America's Secret Jihad: The Hidden History of Religious Terrorism in the United States(2015)
TIM MCVEIGH’S BIBLE
the 1995 OKLAHOMA CITY BOMBING
At 9:02 AM on April 19, 1995, Robert Dennis, a federal court clerk, waited for an elevator in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He recalls, “I’d just gotten to the elevators when everything went black. There was a crashing, rumbling noise, a terrible sound. My first thought was that a boiler or transformer blew. The dust and smoke were so thick, I couldn’t see, I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to suffocate.”1
Awaiting execution in Indiana, Richard Wayne Snell “smiled and chuckled” at the most profound act of domestic terrorism in the history of the United States until 2001. The same building that Snell had planned to destroy in 1983 (according to fellow CSA members) now lay in ruins. Inside the ruins were the dead bodies of 168 people, including nineteen children in the building’s day care center.
An hour later and eighty miles away, Oklahoma state trooper Charles Hanger, patrolling interstate highway 35, “came upon a vehicle which was a yellow 1977 Mercury Marquis, four-door. It had a primer spot on the left rear quarter panel. And I started around that vehicle in the left lane, it was in the right lane traveling north, I observed that it was not displaying a tag on the rear bumper.”2 Hanger pulled the vehicle over. Receiving unsatisfactory explanations from the driver, twenty-three-year-old army veteran Timothy McVeigh, for the lack of license plates, Hanger took McVeigh into custody. When police searched McVeigh’s vehicle, they “found an envelope containing about a dozen documents, among them a copy of the Declaration of Independence and a quotation from John Locke copied in McVeigh’s handwriting.”3 “Glued onto one of the pages in the envelope”4 was a photocopied excerpt from what federal prosecutors would later call Tim McVeigh’s Bible, the blueprint and inspiration for his attack on a federal building: The Turner Diaries.
Another would-be Earl Turner, McVeigh had highlighted a passage: “The real value of all our attacks today lies in the psychological impact, not in the immediate casualties.”5 The line referred to a series of coordinated Organization attacks in Chapter 9 of Pierce’s novel: a mortar attack on Capitol Hill, a massacre of members of the Los Angeles City Council, and the shooting down of a New York-to-Israel passenger plane with a bazooka. But on April 19, McVeigh modeled his bombing of the Murrah Building on an event in Chapter 6 of The Turner Diaries, where Turner and his fellow revolutionaries mix ammonium nitrate and fuel oil into what experts call an ANFO bomb. The fictional team places the explosives in a stolen truck, drives it into the garage of another federal building (the FBI building in Washington, D.C.), and detonates the explosives from several blocks away. “A glittering and deadly rain of glass shards continued to fall into the street from the upper stories of nearby buildings for a few seconds, as a jet-black column of smoke shot straight up into the sky ahead of us,” Earl Turner wrote in his “diary.” “The whole Pennsylvania Avenue wing of the [FBI headquarters] building, as we could then see, had collapsed. . . . Overturned trucks and automobiles, smashed office furniture, and building rubble were strewn wildly about—and so were the bodies of a shockingly large number of victims.”6
Switch the fictional FBI building with the real Murrah Building on April 19, and McVeigh parroted Earl Turner step for destructive step, including the use of a fertilizer bomb and a truck to deliver and store the explosives. McVeigh and his coconspirator, Kansas farmer and antigovernment radical Terry Nichols, tightly packed several barrels of ammonium nitrate and racing fuel into a yellow Ryder truck, which McVeigh drove from Kansas to Oklahoma City. McVeigh parked the Ryder truck immediately in front of the Murrah Building and walked to his getaway vehicle. On detonation, the explosives destroyed 25 percent of the Murrah Building’s structure, obliterating most of the four lower floors, causing damage to buildings nearly a block away.
Tim McVeigh had become enraptured by The Turner Diaries in 1988, shortly before joining the army. In some ways, the book reinforced his pre-established views on social decadence. After graduating high school in 1988 and just before entering the military, McVeigh had worked as a driver for an armored-car service that delivered money to banking establishments near welfare agencies.7 His lawyers’ notes, based on discussions with the terrorist, say that when McVeigh
would drive up, he would see a 3-block line of black welfare recipients waiting for their welfare checks. Tim would have to push his way through the line with his gun drawn to deliver the money. During the rest of the months he would drive by their houses and he would see them always sitting on their porch waiting for their check, hence the name of porch monkey.8
Pierce’s novel, which described blacks in primal terms as violent hordes leeching off the public dole, resonated with McVeigh. As he read The Turner Diaries, McVeigh later recalled, “his views of the world expanded.”9
McVeigh entered basic training in the spring of 1988. There, at Fort Bravo, Georgia, he met and befriended his future coconspirators, his platoon commander Terry Nichols and fellow enlistee Michael Fortier. The men shared a love of guns and a growing antipathy toward the U.S. government. McVeigh encouraged Fortier’s nascent antigovernment feelings, providing the native Arizonan with, among other things, a copy of The Turner Diaries. Nichols had grown up in rural Michigan, where banks increasingly foreclosed on family-owned farms, dispossessing their owners. The same process had helped fuel the Posse Comitatus movement across the United States.
Nichols and McVeigh requested and received honorable discharges following their service during Operation Desert Storm, America’s first military conflict with Saddam Hussein, in the early 1990s. In the years that followed, their hatred for the federal government only intensified. At one point, Nichols attempted (but failed) to renounce his U.S. citizenship. McVeigh began a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, becoming part of the increasingly popular gun-show circuit, which expanded after federal laws loosened regulations on the private sale of guns. But new laws were already being considered. These same gun shows became an echo chamber for antigovernment paranoia, as the U.S. Congress moved closer and closer to passing the first major pieces of gun-control legislation in more than two decades—the Brady Handgun and Violence Prevention Bill and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. Gun-rights groups, such as the National Rifle Association, saw the Brady Bill as an entrée to national firearms registration, a Trojan backdoor to the mass confiscation of firearms by a tyrannical government. At gun shows, McVeigh began to sell photocopied versions of The Turner Diaries, which begins, recall, with the passage of the fictional Cohen Act of 1989 to strip all Americans of their weapons.
At first McVeigh’s concerns about the direction of the social order manifested in a move toward survivalism—a more passive form of antigovernment resistance, whereby one waits and prepares for the collapse of society. But hints that McVeigh was considering bolder action can be seen in letters he wrote to friends and to newspapers. “America is in serious decline,” he asserted in an editorial to the Lockport (New York) Union-Sun in 1992. “Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system? I hope it doesn’t come to that, but it might.”10 McVeigh also joined an Arkansas-based contingent of the Ku Klux Klan, insisting later that he believed that the KKK was simply pro-gun and antigovernment. According to McVeigh, only later did two events push him toward a position of proactive violence.
The first event was in August of 1992, when federal law enforcement raided the remote mountain home of Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) believed Weaver, a Christian Identity believer, to be the kind of violent, antigovernment firebrand one would find in another part of Idaho—at Richard Butler’s Aryan Nations compound. In fact, the government attempted to use a minor firearms charge against Weaver to leverage him into becoming an informant against Butler; Weaver refused. As with the majority of Identity followers, religious ideas about racial purity and the impending end-times manifested in Weaver’s desire to separate from society and adopt principles of survivalism, as opposed to engaging in radical terrorism. When, in 1992, BATF agents descended on Weaver’s isolated home in the woods of Idaho, under the false assumption that Weaver was stockpiling illegal weapons, they created the conditions for a firefight that never had to happen. A shooting exchange between Weaver’s fourteen-year-old son, Sammy; a family friend named Kevin Harris; and federal marshals who had snuck onto the Weaver property quickly resulted in the deaths of a marshal and Sammy. Events escalated from there. By the time the conflict ended, the list of the dead included Weaver’s wife, who was shot while carrying her baby. Even though Weaver eventually won a wrongful-death civil suit against the government, his family members’ murder infuriated militia groups, Christian Identity believers, survivalists, and antigovernment organizations.11 Not surprisingly, the raid also incensed McVeigh.
