Lingering OKBOMB Questions

One of the more curious aspects of our postmodern information age is how stories that are actually known — meaning they have already been reported and can easily be found online — nevertheless fail to develop traction in the public consciousness, until sometimes they do, without apparent warning.

A classic case is the recent blow-up of Bill Cosby’s public reputation. Although allegations of rape against the actor-comedian, by more than a dozen women, have been reported for over a decade, including a 2006 out-of-court settlement, it was only recently — specifically last month, when comedian Hannibal Burress stated matter-of-factly of “America’s Dad”: “Yeah, but you’re a rapist” — that the story finally got legs. Suddenly, it has become a sensation, not helped by Cosby’s ham-handed efforts at online reputation management and his bizarre on-air silence about the allegations. It’s difficult to see how Cosby’s reputation can recover from this, but it’s worthwhile to ask why all the fuss now?

It’s perhaps even more worthwhile to ask why certain sensational stories never seem to develop public traction at all, despite the existence of important evidence indicating there’s something we should be talking about.

A classic case in point is the 19 April 1995 bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168, including nineteen children, and injured almost 700 more people, making it a true spectacular in the annals of domestic terrorism. One of the perpetrators, Timothy McVeigh, the man who rented the truck used in the attack, was in police custody just ninety minutes after the bombing, pulled over while driving a car without a license plate, leading to suspicions that he wanted to get caught. Within days his partner, Terry Nichols, was in police hands too.

McVeigh was executed by lethal injection in 2001, as he wished, while Nichols is in maximum security Federal prison for life without possibility of parole, and a couple that assisted the bombers in small ways, Michael and Lori Fortier, cooperated with authorities, leading to a reduced sentence for him (he was released from prison in 2006) and no jail-time for her.

Although the official investigation, termed OKBOMB by the authorities, was vast, with FBI agents conducting 28,000 interviews, as well as collecting over three tons of evidence, plus nearly one billion pieces of information, almost from the outset there have been nagging concerns about whether the full extent of the McVeigh-Nichols conspiracy was uncovered. Despite the expenditure of millions of man-hours on OKBOMB, questions have lingered for nearly two decades about how two hard-right ne’er-do-wells, neither of whom possessed bomb-making skills worth mentioning, managed to pull off such a spectacular attack on their first try — doubts that have lingered after 9/11, with many cases of failed bomb-making by self-starting jihadists across Europe and the United States.

Then there’s the troubling issue of “John Doe #2,” a mystery man who was seen at the bombing site with McVeigh, among other places, by some two dozen witnesses, yet was never identified by OKBOMB. Finding him never got very far — it’s perhaps significant that the account of the case authored by McVeigh’s attorney was titled Others Unknown — since the unrepentant McVeigh was happy to take the blame (and fame), while Federal authorities have never shown much interest in a parley with Terry Nichols, who has to know more than he’s said to date.

It was obvious to many who have examined the case with open eyes that, for reasons that can only be guessed at, the FBI and their masters in Washington, DC, never displayed much ardor for unraveling OKBOMB’s full dimensions. McVeigh and Nichols were in custody almost immediately, and were easily linked to the attack, and that seemed to be enough to satisfy politicians and the public. Just last week, a Federal judge scolded the FBI for being unable to find crucial videotapes of the 1995 attack, which mysteriously went missing and that the Bureau never seemed too eager to find. This was thanks to the case of Kenneth Trentadue, who died under mysterious circumstances in Oklahoma City in August 1995, while in Federal custody. The sad Trentadue affair is one of the many unsolved mysteries surrounding OKBOMB, with his family ardently believing that he was tortured to death by the FBI, which mistakenly took him for John Doe #2.

Serious inquiry into OKBOMB has not been helped by a glut of fantasy-cum-conspiracy theorizing by people who do not know much about terrorism and intelligence. The Oklahoma City atrocity has attracted more than its share of charlatans and self-styled experts, some of whom are eager to pin the bombing on Arabs, Masons, Jews, and perhaps space aliens.

Nevertheless, the American mainstream media has long shown a stunning lack of interest in the unanswered questions surrounding the attack. Over at INTELWIRE, terrorism expert J.M. Berger has published a raft of well-researched stories about various aspects of the case, based on declassified Federal records, including PATCON, the FBI’s failed effort in the early 1990s to detect and deter violent right-wing nut-balls just like McVeigh and Nichols. Similarly, the publication two years ago of a serious book looking into all this, by two respected experts on the case, got a few positive reviews but generated none of the public attention that OKBOMB’s continuing mysteries actually merit. The FBI’s lead agent on OKBOMB  has long advocated reopening the case, on the basis of considerable evidence that his investigation never saw, but that, too, has fallen on deaf ears.

Even members of Congress asking questions about who really bombed Oklahoma City have encountered stonewalling from the FBI and the Department of Justice, under multiple White Houses. The most significant Congressional look at OKBOMB came in 2005, when Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) sponsored an investigation of possible foreign connections to the attack, which followed numerous leads that the FBI had deemed dead-ends. Rohrabacher’s official report makes interesting and depressing reading.

