* Vanity Fair: The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh.
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The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh
Gore Vidal, Vanity Fair, Sept 2001
Toward the end of the last century but one, Richard Wagner made a visit to the southern Italian town of Ravello, where he was shown the gardens of the thousand-year-old Villa Rufolo. “Maestro,” asked the head gardener, “do not these fantastic gardens ’neath yonder azure sky that blends in such perfect harmony with yonder azure sea closely resemble those fabled gardens of Klingsor where you have set so much of your latest interminable opera, Parsifal? Is not this vision of loveliness your inspiration for Klingsor?” Wagner muttered something in German. “He say,” said a nearby translator, “‘How about that?’”
How about that indeed, I thought, as I made my way toward a corner of those fabled gardens, where ABC-TV’s Good Morning America and CBS’sEarly Show had set up their cameras so that I could appear “live” to viewers back home in God’s country.
This was last May. In a week’s time “the Oklahoma City Bomber,” a decorated hero of the Gulf War, one of Nature’s Eagle Scouts, Timothy McVeigh, was due to be executed by lethal injection in Terre Haute, Indiana, for being, as he himself insisted, the sole maker and detonator of a bomb that blew up a federal building in which died 168 men, women, and children. This was the greatest massacre of Americans by an American since two years earlier, when the federal government decided to take out the compound of a Seventh-Day Adventist cult near Waco, Texas. The Branch Davidians, as the cultists called themselves, were a peaceful group of men, women, and children living and praying together in anticipation of the end of the world, which started to come their way on February 28, 1993. The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, exercising its mandate to “regulate” firearms, refused all invitations from cult leader David Koresh to inspect his licensed firearms. The A.T.F. instead opted for fun. More than 100 A.T.F. agents, without proper warrants, attacked the church’s compound while, overhead, at least one A.T.F. helicopter fired at the roof of the main building. Six Branch Davidians were killed that day. Four A.T.F. agents were shot dead, by friendly fire, it was thought.
There was a standoff. Followed by a 51-day siege in which loud music was played 24 hours a day outside the compound. Then electricity was turned off. Food was denied the children. Meanwhile, the Media were briefed regularly on the evils of David Koresh. Apparently, he was making and selling crystal meth; he was also—what else in these sick times?—not a Man of God but a Pedophile. The new attorney general, Janet Reno, then got tough. On April 19 she ordered the F.B.I. to finish up what the A.T.F. had begun. In defiance of the Posse Comitatus Act (a basic bulwark of our fragile liberties that forbids the use of the military against civilians), tanks of the Texas National Guard and the army’s Joint Task Force Six attacked the compound with a gas deadly to children and not too healthy for adults while ramming holes in the building. Some Davidians escaped. Others were shot by F.B.I. snipers. In an investigation six years later, the F.B.I. denied ever shooting off anything much more than a pyrotechnic tear-gas cannister. Finally, during a six-hour assault, the building was set fire to and then bulldozed by Bradley armored vehicles. God saw to it that no F.B.I. man was hurt while more than 80 cult members were killed, of whom 27 were children. It was a great victory for Uncle Sam, as intended by the F.B.I., whose code name for the assault was Show Time.
It wasn’t until May 14, 1995, that Janet Reno, on 60 Minutes, confessed to second thoughts. “I saw what happened, and knowing what happened, I would not do it again.” Plainly, a learning experience for the Florida daughter of a champion lady alligator rassler.
The April 19, 1993, show at Waco proved to be the largest massacre of Americans by their own government since 1890, when a number of Native Americans were slaughtered at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Thus the ante keeps upping.
Although McVeigh was soon to indicate that he had acted in retaliation for what had happened at Waco (he had even picked the second anniversary of the slaughter, April 19, for his act of retribution), our government’s secret police, together with its allies in the Media, put, as it were, a heavy fist upon the scales. There was to be only one story: one man of incredible innate evil wanted to destroy innocent lives for no reason other than a spontaneous joy in evildoing. From the beginning, it was ordained that McVeigh was to have no coherent motive for what he had done other than a Shakespearean motiveless malignity. Iago is now back in town, with a bomb, not a handkerchief. More to the point, he and the prosecution agreed that he had no serious accomplices.
I sat on an uncomfortable chair, facing a camera. Generators hummed amid the delphiniums. Good Morning America was first. I had been told that Diane Sawyer would be questioning me from New York, but ABC has a McVeigh “expert,” one Charles Gibson, and he would do the honors. Our interview would be something like four minutes. Yes, I was to be interviewed In Depth. This means that only every other question starts with “Now, tell us, briefly . . . ” Dutifully, I told, briefly, how it was that McVeigh, whom I had never met, happened to invite me to be one of the five chosen witnesses to his execution.
Briefly, it all began in the November 1998 issue of Vanity Fair. I had written a piece about “the shredding of our Bill of Rights.” I cited examples of I.R.S. seizures of property without due process of law, warrantless raids and murders committed against innocent people by various drug-enforcement groups, government collusion with agribusiness’s successful attempts to drive small farmers out of business, and so on. (For those who would like further evidence of a government running amok, turn to page 397 of my The Last Empire.) Then, as a coda, I discussed the illegal but unpunished murders at Ruby Ridge, Idaho (a mother and child and dog had been killed in cold blood by the F.B.I.); then, the next year, Waco. The Media expressed little outrage in either case. Apparently, the trigger words had not been spoken. Trigger words? Remember The Manchurian Candidate? George Axelrod’s splendid 1962 film, where the brainwashed (by North Koreans) protagonist can only be set in murderous motion when the gracious garden-club lady, played by Angela Lansbury, says, “Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?”
Since we had been told for weeks that the Branch Davidian leader, David Koresh, was not only a drug dealer but the sexual abuser of the 27 children in his compound, the maternal Ms. Reno in essence decreed: Better that they all be dead than defiled. Hence, the attack. Later, 11 members of the Branch Davidian Church were put on trial for the “conspiracy to commit murder” of the federal agents who had attacked them. The jury found all 11 innocent on that charge. But after stating that the defendants were guilty of attempted murder—the very charge of which they had just been acquitted—the judge sentenced eight innocent church members up to 40 years on lesser charges. One disgusted juror said, “The wrong people were on trial.” Show Time!
Personally, I was sufficiently outraged to describe in detail what had actually happened. Meanwhile, the card players of 1998 were busy shuffling and dealing. Since McVeigh had been revealed as evil itself, no one was interested in why he had done what he had done. But then “why” is a question the Media are trained to shy away from. Too dangerous. One might actually learn why something had happened and become thoughtful. I wrote in these pages:
For Timothy McVeigh, [Waco and Ruby Ridge] became the symbol of [federal] oppression and murder. Since he was now suffering from an exaggerated sense of justice, not a common American trait, he went to war pretty much on his own and ended up slaughtering more innocents than the Feds had at Waco. Did he know what he was doing when he blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City because it contained the hated [Feds]? McVeigh remained silent throughout his trial. Finally, as he was about to be sentenced, the court asked him if he would like to speak. He did. He rose and said, “I wish to use the words of Justice Brandeis dissenting in Olmstead to speak for me. He wrote, ‘Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.’” Then McVeigh was sentenced to death by the government.
Those present were deeply confused by McVeigh’s quotation. How could the Devil quote so saintly a justice? I suspect that he did it in the same spirit that Iago answered Othello when asked why he had done what he had done: “Demand me nothing, what you know you know, from this time forth I never will speak word.” Now we know, too: or as my grandfather used to say back in Oklahoma, “Every pancake has two sides.”