McVeigh’s frustration and anger with the government only grew after the federal siege of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, in the spring of 1993. David Koresh had created the Branch Davidians as an offshoot of Seventh Day Adventism. Adventists distinguish themselves from other fundamentalist Christian sects by embracing many Jewish traditions, including following Jewish dietary guidelines (that is, keeping kosher) and, most importantly, observing the Sabbath based on a Jewish time from—sundown Friday to sunup Saturday (hence the reference to the “seventh day” in their name). They share the millennial dispensationalist approach of many evangelical Christians described in Chapter 3. Namely, they believe in a rapture that will spare true believers (the elect) from a Great Tribulation that will ultimately see God vanquish the forces of evil, bringing forth the second coming of Jesus. But in his rendition of the book of Revelations, Koresh argued for a mid-tribulation Rapture—that is, one in which the elect must first suffer through part of the Great Tribulation.12
For many months, Koresh had been predicting to his followers at the Waco complex that this part of the Revelations prophecy—their tribulation—was imminent and that it could take the form of armed conflict with the government. Koresh believed that he was the Christ who would rise again after he and his followers were martyred. Hence he had been stockpiling the very weapons that caught the attention of the BATF and brought its agents to Waco. As one might expect, the decision to arrest Koresh resulted in a standoff. What the government did not realize was that by its very opposition to Koresh, and by escalating its siege-like preparation for a raid, it was playing right into Koresh’s own biblical prophecies: that he was the Messiah and that the end-times were approaching. Koresh hunkered down, and though there would be controversy over who actually started the shooting, the raid resulted in a fire that engulfed the compound, killing Koresh and seventy-five of his followers, including pregnant women and twenty-one children. The date of the siege: April 19, 1993—precisely two years before the Oklahoma City Bombing.13
In March 1993, drawn by coverage of the standoff between the government and the Branch Davidians, McVeigh had detoured to Waco from his normal jaunts through the gun-show circuit. He even gave an interview with a reporter at the scene. The ultimate outcomes at Ruby Ridge and at Waco convinced McVeigh of the evil of the federal government. According to McVeigh’s own account to reporters Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck in interviews for their book American Terrorist,14 after Waco, he and his former platoon commander, Terry Nichols, resolved to engage in a major act of revolution. In justifying his eventual attack on the government he wrote:
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. . . .
Knowledge of these multiple and ever-more aggressive raids across the country constituted an identifiable pattern of conduct within and by the federal government and amongst its various agencies. . . . For all intents and purposes, federal agents had become “soldiers” . . . and they were escalating their behavior. Therefore, this bombing was also meant as a pre-emptive (or pro-active) strike against these forces and their command and control centers within the federal building. When an aggressor force continually launches attacks from a particular base of operation, it is sound military strategy to take the fight to the enemy.15
Though he challenged the government’s case in court, McVeigh proudly admitted his guilt after his conviction, and juries sentenced two others—Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier—for their role in the Oklahoma City Bombing. Before becoming the first federal prisoner to be executed in fifty years in 2001, McVeigh insisted that he and Nichols had acted without assistance (beyond some early, minimal help from Fortier in Arizona). To Michel and Herbeck, McVeigh more or less conceded the official version of the case: That he had begun planning an antigovernment attack in 1993; that he and Nichols had selected the Murrah Building as the target by December 1994; that they had sold weapons stolen from an associate (Roger Moore, whom McVeigh had met at a gun show in Florida) to finance their operations; that they had obtained the bomb’s components and stored them in a warehouse in Kansas, where they ultimately constructed the bomb, obtained the Ryder truck under a false identity, and detonated the bomb on April 19 in Oklahoma City.
McVeigh did not become another Lee Harvey Oswald or James Earl Ray. He never claimed to be anything other than the sole driving force behind the bombing of the Murrah Building. But McVeigh also remained a fan of The Turner Diaries. Earl Turner’s only regret—one redeemed only through his kamikaze mission at the end of the novel—was in revealing Organization secrets, including names of other members, to the agents of the Jewish-controlled American government while captured and under interrogation. Many experts who took a deeper look at McVeigh’s activities leading to the Oklahoma City Bombing believe that McVeigh avoided the fictional Turner’s mistake—that he became a martyr for others who had assisted with and possibly planned the Oklahoma City Bombing. One popular theory, favored by several investigative reporters and criminologists, sees McVeigh as a witting member of a Christian Identity conspiracy.
The case is circumstantial and involves five different lines of evidence. The first involves challenging the official account of McVeigh’s motivation: the idea, offered by federal prosecutors, that the convicted terrorist was exclusively driven by antigovernment paranoia, untainted by either racism or religion.
Kerry Noble, the former member of the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, is one of many who doubts this limited explanation, affirmed by McVeigh himself. The CSA, recall, was started by Jim Ellison, who fell under the sway of Christian Identity preaching while mentored by the Reverend Robert Millar. By the early 1980s, the CSA had stockpiled weapons and attracted terrorists like Richard Wayne Snell. Many see the obvious connection between the chosen date of the Murrah attack and the anniversary of the Waco siege. But Noble sees much more significance in the chosen date of April 19.
The date of the Oklahoma City Bombing also marked the tenth anniversary of an FBI raid on Jim Ellison’s Arkansas compound in 1985. Noble, who was inside the compound, remembered the day as nearly ending in a major gun battle. (But instead it resulted in a “talk-down” by FBI hostage-rescue expert Danny Coulsen.) In fact, Noble, who abandoned the CSA not long after the assault, specifically warned government agencies not to inflame ultra-right groups in mid-April because of its proximity to Easter. According to some, any Identity martyr who died during this time could be resurrected.16 As others point out, McVeigh obtained a new driver’s license under a fake name not long after Snell’s execution date had been finally announced; he gave a birth date of April 19 even though his real birthday was April 23.
McVeigh publicly distanced himself from any religious motivation for his crime. He was raised Catholic, but no one described McVeigh as devout in any way. In some public statements, McVeigh asserted something bordering on agnosticism and specifically denounced certain core religious concepts, such as the existence of hell. But in private letters written before the Murrah bombings to childhood friend Steven Hodge, McVeigh asserted, “I know in my heart that I am right in my struggle, Steve. I have come to peace with myself, my God, and my cause. Blood will flow in the Streets, Steve. Good vs. Evil. Free Men vs. Socialist Slave Wannabe Slaves. Pray that it is not your blood, my friend.”17 As religious scholar Eugene V. Gallagher noted, “Despite his professed antipathy toward organized religion, with his references to God and prayer and the stark antitheses of good versus evil and freedom versus slavery, McVeigh implied that the events about to take place had ultimate importance and perhaps even divine sanction.”18
If some sort of religious impulse compelled the otherwise secular McVeigh, it would be one more thing he had in common with the fictional Earl Turner. Once the leadership of the Organization had accepted Turner into the Order, it allowed him to see a sacred manuscript referred to as the Book. In his diary, Turner recorded,
For the first time I understand the deepest meaning of what we are doing. I understand now why we cannot fail, no matter what we must do to win and no matter how many of us must perish in doing it. Everything that has been and everything that is yet to be depends on us. We are truly the instruments of God in the fulfillment of His Grand Design. These may seem like strange words to be coming from me, who has never been religious, but they are utterly sincere words.19
Of course, that “Grand Design” involved genocidal ethnic cleansing, and McVeigh’s other claim, that he lacked any racial prejudice, is simply not believable. As researcher J.M Berger noted, “It is extraordinarily unlikely that The Turner Diaries could appeal to anyone who is not a hardened racist. Dripping with racial animus, The Turner Diaries does not aim to convince readers of the virtues of white supremacy. Rather, it assumes bigotry on the part of readers and explicitly tries to move them from passive agreement to violent extremism.”20 McVeigh also played down his decision to join a Ku Klux Klan organization in the early 1990s, incredulously claiming that he had entered in ignorance of the group’s racist agenda, assuming that the group simply supported gun-owners’ rights. Thomas Robb, the leader of the group in question, the Arkansas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, had been a major figure in Christian Identity circles since the mid-1980s. In letters to his sister in the months before the Murrah bombing, McVeigh also cast aspersions on Jews and their role in controlling the world financial system. It appears as if McVeigh at least shared many of the sensibilities of Identity followers, a fact that he clearly tried to hide from public scrutiny.
