What The 1993 Waco Standoff Can Teach Us About Oregon

The author of an investigation into the siege of a religious compound outside Waco two decades ago says he noticed federal officials made three major mistakes in Waco, and sees how feds have changed tactics with the Oregon standoff.

By Alain Stephens & Joy DiazJanuary 5, 2016 2:12 pm

National conversation about the Oregon standoff has had a tone of bemusement at the rural ranchers who would believe that what they’re doing is in defending the Constitution.

To review: Anti-government protestors, who believe themselves to be pro-citizen, are refusing to leave a federal building in Oregon. They describe themselves as militia members who say they are taking a stand against a government they accuse of overreaching its authority by pushing ranchers off of federal land. Now federal and state law enforcement are bracing for what could be a long-term standoff.

The incident rings a few bells for those who remember another standoff with the feds in Texas more than two decades ago. Federal law enforcement laid siege to a compound just outside of Waco. A religious sect known as the Branch Davidians barricaded themselves there for nearly two months. The siege eventually ended with the deaths of 82 people, many of whom were children.

What, if anything, was learned from that moment in history? How might that have shaped the law enforcement response today?

Dick Reavis, who covered the Waco siege for the Dallas Observer, went on to write the book “The Ashes of Waco.”

Reavis says the FBI did not understand the theology of the Davidians, with whom they were trying to negotiate.

“[The FBI] tried to dictate to them what Christianity would, the FBI thought, would prescribe, rather than listen to them explain what they believed,” he says. “I don’t think we have that problem in Oregon.”

In Waco, feds held daily press conferences, which influenced public opinion on the standoff, causing a “lynch mood.”

“People watched what they said in the press conferences and said, ‘Go get ’em,'” Reavis says.

Feds also didn’t let the relatives inside the Mount Carmel buildings to visit the Davidians during the standoff. “The visitors, what they wanted to say was, ‘Get the heck out of here, I don’t want to see you die here,'” he says. “They wouldn’t let anybody in.”

Another standoff in Montana three years later let relatives visit and didn’t hold press conferences. In that case, the people surrendered. “The FBI’s never admitted any error but they changed their behavior,” Reavis says.

After Waco, he says he thinks feds have changed tactics and are keeping “a low profile.”

“That’s one of the lessons they learned from Waco,” he says, “Don’t inflame the situation by creating publicity.”