When McVeigh, on appeal in a Colorado prison, read what I had written he wrote me a letter and . . .
But I’ve left you behind in the Ravello garden of Klingsor, where, live on television, I mentioned the unmentionable word “why,” followed by the atomic trigger word “Waco.” Charles Gibson, 3,500 miles away, began to hyperventilate. “Now, wait a minute . . . ” he interrupted. But I talked through him. Suddenly I heard him say, “We’re having trouble with the audio.” Then he pulled the plug that linked ABC and me. The soundman beside me shook his head. “Audio was working perfectly. He just cut you off.” So, in addition to the governmental shredding of Amendments 4, 5, 6, 8, and 14, Mr. Gibson switched off the journalists’ sacred First.
Why? Like so many of his interchangeable TV colleagues, he is in place to tell the viewers that former senator John Danforth had just concluded a 14-month investigation of the F.B.I. that cleared the bureau of any wrongdoing at Waco. Danforth did admit that “it was like pulling teeth to get all this paper from the F.B.I.”
In March 1993, McVeigh drove from Arizona to Waco, Texas, in order to observe firsthand the federal siege. Along with other protesters, he was duly photographed by the F.B.I. During the siege the cultists were entertained with 24-hour ear-shattering tapes (Nancy Sinatra: “These boots are made for walkin’ / And that’s just what they’ll do, / One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you”) as well as the recorded shrieks of dying rabbits, reminiscent of the first George Bush’s undeclared war on Panama, which after several similar concerts outside the Vatican Embassy yielded up the master drug criminal (and former C.I.A. agent) Noriega, who had taken refuge there. Like the TV networks, once our government has a hit it will be repeated over and over again. Oswald? Conspiracy? Studio laughter.
TV-watchers have no doubt noted so often that they are no longer aware of how often the interchangeable TV hosts handle anyone who tries to explain why something happened. “Are you suggesting that there was a conspiracy?” A twinkle starts in a pair of bright contact lenses. No matter what the answer, there is a wriggling of the body, followed by a tiny snort and a significant glance into the camera to show that the guest has just been delivered to the studio by flying saucer. This is one way for the public never to understand what actual conspirators—whether in the F.B.I. or on the Supreme Court or toiling for Big Tobacco—are up to. It is also a sure way of keeping information from the public. The function, alas, of Corporate Media.
In fact, at one point, former senator Danforth threatened the recalcitrant F.B.I. director Louis Freeh with a search warrant. It is a pity that he did not get one. He might, in the process, have discovered a bit more about Freeh’s membership in Opus Dei (meaning “God’s work”), a secretive international Roman Catholic order dedicated to getting its membership into high political, corporate, and religious offices (and perhaps even Heaven too) in various lands to various ends. Lately, reluctant Medialight was cast on the order when it was discovered that Robert Hanssen, an F.B.I. agent, had been a Russian spy for 22 years but also that he and his director, Louis Freeh, in the words of their fellow traveler William Rusher (The Washington Times, March 15, 2001), “not only [were] both members of the same Roman Catholic Church in suburban Virginia but … also belonged to the local chapter of Opus Dei.” Mr. Rusher, once of the devil-may-care National Review, found this “piquant.” Opus Dei was founded in 1928 by Jose-Maria Escrivá. Its lay godfather, in early years, was the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. One of its latest paladins was the corrupt Peruvian president Alberto Fujimoro, still in absentia.Although Opus Dei tends to Fascism, the current Pope has beatified Escrivá, disregarding the caveat of the Spanish theologian Juan Martin Velasco: “We cannot portray as a model of Christian living someone who has served the power of the state [the Fascist Franco] and who used that power to launch his Opus, which he ran with obscure criteria—like a Mafia shrouded in white—not accepting papal magisterium when it failed to coincide with his way of thinking.”
Once, when the mysterious Mr. Freeh was asked whether or not he was a member of Opus Dei, he declined to respond, obliging an F.B.I. special agent to reply in his stead. Special Agent John E. Collingwood said, “While I cannot answer your specific questions, I note that you have been ‘informed’ incorrectly.”
It is most disturbing that in the secular United States, a nation whose Constitution is based upon the perpetual separation of church and state, an absolutist religious order not only has placed one of its members at the head of our secret (and largely unaccountable) police but also can now count on the good offices of at least two members of the Supreme Court.
From Newsweek, March 9, 2001:
[Justice Antonin] Scalia is regarded as the embodiment of the Catholic conservatives. . . . While he is not a member of Opus Dei, his wife Maureen has attended Opus Dei’s spiritual functions . . . [while their son], Father Paul Scalia, helped convert Clarence Thomas to Catholicism four years ago. Last month, Thomas gave a fiery speech at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank, to an audience full of Bush Administration officials. In the speech Thomas praised Pope John Paul II for taking unpopular stands.
And to think that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams opposed the presence of the relatively benign Jesuit order in our land of laws if not of God. President Bush has said that Scalia and Thomas are the models for the sort of justices that he would like to appoint in his term of office. Lately, in atonement for his wooing during the election of the fundamentalist Protestants at Bob Jones University, Bush has been “reaching out” to the Roman Catholic far right. He is already solid with fundamentalist Protestants. In fact, his attorney general, J. D. Ashcroft, is a Pentecostal Christian who starts each day at eight with a prayer meeting attended by Justice Department employees eager to be drenched in the blood of the lamb. In 1999, Ashcroft told Bob Jones University graduates that America was founded on religious principles (news to Jefferson et al.) and “we have no king but Jesus.”
I have already noted a number of conspiracies that are beginning to register as McVeigh’s highly manipulated story moves toward that ghastly word “closure,” which, in this case, will simply mark a new beginning. The Opus Dei conspiracy is—was?—central to the Justice Department. Then the F.B.I. conspired to withhold documents from the McVeigh defense as well as from the department’s alleged master: We the People in Congress Assembled as embodied by former senator Danforth. Finally, the ongoing spontaneous Media conspiracy to demonize McVeigh, who acted alone, despite contrary evidence.
But let’s return to the F.B.I. conspiracy to cover up its crimes at Waco. Senator Danforth is an honorable man, but then, so was Chief Justice Earl Warren, and the findings of his eponymous commission on the events at Dallas did not, it is said, ever entirely convince even him. On June 1, Danforth told The Washington Post, “I bet that Timothy McVeigh, at some point in time, I don’t know when, will be executed and after the execution there will be some box found, somewhere.” You are not, Senator, just beating your gums. Also, on June 1, The New York Times ran an A.P. story in which lawyers for the Branch Davidians claim that when the F.B.I. agents fired upon the cultists they used a type of short assault rifle that was later not tested. Our friend F.B.I. spokesman John Collingwood said that a check of the bureau’s records showed that “the shorter-barreled rifle was among the weapons tested.” Danforth’s response was pretty much, Well, if you say so. He did note, again, that he had got “something less than total cooperation” from the F.B.I. As H. L. Mencken put it, “[The Department of Justice] has been engaged in sharp practices since the earliest days and remains a fecund source of oppression and corruption today. It is hard to recall an administration in which it was not the center of grave scandal.”