But questions about a Christian Identity conspiracy extend beyond McVeigh’s motivations. Many doubt whether McVeigh and Nichols could have executed the plot by themselves, whether the logistics of the actual bombing fit a two-person scenario. Uncertainty extends specifically to the design of the bomb and to the financing of the entire operation, which some see as the second line of evidence pointing to a conspiracy.
There is the curious fact that in a matter of weeks, McVeigh and Nichols graduated from barely being able to compose low-level “backyard” explosive devices to being able to mix together and construct a sophisticated bomb that combined racing fuel and ammonium nitrate fertilizer. At McVeigh’s trial, Michael Fortier described how, in the fall of 1994, while planning their attack on the Murrah Building, McVeigh and Nichols had reported the results of an early test of a “milk-jug bomb.” “He told me that the blasting cap just sprayed the ammonium nitrate everywhere, it didn’t work.”21 Yet just a few months later, McVeigh and Nichols designed a much more sophisticated bomb that nearly demolished a nine-story building.
There is little doubt that McVeigh and Nichols had the know-how to create the weapon by April 19, 1995. In 1999 McVeigh gave very specific details on its construction to Michel and Herbeck from memory, and experts agree that the narrated design could account for the explosion. What is not clear is how McVeigh and Nichols acquired the know-how. Nothing in their backgrounds suggests the required training and level of sophistication in fabricating explosives. Having consulted with demolitions experts, McVeigh’s attorney, Stephen Jones, doubted McVeigh’s confessions about the bomb and pressed him to divulge the source for the design. McVeigh told Jones that he had studied the bomb-making process from a book at a public library in Arizona, but McVeigh could not remember the title. Jones’s investigators could never find any book or resource in that library to account for the ANFO bomb. “There simply is no evidence,” Jones insisted to investigative reporter Peter Lance, “that Terry Nichols or Tim McVeigh or anybody known to have been associated with them had the expertise, knowledge, skill [and] patience to construct an improvised device that would bring down a modern nine-story office building.”22
The implication is that “others unknown,” as Jones called them, assisted McVeigh and Nichols in constructing the bomb and that the two men had protected their compatriots. Some researchers believe those same unknown others must have also helped the pair by providing financing. Both men were struggling economically as of 1993, when their plan first took shape. Yes, the pair admitted to robbing Roger Moore, a fellow antigovernment gun-rights enthusiast whom McVeigh had met on the gun-show circuit, and then selling weapons from Moore’s rare firearms collection to help finance their operation. But many doubt whether they could have raised the necessary money from that robbery alone. Mark Hamm, an Indiana State University criminologist whose 2002 book In Bad Company: America’s Terrorist Underground outlines a Christian Identity–backed conspiracy in the Murrah bombing,23 believes that McVeigh and Nichols had help in robbing not only Moore but also a series of banks from 1994 to 1995. Building on research by Oklahoma reporter J.D. Cash, Hamm even fingers the likely accomplices: a relatively new band of Christian Identity zealots, the Aryan Republican Army (ARA).
Formed in 1993, in response to the same types of government raids that dismayed McVeigh, the ARA modeled itself on Robert Mathews’s Silent Brotherhood. An eclectic group of seven core members based out of Ohio, its numbers included Christian Identity preacher and East Coast Aryan Nations leader Mark Thomas; transgendered hillbilly Peter Langan, who preferred to be called Commander Pedro; skinhead musician Scott Stedeford; a would-be Navy Seal with demolitions training, Richard “Wild Bill” Guthrie; tenth-grade dropout Kevin McCarthy; and former Eagle Scout Michael Brescia. Committed, like Mathews, to raising money for a revolution, the ARA robbed no fewer than twenty-two banks in the Midwest and the Great Plains in 1994 and 1995. The robberies were as idiosyncratic as the group itself, with members disguising themselves as U.S. presidents, Santa Claus, FBI agents, and construction workers. The robberies followed the same general pattern, as described by terrorism expert Friedrich Seiltgen:
A robbery would begin with Langan running in first, with the others following behind. Langan would take a running leap and jump over the counter, brandishing his rifle, and yell, “No alarms, no hostages” twice. The robbers used two-way radios to communicate with one another and with gang members outside. All sometimes dressed in camouflage and combat boots. When not wearing ski masks, they often wore Halloween masks of American presidents.
While Langan cleaned out the teller drawers, a teammate would guard the lobby, yelling foreign-sounding gibberish. They never went to the vault because they believed that would take too much time. When they were finished, they would often toss a smoke grenade behind them, leaving the bank in a cloud. After racing away in a cheap “drop car,” they would transfer to another, more reliable car to complete their getaway, monitoring police radio frequencies as they went.24
The robberies were always a means to an end: to obtain enough money to help white supremacists finance a holy race war. The ARA eluded federal law enforcement until FBI agents turned Shawn Kenny, an ARA associate, into an informant. Members of the group went to prison in 1997.25
Hamm established that McVeigh and Nichols were in the vicinity of several of the ARA robberies at the time of the offenses. “It is highly improbable—if not statistically impossible,” Hamm insisted, “for nine men with such violent predispositions and such deep connections within the white power movement, all of whom needed money desperately . . . to randomly come together at the same time in the same geographic location.”26 Based on letters from and interactions with her brother, McVeigh’s sister Jennifer provided vague but corroborating evidence in a December 1994 affidavit:
He (Timothy McVeigh) had been involved in a bank robbery but did not provide any further details concerning the robbery. He advised me that he had not actually participated in the robbery itself, but was somehow involved in the planning or setting up of this robbery. Although he did not identify the participants by name, he stated that “they” had committed the robbery. His purpose for relating this information to me was to request that I exchange some of my own money for what I recall to be approximately three $100.00 bills. . . .
It is my belief that this bank robbery had occurred within the recent past. I was not made aware of the details or if there were any additional robberies involving my brother or any of his associates. I do recall that my brother remarked that the money he had in his possession represented his share of the bank robbery proceeds.27
Hamm developed additional circumstantial evidence supporting a far-right conspiracy involving the ARA in the bombing of the Murrah Building. Hamm established that Guthrie and McVeigh both belonged to the same KKK group, the Arkansas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, run by Christian Identity eminence Thomas Robb. Hamm also found evidence suggesting that McVeigh and Robb may have met as early as 1992. In examining early reports about the Roger Moore robbery, Hamm noticed that descriptions of the assailants, per Moore, matched members of the ARA, and not McVeigh and Nichols. (Although Hamm speculates that the two men provided targeting information to the ARA.) This is odd, since Moore was well acquainted with McVeigh from the gun-show circuit. Hamm even managed to get Langan on record confirming that Guthrie knew McVeigh. He also found records showing that Langan had told an undercover police officer in 1993 that the ARA intended to bomb a federal building. This potential connection between McVeigh, Nichols, and the ARA represents the third line of evidence pointing to an Identity conspiracy in the Oklahoma City Bombing.
