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Andrew Gumbel

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What The Oklahoma City Bombing Investigation MISSED

Posted: 04/27/2012 10:50 am

Ever since Timothy McVeigh's execution, four months to the day before 9/11, a certain conventional wisdom has taken hold that the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was the work of just two disenchanted guys from the heartland who did something colossally heartless and stupid, got caught and paid the price.

But that tells only part of a much more complicated and troubling story. In our new book Oklahoma City: What The Investigation Missed--And Why It Still Matters (William Morrow; April 24, 2012), Roger Charles and I show that a fractious, over-timid federal law enforcement community blew chances to prevent the bombing and failed to follow several promising leads pointing to the broader involvement of the radical far right.

Their failings were remarkably similar to those that emerged in the wake of the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington: the threat was underestimated, law enforcement agencies fought each other instead of pooling vital information, and the country's institutions were ultimately more interested in protecting themselves than in unearthing the truth.

Our books brings the full government record on the bombing to light for the first time--about a million pages of investigative materials in all. We have amplified it with more than 150 interviews with the key players--investigators, prosecutors, defense lawyers, fellow travelers with McVeigh in the so-called Patriot Movement, and McVeigh's co-conspirator Terry Nichols, who provided detailed answers to hundreds of our questions.

The reasons for the government's failures were complex. The earliest opportunities to find other plotters were largely undone by the sheer size of the investigation--the largest in FBI history to that point--and a rash of media leaks that, for example, alerted Nichols and his brother James to the fact that the feds were on their tail.

Later, prosecutors and Justice Department officials decided they needed as much evidence as they could muster to make their largely circumstantial case against McVeigh stick, so a handful of people initially regarded as suspects were offered deals to secure their testimony.

Most shocking, perhaps, was the failure to pursue the radical far right as a whole, even though the movement had declared war on the government, and a sizable number of its members betrayed some foreknowledge of the bombing.

This was no idle oversight. The FBI bragged about "leaving no stone unturned" and did not hesitate, for example, to collect 13 million motel records from around the country to help track McVeigh's movements over the three years leading up to April 19, 1995. But when it came to the Patriot Movement the feds were much more skittish. An attempt to bring the entire movement down on sedition charges seven years earlier had failed spectacularly. More recently, both the FBI and the ATF had botched crises that erupted at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and at a religious compound outside Waco, Texas, leading to dozens of needless deaths and an outpouring of anti-government hostility.

The feds were so wary of making another mistake that the ATF pulled an undercover informant out of the most feared radical community in the country--a remote tract of eastern Oklahoma known as Elohim City--just weeks before the bombing. Senior officials confirmed that the reason for doing this was not that the informant was incompetent or unstable, as was stated at the time, but rather because her information was too alarming to ignore and they didn't feel ready to take the appropriate action. John Magaw, the director of the ATF at the time, told me with remarkable candor that if she had stayed put, the bomb plot might well have been discovered and thwarted.

Elohim City was scandalously under-investigated after the bombing, too. Several senior law enforcement officials told me they either had knowledge of McVeigh visiting the community or thought it very likely, yet none of that knowledge was disclosed at trial. An FBI document that came to light only in 2003, after the trials were over, suggested McVeigh had looked for extra recruits there after Terry Nichols and another friend, Michael Fortier, appeared to back out.

At the time, Elohim City played host to a number of people later prosecuted for violent crimes, including members of a stunningly effective neo-Nazi bank robbery gang, a white supremacist named Chevie Kehoe who later murdered a family in Arkansas and Dennis Mahon, a Ku Klux Klan leader in Oklahoma who had bragged about blowing up a large ammonium nitrate bomb similar to the device McVeigh drove into Oklahoma City and used to kill 168 people, including 19 toddlers and babies.

None was even questioned by bomb investigators.

Among other leads that were either left hanging, or ignored altogether:

  • Multiple reports of a second Ryder truck seen either with McVeigh or at the lake where the bomb was built, suggesting some sort of decoy operation

  • Reports of other vehicles and other people consistently seen with McVeigh in Oklahoma City in the hour before the bombing

  • Reports that the Ryder truck tried, and failed, to enter the underground garage beneath the federal complex in downtown Oklahoma City (it was too tall), suggesting the original target was the federal courthouse next door to the Alfred P. Murrah building and was switched at the last minute


Ten years after the bombing, Terry Nichols led the feds to boxes of explosives he had buried under his house in Kansas, which had been missed in multiple searches in the first phase of the investigation. He told Roger Charles and me that another seven and half other boxes of high explosives went unused in the bombing and he had no idea where they went.

Frank Keating, the governor of Oklahoma at the time of the bombing and a former FBI agent himself, once described the investigation as the FBI's "finest hour." It's past time to set the record straight.

 
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