Freeh himself seems addicted to dull sharp practices. In 1996 he was the relentless Javert who came down so hard on an Atlanta security guard, Richard Jewell, over the Olympic Games bombing. Jewell was innocent. Even as he sent out for a new hair shirt (Opus Dei members mortify the flesh) and gave the order to build a new guillotine, the F.B.I. lab was found to have routinely bungled investigations (read Tainting Evidence,by J. F. Kelly and P. K. Wearne). Later, Freeh led the battle to prove Wen Ho Lee a Communist spy. Freeh’s deranged charges against the blameless Los Alamos scientist were thrown out of court by an enraged federal judge who felt that the F.B.I. had “embarrassed the whole nation.” Well, it’s always risky, God’s work.
Even so, the more one learns about the F.B.I., the more one realizes that it is a very dangerous place indeed. Kelly and Wearne, in their investigation of its lab work, literally a life-and-death matter for those under investigation, quote two English forensic experts on the subject of the Oklahoma City bombing. Professor Brian Caddy, after a study of the lab’s findings: “If these reports are the ones to be presented to the courts as evidence then I am appalled by their structure and information content. The structure of the reports seems designed to confuse the reader rather than help him.” Dr. John Lloyd noted, “The reports are purely conclusory in nature. It is impossible to determine from them the chain of custody, on precisely what work has been done on each item.” Plainly, the time has come to replace this vast inept and largely unaccountable secret police with a more modest and more efficient bureau to be called “the United States Bureau of Investigation.”
It is now June 11, a hot, hazy morning here in Ravello. We’ve just watched Son of Show Time in Terre Haute, Indiana. CNN duly reported that I had not been able to be a witness, as McVeigh had requested: the attorney general had given me too short a time to get from here to there. I felt somewhat better when I was told that, lying on the gurney in the execution chamber, he would not have been able to see any of us through the tinted glass windows all around him. But then members of the press who were present said that he had deliberately made “eye contact” with his witnesses and with them. He did see his witnesses, according to Cate McCauley, who was one. “You could tell he was gone after the first shot,” she said. She had worked on his legal case for a year as one of his defense investigators.
I asked about his last hours. He had been searching for a movie on television and all he could find was Fargo, for which he was in no mood. Certainly he died in character; that is, in control. The first shot, of sodium pentothal, knocks you out. But he kept his eyes open. The second shot, of pancuronium bromide, collapsed his lungs. Always the survivalist, he seemed to ration his remaining breaths. When, after four minutes, he was officially dead, his eyes were still open, staring into the ceiling camera that was recording him “live” for his Oklahoma City audience.
McVeigh made no final statement, but he had copied out, it appeared from memory, “Invictus,” a poem by W. E. Henley (1849–1903). Among Henley’s numerous writings was a popular anthology called Lyra Heroica(1892), about those who had done selfless heroic deeds. I doubt if McVeigh ever came across it, but he would, no doubt, have identified with a group of young writers, among them Kipling, who were known as “Henley’s young men,” forever standing on burning decks, each a master of his fate, captain of his soul.
Characteristically, no talking head mentioned Henley’s name, because no one knew who he was. Many thought this famous poem was McVeigh’s work. One irritable woman described Henley as “a 19th-century cripple.” I fiercely E-mailed her network: the one-legged Henley was “extremities challenged.”
The stoic serenity of McVeigh’s last days certainly qualified him as a Henley-style hero. He did not complain about his fate; took responsibility for what he was thought to have done; did not beg for mercy as our always sadistic Media require. Meanwhile, conflicting details about him accumulate—a bewildering mosaic, in fact—and he seems more and more to have stumbled into the wrong American era. Plainly, he needed a self-consuming cause to define him. The abolition of slavery or the preservation of the Union would have been more worthy of his life than anger at the excesses of our corrupt secret police. But he was stuck where he was and so he declared war on a government that he felt had declared war on its own people.
One poetic moment in what was largely an orchestrated hymn of hatred. Outside the prison, a group of anti-death-penalty people prayed together in the dawn’s early light. Suddenly, a bird appeared and settled on the left forearm of a woman, who continued her prayers. When, at last, she rose to her feet the bird remained on her arm—consolation? Ora pro nobis.
CNN gave us bits and pieces of McVeigh’s last morning. Asked why he had not at least said that he was sorry for the murder of innocents, he said that he could say it but he would not have meant it. He was a soldier in a war, not of his making. This was Henleyesque. One biographer described him as honest to a fault. McVeigh had also noted that Harry Truman had never said that he was sorry about dropping two atomic bombs on an already defeated Japan, killing around 200,000 people, mostly collateral women and children. Media howled that that was wartime. But McVeigh considered himself, rightly or wrongly, at war, too. Incidentally, the inexorable beatification of Harry Truman is now an important aspect of our evolving imperial system. It is widely believed that the bombs were dropped to save American lives. This is not true. The bombs were dropped to frighten our new enemy, Stalin. To a man, our leading World War II commanders, including Eisenhower, C. W. Nimitz, and even Curtis LeMay (played so well by George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove), were opposed to Truman’s use of the bombs against a defeated enemy trying to surrender. A friend from live television, the late Robert Alan Aurthur, made a documentary about Truman. I asked him what he thought of him. “He just gives you all these canned answers. The only time I got a rise out of him was when I suggested that he tell us about his decision to drop the atomic bombs in the actual ruins of Hiroshima. Truman looked at me for the first time. ‘O.K.,’ he said, ‘but I won’t kiss their asses.’” Plainly another Henley hero, with far more collateral damage to his credit than McVeigh. Was it Chaplin’s M. Verdoux who said that when it comes to calibrating liability for murder it is all, finally, a matter of scale?
After my adventures in the Ravello gardens (CBS’s Bryant Gumbel was his usual low-key, courteous self and did not pull the cord), I headed for Terre Haute by way of Manhattan. I did several programs where I was cut off at the word “Waco.” Only CNN’s Greta Van Susteren got the point. “Two wrongs,” she said, sensibly, “don’t make a right.” I quite agreed with her. But then, since I am against the death penalty, I noted that three wrongs are hardly an improvement.
Then came the stay of execution. I went back to Ravello. The Media were now gazing at me. Time and again I would hear or read that I had written McVeigh first, congratulating him, presumably, on his killings. I kept explaining, patiently, how, after he had read me in Vanity Fair, it was he who wrote me, starting an off-and-on three-year correspondence. As it turned out, I could not go so I was not able to see with my own eyes the bird of dawning alight upon the woman’s arm.
The first letter to me was appreciative of what I had written. I wrote him back. To show what an eager commercialite I am—hardly school of Capote—I kept no copies of my letters to him until the last one in May.
The second letter from his Colorado prison is dated “28 Feb 99.” “Mr. Vidal, thank you for your letter. I received your book United States last week and have since finished most of Part 2—your political musings.” I should say that spelling and grammar are perfect throughout, while the handwriting is oddly even and slants to the left, as if one were looking at it in a mirror. “I think you’d be surprised at how much of that material I agree with. . . .
As to your letter, I fully recognize that “the general rebellion against what our gov’t has become is the most interesting (and I think important) story in our history this century.” This is why I have been mostly disappointed at previous stories attributing the OKC bombing to a simple act of “revenge” for Waco—and why I was most pleased to read your Nov. article in Vanity Fair. In the 4 years since the bombing, your work is the first to really explore the underlying motivations for such a strike against the U.S. Government—and for that, I thank you. I believe that such in-depth reflections are vital if one truly wishes to understand the events of April 1995.
