Oklahoma City Bombing

Oklahoma City Bombing
Oklahoma City Bombing

The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City took place on 19 April 1995 and Timothy McVeigh was later convicted for the act. Conspiracy theories played a role in both the cause and the interpretation of the bombing. On the one hand, McVeigh had been active on the fringes of the militia movement and held conspiratorial views about the role of the government.

On the other, a range of conspiracy theories have emerged, from the suggestion that the bombing was the work of the government seeking to justify a crackdown on militias and citizens’ rights in the guise of antiterrorism legislation, to the possibility that McVeigh was part of a larger conspiracy.

The blast killed 168 people, including 19 children, and over 500 were injured. On 10 August 1995, a federal grand jury indicted Timothy James McVeigh and Terry Lynn Nichols on several counts relating to the bombing, including conspiracy to use a “weapon of mass destruction, namely an explosive bomb placed in a truck ... to kill and injure innocent people and to damage property of the United States”. On 2 June 1997 McVeigh was found guilty of all the charges against him by a federal court jury in Denver and on 13 June he was sentenced to death.

On 23 December 1997 Terry Nichols was convicted in his trial of one count of conspiracy in the bombing and eight counts of involuntary manslaughter. He was not convicted of any of the murder charges against him, or of using a weapon of mass destruction. Nichols was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

A third person, Michael Fortier, a former colleague of McVeigh’s from the U.S. Army, admitted to having had advanced warning about the bombing and to having helped McVeigh and Nichols traffic in stolen firearms. He was given a reduced twelve-year sentence by agreeing to testify against both McVeigh and Nichols.

This is what might be called the “official version” of the Oklahoma City bombing. It takes the position—one challenged by numerous conspiracy theories—that although McVeigh had assistance from both Nichols and Fortier, it was McVeigh who was principally responsible for the bombing of the Murrah Building; that essentially McVeigh carried out the bombing alone.

This is the same version of events McVeigh described to his biographers, Dan Herbeck and Lou Michael, in their book American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing. According to McVeigh, it was he alone who drove a rented Ryder truck containing almost 7,000 pounds of explosive material to Oklahoma City from Kansas, he alone who parked the truck bomb in front of the Murrah Building just before 9:00 A.M. on 19 April, and he alone who lit the fuses to detonate the explosives.

There was, say both McVeigh himself and the U.S. government, no wider conspiracy beyond McVeigh and Nichols (as many others have suggested). For this reason, the “official” version of the Oklahoma City bombing is also referred to as the “lone bomber theory.”

McVeigh’s motivation for the bombing, according to this explanation, was his belief that the federal government was increasingly becoming a threat to the rights and liberties of U.S. citizens, especially with regard to their Second Amendment “right to keep and bear arms.” McVeigh was particularly concerned by the events at Waco, Texas, in 1993.

He was convinced that the FBI had deliberately set fire to the Branch Davidian’s complex and then tried to cover it up. By bombing the Murrah Federal Building, McVeigh hoped to prevent any more Wacos in the future. (The bombing took place on the second anniversary of the ending of the Waco “siege” on 19 April 1993.)

McVeigh was also heavily influenced by The Turner Diaries, a racist novel written by William Pierce—under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald—a former officer in the American Nazi Party and leader of the extreme right National Alliance.

The novel tells the story of Earl Turner’s part in a violent struggle against the Jewish rulers of the United States, and contains a detailed account of the explosion of a truck bomb placed outside the headquarters of the FBI in Washington, D.C.

Despite the successful convictions of McVeigh and Nichols, and McVeigh’s own endorsement of the official “lone wolf” theory of the bombing, numerous conspiracy theories have developed around it. Many contend that the U.S. government itself was involved in the bombing of the Murrah Building. This idea is one that has been particularly pronounced within the far right of U.S. politics, especially within the Patriot and militia movements.

A Government Plot?

One of the most widespread of these conspiracy theories is that the bombing was planned and carried out by the government in order to secure the passage of counterterrorism legislation that would allow it to crack down on far-right activists.

Referring to the burning of the German Parliament in 1933, which was used as a justification by the new Nazi government to move against its opponents, advocates of this theory commonly refer to the bombing as America’s own “Reichstag Fire.”

Counterterrorism legislation first proposed in the immediate aftermath of the bombing was eventually signed into law by President Clinton as the Terrorism Prevention and Effective Death Penalty Act in April 1996.

At the time of the bombing many Patriots also expressed fears that it might have been carried out by the government as part of a plan to impose a “one-world government” on the United States under the control of the United Nations.

Others took the view that the bombing was a deliberately manufactured crisis that might be used to inflict martial law upon the United States, thereby allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to take over the running of the country.

