Waco Twofer: Pyrotechnic Tear Gas and Delta Force

After years of denial, the FBI has admitted to using pyrotechnic (or “incendiary”) tear gas in the 1993 Federal assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. What is pyrotechnic tear gas and why is it controversial?

Tear gas is a basic tool of law enforcement. It causes extreme, disabling, but usually temporary discomfort, and therefore is considered a humane alternative to using guns. There are three common ways to disperse tear gas. Aerosol hoses work like an insecticide spray. They cause the least amount of physical damage, but can only be used up close. Powder grenades can be thrown from a distance and send up a mist of powder. Pyrotechnic devices also launch tear gas from afar, in combination with a heat source. The result is an explosion, releasing a cloud of tear gas particles mixed with smoke. Pyrotechnic tear gas has tactical advantages. First, the smoke cloud obscures the movement of agents as they approach a building or crowd. Second, because the metal casing becomes quite hot, it is difficult for the device to be thrown back at police (a common problem with powder grenades). The disadvantage is that it can start a fire. The FBI insists, however, that the timing and location make it impossible to blame pyrotechnic tear gas for the fire that killed 76 people at Waco.

A former CIA officer told the Dallas Morning News that members of the Army’s Delta Force were present at the Waco standoff. Military documents confirmed that three commandos observed the siege on the Branch Davidian compound. The Pentagon stated that it could not discuss any aspect of the Delta Force–including whether it exists. What is the Delta Force?

The Delta Force is a counterterrorism group established in 1977 by the Carter administration following some particularly bloody attacks on Americans abroad. The thinking was that a small, secret, specially trained cadre of soldiers would be able to respond more effectively to terrorist threats, particularly those involving hostages. However, Delta did not stay secret for long. In their best-known operation, Delta troops assisted in the failed attempt to free American hostages from Iran in 1980. The Delta Force, one of the Army’s Special Operations units, is based in a remote part of Ft. Bragg, N.C., and is estimated to be as large as 2,500 troops. Delta commandos are known to have participated in U.S. military action in Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and Somalia.

Use of the Delta Force at Waco is controversial because of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which makes it illegal to use federal troops to enforce laws within U.S. territory, except when a presidential waiver is granted. For years, this resulted in a strict division between the military and civilian law enforcement. But the restrictions were amended in the 1980s to allow military involvement in the drug war. The Army may train law enforcement officials and lend them equipment for use in drug raids. But military troops are still forbidden to be directly involved in searches, seizures, and arrests–even those related to drug crimes.

Because rumors of a Branch Davidian drug lab were floated at Waco (they later turned out to be false), use of Delta Force troops as advisers in the raid may be legally justifiable. In fact, it is already public record that other parts of the military assisted in planning the raid and providing equipment. But the level of Delta Force participation remains unknown. If Delta commandos are found to have played an active role in the raid, their participation may have crossed the line.

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The Explainer wishes to thank the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Mike Krawczyk of International Safety Protection Inc., and Terry Grisold and D.M. Giangreco, authors of Delta: America’s Elite Counterterrorist Force.