Although I have many observations that I’d like to throw at you, I must keep this letter to a practical length—so I will mention just one: if federal agents are like “so many Jacobins at war” with the citizens of this country, and if federal agencies “daily wage war” against those citizens, then should not the OKC bombing be considered a “counter-attack” rather than a self-declared war? Would it not be more akin to Hiroshima than Pearl Harbor? (I’m sure the Japanese were just as shocked and surprised at Hiroshima—in fact, was that anticipated effect not part and parcel of the overall strategy of that bombing?)
Back to your letter, I had never considered your age as an impediment [here he riots in tact!] until I received that letter—and noted that it was typed on a manual typewriter? Not to worry, recent medical studies tell us that Italy’s taste for canola oil, olive oil and wine helps extend the average lifespan and helps prevent heart disease in Italians—so you picked the right place to retire to.
Again, thank you for dropping me a line—and as far as any concern over what or how to write someone “in my situation,” I think you’d find that many of us are still just “regular Joes”—regardless of public perception—so there need be no special consideration(s) given to whatever you wish to write. Until next time, then …
Under this line he has put in quotes “‘Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.’ —H. L. Mencken. Take good care.”
He signed off with scribbled initials. Needless to say, this letter did not conform to any notion that I had had of him from reading the rabid U.S. press led, as always, by The New York Times, whose clumsy attempts at Freudian analysis (e.g., he was a broken blossom because his mother left his father in his 16th year—actually he seemed relieved). Later, there was a year or so when I did not hear from him. Two reporters from a Buffalo newspaper (he was born and raised near Buffalo) were at work interviewing him for their book, American Terrorist. I do think I wrote him that Mencken often resorted to Swiftian hyperbole and was not to be taken too literally. Could the same be said of McVeigh? There is always the interesting possibility—prepare for the grandest conspiracy of all—that he neither made nor set off the bomb outside the Murrah building: it was only later, when facing either death or life imprisonment, that he saw to it that he would be given sole credit for hoisting the black flag and slitting throats, to the rising fury of various “militias” across the land who are currently outraged that he is getting sole credit for a revolutionary act organized, some say, by many others. At the end, if this scenario is correct, he and the detested Feds were of a single mind.
As Senator Danforth foresaw, the government would execute McVeigh as soon as possible (within 10 days of Danforth’s statement to The Washington Post) in order not to have to produce so quickly that mislaid box with documents which might suggest that others were involved in the bombing. The fact that McVeigh himself was eager to commit what he called “federally assisted suicide” simply seemed a bizarre twist to a story that no matter how one tries to straighten it out never quite conforms to the Ur-plot of lone crazed killer (Oswald) killed by a second lone crazed killer (Ruby), who would die in stir with, he claimed, a tale to tell. Unlike Lee Harvey (“I’m the patsy”) Oswald, our Henley hero found irresistible the role of lone warrior against a bad state. Where, in his first correspondence with me, he admits to nothing for the obvious reason his lawyers have him on appeal, in his last letter to me, April 20, 2001—“T. McVeigh 12076-064 POB 33 Terre Haute, In. 47808 (USA)”—he writes, “Mr. Vidal, if you have read the recently published ‘American Terrorist’, then you’ve probably realized that you hit the nail on the head with your article ‘The War at Home’. Enclosed is supplemental material to add to that insight.” Among the documents he sent was an ABCNews.com chat transcript of a conversation with Timothy McVeigh’s psychiatrist. The interview with Dr. John Smith was conducted by a moderator, March 29 of this year. Dr. Smith had had only one session with McVeigh, six years earlier. Apparently McVeigh had released him from his medical oath of confidentiality so that he could talk to Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck, authors of American Terrorist.
Moderator: You say that Timothy McVeigh “was not deranged” and that he has “no major mental illness”. So why, in your view, would he commit such a terrible crime?
Dr. John Smith: Well, I don’t think he committed it because he was deranged or misinterpreting reality. . . . He was overly sensitive, to the point of being a little paranoid, about the actions of the government. But he committed the act mostly out of revenge because of the Waco assault, but he also wanted to make a political statement about the role of the federal government and protest the use of force against the citizens. So to answer your original question, it was a conscious choice on his part, not because he was deranged, but because he was serious.
Dr. Smith then notes McVeigh’s disappointment that the Media had shied away from any dialogue “about the misuse of power by the federal government.” Also, “his statement to me, ‘I did not expect a revolution’. Although he did go on to tell me that he had had discussions with some of the militias who lived in the hills around Kingman, AZ, about how easy it would be, with certain guns in the hills there, to cut interstate 40 in two and in that sense interfere with transportation from between the eastern and western part of the United States—a rather grandiose discussion.”
Grandiose but, I think, in character for those rebels who like to call themselves Patriots and see themselves as similar to the American colonists who separated from England. They are said to number from two to four million, of whom some 400,000 are activists in the militias. Although McVeigh never formally joined any group, for three years he drove all around the country, networking with like-minded gun-lovers and federal-government-haters; he also learned, according to American Terrorist, “that the government was planning a massive raid on gun owners and members of the Patriot community in the spring of 1995.” This was all the trigger that McVeigh needed for what he would do—shuffle the deck, as it were.
The Turner Diaries is a racist daydream by a former physics teacher writing under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald. Although McVeigh has no hang-ups about blacks, Jews, and all the other enemies of the various “Aryan” white nations to be found in the Patriots’ ranks, he shares theDiaries’ obsession with guns and explosives and a final all-out war against the “System.” Much has been made, rightly, of a description in the book of how to build a bomb like the one he used at Oklahoma City. When asked if McVeigh acknowledged copying this section from the novel, Dr. Smith said, “Well, sort of. Tim wanted it made clear that, unlike The Turner Diaries, he was not a racist. He made that very clear. He did not hate homosexuals. He made that very clear.” As for the book as an influence, “he’s not going to share credit with anyone.” Asked to sum up, the good doctor said, simply, “I have always said to myself that if there had not been a Waco, there would not have been an Oklahoma City.”
McVeigh also sent me a 1998 piece he had written for Media Bypass. He calls it “Essay on Hypocrisy.”
The administration has said that Iraq has no right to stockpile chemical or biological weapons … mainly because they have used them in the past. Well, if that’s the standard by which these matters are decided, then the U.S. is the nation that set the precedent. The U.S. has stockpiled these same weapons (and more) for over 40 years. The U.S. claims that this was done for the deterrent purposes during its “Cold War” with the Soviet Union. Why, then, is it invalid for Iraq to claim the same reason (deterrence)—with respect to Iraq’s (real) war with, and the continued threat of, its neighbor Iran?…
Yet when discussion shifts to Iraq, any day-care center in a government building instantly becomes “a shield.” Think about it. (Actually, there is a difference here. The administration has admitted to knowledge of the presence of children in or near Iraqi government buildings, yet they still proceed with their plans to bomb—saying that they cannot be held responsible if children die. There is no such proof, however, that knowledge of the presence of children existed in relation to the Oklahoma City bombing.)
Thus, he denies any foreknowledge of the presence of children in the Murrah building, unlike the F.B.I., which knew that there were children in the Davidian compound, and managed to kill 27 of them.