For the antigovernment activist Eustace Mullins, the bombing was “a deliberate conspiracy by corrupt and treasonous elements in the federal agencies in Washington as part of a plan to provoke martial law, confiscate legal guns from American citizens, and to wipe out the citizens militia of the several states”.

Waco also features prominently in these conspiracy theories, with some in the Patriot and militia movements suggesting that the bombing was intended to destroy evidence of the government’s wrongdoing at Waco, which was being stored inside the Murrah Building.

Another, often related, conspiracy theory in this regard is the “Manchurian Candidate” theory. Named for the 1959 novel by Richard Condon (filmed in 1962 by John Frankenheimer) about the assassination of a presidential candidate by a brainwashed U.S. Army officer, this theory suggests that Timothy McVeigh was “programmed” by the government to do the bombing. “Evidence” to support this theory appeared to come from McVeigh’s claims that a computer chip had been implanted in his buttocks during his time in the army.

Yet according to his biographers this was just a “tall tale” McVeigh liked to tell, rather than something he actually believed. However, if he wasn’t a “preprogrammed” government agent, other conspiracists nonetheless still see McVeigh as a “useful idiot” or a Lee Harvey Oswald–like “patsy” acting on the government’s behalf.

Conspiracy theories concerning the Oklahoma City bombing also posit the possibility that more than one bomb was detonated on 19 April. Militia groups such as the Militia of Montana, for example, have circulated seismographic evidence showing two “blips” on a seismographic chart in the belief that this provides evidence that two bombs exploded on that day.

The Oklahoma Geological Survey which recorded these “blips” refuted this suggestion, however, explaining that the second “blip” was caused by the Murrah Building falling down rather than by another bomb. J. Orlin Grabbe, though, has claimed that a secret Pentagon report describes how explosives were in fact placed on five columns inside the Murrah Building, and that it was these that caused the building to fall rather than the truck bomb placed outside.

In contrast, the far-right publication the Spotlight suggested that it was a secret and sophisticated “A-neutronic” bomb that was used—a device too sophisticated and technically demanding for either McVeigh or Nichols to have created themselves.

There is also the “government sting gone wrong” version of events. According to this theory, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) had advanced warning about the bombing, but failed to act upon it because they wanted to arrest the perpetrators in front of the Murrah Building itself, in order to generate “massive publicity” following the public relations problems the agency had suffered as a result of its handling of the confrontations at Ruby Ridge in Idaho in 1992 and Waco in 1993.

Unfortunately, however, the agents tracking the truck lost it when a double agent the BATF had been working with “turned off the concealed beeper on the truck” (Skolnick). Advocates of this theory point to the absence of BATF agents from their offices inside the Murrah Building at the time the bomb went off to support their claims.

Trying to reconcile this theory with the secret Pentagon report of the five demolition charges being placed inside the Murrah Building, J. Orlin Grabbe considers the possibility that someone was “using their knowledge” of the sting operation as “a cover for the actual bombing.” “Either way,” Grabbe concludes, “it suggests an inside job.”

All of these charges and claims have been strongly refuted by the BATF and others, and there is no convincing evidence to support any of the conspiracy theories that the U.S. government was involved in the Oklahoma City bombing.

John Doe No. 2 and “Others Unknown”

Members of the far right in the United States are not the only people to have suggested that more people than Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols might have been involved in the Oklahoma City bombing. Relatives of those who died in the explosion, journalists, academics, politicians, and lawyers have all raised doubts about the official “lone bomber” theory.

One of the reasons for this is that on the day after the bombing, 20 April 1995, the FBI issued composite sketches of two unidentified suspects, known as “John Doe No. 1” and “John Doe No. 2,” whom several witnesses had connected with the rented Ryder truck containing the bomb.

hn Doe No. 1 was quickly identified as McVeigh, but the identity and even the existence of John Doe No. 2 has remained a matter of great controversy. The original grand jury indictment against McVeigh and Nichols also encouraged speculation about a wider conspiracy because of its reference to McVeigh and Nichols having planned to carry out the bombing with “others unknown”.

Glenn and Cathy Wilburn, who lost two grandsons in the bombing, were the most prominent relatives of those who died in Oklahoma City to call for an investigation into the possibility of a wider conspiracy.

Drawing on the work of an Oklahoma journalist, J. D. Cash, they persuaded Republican state representative Charles Key to campaign for a grand jury to investigate not only the existence of other perpetrators behind the bombing, but also allegations that the government had had prior knowledge of the attack. One of Cash’s claims, for instance, was that he had evidence linking John Doe No. 2 to some of the inhabitants of Elohim City, a Christian Identity community in eastern Oklahoma.

This theory was picked up by Stephen Jones, McVeigh’s chief defense counsel during his trial, and Cash’s work also appeared in an Internet newsletter, The John Doe Times, created by the First Alabama Cavalry Regiment (Constitutional Militia) in Birmingham in 1996, which was widely circulated by both Patriot and mainstream media sources.

