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A Coverup Under Two Presidents: The Unsolved Mystery of the Oklahoma City Bombing
Posted on Feb 21, 2006
Long before the Iraq war, long before 9/11, the U.S. government had already mastered the art of fluffing its intelligence on a looming threat, botching the response and then working furiously to cover its mistakes.
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We now know, from court records and official documents, that at least two undercover operatives were gathering information on Timothy McVeigh and a group of like-minded white supremacists in the early spring of 1995, one of whom gave her government handlers specific information about a plan to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
We know that, after the bombing, the government expended considerable energy trying to track down a John Doe 2 and other possible accomplices of McVeigh and Terry Nichols—the “others unknown” cited in the federal indictment—before abruptly changing tack nine months later and insisting that McVeigh was the lone mastermind behind the attack and, eventually, that no one else other than Nichols had been involved.
And we know that, as the lone-bomber theory has come under increasingly skeptical scrutiny in recent years, the FBI and other federal agencies have expended considerable energy blocking access to their investigative paper trail. When one of the government informants from the spring of 1995 went public about her role, she found herself prosecuted—unsuccessfully—for allegedly harboring her own bomb plots; she has since gone to ground, too afraid to say more. At least one key government official, the state medical examiner in Oklahoma City, has indicated he was not given key information he needed to do his job. And one of the senior FBI agents involved in the early stages of the bombing probe now believes that enough new evidence has come to the surface from the files of his own agency to warrant a new federal grand jury investigation.
Perhaps most unnerving is the trail of dead bodies that has turned up over the past decade under less than transparent circumstances. A neo-Nazi bank robber called Richard Guthrie, one of the leading John Doe 2 candidates—though never publicly identified as such—was found hanging in a prison cell in July 1996. Kenney Trentadue, a man who looked very much like Guthrie, right down to a snake-motif tattoo on one arm, and appears to have been mistaken for him when he was picked up on a parole violation on the Mexican border in the summer of 1995, wound up bloodied and traumatized from head to toe in his cell at a federal detention facility in Oklahoma City. The feds claimed he hanged himself. An inmate who later came forward and claimed he witnessed Trentadue being beaten to death by his interrogators was himself found hanging in a federal prison cell in 2000.
The person who has done most of the recent work in unmasking the mysteries of Oklahoma City is Kenney Trentadue’s brother Jesse, a Salt Lake City lawyer who has not only fought to have his brother’s death recognized as murder, not suicide, but is also suing the FBI to release a trove of documents that might shed light on the links among McVeigh, Guthrie and a group of Guthrie’s associates widely suspected—at least outside the confines of the Justice Department—of being McVeigh’s bombing accomplices.
Jesse Trentadue has been all over the federal government like a bad case of lice ever since the authorities at the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City unsuccessfully tried to arrange for Kenney’s battered body to be cremated before the family had had a chance to look at it or even learn what kind of injuries he had sustained. He not only insisted on the family taking receipt of the body, he has also raised question after question about the government’s credibility. Jesse has gotten a prison guard to admit under oath that he lied when he testified about seeing Kenney hanging by a bedsheet, gotten the authorities to admit they never told the medical examiner’s office that someone else’s blood was found in Kenney’s cell, and cast compelling doubt on the suicide note Kenney supposedly scrawled in pencil on his cell wall saying he had lost his mind.
Over the years, as the Kenney Trentadue case has become increasingly intertwined with the Oklahoma City bombing case, Jesse Trentadue has won some key allies in both the federal prison bureaucracy and law enforcement. Just over a year ago, a former FBI agent gave him two heavily redacted agency teletypes connecting some of the dots between Richard Guthrie and McVeigh. Trentadue took the documents to federal court to demand unredacted versions, along with any other documents that might shed light on the Guthrie-McVeigh connection [legal briefing]. The legal process is grinding on, but Trentadue has already obtained one key ruling in his favor from U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball and squeezed more than 100 pages of (even more heavily) redacted documents out of the FBI.
Even in redacted form, these documents prove for the first time that FBI investigators were pursuing links between the Oklahoma City bombing and a series of 22 bank robberies carried out across the Midwest in 1993-1995 by a neo-Nazi group calling itself the Aryan Republican Army. Guthrie was a member of the ARA. So too were two members of a skinhead band from Philadelphia, Scott Stedeford and Kevin McCarthy, as well as an old friend of Guthrie’s, Pete Langan, the brains behind the gang who also, curiously, happened to be a closet transvestite with a penchant for shaving his pubic hair and painting his toenails pink.
All were tried and convicted on robbery charges only. But it’s now clear the feds thought they were involved in a whole lot more.
The first teletype, from January 1996, puts BOMBROB, the FBI’s code word for the bank robbery investigation, under the general heading OKBOMB, its name for the bombing investigation. The second teletype, from August 1996, spells out what the ARA was suspected of planning with the tens of thousands of dollars it stole from the banks. In the subject line, the ARA members’ names are grouped along with the topic “Domestic Security/Terrorism.” The “threatened harm,” it says, included political assassination, genocide and bombings. Guthrie and another member of the gang are reported to have admitted giving someone—the name is blacked out—part of the bank robbery loot.