More than anything, Cash and Hamm developed leads indicating that one ARA member, Michael Brescia, directly interacted with McVeigh and aided him in the bombing.28 This information relates to the fourth line of evidence suggesting a Christian Identity–backed conspiracy in the April 19 attack in Oklahoma City: the twenty-four witness sightings of McVeigh and/or Nichols in the presence of a stocky, olive-complexioned man commonly referred in official reports as John Doe #2. Witnesses described a man fitting that description in the presence of McVeigh days before, during, and immediately after the terrorist bombing. The Justice Department concluded that these witnesses had confused a completely innocent army soldier, Todd Bunting, for an accomplice to Tim McVeigh. A witness positively identified Bunting as accompanying McVeigh when he rented the Ryder truck in Kansas, but hard evidence clearly established that Bunting, who looked like the sketch of John Doe #2, had visited the rental agency the day before McVeigh and that he had no connection to McVeigh. In other words, at least one of the witnesses confabulated two different events when implying that McVeigh had an accomplice; skeptics of a conspiracy argue that such mistakes are not uncommon. Other sightings of John Doe #2 may simply be the result of similar confabulations and the cognitive distortions generally associated with eyewitness descriptions and memories of crimes. But this explanation goes only so far. Stress can play games with perceptions, and the brain can force sudden and unexpected events into a false or distorted narrative. But many of the eyewitness accounts occurred days and even weeks before the actual bombing, and others include hallmarks of the ring of truth.
The best compendium of these accounts by witnesses comes from Andrew Gumbel and Roger G. Charles in Oklahoma City,29 their excellent 2012 treatise on the bombing. They identified a number of witnesses whose encounters with McVeigh (or Nichols) and John Doe #2 coincided with unique or memorable events, which, knitted together, form a consistent narrative. This group includes Leonard Long, a black Oklahoma City commuter who nearly collided with a brown van on the morning of April 19; Long positively identified McVeigh (wearing a baseball cap) as the driver but was equally convinced that McVeigh traveled with a “stocky, dark-complexioned” passenger who “spewed racial insults” at Long. Not long after Long’s encounter, and not far from the location of his encounter, another witness described two men—a stocky, olive-complexioned man and a tall white man in a baseball cap—walking toward a yellow van. Just twenty minutes before the bombing, Mike Moroz, a mechanic, told investigators about an incident involving occupants of a yellow Ryder truck; the driver, whom Moroz later identified as Tim McVeigh, was wearing a baseball cap and asked for directions to the Murrah Federal Building. Moroz also stated that there was a passenger in the vehicle. Moroz recalled the incident well, because the Ryder truck nearly hit a display when it first peeled into Johnny’s Tire Company, where he was an employee, located only blocks from the explosion site.30
Similar accounts place McVeigh in the company of an unknown accomplice fitting the John Doe #2 profile days and weeks before April 19, notably in Kansas when the bomb was allegedly being constructed. But perhaps the most intriguing account of a John Doe #2 comes from a group of go-go dancers at the Lady Godiva Nightclub in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The women recalled seeing McVeigh with two other men, one of whom matched the John Doe #2 description. McVeigh, perhaps drunk, broadcast his upcoming plans, quipping to the dancers, “On April 19, you’ll remember me for the rest of my life.” Security-camera footage from the nightclub, obtained by investigative journalist J.D. Cash, appears to corroborate the account, but the footage is too grainy for a positive identification of McVeigh or his associates, and the sound is of poor quality. At first blush, the date of the visit, April 8, appears to exclude McVeigh as the boastful customer, because McVeigh is supposed to have been registered then at a motel in Kingman, Arizona, where he had just prepaid for an extra five-day stay. But Hamm established that McVeigh did not receive or make any phone calls from Kingman from April 8 to April 11, and the manager of the motel did not recall seeing McVeigh’s car. In fact, the manager said that McVeigh’s room looked all but unoccupied during the relevant period.31
As for the other two men the dancers saw in McVeigh’s company at the Tulsa club, the women managed to identify two individuals from photographs who definitely knew each other and who stayed together during the relevant time: Michael Brescia and Andreas Strassmeir. Brescia, an ARA member, bears a strong resemblance to police sketches of John Doe #2. In April 1995 Brescia roomed with Strassmeir at Elohim City, the Christian Identity compound in Oklahoma City. Strassmeir, a native of Germany, had come to the United States in the mid-1980s in search of government work. Failing to find employment, he found himself ensconced in the world of the American ultra-right. One person he definitely admits having met—only once, at a Texas gun show—is Timothy McVeigh. At the time, Strassmeir belonged to the Texas Light Infantry Brigade, a new militia group formed by Louis Beam. Strassmeir insists that he never met or talked with McVeigh again. But curiously, McVeigh admitted (to Michel and Herbeck) making at least one call to the Elohim City compound in the days leading up to the Oklahoma City attack. He wanted to talk with “Andy the German,” McVeigh said. When Joan Millar, Richard’s wife, told McVeigh that Strassmeir was not around, McVeigh responded, “Tell Andy I’ll be coming through.”32
It is the curious circumstances surrounding Elohim City, including suspicions about Strassmeir, that present the fifth line of evidence suggesting a Christian Identity conspiracy in the Oklahoma City bombing. Hamm and Cash have developed a suggestive array of evidence connecting Elohim City to McVeigh and the ARA. It begins with Strassmeir, who admitted meeting McVeigh one time and whom McVeigh called (but never supposedly spoke with) shortly before April 19. Some witnesses contradict Strassmeir. A government informant, John Shults, told the FBI that he had attended a 1994 meeting at Elohim City that had included Christian Identity radical Chevy Kehoe and two Germans. One was named Andy, and Shults was “sure beyond a shadow of a doubt” that the other was Tim McVeigh. Shults remembered the discussion turning toward a bombing and a Ryder truck.33 Another government informant, Carol Howe, who lived for a time at Elohim City, insisted that McVeigh had visited Elohim City on repeated occasions, using the fake name Tim Tuttle. Howe, a one-time beauty pageant contestant, became close to Dennis Mahon, a major figure in white supremacist circles; she claimed that he had referred to the bombing of the Murrah Building prior to April 19. Mahon and Strassmeir were close associates, and Howe insists that McVeigh stayed in the company of Strassmeir at the compound. Others, including J.D. Cash and Morris Dees, head of the Southern Poverty Law Center, claimed to have informants inside Elohim City who asserted that McVeigh had visited the compound. These informants were never named, and therefore their credibility cannot be adequately evaluated. What is clear is that a speeding ticket places McVeigh in the immediate vicinity of Elohim City in September 1994 and that McVeigh called the compound looking for Strassmeir two weeks before the bombing.34
Some argue that Elohim City closes the circle between McVeigh’s chosen date of April 19, his ultimate motivation, and the attack on the Murrah Building. Prosecutors from the Fort Smith sedition trial developed evidence that Richard Wayne Snell, executed on April 19, had targeted the Murrah Building for a bombing attack in 1984. There is no evidence that McVeigh ever had anything to do with Snell, who responded with glee at the reports of the Oklahoma City Bombing on TV while awaiting execution. But Snell did have a very close connection to Elohim City. The Reverend Millar was Snell’s personal spiritual advisor, and Snell’s body was taken to Elohim City for burial following his execution. Carol Howe also reported that Millar and his Identity followers spoke frequently about an imminent holy race war and about the likelihood that Elohim City would be subject to a similar federal raid. Many former CSA members, including founder Jim Ellison (who was married to Millar’s daughter), had moved to Elohim City after the 1985 raid on Ellison’s CSA compound in Elijah, Missouri. Howe claimed that residents of Elohim City often spoke about “striking first.”
