May 4, 2012 12:44:05 PM
In the morning of 19 April 1995, a gigantic fertilizer and fuel oil bomb blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City. The manhunt was on for Islamic terrorists. News shows got a tip from a former CIA official that the man behind the bombing was the fellow who would prove a much more significant bogeyman in the future, Saddam Hussein. But an FBI agent from Dallas, Danny Coulson, had a different intuition. As soon as he heard about the bombing, he raced his car to Oklahoma City, and during his trip a news correspondent called him. She said what everyone was saying, that the perpetrators were Islamicists, but he set her straight. "It's a Bubba job," he said. "It's Bubbas." We do know enough to clear Muslims of participation in this particular outrage, but which Bubbas and how many? We may never know. Oklahoma City: What the Investigation Missed - and Why It Still Matters (William Morrow) by investigative journalists Andrew Gumbel and Roger G. Charles is the most comprehensive account yet of the events leading up to the explosion and the aftermath. It is a big book, full of detail and of weird fringe characters, earnest lawmen, and stumbling bureaucrats (mostly belonging to the FBI and to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms). Sure, this all happened a decade and a half ago, and sure, it's easy to see mistakes in hindsight, and sure, this event is just as liable to be interpreted by conspiracists and cranks after the fact as involving a huge secret army of evildoers. The authors can't point fingers so specifically that, say, the government will re-open an investigation into the case, but they can show, with a huge mass of documentation, that the investigation at the time was botched and artificially truncated, preventing a larger and more realistic picture of home-grown terrorism. The lessons here are important. You'd expect that there would be chaos on the day of the bombing, but the bungling, lack of coordination, and even enmity between investigating individuals and organizations is the same sort of thing we saw after 9/11. Also, though the authors do not dwell on this point, right-wing extremist hate groups, amateur militia members, and Christian Identity kooks have not just disappeared, but have simply lost the spotlight since we are concentrating on terrorism from foreigners.
Timothy McVeigh surely did the bombing, with help from Terry Nichols. These two did not, however, simply spring into being, but were part of a larger movement, and the feds had plenty of warning about that movement. A white supremacist on Arkansas's death row, Richard Snell, for instance, had himself plotted to blow up the Murrah building years before the actual bombing. He was to be executed on 19 April, and he heard of the bombing with some satisfaction before he was executed. Louis Beam, Snell's acolyte, had been able to get a message passed to him beforehand that "Armageddon was coming on the day of his death." Beam was in the same circles as McVeigh, and maybe he knew about the bombing in detail and maybe he was just doing some hopeful bragging, but the fact is that the FBI never even talked to him after the bombing. The 19 April date meant plenty to members of the far right; it was the day in 1993 when the ATF assaulted the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, a symbol of how the government was out to get them. They also remembered the deaths of Randy Weaver's family members at Ruby Ridge. The enthusiasm for fighting back engendered by these assaults was downplayed or ignored by most government authorities.
Tim McVeigh was one of the members of the extreme right subculture inspired by anger over Waco and Ruby Ridge. He had been an Army gunner in the first war against Iraq, and got a charge out of mowing down Iraqi soldiers, even those ready to surrender. He left the military, and felt that his government had manipulated him to kill unnecessarily because the UN had hoodwinked it into the conflict. He started selling at gun shows, hawking blast simulators, smoke grenades, and other hardware, but also selling The Turner Diaries. It was his favorite book, a fictional warning of how, among other things, white men who want to take back their country would blow up the FBI building in Washington to inaugurate a race war. At the gun shows, McVeigh met Terry Nichols and partnered with him. He also met Andreas Strassmeir, a German whose grandfather had an even lower Nazi Party membership card number than Hitler himself. Strassmeir was in charge of security at Elohim City in the hills of eastern Oklahoma. Elohim City housed a bunch of racist nuts, its leader had been a spiritual advisor to Snell, and McVeigh had called someone there a couple of weeks before the bombing. It's just one of a huge number of links evaluated in the book but never fully evaluated by the FBI or other authorities.
"The FBI and the ATF spent a lot of energy after the bombing blaming each other for the warning signs they missed," write the authors, "and for information they failed to share about known radicals congregating to plot a revolutionary war." It was a pattern that would continue through the trials of McVeigh and Nichols. When the rear axle of the truck that held the bomb was found in the rubble, it was the first important evidence found, and the investigating agencies should have regarded it as a breakthrough; instead, they started arguing over who it was that deserved credit for finding it. When the bombed-out building was a center of investigation, it was a scene of chaos, with some agents trying to take out remnants of weapons that had been in the building for storage and others trying to investigate the crime scene. An observer said that the ATF, the Secret Service, and the DEA all were moving things around and didn't want the others to see what they were doing. "They all acted like little kids hiding stuff from each other." Subtleties such as investigating someone the FBI called John Doe Number 2 who had been seen with McVeigh by two dozen people in the months before the bombing never got well evaluated. These were independent sightings, but no one was ever able to say who this person was, and the investigators eventually classified the eyewitness reports as products of confusion. Agent Coulson himself said, "If only one person had seen it, or two or three... but twenty-four? Twenty-four people say, yes, I saw him with someone else? That's pretty powerful." The book lists one incident after another when the FBI and the ATF got in each other's way and protected their turf, refusing to share evidence or even talk together. It might be that after the debacle at Waco, everyone was too scared to cooperate fully in a domestic terrorism case.
Whatever the reason, there will always be a shameful record of lack of cooperation in the investigation, and unanswered questions will be forever hanging. The book shows that the government agencies, wanting convictions with maximum sentences, resisted going into a deeper investigation of far-right contacts "because it was more interested in securing their testimony against McVeigh and Nichols than in exploiting their deeper involvement." McVeigh himself was not talking, and was proud to be considered the sole person responsible for the deaths of 168 people, including 19 children. Once he was found guilty and got the death sentence, he had no reason to share credit. This is a sensible and exhaustive book that is far from the conspiracy-minded accounts (some of which say that Muslims were really the bombers or that the government itself arranged the bombing to discredit right-wing militias). McVeigh and Nichols were unquestionably guilty, but the book will dash the smug assertions at the time that the feds had caught all the perpetrators.
5. A Stone's Throw: The veil COLUMNS