McVeigh quotes again from Justice Brandeis: “Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or ill it teaches the whole people by its example.” He stops there. But Brandeis goes on to write in his dissent, “Crime is contagious. If the government becomes the law breaker, it breeds contempt for laws; it invites every man to become a law unto himself.” Thus the straight-arrow model soldier unleashed his terrible swift sword and the innocent died. But then a lawless government, Brandeis writes, “invites anarchy. To declare that in the administration of the criminal law the end justifies the means—to declare that the government may commit crimes in order to secure the conviction of a private criminal—would bring terrible retribution.”
One wonders if the Opus Dei plurality of the present Supreme Court’s five-to-four majority has ever pondered these words so different from, let us say, one of its essential thinkers, Machiavelli, who insisted that, above all, the Prince must be feared.
Finally, McVeigh sent me three pages of longhand notes dated April 4, 2001, a few weeks before he was first scheduled to die. It is addressed to “C.J.”(?), whose initials he has struck out.
I explain herein why I bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. I explain this not for publicity, nor seeking to win an argument of right or wrong, I explain so that the record is clear as to my thinking and motivations in bombing a government installation.
I chose to bomb a Federal Building because such an action served more purposes than other options. Foremost, the bombing was a retaliatory strike: a counter-attack, for the cumulative raids (and subsequent violence and damage) that federal agents had participated in over the preceding years (including, but not limited to, Waco). From the formation of such units as the FBI’s “Hostage Rescue” and other assault teams amongst federal agencies during the 80s, culminating in the Waco incident, federal actions grew increasingly militaristic and violent, to the point where at Waco, our government—like the Chinese—was deploying tanks against its own citizens.
. . . For all intents and purposes, federal agents had become “soldiers” (using military training, tactics, techniques, equipment, language, dress, organization and mindset) and they were escalating their behavior. Therefore, this bombing was also meant as a pre-emptive (or pro-active) strike against those forces and their command and control centers within the federal building. When an aggressor force continually launches attacks from a particular base of operations, it is sound military strategy to take the fight to the enemy. Additionally, borrowing a page from U.S. foreign policy, I decided to send a message to a government that was becoming increasingly hostile, by bombing a government building and the government employees within that building who represent that government. Bombing the Murrah Federal Building was morally and strategically equivalent to the U.S. hitting a government building in Serbia, Iraq, or other nations. Based on observations of the policies of my own government, I viewed this action as an acceptable option. From this perspective what occurred in Oklahoma City was no different than what Americans rain on the heads of others all the time, and, subsequently, my mindset was and is one of clinical detachment. (The bombing of the Murrah Building was not personal no more than when Air Force, Army, Navy or Marine personnel bomb or launch cruise missiles against (foreign) government installations and their personnel.)
I hope this clarification amply addresses your question.
Sincerely, T.M., USP Terre Haute (In.)
There were many outraged press notes and letters when I said that McVeigh suffered from “an exaggerated sense of justice.” I did not really need the adjective except that I knew that few Americans seriously believe that anyone is capable of doing anything except out of personal self-interest, while anyone who deliberately risks—and gives—his life to alert his fellow citizens to an onerous government is truly crazy. But the good Dr. Smith put that one in perspective: McVeigh is not deranged. He is serious.
It is June 16. It seems like five years rather than five days since the execution. The day before the execution, June 10, The New York Times discussed “The Future of American Terrorism.” Apparently, terrorism has a real future; hence we must beware Nazi skinheads in the boondocks. The Times is, occasionally, right for the usual wrong reasons. For instance, their current wisdom is to dispel the illusion that “McVeigh is merely a pawn in an expansive conspiracy led by a group of John Does that may even have had government involvement. But only a small fringe will cling to this theory for long.” Thank God: one had feared that rumors of a greater conspiracy would linger on and Old Glory herself would turn to fringe before our eyes. The Times, more in anger than in sorrow, feels that McVeigh blew martyrdom by first pleading not guilty and then by not using his trial to “make a political statement about Ruby Ridge and Waco.” McVeigh agreed with the Times, and blamed his first lawyer, Stephen Jones, in unholy tandem with the judge, for selling him out. During his appeal, his new attorneys claimed that the serious sale took place when Jones, eager for publicity, met with the *Times’*s Pam Belluck. McVeigh’s guilt was quietly conceded, thus explaining why the defense was so feeble. (Jones claims he did nothing improper.)
Actually, in the immediate wake of the bombing, the Timesconcedes, the militia movement skyrocketed from 220 anti-government groups in 1995 to more than 850 by the end of ’96. A factor in this growth was the belief circulating among militia groups “that government agents had planted the bomb as a way to justify anti-terrorism legislation. No less than a retired Air Force general has promoted the theory that in addition to Mr. McVeigh’s truck bomb, there were bombs inside the building.” Although the Times likes analogies to Nazi Germany, they are curiously reluctant to draw one between, let’s say, the firing of the Reichstag in 1933 (Göring later took credit for this creative crime), which then allowed Hitler to invoke an Enabling Act that provided him with all sorts of dictatorial powers “for protection of the people and the state” and so on to Auschwitz.
The canny Portland Free Press editor, Ace Hayes, noted that the one absolutely necessary dog in every terrorism case has yet to bark. The point to any terrorist act is that credit must be claimed so that fear will spread throughout the land. But no one took credit until McVeigh did, after the trial, in which he was condemned to death as a result of circumstantial evidence produced by the prosecution. Ace Hayes wrote, “If the bombing was not terrorism then what was it? It was pseudo terrorism, perpetrated by compartmentalized covert operators for the purposes of state police power.” Apropos Hayes’s conclusion, Adam Parfrey wrote in Cult Rapture, “[The bombing] is not different from the bogus Viet Cong units that were sent out to rape and murder Vietnamese to discredit the National Liberation Front. It is not different from the bogus ‘finds’ of Commie weapons in El Salvador. It is not different from the bogus Symbionese Liberation Army created by the CIA/FBI to discredit the real revolutionaries.” Evidence of a conspiracy? Edye Smith was interviewed by Gary Tuchman, May 23, 1995, on CNN. She duly noted that the A.T.F. bureau, about 17 people on the ninth floor, suffered no casualities. Indeed they seemed not to have come to work that day. Jim Keith gives details in OKBOMB!, while Smith observed on TV, “Did the A.T.F. have a warning sign? I mean, did they think it might be a bad day to go into the office? They had an option not to go to work that day, and my kids didn’t get that option.” She lost two children in the bombing. A.T.F. has a number of explanations. The latest: five employees were in the offices, unhurt.
Another lead not followed up: McVeigh’s sister read a letter he wrote her to the grand jury stating that he had become a member of a “Special Forces Group involved in criminal activity.”
In the end, McVeigh, already condemned to death, decided to take full credit for the bombing. Was he being a good professional soldier, covering up for others? Or did he, perhaps, now see himself in a historic role with his own private Harper’s Ferry, and though his ashes molder in the grave, his spirit is marching on? We may know—one day.
As for “the purposes of state police power,” after the bombing, Clinton signed into law orders allowing the police to commit all sorts of crimes against the Constitution in the interest of combating terrorism. On April 20, 1996 (Hitler’s birthday of golden memory, at least for the producers of The Producers), President Clinton signed the Anti-Terrorism Act (“for the protection of the people and the state”—the emphasis, of course, is on the second noun), while, a month earlier, the mysterious Louis Freeh had informed Congress of his plans for expanded wiretapping by his secret police. Clinton described his Anti-Terrorism Act in familiar language (March 1, 1993, USA Today): “We can’t be so fixated on our desire to preserve the rights of ordinary Americans.” A year later (April 19, 1994, on MTV): “A lot of people say there’s too much personal freedom. When personal freedom’s being abused, you have to move to limit it.” On that plangent note he graduated cum laude from the Newt Gingrich Academy.
