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Agent Disputes Boss on Waco Raid Warning : Government: Cult infiltrator testifies he told ATF Koresh was tipped off. Chief’s account of message differs.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

An undercover federal agent who spoke with cult leader David Koresh less than an hour before agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms launched their disastrous raid on his sect’s compound near Waco, Tex., said Monday that he warned his boss that Koresh had been tipped off.

In dramatic testimony before a congressional panel investigating the handling of events at the Branch Davidian compound, ATF Special Agent Robert Rodriguez gestured to Chuck Sarabyn, his former boss who was seated at the same witness table, and recalled with emotion what went wrong on Feb. 28, 1993.

Sarabyn had testified earlier Monday that he thought Rodriguez had told him only that Koresh believed authorities would, at some undetermined time, come for him.

But Rodriguez, his voice at times cracking, said that on the morning of Feb. 28, Koresh told him that he knew a raid was about to begin. Rodriguez said that a trembling Koresh said to him: “They’re coming, Robert. The time has come.”

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Rodriguez, who was posing as a college student interested in Koresh’s beliefs, testified that he quickly found an excuse to leave, drove to a telephone and delivered what he regarded as a clear, urgent message to Sarabyn.

Said Rodriguez: “The first thing that came out of my mouth was, ‘Chuck, they know! They know! They know we’re coming!”

The ATF fired Sarabyn last October but reinstated him two months later, on condition that he no longer carry a gun or a badge. At the time of the raid, Sarabyn was the ATF’s special agent in charge of the Houston field office.

Rodriguez’s version of what happened was buttressed by Secret Service Agent Lewis C. Merletti, who helped lead a Treasury Department review of Waco. Merletti testified that his interviews with 61 people involved with the raid verified that Sarabyn had told agents as they went to the Davidians’ compound: “Hurry up! Koresh knows we’re coming!”

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Four ATF agents died in the raid, launched in an attempt to arrest Koresh on weapons charges and to search for illegal firearms stored at the Davidian complex.

After a 51-day standoff, FBI agents on April 19, 1993, stormed the compound with tanks, shooting tear gas through the windows. Evidence introduced subsequently in court appeared to show that Koresh and his followers lit fires that leveled their own living quarters. About 80 sect members, including children, died.

Also Monday, as the often-raucous hearings focused occasionally on who in the Clinton Administration approved the first and second raids at Waco, a former ATF official agreed with a Republican congressman’s allegation that a “cover-up” was launched to mask responsibility.

The charge, leveled by the Waco panel’s co-chairman, Rep. William H. Zeliff Jr. (R-N.H.), rests on an intricate, unproved assumption:

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That top Treasury Department officials, trying to avoid blame, invented the notion that they had approved the raid on condition that it would be aborted if the ATF lost the “element of surprise.” According to this theory, responsibility for failure of the operation would not extend to Washington if ATF supervisors in Texas launched the raid, even though the element of surprise had been lost.

Zeliff’s allegation--agreed to Monday by Daniel Hartnett, the ATF’s former deputy director of enforcement--was aimed at Ronald K. Noble, a presidential appointee who is assistant secretary of the Treasury for enforcement. Noble strenuously denied any cover-up in testimony that followed.

Noble reviewed the strategy for the first raid before it occurred and later headed the Treasury Department’s administrative inquiry, which produced a 500-page report that criticized the ATF’s training, communication and decision-making at Waco. The ATF is overseen by the Treasury Department.

The report stated that then-ATF Director Stephen Higgins told Noble and another Treasury official, John P. Simpson, in a phone conversation two days before the February, 1993, raid that “those directing the raid were instructed to cancel the operation if they learned that its secrecy had been compromised.”

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The Treasury report added that, based on Higgins’ statement, Noble and Simpson “were satisfied that their [previous] concerns about the raid had been addressed.”

Noble elaborated two months ago, in an interview broadcast on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

“What was absolutely clear in Washington at Treasury and in Washington at ATF,” Noble said, “was that no raid should proceed once the element of surprise was lost. Then the raid planners would have said: ‘OK, we can’t go forward with the raid.’ That’s what should have happened. That’s what the raid planners were trained to do. That’s what they were directed to do, and they didn’t do it. That is a mistake. It was a mistake that has cost the lives of four Treasury agents.”

A document distributed late Monday at the congressional hearing showed that moments before the raid, an ATF official in Waco informed the agency’s national command center in Washington that the surprise element had been lost.

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According to the document, prepared in 1993 by Treasury Department Agent Robert M. Gattison, an official at the Washington headquarters was informed that the raid “had been moved to an earlier time, due to the undercover agent saying that [Koresh] knew ATF was coming.”

In testimony last week before the congressional panel, former ATF Director Higgins said that, while the surprise element was vital to the type of raid planned, he was aware of no explicit order to abort the mission if secrecy were lost. Hartnett, the ATF’s former deputy director for enforcement, testified similarly on Monday and last week. But another ATF agent, Danny Aguilera, testified last week that his understanding at Waco was “if the element of surprise was going to be lost, don’t continue on the raid.”

Noble, asked during Monday’s hearing about his view of the surprise element, said that he believed the February, 1993, raid would be aborted “if anything unusual occurred.” This, Noble indicated, would encompass a breach of secrecy.

The allegation of a “cover-up” was disputed by Edwin O. Guthman, a Los Angeles city ethics commissioner who was one of the outside experts who oversaw preparation of the September, 1993, Treasury report.

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“The unsubstantiated allegation of a cover-up is just plain wrong,” Guthman, a USC journalism professor and former national editor of The Times, said in a prepared statement.

These other developments emerged during Monday’s hearings:

* A leading House Republican announced that he plans hearings this fall on the emergence in the country of paramilitary militia groups. The announcement by Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) was welcomed by Democrats, who have urged examination of the militias.

* All of the present or former ATF officials who testified Monday said they believed that the first shots at Waco were fired by the Branch Davidians, not by federal agents. Critics of the ATF have long alleged that the first shots may have been fired by agents in helicopters supplied by the Texas National Guard.

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“The most important point today,” said Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), “is who fired first.”

Yet the most riveting testimony of the day came from Agent Rodriguez, who, while criticizing his former superiors, also invoked the memory of his four fallen comrades. After he attempted to warn Sarabyn by phone that Koresh had been tipped off, Rodriguez said, he drove to the ATF command post.

When he was told inside the command post that Sarabyn had already left to start the raid, Rodriguez said he was stunned.

“ ‘Why? Why?’ ” Rodriguez recalled saying. “ ‘They know we’re coming. . . ' I went outside and I sat down. And I remember I started to cry.”

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