Stephen Jones simply didn’t believe that McVeigh could have acted largely alone, as the government maintained. Following Cash, he was particularly concerned that the government hadn’t properly investigated possible links between the Oklahoma City bombing and Elohim City, especially those involving Andeas Strassmeir—known as “Andy the German”—who was Elohim City’s chief of security and weapons training, and Dennis Mahon, a former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and leader of the White Aryan Resistance.

Jones, for example, had uncovered reports from a BATF informant called Carol Howe from 1994 in which she claimed that Mahon and Strassmeir were planning a terrorist campaign that would include the blowing up of a federal building and that “the Oklahoma City Federal Building” was one of the possible targets.

Further, Jones also arranged for McVeigh to undertake a polygraph test. The results of this revealed that McVeigh was being truthful when he described his own part in the bombing, but that he was being evasive when asked whether others, besides those already charged, had been involved.

McVeigh provided an explanation for this discrepancy by explaining to his biographers that the polygraph “was thrown off by his anxieties over being asked the same questions again and again,” as well as by his concern that the federal authorities might be trying to implicate his sister Jennifer in the bombing.

McVeigh consistently denied that anyone else other than Nichols and Fortier had any involvement in the Oklahoma City bombing. He claimed that he had met Strassmeir once, at a gun show in Tulsa, and said that he had never met Mahon.

In a letter to the Houston Chronicle on 2 May 2001, he argued that Jones’s claims concerning a wider conspiracy—which the trial judge Richard G. Matsch had ruled to be inadmissible, and which, in addition to a link with the residents of Elohim City, had also raised the possibility of overseas involvement in the bombing by Islamic extremists such as Osama bin Laden, Iraq, and the Irish Republican Army—had been “thoroughly discredited.” “Does anyone honestly believe,” McVeigh asked, “that if there was a John Doe No. 2 (there is not), that Stephen Jones would still be alive? Think about it.” (Cobb).

On 29 January 1997, the Justice Department announced that those witnesses who had claimed to have seen John Doe No. 2 had been mistaken. No John Doe No. 2 existed. On 31 December 1998 the Oklahoma grand jury petitioned for by Glenn and Cathy Wilburn, among others, also concluded that there was no John Doe No. 2.

There were no additional perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing, it said, no evidence of any connection to Elohim City, and no evidence that the government had received any advanced warning of the bombing.

Despite this, the belief that there was a wideranging conspiracy behind the Oklahoma City bombing refuses to disappear. It was given renewed emphasis as a result of the publication of Mark S. Hamm’s book In Bad Company: America’s Terrorist Underground in 2002.

“Multiple John Doe No. 2s” and Some Continuing Questions

Also building on the investigations of J. D. Cash, Hamm contends that there was a wider conspiracy behind the Oklahoma City bombing, and that this conspiracy was the work of a neo-Nazi influenced antigovernment paramilitary gang known as the Aryan Republican Army (ARA).

According to Hamm’s “multiple John Doe 2 theory,” four cells of the ARA were involved in the bombing. The first cell contained “the bomb builders,” Steven Colbern, Dennis Malzac, and a third unidentified man whom Hamm refers to as the “phantom bomb builder.”

The second cell was made up of McVeigh, Nichols, and Fortier, and according to Hamm their role was “to plan and develop a strategy for the bombing.” A third cell was to deal with “information, training, weapons, and logistical support,” and this, Hamm says, was led by Andreas Strassmier.

It also included Denis Mahon and a Elohim City resident, Michael Brescia, whom many people, including the government informer Carol Howe, have identified as the infamous John Doe No. 2. The final cell handled financing—which came in part from the proceeds of bank robberies—and security.

Led by Pete Langan, its members, says Hamm, included Brescia again, as well as four others, Richard Guthrie, Kevin McCarthy, Scott Stedeford, and a Ku Klux Klan leader, Mark Thomas (Hamm, 195–196). According to this theory, the bombing is best understood as being part of a plot to set a racebased civil war into motion and to recruit others to the ARA’s antigovernment and revolutionary agenda.

By denying the involvement of anyone else, McVeigh, in this scenario, was hoping to be seen as a martyr for the cause. As Denis Mahon explained to the journalist J. D. Cash, McVeigh was “a good soldier, who from the beginning wanted to be the fall guy in the bombing—securing his place in history as a patriot hero”.

Concern that the full story of those involved in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City has yet to be told was intensified in May 2001 when the FBI revealed, just six days before McVeigh was due to be executed, that it had withheld more than 3,000 documents from his defense team during his trial.

McVeigh’s execution was postponed, and he was eventually put to death by lethal injection in the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, on 11 June 2001. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll published the day after the execution revealed that “65 percent of American adults believe that McVeigh did not name everyone who helped him build and detonate the bomb”.