The federal government dismissed the evidence of a conspiracy, and not without cause. The evidence that McVeigh executed the Oklahoma City attack with others as part of a Christian Identity cabal was intriguing but circumstantial. The Waco siege on April 19, 1993, remains the simplest explanation for McVeigh’s choice of date for the Murrah bombing. McVeigh definitely visited Waco on the eve of the 1993 raid and definitely became infuriated with the outcome. He never referred to Snell in any letter or correspondence. Howe’s account of seeing McVeigh at Elohim City changed more than once, including under oath. Shults’s sighting lacks independent corroboration and, coming two years after the Oklahoma City attack, could easily have been colored by revelations in the media. Most importantly, McVeigh himself never conceded to any conspiracy.
That is where the controversy stood at the time of McVeigh’s execution, with some suggestions of a conspiracy but with no solid evidence to bring doubt to McVeigh’s confession. But soon the government began releasing evidence that raised serious questions about the competence of its investigation. Many see in the subsequent revelations signs that the government hid and possibly even provoked, unwittingly, a conspiracy in the April 19, 1995, bombing. The truth, as it always appears to be in the thorny world of domestic counterterrorism, may be far more nuanced.
The new revelations included a provocative FBI report. “It is suspected that members of Elohim City are involved [in the bombing] either directly or indirectly through conspiracy.” So reported an FBI document released in 2003 (that is still heavily redacted) that was written just days after the Oklahoma City bombing. The document came as part of many shocking new files released under the Freedom of Information Act three years after McVeigh’s execution. The new information had not been provided to McVeigh’s and Nichols’s defense attorneys or, for that matter, to the government’s own lead investigators in the Oklahoma bombing. The new data lent a measure of additional credibility to Cash and Hamm’s theories of a Christian Identity plot involving residents of Elohim City, members of the ARA, and Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Among other things, the newly released files report that the FBI found blasting caps in the possession of the ARA that closely resembled blasting caps that McVeigh and Nichols stole from a quarry and used for their ANFO bomb; investigators recovered only a portion of the caps that should have been in McVeigh’s or Nichol’s possession following the attack. Additionally, among materials found in possession of the ARA, federal investigators found a driver’s license with the name Robert Miller—an alias used by Roger Moore. Apparently, the FBI agents who had investigated the Midwest bank robberies took seriously allegations (popularized by Cash) that the ARA had helped McVeigh, but they did not provide that information to their counterparts in the Oklahoma bombing investigation. When he learned of this material in 2004, retired agent Dan Defenbaugh, who headed the FBI unit that handled the Oklahoma City bombing investigation, called for a new investigation. (His call was not heeded.) He expressed shock and exasperation when it became clear that the FBI had destroyed the blasting caps and the driver’s license without subjecting them to forensic analysis.35
The overall performance of the FBI in its investigation of the Oklahoma City Bombing brings to mind the type of behavior seen during its 1963 BAPBOMB and 1968 MURKIN inquiries. Investigators quashed leads too quickly, failed to draw logical connections in developing new leads, left gaps in the basic explanation for the crime, and withheld key pieces of information—even from their own people—at relevant stages of the inquiry. To some, the level of incompetence cannot easily be explained as merely due to chance; to them, the incompetence suggests that the government might be hiding some darker secret about the Oklahoma City Bombing. The more radical segments of American society suggest that this secret involves a “false-flag operation,” whereby the government actually encouraged the Oklahoma City Bombing to create a pretext for increased government intervention—ironically, the kind of government intervention fictionalized at the beginning of The Turner Diaries. Others postulate a more rational alternative explanation for the FBI’s incompetence—that the reticence to explore a wider conspiracy and the willingness to stonewall the McVeigh–Nichols defense team paralleled similar cover-ups in the past. Specifically, some say, the incompetence was the result of the FBI’s need to hide deep-cover operations from the public (and would-be terrorists) and to avoid revealing embarrassing connections between the government and the very subversives that law enforcement feared. Materials obtained by terrorism scholar J.M. Berger and an investigation by a subcommittee of the U.S. Congress imply that, once again, federal law enforcement agencies would have had to expose their sources and methods—and perhaps their own negligence—had they conducted a comprehensive investigation of the April 1995 attack. Berger in particular exposed a government operation that could have, and perhaps should have, brought McVeigh and any potential accomplices into the crosshairs of federal law enforcement months before the Oklahoma City Bombing.
In 2012, using FOIA, J.M. Berger obtained records describing an undercover operation known as Patriot Conspiracy, or PATCON.36 As the name implies, the operation targeted the small-scale patriot or militia groups proliferating in the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Given Americans’ First Amendment rights to assemble and Second Amendment rights to bear arms, the government could do little to temper the expansion of these openly antigovernment groups. Indeed, most militia groups, then and now, lack any aspiration to terrorism, even if many prepare for a day when they will have to take up arms against a tyrannical U.S. government. But federal law enforcement remained bothered by the prospect of any of these groups becoming radicalized and taking a proactive stance along the lines of the Order. Indeed, law enforcement recovered only a small fraction of the millions of dollars stolen by Mathews’s group, and rumors persisted that the Silent Brotherhood remained active and underground, even after law enforcement had imprisoned or killed its core members.
The FBI specifically worried about Louis Beam, one of the men Mathews had provided with booty from the Order’s armored-car heists. Beam, an Odinist, assumed the role of Sun-tzu to white supremacists, elaborating on concepts like leaderless resistance, which in a landscape of the growing militia movement presented a nightmare scenario for law enforcement, one where any one of a hundred antigovernment groups could, in response to some signal event, radicalize and morph into a terrorist cell. Faced with this kind of unpredictable, needle-in-the-haystack scenario, the FBI resorted to a practice that would become rampant after 9/11—that is, engaging militia groups in hopes of flushing out would-be terrorists.
To do this, the feds created their own bogus patriot group: the Veterans Aryan Movement (VAM). These undercover agents visited gun shows and antigovernment rallies, posturing as malcontented radicals, offering themselves as bait to individuals and groups that spoke about or hinted at future terrorist activity. According to Berger: “PATCON agents roved the country for more than two years collecting intelligence on . . . patriot organizations and on dozens of individuals, investigating leads on plots from the planned murder of federal agents to armed raids on nuclear power plants to a new American Revolution.” In one instance, members of VAM entangled themselves in a proposed plan, by the leader of a right-wing organization, to sell Stinger missiles (surface-to-air projectiles that can be fired with rocket launchers) to antigovernment groups. Such devices could be used to take down a passenger jet near any airport. In another instance, VAM members learned about the potential sale of night-vision goggles to ultra-right radicals and offered themselves as potential buyers.