It is already widely suspected that the financing for the Oklahoma City bomb came from the ARA, and indeed that McVeigh was an occasional participant in the bank robberies. McVeigh once told his sister Jennifer that money he passed on to her had come from a bank heist. Does this document show that the FBI had evidence cementing the link between the ARA and McVeigh?
For a certain answer to that, we will have to wait a little longer. Judge Kimball has seen unredacted versions of all the released FBI teletypes, and is expected to rule imminently on whether to make them public. He has indicated fairly strongly that he will, having ruled last May that “the public’s interest in knowing the information [in the teletypes] outweighs the interest of the [named] individuals in keeping such information confidential.”
His ruling could, if it goes in Trentadue’s favor, finally blow the cover of the government’s version of the Oklahoma City bombing. The McVeigh-as-lone-mastermind theory was certainly useful in securing a conviction and death sentence against McVeigh—something that was far from a foregone conclusion at the time of his trial. But that does not mean the government necessarily believes that it is the whole truth; the involvement of McVeigh and Nichols may, rather, have been all that the feds were in a position to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
Several things about the lone-mastermind theory have never mind sense. The official version does not explain how McVeigh and Nichols could have successfully built the huge fertilizer bomb on their own without any explosives training. (Guthrie, by contrast, had received weapons instruction when he was training, unsuccessfully, to be a Navy SEAL.) It stretches credulity by suggesting that McVeigh drove the fully primed bomb more than 300 miles from Kansas to Oklahoma City—something that ordnance experts say would have carried a high probability of premature detonation. (An alternative theory holds that McVeigh and his accomplices assembled the bomb in Oklahoma City on the morning of the attack.) It cannot explain how every single eyewitness who saw McVeigh as he made his final preparations for the attack saw him with someone else (and not Terry Nichols, either). And it does not account for the financing of the operation: McVeigh was jobless and broke from 1992 on, and yet he spent months shortly before the bombing frantically crisscrossing the country, staying in motels and making several sizable purchases. He paid cash for everything.
If McVeigh did have accomplices, then one place he might have found them was a white supremacist religious compound in rural Oklahoma called Elohim City. The feds were deeply suspicious of Elohim City, seeing it in the early spring of 1995 as potentially another Waco. Its residents included the notorious White Aryan Resistance leader Dennis Mahon, a shady German called Andreas Strassmeir and an occasional ARA member called Michael Brescia. Its visitors included other ARA members and McVeigh, going under the pseudonym Tim Tuttle.
It later emerged that Mahon’s girlfriend, Carol Howe, was an informant for the ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. She was the one who heard plans being hatched—by Mahon and Strassmeir—to blow up a government building, accompanied Elohim City residents on one of three reconnaissance trips to Oklahoma City, and reported seeing McVeigh on the premises. We also know, from evidence that emerged during the pretrial discovery process, that McVeigh called Elohim City two weeks before the bombing and asked to speak to Strassmeir.
The January 1996 FBI teletype made public by Jesse Trentadue adds two intriguing details to this. One is that McVeigh, when he made his phone call, “was believed to have been attempting to recruit a second conspirator to assist in the OKBOMB attack.” And the other is that there was a second informant at Elohim City, working on behalf of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama-based civil rights organization whose lead lawyer, Morris Dees, has been the scourge of racists and neo-Nazis from one end of the country to the other.
The teletype says the Southern Poverty Law Center informant was at Elohim City two days before the bombing when someone—the name is redacted—put in a phone call to the compound. If true, this is an incendiary revelation, because it suggests that the center knew far more about the Oklahoma City bombing than it let on in its immediate aftermath. In an e-mail he wrote to Jesse Trentadue in January 2005, Mark Potok, who edits the center’s Intelligence Report, flatly denied that the SPLC had an informant, “or anyone else,” at Elohim City. Two years earlier, however, Morris Dees, when asked at a meeting at Southeastern Oklahoma State University whether his organization had had any inside source at Elohim City, made no such denial. Rather, he dodged the question, acknowledging that his organization worked closely with the FBI and other federal agencies but omitting any precise details.
“We did notify the FBI and Janet Reno six months before the Oklahoma bombing that we had strong information that there was going to be a serious domestic terrorism strike,” Dees added. “Within minutes after it [the Murrah Building bombing] hit the news ... we called the criminal division of the FBI and said ‘quit looking at Muslim businessmen who visit Oklahoma, you got to be looking at people involved in this Patriot movement.’ ”
We still have no clear idea of who knew what about the bombing, when they learned it, what attempts, if any, were made to prevent the calamity and why any such efforts failed. What we do know, however, is that the government had a lot more information than it was willing to admit publicly—or even to turn over to the defense teams in the various bombing trials that have taken place since 1997.
One trove of hitherto unseen FBI documents cropped up on the eve of Timothy McVeigh’s execution in 2001, delaying his death at the federal death row facility in Terre Haute, Ind., by almost a month. More were leaked to John Solomon, a Washington-based Associated Press reporter, in 2004—including a Secret Service file
containing the extraordinary revelation that government agents had access to security videotapes of the Murrah Building in which “the suspects” (more than one) are seen exiting the Ryder truck containing the bomb three minutes before the explosion.
that Nichols had been denied a fair trial because the FBI and other agencies had improperly concealed relevant evidence.
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