In essence, Clinton’s Anti-Terrorism Act would set up a national police force, over the long-dead bodies of the founders. Details are supplied by H.R. 97, a chimera born of Clinton, Reno, and the mysterious Mr. Freeh. A 2,500-man Rapid Deployment Strike Force would be organized, under the attorney general, with dictatorial powers. The chief of police of Windsor, Missouri, Joe Hendricks, spoke out against this supra-Constitutional police force. Under this legislation, Hendricks said, “an agent of the F.B.I. could walk into my office and commandeer this police department. If you don’t believe that, read the crime bill that Clinton signed into law in 1995. There is talk of the Feds taking over the Washington, D.C., police department. To me this sets a dangerous precedent.” But after a half-century of the Russians are coming, followed by terrorists from proliferating rogue states as well as the ongoing horrors of drug-related crime, there is little respite for a people so routinely—so fiercely—disinformed. Yet there is a native suspicion that seems to be a part of the individual American psyche—as demonstrated in polls, anyway. According to a Scripps Howard News Service poll, 40 percent of Americans think it quite likely that the F.B.I. set the fires at Waco. Fifty-one percent believe federal officials killed Jack Kennedy (Oh, Oliver what hast thou wrought!). Eighty percent believe that the military is withholding evidence that Iraq used nerve gas or something as deadly in the Gulf. Unfortunately, the other side of this coin is troubling. After Oklahoma City, 58 percent of Americans, according to the L.A. Times,were willing to surrender some of their liberties to stop terrorism—including, one wonders, the sacred right to be misinformed by government?
Shortly after McVeigh’s conviction, Director Freeh soothed the Senate Judiciary Committee: “Most of the militia organizations around the country are not, in our view, threatening or dangerous.” But earlier, before the Senate Appropriations Committee, he had “confessed” that his bureau was troubled by “various individuals, as well as organizations, some having an ideology which suspects government of world-order conspiracies—individuals who have organized themselves against the United States.” In sum, this bureaucrat who does God’s Work regards as a threat those “individuals who espouse ideologies inconsistent with principles of Federal Government.” Oddly, for a former judge, Freeh seems not to recognize how chilling this last phrase is.
The C.I.A.’s former director William Colby is also made nervous by the disaffected. In a chat with Nebraska state senator John DeCamp (shortly before the Oklahoma City bombing), he mused, “I watched as the Anti-War movement rendered it impossible for this country to conduct or win the Viet Nam War.… This Militia and Patriot movement … is far more significant and far more dangerous for Americans than the Anti-War movement ever was, if it is not intelligently dealt with. . . . It is not because these people are armed that America need be concerned.” Colby continues, “They are dangerous because there are so many of them. It is one thing to have a few nuts or dissidents. They can be dealt with, justly or otherwise [my emphasis] so that they do not pose a danger to the system. It is quite another situation when you have a true movement—millions of citizens believing something, particularly when the movement is made up of society’s average, successful citizens.” Presumably one “otherwise” way of handling such a movement is—when it elects a president by a half-million votes—to call in a like-minded Supreme Court majority to stop a state’s recounts, create arbitrary deadlines, and invent delays until our ancient electoral system, by default, must give the presidency to the “system’s” candidate as opposed to the one the people voted for.
Many an “expert” and many an expert believe that McVeigh neither built nor detonated the bomb that blew up a large part of the Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995. To start backward—rather the way the F.B.I. conducted this case—if McVeigh was not guilty, why did he confess to the murderous deed? I am convinced from his correspondence and what one has learned about him in an ever lengthening row of books that, once found guilty due to what he felt was the slovenly defense of his principal lawyer, Stephen Jones, so unlike the brilliant defense of his “co-conspirator” Terry Nichols’s lawyer Michael Tigar, McVeigh believed that the only alternative to death by injection was a half-century or more of life in a box. There is another aspect of our prison system (considered one of the most barbaric in the First World) which was alluded to by the British writer John Sutherland in The Guardian. He quoted California’s attorney general, Bill Lockyer, on the subject of the C.E.O. of an electric utility, currently battening on California’s failing energy supply. “‘I would love to personally escort this CEO to an 8 by 10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says—“Hi, my name is Spike, Honey.”’ . . . The senior law official in the state was confirming (what we all suspected) that rape is penal policy. Go to prison and serving as a Hell’s Angel sex slave is judged part of your sentence.” A couple of decades fending off Spike is not a Henley hero’s idea of a good time. Better dead than Spiked. Hence, “I bombed the Murrah building.”
Evidence, however, is overwhelming that there was a plot involving militia types and government infiltrators—who knows?—as prime movers to create panic in order to get Clinton to sign that infamous Anti-Terrorism Act. But if, as it now appears, there were many interested parties involved, a sort of unified-field theory is never apt to be found, but should there be one, Joel Dyer may be its Einstein. (Einstein, of course, never got his field quite together, either.) In 1998, I discussed Dyer’sHarvest of Rage in these pages. Dyer was editor of the Boulder Weekly.He writes on the crisis of rural America due to the decline of the family farm, which also coincided with the formation of various militias and religious cults, some dangerous, some merely sad. In Harvest of Rage,Dyer made the case that McVeigh and Terry Nichols could not have acted alone in the Oklahoma City bombing. Now he has, after long investigation, written an epilogue to the trials of the two co-conspirators. Herewith, some of his startling findings.
In the end, on June 2, 1997, Timothy McVeigh was found guilty on 11 counts, including conspiracy and eight murder charges pertaining to what the F.B.I. called the “OKBOMB.”
The prosecution did a good job of skirting some of its case’s weaker points, such as the fact that some explosive experts questioned whether a single fertilizer bomb could account for the extensive damage done to the Murrah building, and that no fewer than 10 witnesses claimed to have seen a Ryder truck parked at Geary Lake in Kansas—the location where, the goverment argued, the bomb was assembled—prior to the time McVeigh actually rented the truck used in the bombing. The most damaging testimony against McVeigh came from a former army buddy and his wife, Michael and Lori Fortier. The Fortiers turned State’s evidence, Michael testifying that McVeigh had planned to destroy the Murrah building because he believed that the orders to raid the Branch Davidian compound had originated there. Michael also told the jury that he had helped McVeigh case the Murrah building before the bombing. Despite the evidence to the contrary, the Fortiers claimed that they had not been involved in the bombing plot. Michael was sentenced to 12 years.
Stephen Jones continually pointed out that the Fortiers were liars and methamphetamine users, and so not reliable. But the jury was unmoved. The presentation of McVeigh’s defense was scarcely a week long. Jones often left the jury more confused and bored than convinced of his client’s innocence. Even when he succeeded in his attempts to demonstrate that a large conspiracy was behind the bombing, he did little to show that McVeigh was not at the center of the conspiracy. Jones’s case led some reporters to speculate that McVeigh himself was limiting his own defense in order to prevent evidence that might implicate others in the bombing from entering the record.
Both Playboy and The Dallas Morning News published what they purported to be confessions by McVeigh to his defense team. In both articles, McVeigh admitted to the bombing. In many circles, the confessions have been viewed as proof that only McVeigh and Nichols were directly involved in the bombing. After all, that’s what McVeigh was reported to have claimed. But there is reason for skepticism. I believe that by confessing McVeigh was, once again, playing the soldier, attempting to protect his co-conspirators.
