeler for inadvertently alerting a Branch Davidian to the possibility of an imminent raid, as well as reporters from both the newspaper and TV station who drove up and down and parked on the rural road on the morning of the raid in view of the compound.
Smith also found that the media organizations may have committed “serious professional errors” by failing to establish guidelines for their staff to prevent them from “undermining” the covert federal operation.
The media organizations argued that the ATF commanders were responsible for the tragedy because they did not cancel the raid after they were warned that cult leader David Koresh was aware of it. They also argued that any claims against them are barred because of their First Amendment right to gather and report the news.
The ATF officials learned that Koresh knew about the raid through an undercover agent who was visiting Koresh inside the compound. But when the agent reported that he had seen no sign of preparation for defending against a government attack, the ATF decided to proceed with their plans.
Four ATF agents died and more than 20 were injured in a firefight during the February 1993 raid of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco. Six sect members were also killed in the initial confrontation, and more than 80 members, including Koresh, died 51 days later in a fire while federal agents discharged tear gas into the compound.
More than 70 agents involved as well as the families of the deceased ATF agents sued the Tribune-Herald, KWTX-TV and a local ambulance company, alleging that their negligent actions tipped the sect off to the impending raid and were a direct cause of the deaths and injuries that occurred. (Rodriguez v. Cox Texas Publications; Media Counsel: Rick Bostwick, Waco)