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In the dumps since Bill Clinton pretty much dropped out of sight, conspiracy buffs awoke with a start last week to learn that Wesley Clark had jumped into the presidential race. Not only do right-wing conspiracists hate the Rhodes Scholar and goody-goody Clark for being what they see as yet another Clinton puppet, but they remember him as a possible collaborator in the Waco attack in 1993. At the time of the government’s storming of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Clark was commanding officer of the First Cavalry Division of the Army’s Third Corps, based at Fort Hood, Texas. Equipment and personnel under his command had some involvement in the Waco fiasco. There is nothing to suggest that he took part, although it’s hard to imagine that the top military commander in the area didn’t know what was going on.
There is some evidence to suggest orders came directly from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who were led at the time by Colin Powell.
More than any event up to that time in recent American history, Waco rekindled latent hatred of the federal government in the hinterlands and helped jump-start the militia movement. It confirmed in one crystal clear moment what the far-right nativists had always feared: Behind the hand of the local police lay the Justice Department and behind the Justice Department was the U.S. military and behind the Pentagon was the United Nations. (During the 1980s, they believed that the Soviet Union was behind the UN and that behind the Soviet leaders were the ghostly figures of the Illuminati, the secret cabal that runs the world. When the Soviet Union went down, some nativists began to discern that the Antichrist was behind the UN.)
All during the 1980s the suspicions had festered in the heartland: The road barriers erected on interstate highways, so you heard, were to ease the path for the 101st Airborne, which was a front for Soviet army. There were artillery pieces being hauled by giant horses across the Siberian wastes and over the ice into Alaska. There were illegal Latino aliens carrying backpacks loaded with mini-nuclear bombs trudging north along the Mississippi River—all these suspicions and fears gained sudden credence at Waco. Tim McVeigh, fresh out of the army and just back from the Persian Gulf, was so moved at what he saw on TV that he drove to Waco to watch. He blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City on the anniversary of Waco in 1995.
In the spring of ’93, Attorney General Janet Reno and Texas governor Ann Richards had met with U.S. military officers, and conspiracy theorists speculated that the meetings were to lay plans for an army assault on the Branch Davidians, rather than set up defensive maneuvers to protect the women and children in the compound. In a startling documentary, filmmaker Mike McNulty showed footage of helicopter machine guns spitting bullets into the compound and a tank attack with figures deploying out of the tank. There are muzzle flashes suggesting that these people are shooting into the compound, and there are sniper pits with shell casings scattered below gun ports—all of which undercut the government’s claim that it was engaged only in defensive fire.
It was McNulty who first brought to light the presence of the Delta Force unit at the Waco compound. The film argues that military operators were in the attacking tanks. If the military actually ran ground operations at Waco, they did so on command of the Joint Chiefs, who, in turn, were working on orders from—or at least in concert with—the White House. The government has admitted to sending active-duty soldiers, tanks, and other materiel, and McNulty claimed to have found evidence in government files that all sorts of military officers and intelligence operatives (from Germany, Israel, and Great Britain) had come to Waco as if to observe a training maneuver and that the CIA tried to help out with super-duper audio equipment to sort out the different bugs, taps, and other transmissions.
(The filmmakers tried to trace the decisions involving Waco back to Vince Foster, who supposedly felt so bad about killing the Davidian kids that he turned the gun on himself, and to Hillary, who may have hidden key papers and perhaps was the person to issue the orders. This is all a bit thin, to put it in polite terms.)
How much of this might actually have happened isn’t really known. Did, for example, the military violate the Posse Comitatus Act, which mandates a separation of military activity from most domestic law-enforcement situations? A congressional investigation chaired by the very conservative Dan Burton concluded with this careful statement: “The committee uncovered no evidence that any member of the armed services present at Waco, including the National Guard, violated the Posse Comitatus Act. Representatives from the U.S. Special Operations Command were present, but the available evidence indicates that they acted only as observers and technicians.”
However, the Burton report said that although military officers practiced “diligence” in trying to stay out of an active role at Waco, there was “disregard of the Posse Comitatus Act on the part of the civilians”—meaning high government officials.
The report pointed out that “two senior Army officers were asked to evaluate the FBI’s proposed operations plan for April 19, and consistently refused to do so, as such support would have made them direct participants in planning the arrest of the Branch Davidians, and would have therefore violated the Posse Comitatus Act.” The two officers also attended a briefing with Reno on April 14 in D.C., and here the Burton report takes the Clinton administration to task: “While Attorney General Reno has stated that these officers told her the FBI’s plan was ‘excellent’ in one case, and ‘sound’ in another, both officers have clearly stated they were careful not to evaluate the plan during the meeting. President Clinton and Attorney General Reno have deceived the American people for over seven years by misrepresenting that the military endorsed, sanctioned or otherwise approvingly evaluated the plan.”
Wesley Clark’s name does not surface in any of this, but one of the two officers who met with Reno was Clark’s second in command, General Peter J. Schoomaker. However, it appears that Schoomaker might have been summoned to D.C. because of his past experience with “hostage rescue” situations, not because he was the second in command of the First Cavalry.
Additional reporting: Phoebe St John and Ashley Glacel