Did the government blow it? Terry Nichols was tried in the fall of 1997. From the beginning, the government’s case against Nichols was more difficult to prove than that against McVeigh. Biggest difference: Nichols was in Kansas at the time of the bombing. Also, Nichols had a good lawyer in Michael Tigar. The jury found Nichols innocent of murder but guilty of planning to bomb the Murrah building and guilty of eight counts of involuntary manslaughter. Next, the jury deadlocked during sentencing, which ruled out the death penalty. After two days of deliberation, the forewoman, Niki Deutchman, informed Judge Richard P. Matsch that the jury was hung. On June 4, 1998, Matsch stepped in and sentenced Terry Nichols to life, but the judge’s decision was not without controversy. Deutchman told the press, “Decisions were probably made very early on that McVeigh and Nichols were who they were looking for, and the same sort of resources were not used to try to find out who else might be involved. . . . The government really dropped the ball.” Some of the jurors thought that there may have been others involved who are still at large. Shortly after her news conference, Deutchman reportedly received bomb threats.
And then the government responded.
Attorney General Janet Reno blasted Deutchman’s criticism. Reno assured the nation that the F.B.I. had followed every lead in its effort to find those responsible for the blast. She denied a larger conspiracy and said that McVeigh and Nichols were the sole perpetrators of the crime.
Unfortunately, Janet Reno is likely wrong. During my investigation, which included an examination of all the McVeigh discovery materials, I unearthed evidence that the F.B.I. did not follow up on solid leads, or, if they did, failed to turn those over to the defense. I uncovered information provided to the F.B.I. by Kansas law enforcement, and by very reliable eyewitnesses who were apparently disregarded. More important, I found evidence that the F.B.I. may have withheld certain information from the defense teams during discovery, potentially tainting the verdicts against both McVeigh and Nichols.
Subject No. 1. The first time Charles Farley was shown a picture of the man he repeatedly tried to get the F.B.I. to investigate was December 10, 1997. Farley was seated on the witness stand in a federal courtroom in Denver, and the man showing him the photo did not work for the government. He worked for Terry Nichols. “Mr. Farley, . . . do you recognize the individual depicted in this picture?” asked Adam Thurschwell, one of Nichols’s defense attorneys. “Yes, sir,” answered Farley. “That was the individual that was standing at the door of the truck, the individual that gave me a dirty look,” he said.
Farley was testifying for the defense about his experience a few days before the bombing. Farley, an employee of the Fort Riley Outdoor Recreation Center, near Geary Lake, had already told the F.B.I. that on April 17 or 18, 1995, he had gone to the lake to scout out the fishing potential. After inspecting the lake, Farley drove down the road that led back to the highway, but his departure was slowed by a number of vehicles parked close to the exit—a pickup, a large stakebed truck, a brown car, and a Ryder truck—and standing near the vehicles were several men. The large truck was burdened with what he believed were bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. “It looked like it was completely weighted down,” Farley told the jury. He thought the truck was stuck due to the weight of the fertilizer, and decided to offer assistance. He quickly changed his mind when one of the men—the same man, he believed, he was identifying more than two and a half years later in court—shot him a nasty glare. The man was standing practically next to Farley’s car, and he had a number of distinguishing features, including a beard with no mustache. A few days later, after the bombing, Farley claims, he saw the man again. This time on TV, being interviewed about militia issues. By then it was known that the bomb had been detonated in the back of a Ryder truck that had allegedly been rented in Junction City, Kansas, close to Geary Lake. The bomb was said to have been made from ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Thinking that he may have had eyewitness information about the men who built the bomb, Farley called an F.B.I. tip line. Two weeks later an agent appeared at his workplace for an interview, but apparently that visit was as far as the government went in following this important lead, despite the fact that Farley’s information seemed to confirm the government’s suspicions regarding the location where the bomb was constructed. The F.B.I. apparently did not try to identify the individual Farley had seen up close. According to sources close to the defense, Nichols’s attorneys, believing they had learned the identity of the man Farley had seen, asked the F.B.I. during the trial for all of its information on the individual. They were given a file containing nothing more than newspaper clippings. There was nothing in the file to indicate that the F.B.I. had ever attempted to contact the man or to place him in a lineup for Farley to identify. They hadn’t even bothered to contact the Topeka television station to review the footage of Farley’s suspect.
I found this lack of investigation curious. In mid-1997, I decided to attempt to identify the mystery man, based solely on Farley’s description. Within 20 minutes of placing the first phone call to my militia contacts in Kansas, I was able to identify the man in the photo Farley had been shown in the courtroom. Subject No. 1 was hardly low-profile within the anti-government movement.
In addition to appearing on television, the man was quoted in a Kansas City newspaper article after the bombing, bragging that he was using Freemen tactics to pass off bogus liens and checks in Kansas. Several Kansas law-enforcement sources told me that, at the time these quotes were published, there was a massive federal investigation into Freemen-sponsored bank fraud in Kansas—an investigation that included Farley’s man. I have confirmed the existence of this investigation through several sources. Since Subject No. 1 was under investigation, there should have been more in his file than newspaper clippings. Information, it appears, was withheld from the defense team. Why didn’t the F.B.I. pursue Farley’s lead? The best explanation is that it posed a serious problem to the government’s cases against McVeigh and Nichols. You see, Farley saw five people, not two, with ammonium nitrate and a Ryder truck.
Subject No. 2. The day after the bombing, two police sketches were faxed to media organizations and law-enforcement offices across the country. They depicted two men who were believed to have detonated the bomb, John Doe No. 1 and John Doe No. 2. McVeigh, taken into custody 90 minutes after the bombing for driving without a license plate and carrying a concealed weapon, was quickly identified as John Doe No 1. John Doe No. 2 has never been identified by the F.B.I.
Shawnee County, Kansas, sheriff’s deputy Jake Mauck says he nearly fell out of his chair when, shortly after the bombing, he compared the John Doe No. 2 sketch to the photo of a known anti-government activist in his area. Shawnee County is about 50 miles east of Junction City, where the Ryder truck was rented and where McVeigh stayed overnight at the Dreamland Motel with another man, who has never been identified. Mauck says he quickly alerted the F.B.I. about his suspicions concerning Subject No. 2. For reasons that will likely never be known, the F.B.I. apparently failed to respond to Mauck’s information. Nor did it heed similar tips from Suzanne James, an employee of the Shawnee County D.A.’s office. The F.B.I. told her that agents had already investigated Mauck’s John Doe look-alike. So had they? Apparently not. One person who did investigate the man Mauck and James suspected is Mike Tharp, a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Mauck talked to Tharp after his frustration with the Feds became unbearable. Tharp obtained a photo of Subject No. 2 and started showing it to people known to have seen a man other than Terry Nichols with McVeigh in the days leading up to the bombing. When he showed the photo to Barbara Whittenberg, the owner of the Santa Fe Trail Diner in Herington, who claims she saw John Doe No. 2 with McVeigh, she said, “I’d almost swear that was the guy.” Others to whom Tharp showed the photo believed it was the man they had seen with McVeigh. When Tharp inquired to the F.B.I. about the individual, he was given the line that is becoming all too familiar: “We’ll follow any lead.” There is no evidence the F.B.I. has even bothered to follow a lead regarding Subject No. 2.
