'FBI reform should include revisiting Oklahoma City bombing'

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review ^ | 9/1/02 | Dateline D.C.

WASHINGTON Keeping up with the latest around town is usually easy enough. Lately, however, several topics have been abuzz, and we find our attention drawn every which way.

With the first anniversary of Sept. 11 almost upon us, terrorism remains the prime topic, particularly among radio talk shows and in e-mails. Washington is a virtual fortress; the vice president's home on Massachusetts Avenue is off limits to most of us; and Crawford, Texas, has doubled its population with U.S. Secret Service agents none of which raises our eyebrows.

The second conversation stopper is the FBI and its curious lack of success in gathering enough evidence to develop a case against Dr. Steven Hatfill, the fellow with enough means, motive and opportunity to spread anthrax spores last year. All this, plus the bureau's acknowledgment of the congressional reports pointing to at least 75 mistakes in applications for search warrants against suspected spies and terrorists. Such news begins to shake our confidence in the untouchables.

And then there was the bureau's handling of the Sen. Robert Torricelli case. The "Torch" wriggled, squirmed, lied and then walked! Case in point: Torricelli received three pairs of diamond earrings as a gift from David Chang, a major fund-raiser for the "Torch." Chang needed help with a business deal involving North Korea and still more help for another deal with South Korea. He confessed in federal court in Newark that he gave the gift in expectation of the senator's help.

Torricelli, not being much of an earring wearer himself, passed the jewelry on to some lady friends, making no report of the expensive gifts. When challenged, his stories varied. In one version, the gifts were meant not for him, but rather for the ladies concerned. In the next version, the earrings were worth less than $50 a pair and thus were under the reporting requirement. In the latest revision, the gift was given at Christmas and with the Christmas exemption, gifts given during the festive season need not be reported. Christmas exemption indeed! Untouchables the FBI may have been called, but the "unthinkables" would be more accurate, especially when it comes to the "unmentionables."

Yet another bit of news making the rounds is the continuing investigations by Rep.Dan Burton and his House Government Reform Committee into the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, which killed 168 people.

There is no doubt that Timothy McVeigh was guilty and deserved the death penalty; there is every judicial reason why Terry Nichols should be in jail today as an accomplice. Still, what about the others who helped McVeigh and Nichols? What about the actions, or lack of actions, by the FBI?

The FBI had issued a warning to government agencies that they had information that a bombing attack on a federal building, on or about April 19, must be anticipated. No one in Oklahoma City acted on this warning. And yet, little has been heard about this warning, why it was issued and why it was not heeded.

When McVeigh was arrested, President Bill Clinton is said to have phoned Attorney General Janet Reno and told her that "there has to be a guilty verdict." Reno passed the message on as an order to FBI Director Louis Freeh, and so it was done. Recall that at that time, Clinton had made one speech after another saying it was a right-wing plot, denouncing conservatives and suggesting spectacular arrests could be anticipated.

After the bombing, the FBI put out an all-points bulletin for a short, dark Mexican-looking male. He was never found. The FBI special agent involved in the search resigned from the bureau almost at once, to be replaced by a veteran expert of "Bureau Non-Speak," Danny Deferbaugh. Consider what might have happened if the description had been not of a Mexican but of a Mideastern person perhaps an army veteran from Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard?

It's not so far-fetched. Four days before the bombing, McVeigh was in a bar in Oklahoma City drinking with an Iraqi. Nine veterans of Saddam's army had moved to the area to work for a local property management company, and there are at least 26 sworn affidavits from eyewitnesses to a number of meetings McVeigh had with this group. Seven of the witnesses claim they saw one of these men in a Ryder truck with McVeigh.

McVeigh was a U.S. Army veteran of the Gulf war, well trained in the use of firearms and in demolition explosives. Yet when he was arrested, within 90 minutes of the bomb blast, he was in an old car without license plates carrying a loaded Glock in his shoulder holster almost as if trying to attract attention to himself to buy others time to escape.

Nichols had gone to the Philippines to marry a "mail-order bride," Marife Torres. According to Manila investigators, Nichols, using the alias "The Farmer," met at the Torres house with three Mideastern men, led by al-Qaida's Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, and discussed bombs and bomb-making. The three Mideasterners were charged with attempting to bomb nine U.S. aircraft. The FBI dropped this lead in the Murrah bombing, believing it was going nowhere.

According to Manila investigators, Marife Torres Nichols knew the contact person for the Abu Sayyaf Islamic terrorists who had links to Osama bin Laden. More important, prior to the bombing, McVeigh made several long telephone calls a day to her number in the Philippines.

Three people are braving the wrath of the Justice Department in pushing this investigation: Attorney David Schippers, the Chicago lawyer who was chief investigative counsel for the House Judiciary Committee in Clinton's impeachment trial; Larry Johnson, former deputy director of the State Department's Office of Counter-Terrorism; and Jayna Davis, a reporter for Oklahoma City's KFOR-TV, an NBC affiliate. Jayna was at ground zero minutes after the explosion and later offered the FBI 2,000 pages of documents and KFOR-TV tapes, an offer refused by the Oklahoma Bombing Task Force. The powerhouse in the call for further investigation is none other than Rep. Burton, the "pit bull" of Congress.

Of all the chatter making its way around town, we find this particular banter most intriguing. Why should the Bush Department of Justice be so uptight about this investigation? After all, Janet Reno was attorney general at the time and attempted to craft the investigation to please Bill Clinton. Yet it was Attorney General John Ashcroft who refused to delay the execution of McVeigh and who has refused to countenance reopening the investigation. We're hoping someone from Justice might drop into this lively dialogue and perhaps comment on the possibility of a terror team still in Oklahoma.

"Dateline D.C." is written by a Washington, D.C.-based British journalist and political observer.

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