Those in VAM navigated a narrow space between serving as deep-cover spies and acting as agent provocateurs (those who provoke, rather than monitor, criminal activity). As Berger noted, the VAM only responded to rumors of potential plots; it appears never to have initiated such plots in hopes of luring out reticent terrorists. But Berger documents a number of instances where impatient PATCON agents pressed their targets for bolder or more aggressive action on such plots. At one point, a PATCON agent hassled a targeted radical for swifter action by accusing the genuine militant of luring the PATCON agent into a government sting. The secret government agent hoped that by falsely accusing a real radical of working for federal law enforcement, he would scare the real radical into accelerating and actualizing the missile sale.37
This practice created the same problems as similar sting operations in the past: the specter of unconstitutional entrapment. If a defense attorney can show that the government instigated criminal activity—that agents did not simply respond to or prevent a dangerous plot but actually encouraged or initiated said plot—a judge can toss out the entire case. Law enforcement is not supposed to create criminal activity to provoke would-be felons, and prosecution cases built on such tactics are effectively poisonous once they reach a courtroom.
This issue becomes even more problematic for an ongoing undercover operation, as a criminal prosecution invariably would require that an informant present himself or herself at a trial as a witness, ending his or her tenure as a potential source on future criminal activity and probably terminating the overall surveillance project. A prosecutor faces the possible embarrassment of an acquittal, one that literally and figuratively would endanger government operatives and operations. Such a calculus allowed J.B. Stoner to escape a trial for a conspiracy that ultimately led to the attempted bombing of civil rights activist Fred Shuttlesworth’s church in 1958. In initiating the 1958 bombing conspiracy by offering Stoner money for attacks on civil rights targets, the undercover Alabama law enforcement operatives ruined their own hopes for a prosecution. Stoner may have elaborated on the proposal, but because he did not originate the bombing plan, Alabama prosecutors would not risk a trial. Similar thinking stopped the FBI from helping Alabama prosecutors subdue the Cahaba River Group for plotting the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963. Not surprisingly, despite two years of ongoing operations, PATCON yielded only one prosecution. Law enforcement was nonetheless happy with the results, as the operation created the type of dissension and paranoia amid the ranks of militia groups that COINTELPRO had helped encourage within KKK groups in the 1960s.
Berger’s revelations regarding the PATCON operation present students of the Oklahoma City Bombing with an alarming possibility: the chance that the government could have (or should have) known about McVeigh prior to the bombing. As Berger notes, from 1991 to 1993, “Timothy McVeigh literally drove through the middle of PATCON’s investigative landscape. . . . McVeigh interacted with members and associates of the targeted groups.”38 Berger specifically documents McVeigh’s interactions with members or close associates of two patriot groups: the Civilian Military Assistance (CMA) and the Texas Light Infantry Brigade (TLIB). The former group, run by Tom Posey, “started out as an anti-communist group supporting the Contras in Nicaragua, but . . . turned into a racist right-wing white supremacist group,” according to government reports.39 Posey’s group lay behind the missile plot described above. The TLIB was formed and run by Louis Beam, one of PATCON’s chief targets.
As McVeigh submerged himself more and more into the mind-set and lifestyle of the antigovernment racist right, he traveled the nation’s gun-show circuit and met the likes of Roger Moore and Andreas Streissmeir. Moore enjoyed a close relationship with Tom Posey; Streissmeir consulted with Beam’s TLIB. McVeigh made no effort to hide his radicalism, selling The Turner Diaries at gun shows and openly speaking about his antigovernment philosophy. It stands to reason that such activity could have attracted the interest of PATCON agents, but no evidence suggests that PATCON identified McVeigh or, for that matter, individuals like Moore and Streissmeir.
The FBI ended its PATCON operations by 1993 at approximately the same time McVeigh shifted from a revolutionary mind-set to a revolutionary plan of action. What remains unknown is how federal law enforcement evolved at this time, what operations and countermeasures followed PATCON. Clearly, militia groups and leaders such as Beam remained targets of interest to law enforcement. The use of Carol Howe as an informant suggests that federal agencies continued to monitor groups and individuals who came into contact with McVeigh.
Related and more disturbing revelations come from a little-known government investigation of the Oklahoma City Bombing by a congressional subcommittee led by Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California. Following the 2004 document dump by the FBI, Rohrabacher, already suspicious of a potential conspiracy in the attack, pursued various leads in the case, among them the possible involvement of the ARA in the Oklahoma City Bombing. Every one of the living ARA members denied a connection to either McVeigh or the bombing, although the report characterized their stories as “murky, if not contradictory.” But more alarmingly, the committee could not even find one of the bombers, despite its best efforts. The committee’s final report noted that Kevin McCarthy, one of the ARA members who had stayed with Strassmeir (and Michael Brescia) at Elohim City, for reasons unknown had entered the Federal Witness Protection Program. The report noted,
Continuing the attempt to locate McCarthy, the subcommittee chairman contacted the head of the Department of Justice’s federal witness protection program. The official confirmed that in the past McCarthy had been in the program but had no information on his current status. Similarly, the subcommittee also discovered, through a private source, that McCarthy is no longer attached to the Social Security Number he had at the time of entry into the federal prison system. These facts raise questions about whether McCarthy is, in fact, still under some sort of federal protection as well as why the Department of Justice was unable or unwilling to help find him. It is astonishing that officials from the Department of Justice and other law enforcement agencies were unwilling to permit congressional investigators to question a former bank robber with a possible connection to a large-scale terrorist attack.40
A better question would be: What would prompt the Justice Department to offer federal protection to someone immediately after he served his prison sentence for bank robbery? The other ARA members were already serving their prison sentences, and none of the others was subject to additional prosecution. Perhaps McCarthy provided information on other white supremacists, but that possibility is tempered by the fact that McCarthy had been “out of the game” and in prison for several years before becoming a source. A more disturbing possibility is that the government never wanted others to interview McCarthy, especially after the 2004 revelations further tying the ARA to McVeigh and Nichols. There is no obvious reason to cover for the ARA if it did in fact have nothing to do with the Oklahoma City Bombing—that is, unless the ARA–McVeigh–Elohim City angle could expose an even darker secret about the April 19, 1995, bombing.
Here one gets into highly speculative territory, in part because the government continues to withhold information about the case. But more than one student of the Oklahoma City Bombing has questioned whether the government had advanced warning of the bombing from informants in places like Elohim City. Oklahoma state representative Charles Key, who launched his own pseudo-investigation of the crime in 1997, reported in a March 12, 1997, letter to concerned citizens that “the Oklahoma City Fire Department received a call from the FBI the Friday before the bombing and was told to be on alert for a terrorist attack on a government building.”41 Gumbel and Charles tell of several witnesses reporting men who appeared to be bomb-squad experts, replete with bomb-sniffing dogs, searching the area of the Murrah Building on the morning of April 19, before the explosion. Gumbel and Charles add,
On the morning of April 19, the head of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol’s tactical team, John Haynie, was in Oklahoma City with a bomb truck, even though he was stationed in Ardmore, near the Texas border. Ostensibly, he was in town to run another training session—quite a coincidence. In 1998, Haynie told a grand jury that his session was called to hone his team’s surveillance skills. OHP time records, however, show that at least three of the team members who might have been expected to attend were off work or on vacation.42
When confronted with this anomaly, Haynie said, “There’s no benefit that I can see to talking about anything to do with anything I’ve ever done.” On a related front, Gumbel and Charles note,
A question hangs over the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, which brought three out-of-town agents into Oklahoma City on the evening before the bombing, for reasons it has never adequately explained. Rick Stephens, who came in from the Tulsa area, would not say if he or other OSBI agents had been forewarned of a bomb attack. “That’s been rumored for years,” he said. Invited to issue a categorical denial that the OSBI was responding to a threat, he said “I won’t confirm or deny anything.”