Subject No. 3. Within days of the bombing, Russell Roe, an assistant county attorney for Geary County, Kansas, sat down with F.B.I. agents and told them about a man in his area known to be involved in anti-government activities. Roe said that the individual resembled John Doe No. 2, and also that this man was said to have been exploding fertilizer bombs on his eastern-Kansas farm prior to the Murrah-building explosion. Suzanne James, the woman in the Shawnee County D.A.’s office, told the Feds about the same individual. James says that the government was uninterested in her information. After placing approximately five phone calls to the F.B.I., she gave up. Pottawatomie County sheriff Tony Metcalf gave Subject No. 3’s name to the F.B.I. Further, in the fall of 1997, I interviewed Cliff Hall, the owner of The Topeka Metro News. He told me that Subject No. 3 had taken out public notices in his publication. The ads were Freemen-style concoctions dealing with renouncement of citizenship and lien notices. Hall says a Secret Service agent came to his paper to obtain copies of the notices as part of their investigation into Subject No. 3.
Subject No. 3 was also named in a document pertaining to a federal bank-fraud investigation in Texas. The Texas case resulted in federal fraud charges’ being filed against several anti-government Republic of Texas (R.O.T.) members, including the group’s leader, Richard McLaren. As part of its evidence against R.O.T., the government entered videotapes of the group preparing the fraudulent bank warrants. The videos also revealed a surprise. They clearly showed that the person teaching the R.O.T. how to create the bogus documents was none other than Subject No. 3. What McLaren’s defense team couldn’t understand was why their client and virtually every other person on the tape was arrested and charged, whereas Subject No. 3 was never charged in this investigation. The defense team began to suspect a sting operation. According to court documents in the McLaren case, Tom Mills, McLaren’s attorney, asked the government for all of its files pertaining to Subject No. 3. The prosecutors, in a move explained only to the judge, filed a motion to keep Subject No. 3’s files from the McLaren defense team. The government would turn over the files only if they would be held “in camera.” In other words, the F.B.I. would make them available to the judge but not to the defense.
Undaunted by the “in camera” setback, McLaren’s defense team tried a new approach. If they couldn’t see the files, they would subpoena the man. Mills hired an investigator, who quickly located Subject No. 3 in Oregon. Mills asked the court for money to fly the investigator to Oregon to serve the subpoena. The judge agreed, but then the government did something even more unusual than suppressing files. It arrested Subject No. 3 in the middle of the night, just five hours before the subpoena would have been served. Mills spent several hours interviewing Subject No. 3 in a Dallas jail. Afterward, Mills filed yet another motion, which stated that he was more convinced than ever that the man had cooperated with authorities on some level in the past, and therefore the attorney should be allowed to view the “in camera” files. His request was again denied. Subject No. 3 eventually took the stand while the jury was sequestered. The conventional wisdom said that if he was a government agent or informer he would have to take the Fifth. But he didn’t. When asked by the judge if he was the man named in the subpoena, the subject gave a standard Freemen defense. He asked the judge to spell his name and confirm which letters were capitalized. The judge did so and the man said that the judge had spelled his name incorrectly. At that point, the government prosecutors, who had worked so hard to keep Subject No. 3 from testifying, told the judge that the man was in need of psychiatric evaluation. The judge agreed, and Subject No. 3 was never forced to explain his apparent immunity to prosecution. In April 1998, McLaren was found guilty on 27 federal counts. His defense team was never allowed access to Subject No. 3’s files.
Despite the F.B.I.’s continuing denial, what we do know is that the government inexplicably failed to investigate solid leads pertaining to Subjects No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and, I suspect, still others in their organization.
It will be interesting to see if the F.B.I. is sufficiently intrigued by what Joel Dyer has written to pursue the leads that he has so generously given them.
Thus far, David Hoffman’s The Oklahoma City Bombing and the Politics of Terror is the most thorough of a dozen or two accounts of what did and did not happen on that day in April. Hoffman begins his investigation with retired air-force brigadier general Benton K. Partin’s May 17, 1995, letter delivered to each member of the Senate and House of Representatives: “When I first saw the pictures of the truck-bomb’s asymmetrical damage to the Federal Building, my immediate reaction was that the pattern of damage would have been technically impossible without supplementing demolition charges at some of the reinforcing concrete column bases.… For a simplistic blast truck-bomb, of the size and composition reported, to be able to reach out in the order of 60 feet and collapse a reinforced column base the size of column A-7 is beyond credulity.” In separate agreement was Samuel Cohen, father of the neutron bomb and formerly of the Manhattan Project, who wrote an Oklahoma state legislator, “It would have been absolutely impossible and against the laws of nature for a truck full of fertilizer and fuel oil … no matter how much was used … to bring the building down.” One would think that McVeigh’s defense lawyer, restlessly looking for a Middle East connection, could certainly have called these acknowledged experts to testify, but a search of Jones’s account of the case, Others Unknown,reveals neither name.
In the March 20, 1996, issue of Strategic Investment newsletter, it was reported that Pentagon analysts tended to agree with General Partin. “A classified report prepared by two independent Pentagon experts has concluded that the destruction of the Federal building in Oklahoma City last April was caused by five separate bombs.… Sources close to the study say Timothy McVeigh did play a role in the bombing but ‘peripherally,’ as a ‘useful idiot.’” Finally, inevitably—this is wartime, after all—“the multiple bombings have a Middle Eastern ‘signature,’ pointing to either Iraqi or Syrian involvement.”
As it turned out, Partin’s and Cohen’s pro bono efforts to examine the ruins were in vain. Sixteen days after the bombing, the search for victims stopped. In another letter to Congress, Partin stated that the building should not be destroyed until an independent forensic team was brought in to investigate the damage. “It is also easy to cover up crucial evidence as was apparently done in Waco. . . . Why rush to destroy the evidence?” Trigger words: the Feds demolished the ruins six days later. They offered the same excuse that they had used at Waco, “health hazards.” Partin: “It’s a classic cover-up.”
Partin suspected a Communist plot. Well, nobody’s perfect.
“So what’s the take-away?” was the question often asked by TV producers in the so-called golden age of live television plays. This meant: what is the audience supposed to think when the play is over? The McVeigh story presents us with several take-aways. If McVeigh is simply a “useful idiot,” a tool of what might be a very large conspiracy, involving various homegrown militias working, some think, with Middle Eastern helpers, then the F.B.I.’s refusal to follow up so many promising leads goes quite beyond its ordinary incompetence and smacks of treason. If McVeigh was the unlikely sole mover and begetter of the bombing, then his “inhumane” (the Unabomber’s adjective) destruction of so many lives will have served no purpose at all unless we take it seriously as what it is, a wake-up call to a federal government deeply hated, it would seem, by millions. (Remember that the popular Ronald Reagan always ran againstthe federal government, though often for the wrong reasons.) Final far-fetched take-away: McVeigh did not make nor deliver nor detonate the bomb but, once arrested on another charge, seized all “glory” for himself and so gave up his life. That’s not a story for W. E. Henley so much as for one of his young men, Rudyard Kipling, author of The Man Who Would Be King.
Finally, the fact that the McVeigh-Nichols scenario makes no sense at all suggests that yet again, we are confronted with a “perfect” crime—thus far.
One of America’s pre-eminent historians and novelists, Gore Vidal is the author of Lincoln: A Novel, among many other titles.