It bears noting up-front that this Congressional inquiry got embarrassingly little cooperation from people who should want to know the truth. Frank Keating, who was Oklahoma’s governor in 1995, refused to cooperate with Rohrabacher’s investigators and asked that the inquiry be halted. Neither were the FBI and DoJ much more helpful, and this Congressional inquiry met with more obstruction than assistance from Federal authorities. It should be stated that the White House in 2005 was occupied by a member of Rohrabacher’s own party, and Keating is a Republican too. Not wanting to know the full OKBOMB story seems to transcend normal politics in Washington, DC.

The Rohrabacher investigation followed two avenues of inquiry well-trodden by others before: possible connections between McVeigh/Nichols and the Middle East, and the possible role in the bombing played by the white supremacist compound at Elohim City, Oklahoma.

While the notion of Iraqis having a direct hand in the attack was always fanciful, the issue of trips by McVeigh and Nichols to the Islamist-infested southern Philippines lingers, not least because they seem to have honed their bomb-making skills there. Nichols had in-laws there and it is a curious fact that they were in Cebu City at the same time as Ramzi Yousef, the Al-Qa’ida-linked bomber of the World Trade Center in 1993. No “smoking gun” has ever emerged to establish a firm link, but the Rohrabacher inquiry identifies important questions that need to be answered. Some of them look highly suspicious to any seasoned counterintelligence hand.

More troubling still are ties between McVeigh/Nichols and the white supremacist compound at Elohim City, really an armed trailer park, which had up to a hundred residents, adherents of Christian Identity, a strange ideology that justifies race-war. The compound was well known to authorities and the media, and multiple sources have established a connection between Elohim City and the bombers, McVeigh especially, as Rohrabacher’s inquiry demonstrated.

“Andy the German”

The most troubling angle is the role of Andreas Strassmeir, a German national who had lived at Elohim City, on-and-off, beginning in 1992. He had come to America in 1989, as an ardent fan of Civil War reenacting — as a Confederate, naturally. He became close with McVeigh, the two having met at a gun show in the spring of 1993, and the latter spoke warmly of “Andy the German,” whom he phoned at Elohim City, where “Andy” was head of security, several times. Strassmeir is by any accounts an odd character. The son of a politically well connected family in Germany, Strassmair served in the German military as a junior officer, including in some intelligence capacity, before becoming immersed in far-right politics. In a pattern seldom encountered in extreme right circles, in Germany or America, Strassmeir was an ardent Zionist who spoke fluent Hebrew and, he admitted, had lived on a kibbutz in Israel.

Although Strassmeir’s connection to McVeigh was known to Federal investigators, the FBI showed a bizarre lack of interest in him or his possible ties to terrorism. As Rohrabacher’s report notes:

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 agents apparently accepted his denial of any relationship with McVeigh, and there is no evidence of any further investigation into this possible link.

Strassmeir returned to Germany in 1996, uninhibited by anyone in Washington, DC, then gave a couple interviews to the local media in which he denied being involved in the Oklahoma City bombing, and resumed a quiet life; at last report, he was selling military figurines. As Rohrabacher’s investigation uncovered, Elohim City was also mixed up with the Aryan Republican Army, a gang of far-right bank robbers that pulled off more than twenty heists across the Midwest in the early-to-mid 1990’s. There were more than hints that the ARA may have helped fund McVeigh’s terrorism — but that, too, was an angle that the FBI showed a puzzling lack of interest in pursuing with vigor.

While Rohrabacher’s investigation into foreign connections to OKBOMB was ultimately “inconclusive,” by its own admission, thanks to a lack of cooperation from the FBI and DoJ, it asked the right things and defined several important questions that need additional inquiry. The investigative path to be taken is there, should anyone in Washington, DC, ever wish to do so.

After 9/11, as a National Security Agency counterintelligence officer, I was involved in an Intelligence Community re-look at recent acts of terrorism, searching for possible links to foreigners. Oklahoma City was one of these. I quickly discovered, as Rohrabacher’s investigators did a few years later, that the FBI and DoJ had no interest in anyone peeking into the case, which they considered closed, indeed tightly shut. Even in Top Secret channels, avenues were blocked. Since that investigation remains highly classified, I will not divulge its contents, though I will make two general comments.

First, the visits by McVeigh and Nichols to the southern Philippines remain mysterious, and perhaps will in perpetuity. Their connections to Ramzi Yousef are weak but visible, while the hand of a Middle East intelligence service, one known for its support to international terrorism, was detectable in outline, if not in detail.

Second, Strassmeir — who seems to be the key to much of the remaining mystery surrounding OKBOMB — appeared to be an intelligence source, and possible agent provocateur, for as many as three different intelligence services, all of which are known to watch neo-Nazi activities in the United States with interest.

The investigation will have to remain there, unsatisfactorily, until somebody decides to resume it. The twentieth anniversary of the Oklahoma City atrocity will soon be upon us. It would be good if a serious re-look at OKBOMB’s many unanswered questions were established for the event. With every passing year, the chances of clearing up the case grow more difficult; eventually it will be impossible. The public deserves to know the full story of this terrible crime.

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