OKC Bombing: 17 Years Ago Today

Today is the 17th anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing, in which 168 persons were killed and hundreds more injured. It was then, and remains today, the largest act of domestic terrorism in the history of the nation. The Government's investigation into the bombing was, until 9/11, the largest criminal investigation the Government had ever undertaken.

Timothy McVeigh was found guilty and executed in 2001. Terry Nichols was tried in both federal and state court and sentenced to life in prison, a sentence he is currently serving at Supermax in Florence, Colorado.

Speculation has never ceased about whether McVeigh and Nichols acted alone or were aided by others who either went undetected or were ignored during the Government's investigation.

Next week you can get greater insight with the release of Oklahoma City: What the Investigation Missed--and Why It Still Matters by investigative journalists Andrew Gumbel and Roger Charles.[More...]

What makes this book different than others on the OKC bombing is its primary focus: What the feds missed, skipped, botched, or failed to grasp the significance of when conducting the investigation and prosecuting McVeigh and Nichols.

The authors present explanations for many of the shortcomings in the investigation, and their view that the flawed investigation may have impacted the ability to ever know for certain whether anyone else was involved in the planning or execution of the Oklahoma City bombing.

I received an advanced copy of the book because as one of McVeigh's trial lawyers at the guilt phase of his trial, I was interviewed for the book, and it's not uncommon for bloggers to get advance copies of books so they can blog about them.

I expected the book to be thorough, since I could tell from my conversation with Gumbel and follow-up e-mails, which were pretty limited to evidentiary and legal issues and some details on interactions with McVeigh that didn't involve the crime, that he not only had an enormous amount of factual information, but access to sources who could link pieces together in a way very few others had. I was not disappointed.

That's not to say I agree with the premise of the book, which is that the restrictive lens through which the Feds viewed the evidence, and its steadfast determination to limit culpability to McVeigh and Nichols, with peripheral involvement by Michael Fortier, caused the Government to miss or bypass connections between radical right members of the Patriot Movement and McVeigh and Nichols, which likely would have shown a larger conspiracy.

While the book stops short of saying there was a larger conspiracy, and that the radical right was involved in the bombing, that's the inference it seems to want readers to make.

The book asks the question, how far did the conspiracy go? It explores possibilities, and links events and people in ways that will suggest a conspiracy to many, but it doesn't seal the deal, or even claim to. Perhaps the best description of the premise comes from this page in the preface:

In preparing for trial, the FBI and prosecution wanted to keep things simple, so the jury would see a clear path to conviction. In the process they mangled evidence, withheld documents, distorted testimony gave deals to potential suspects and lost sight of crucial chunks of the real story. The Government was fortunate that its desire to pin the crime on McVeigh coincided with McVeigh's own desire to take full credit and become a martyr-hero to his cause. Both sides in the end, colluded to cover up the truth.

I'm not convinced McVeigh covered up any greater truth. But I'll agree that McVeigh made the Government's job easy due to his willingness to take full credit. And because the Government killed him, America will never know whether he might have changed his mind one day and provided a different or fuller account. That's what happens when demands for vengeance become the priority.

There are interviews with some members of the prosecution and defense teams in both federal trials, with federal investigators and even some of the experts. And while the Nichols trial is extensively discussed, the trials are not the primary focus of the book. If they were, I would probably nit-pick a little here and there.

One cautionary note: since the book had the full cooperation of Terry Nichols, who provided his version of events in hours of interviews and letters; authorized his defense team to release all documents in the case (not just the FBI reports) to Gumbel and Charles; and encouraged his lawyers to speak with Gumbel and Charles, at times the book seems like a re-telling of events from Terry Nichols point of view, meaning how he wants people to view him and his role.

McVeigh isn't here to respond to Nichols' version, and most of McVeigh's lawyers, myself included, still consider ourselves bound by the attorney-client privilege and won't reveal what he disclosed to us individually or collectively about the actual planning and carrying out of the bombing. (McVeigh is considered to have waived his privilege with Stephen Jones once he alleged Stephen provided ineffective assistance of counsel,so Stephen has always been free to provide his views.)

Just as the account McVeigh provided to the reporters who wrote "An American Terrorist" was intended to be the account he wanted preserved for posterity, and may have been a "shaded" view in some respects, the same caution applies to reading the version told by Terry Nichols in this book: Both are accounts given long after the bombing, from the depths of a prison cell, by participants whose primary motivation may be having the story re-told in a certain way, rather than than in accurately recounting what happened back then.

That being said, the book is much more than just Terry Nichols' account. It has a wealth of factual detail and is extensively sourced. The source section at the end of the book takes up 60 pages and lists every document, article or conversation that serves as the basis for each specific factual allegation in the book, chapter by chapter.

With just a few exceptions, the book avoids taking cheap shots at anyone, and the reality is that the book's lavish praise for Team Nichols is well-justified, not biased. Against all odds, they got a life verdict for their client instead of a death sentence, and it was skill, not luck, that achieved it.

If you are interested in the mechanics of the federal investigation into the Oklahoma City Bombing, the forensics, the backstory to John Doe II, details about Michael Fortier's connection and the like, you'll enjoy the book and I recommend it.

If it's the right wing conspiracy theory that you want, you'll probably love the book. Don't let my skepticism dissuade you from reading it.

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    I thought of the anniversary today too (5.00 / 2) (#1)
    by ruffian on Fri Apr 20, 2012 at 06:14:51 AM EST
    Hard to believe it was 17 yrs ago. I've written before about having been there in OKC that week on a work trip. I will certainly never forget that day.

    Thanks for letting us know about that upcoming book, and for the caveats. I'll read it with your reservations in mind.

    when McVeigh was executed (5.00 / 0) (#2)
    by desmoinesdem on Fri Apr 20, 2012 at 01:57:17 PM EST
    I remember at least one of the victim's families saying she wasn't happy, because "the truth dies with him." You never know whether he might have revealed important details later on. Life without parole was the right sentence in my opinion.