If federal and local authorities were warned about a potential attack, the record offers some possibilities as to the motive. Carol Howe insists that she told her BATF case officer, prior to April 19, “of the activities of Mr. Mahon and Mr. Strassmeir and Elohim City residents in (1) believing a Holy War was imminent, (2) that Elohim City should strike first, (3) that Elohim City was the next Waco, (4) that Strassmeir and Mahon wanted to bomb and blow up buildings, including federal buildings and installations, and (5) among these buildings was the Federal Building in Oklahoma City.”43 Howe changed her story on more than one occasion. No documents directly support her account, and the BATF denied the essence of her story. But the BATF also refuses to release the raw tapes and transcripts of thirty-eight conversations that Howe recorded for her handlers during the time she spied inside Elohim City.
Others speculate that Andreas Strassmeir tipped the government off to a pending attack, indicating that he served as an informant for U.S. law enforcement, German intelligence, or both. The son of a top aide to former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, Strassmeir served for seven years in the German military. He told reporter Ambrose Evans-Pritchard that he “received military intelligence training. Part of his work was to detect infiltration by Warsaw Pact agents, he explained, and then feed them disinformation.”44 He came to the United States, by his own admission, “hoping to work for the operations section of the DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency].” He claimed to Evans-Pritchard that this “never worked out” and that he soon became drawn into the right-wing subculture, first joining Beam’s TLIB. But when Evans-Pritchard dug more deeply, he found reason to doubt Strassmeir. Among other things, the reporter discovered that when Strassmeier’s car had been impounded in 1992 for a simple traffic violation, a host of federal and international public officials had brought considerable pressure on the Oklahoma Highway Patrol to release the vehicle. Evans-Pritchard also found that Strassmeir’s behavior raised alarms with members of the ultra-right. Members of the TLIB became so suspicious that they “placed a ‘tail’ on Strassmeir and followed him one night. Strassmeir went into a federal building in which was housed a local ATF office. On the doors of this particular federal building, there were combination locks and in order to gain entrance, the person had to punch in the correct combination. . . . The members of the Texas Light Infantry reported that they watched while Strassmeir punched in the proper code, unlocked the door and went into the building.”45
The government’s actions—or lack thereof—toward Strassmeir only reinforce the perception that he may have been an informant. There is no doubt that Howe informed the FBI about Strassmeir no later than April 21, 1995. Yet, as Representative Rohrabacher’s investigation observed, “For nearly a year after the bombing, the FBI did not interview Strassmeir. Only when he had fled the country was he queried briefly on the phone by the FBI.” The Justice Department also misled McVeigh’s defense attorneys, as well as the federal judge presiding over the terrorist’s trial, by telling them that law enforcement had never seriously considered Strassmeir for any possible role in the crime. Judge Richard Matsch forbade the defense from pursuing the Elohim City angle, largely based on federal prosecutor Beth Wilkinson’s assurances that Strassmeir was a “mere wisp of the wind.” But in a 1997 special report on ABC News’s 20/20, reporters revealed that in private conversations, a law enforcement official had admitted that Strassmeir was a significant person of interest. The family of one of the Oklahoma City Bombing victims even attempted to include Strassmeir in a wrongful-death lawsuit, naming the German as a “US federal informant with material knowledge of the bombing.”
Strassmeir, for his part, denies that he was an informant, just as he denies that he had any involvement in the Oklahoma City Bombing. But in a revealing exchange with Evans-Pritchard for the London Sunday Telegraph in 1996, Strassmeir claimed to have a “very reliable source” on the Oklahoma City Bombing operation. The reporter recounted:
“The different agencies weren’t cooperating,” [Strassmeir] said. “In fact, they were working against each other. You even had a situation where one branch of the FBI was investigating and not sharing anything with another branch of the FBI.” . . .
“It’s obvious that it was a government ‘op’ that went wrong, isn’t it? The ATF had something going with McVeigh. They were watching him—of course they were,” he asserted, without qualification. “What they should have done is make an arrest while the bomb was still being made instead of waiting till the last moment for a publicity stunt. They had everything they needed to make a bust, and they screwed it up.”
He said that the sting operation acquired a momentum of its own as the ATF tried to “ice the cake” for more dramatic effect. “Whoever thought this thing up is an idiot, in my opinion. I am told they thought it would be better to put a bigger bomb in there. The bigger the better. It would make them more guilty. . . . McVeigh knew he was delivering a bomb, but he had no idea what was in that truck. He just wanted to shake things up a little; you know, make a gesture.”
“According to your source?”
“That’s correct. The bomb was never meant to explode. They were going to arrest McVeigh at the site with the bomb in hand, but he didn’t come at the right time. . . . Maybe he changed the time, you never know with people who are so unreliable.”46
Evans-Pritchard became increasingly suspicious that Strassmeir was himself the source, despite the German’s repeated denials. Eventually he confronted his subject with his doubts:
“Either you are a mass murderer, or you are an undercover agent,” I said. “Either you killed all those people, or you risked your life to penetrate a group of vile, dangerous people. Take your pick, Andreas, but don’t think you can stick your head in the sand and hope that it will all go away. It won’t go away.”
“You don’t understand,” [Strassmeir] said.
“You know what I think already,” I persisted. “I think you’re a very courageous man. I think you did everything you could to stop that bombing. You did your part; you got inside the most deadly terrorist conspiracy in the history of the United States; you got these maniacs to believe in you; your cover was brilliant; and somebody let you down, didn’t they, Andreas?”
“You don’t understand,” he repeated almost plaintively.
“I do understand, Andreas. I understand that it wasn’t your fault. Are you listening to me? It wasn’t your fault. So why not just come out and tell the whole rotten truth, and get it over and done with? You don’t have to cover for the ATF.”
“You think it’s as simple as that?” he stammered.
“I don’t know, Andreas. You tell me. Who were you working for anyway? Did the Germans send you over?”
“No! No, they would never do that.”
“So who was it then? The ATF? The Bureau? Who were you working for?”
“Look, I can’t talk any longer.”
“Just listen to me, Andreas. They’re going to hang you out to dry. When this thing comes down they’re going to leave you holding that bomb, or—and you know this as well as I do—you’ll fall under a train one day on the U Bahn, when nobody’s looking.”
“I’ve got to go to work.”
“There comes a time in every botched operation when the informant has to speak out to save his own skin, and that’s now, Andreas.”
“How can he?” he shouted into the telephone. “What happens if it was a sting operation from the very beginning? What happens if it comes out that the plant was a provocateur?”
“What if he talked and manipulated the others into it? What then? The country couldn’t handle it. The relatives of the victims are going to go crazy. He’s going to be held responsible for the murder of 168 people.”
“That is true.”
“Of course the informant can’t come forward. He’s scared shitless right now.”47
In some ways, Strassmeir spoke to a problem we’ve seen repeated over and over throughout this book. Investigations of domestic terrorism often place law enforcement in a quandary. Faced with a potential terrorist plot, the government must debate whether or not to expose the crime and consequently risk the safety of important and ongoing sources and methods, specifically human informants, who could potentially uncover even more nefarious plots in the future or develop evidence against more senior members of a domestic terrorist group. The government must often look the other way as said informants continue to commit crimes. The infiltrators often find themselves in the ambiguous space between monitoring a plot and provoking it. If the decision is made to expose the informant in some sort of a sting operation, timing becomes key, as the government seeks to maximize its chances of developing the best possible case against the greatest number of the most senior terrorists. If Strassmeir is right, the Oklahoma City Bombing may represent a tragic example of what happens when such a sting is poorly timed, and possibly provoked.
It might also be the case that the government was legitimately trying to stop an attack, but one for which it had only vague outlines. Even if one believes that Howe warned the BATF of a plot, she gave three different potential targets and no date. Predicting and preventing such an attack would be even more problematic for the government if it was largely a bottom-up plan driven by one or two lower-level men rather than a top-down plot hatched by radicals like Dennis Mahon at Elohim City. A top-down plot is less adaptable because all the players in the conspiracy must be coordinated and kept informed, and the conspiracy is even more open to infiltration by government sources. Grassroots terrorism, on the other hand, allows individuals to adjust their plans as needed and to more easily elude serious penetration by law enforcement agencies. This was Louis Beam’s insight in applying the concept of leaderless resistance to domestic terrorism.
McVeigh and Nichol’s actions still point to the two men as the driving force behind the attack, but as the phantom cell in Beam’s schema. McVeigh’s private writings and letters, and the testimony of people like Michael Fortier, clearly reveal a man who became radicalized in reaction to government raids and who was more than willing to engage in domestic terrorism, even before he met anyone in the ARA or at Elohim City. Both men, regardless of how they did it, acquired extensive knowledge of demolitions design and clearly stole the materials necessary to make the weapon. A top-down conspiracy that included those with extensive knowledge of demolitions, like ARA members Langan and Guthrie, would not have needed to outsource something as vital as building the bomb to two men like McVeigh and Nichols. A more likely bet is that McVeigh and Nichols reached out to others (including possibly John Doe #2) to help them with their plan as needed. Perhaps they received financial support from people in the ARA, but even Hamm’s research suggests that the two men crossed paths with an ARA bank robbery in only one place—Fayetteville, Arkansas—for a limited time. If McVeigh and Nichols had ongoing connections to the ARA, they clearly didn’t need to risk robbing someone they knew, such as Roger Moore. McVeigh’s strange pattern of phone calls also indicates someone who is looking for coconspirators rather than someone who is a participant in an ongoing conspiracy. In other words, McVeigh appears to have been in the driver’s seat rather than as someone who was being manipulated as a pawn or as a bit player in a larger plan. The calls, for one, all seem to come at the last minute, in April 1995. In addition to the call to Elohim City, McVeigh made repeated phone calls to William Luther Pierce’s National Alliance, but the records show that he never got anything other than an answering machine. The calls suggest a hint of desperation on the part of McVeigh, like someone looking for last-minute help on a job that may be over his head.
Perhaps the most persuasive evidence that McVeigh and Nichols pursued the bombing plot with limited outside assistance comes from an ironic and unlikely source. In 2007 Nichols revealed to private and government investigators a wider conspiracy in the Murrah bombing. Already serving several years of a life sentence at a super-maximum-security prison, Nichols offered a number of shocking claims in an affidavit. Among other things, Nichols insisted that McVeigh and Roger Moore were agent provocateurs who, at the behest of FBI agent Larry Potts (who had managed the raid at Ruby Ridge), had used the bomb plot to lure “others unknown” into some kind of sting operation. Nichols said that McVeigh eventually made contact with the intended targets but that Nichols never met and could not identify any of them, although Nichols implied that these others were connected to Andreas Strassmeir, a friend of McVeigh’s per Nichols’s affidavit. Nichols insisted that McVeigh and Moore had staged the robbery of Moore’s rare gun collection to provide Moore with plausible cover in the event that McVeigh’s crimes in “the line of duty” could be connected back to Moore. Nichols said that McVeigh admitted all of this to him not long before the bombing. Nichols’s affidavit fundamentally limits his own role. He claimed that the bomb that eventually detonated in Oklahoma City was different from the one that he and McVeigh had designed together in Kansas, and he insisted that he had gone to the Philippines to avoid any connection to McVeigh’s deeds. In its essence, Nichols implied something along the lines of what Strassmeir told Evans-Pritchard: that the bombing was a government operation gone awry.48
On the face of it, the Nichols story is absurd, and the timing of its release is highly suspicious. For one thing, if McVeigh had detonated the bomb as some sort of bungled government operation, he has to go down as the most dutiful FBI undercover agent in history, because McVeigh not only carried out the operation but he steadfastly allowed himself to be executed without so much as hinting at his service to the FBI. He also put on an Oscar-caliber performance for more than a decade, convincing everyone from associates to family members, friends, investigative reporters, and defense lawyers that he hated the federal government. None questioned his sincerity. More to the point, Nichols’s decision to keep this information from the public for more than a decade is completely counterintuitive. If the account is true, Nichols denied himself an incredibly powerful defense that could have minimized his role in one of the most gruesome attacks in American history. He had no reason to protect McVeigh, who, if Nichols’s account is correct, allowed his onetime army buddy to spend the rest of his life in a federal prison for unwittingly helping a government operation.
But if one discounts Nichols’s story, which conveniently melds together elements from various well-publicized conspiracy theories, the question persists: Why didn’t Nichols tell a pro-conspiracy story back in 1995? Why doesn’t he have a more plausible story to tell now? Nichols could have minimized his involvement and possibly reduced his own sentence by implicating coconspirators. Fortier received a reduced sentence for doing just that (testifying against McVeigh and Nichols). It stands to reason that if the Oklahoma City Bombing was a top-down plot originating from Elohim City and sponsored by the ARA, Nichols would have been privy to some or most of the particulars. Yet Nichols seems content to spend the rest of his life in prison hiding this fact. A more logical suggestion is that if some individuals aided and abetted Nichols and McVeigh, their roles were either too minor or too indirect to warrant Nichols’s attention. Or, said individuals found their way into the conspiracy at the last minute, as McVeigh literally moved closer to Oklahoma City while Nichols became less important to the execution of the attack.
The reports of early warnings and roving bomb-squad units at the Murrah Federal Building, if accurate, suggest that the government was responding in an ad hoc fashion to prevent an attack because it had limited information. Rumors of a McVeigh–Nichols plot may have spread from places like Elohim City throughout the wider extremist community and even dovetailed with parallel plots being proposed by other radicals. Perhaps these rumors reached the ears of federal agents through undercover informants. Strassmeir painted a picture to Evans-Pritchard of bureaucratic compartmentalization, with one agency trying to prevent an attack while another agency was simultaneously trying to harness the plot in some sort of major sting operation. That too remains a disturbing possibility.
The most likely scenario, which helps explain the most data, suggests that McVeigh reached out for assistance at various times when the circumstances demanded it or when the opportunity presented itself—for instance, when he needed money to finance the bombing operation or when he needed expertise to help design the ANFO bomb. In obtaining or pursuing that assistance, McVeigh may well have exposed the broad outlines of his intended operation to government informants, whose handlers either failed to take the McVeigh plot seriously or saw an opportunity to mount a sting operation. In either of those two scenarios, federal agencies, in their incompetence, failed to prevent the actual attack and would have ample reason to cover up any connection between McVeigh and their undercover operatives. But until additional materials are released by the government, all of this remains speculative.
Less speculative are the leading roles played by Nichols and especially McVeigh in planning the bombing. McVeigh’s claims that antigovernment hostility motivated his activity to the exclusion of all other impulses seems to be a case of the subject gilding his own biography. As noted earlier, it is very likely that anti-Jewish and racist sentiments, maybe even a sense of a divine calling, combined with McVeigh’s radical patriotism to produce the Oklahoma City bombing. In that sense, McVeigh, at the very least, represents some sort of unwitting soldier in the Christian Identity army. To the extent that he had help, McVeigh also represents a transitional figure between the type of organized violence sponsored by the Order and the ARA and the grassroots, lone-wolf violence anticipated by Louis Beam. By the mid-1990s, Beam’s vision was increasingly becoming a reality for domestic religious terrorism. It remains a reality to this day.