Saturday, February 28, 2004

Oklahoma City: Still with us

It's been nearly nine years, but the terrorist attack on Oklahoma City in 1995 has never really left us. Terry Nichols faces his second trial this week, with the possibility of fresh revelations emerging from it.

Regular readers may recall that a few years ago, I wrote an in-depth piece for Salon on the mystery of John Doe 2. I argued throughout it that, based on the evidence, it was very likely that there were more than just these two conspirators; there were almost certainly more people involved with the construction of the truck bomb in Kansas. The core of my conclusion -- written just before Tim McVeigh was executed -- ran thus:
"I think it's not a closed case," says Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's intelligence-gathering arm. "I think that certainly there's the possibility that there are two or three or perhaps more people out there still. I absolutely don't think that's certain. That said, I think there's no question there are unanswered questions."

Now, the best prospect for settling the mysteries of Oklahoma City no longer lies with the investigators at the FBI, or whatever secrets may emerge among the thousands of recently disclosed documents. And it appears it may very well not happen before McVeigh is executed. However, not all of McVeigh's secrets will die with him. Nichols will remain very much alive, pending the outcome of his state trial. And in that setting, there is at least a reasonable chance -- particularly if the sentencing judge replicates the offer Judge Matsch made to Nichols -- that the identity of John Doe No. 2, or whoever it was that helped him bomb Oklahoma City, could finally come to light.

Some startling revelations emerged this week that seem to confirm this suspicion -- though perhaps not. First, there was news from the Associated Press indicating, again, a link between McVeigh and Nichols and a gang of white-supremacist bank robbers called the Aryan Republican Army.

In the wake of this news, the FBI today announced it was reopening this aspect of the case.

It should be noted that the potential connection of the Aryan Republican Army to the Oklahoma City bombing was an early question that was at first discarded. (In God's Country discusses the ARA's brief career in the context of the Phineas Priesthood, which they promoted; I also reported on them for the Terror From Within report for MSNBC back in 1999.)

Most notably, it was the entire subject of Mark S. Hamm's book In Bad Company: America's Terrorist Underground, published in 2002. According to Hamm, four cells of the ARA were involved. In Hamm's report, the first cell comprised "the bomb builders" -- Steven Colbern, Dennis Malzac, and a third "phantom bomb builder" -- while McVeigh, Nichols, and Michael Fortier constituted the second cell, whose role was "to plan and develop a strategy for the bombing." A third cell for "information, training, weapons, and logistical support" was led by Andreas Strassmier. It also included Denis Mahon and a Elohim City resident, Michael Brescia, whom some have fingered as John Doe No. 2. The fourth and final cell was in charge of financing, which, like The Order in 1984, was largely the product of bank robberies. This was the public ARA, led by Peter Langan, and included Brescia, as well as four others: Richard Guthrie, Kevin McCarthy, Scott Stedeford, and a Posse Comitatus leader, Mark Thomas. All of these ARA participants are either dead (Guthrie committed suicide) or behind bars, except Brescia and Thomas, who both served time and are free now.

Hamm's thesis, however, suffered from real problems of both fact and logic. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a detailed analysis that concluded the story doesn't hold together:
Hamm takes the reader on a tour of virtually every major white supremacist player and group of the 1990s, finally locating the core of the supposed plot at Elohim City, a white supremacist compound in rural Oklahoma.

A few examples of Hamm's conclusions may give a sense of his credibility.

Quoting an unnamed J.D. Cash "informant," Hamm claims that Timothy McVeigh was seen on the Elohim City gun range. He backs this up with another claim from a mentally unstable former federal informant.

Similarly, Hamm claims that a German at the compound led groups of 25 to 50 men, mostly from the Aryan Nations, through "terrorist training" every 90 days.

He places McVeigh, Langan and Guthrie in Colorado, where he says they had a "secret ceremony" to join The Order -- a terrorist group destroyed in 1984.

He suggests at least one Ryder rental truck was used as a "decoy" and a minimum of four "John Doe 2s" aided McVeigh. By the end, the alleged plot seems to involve almost every racist activist in America.

The list goes on from there. Hamm rarely supports his claims with anything but the thinnest circumstantial evidence, and even when he does it is dubious.

For example, no real evidence is offered to back the remarkable claim of a still existing Order or a meeting of McVeigh, Langan and Guthrie. Hamm's principal informant, Langan, rejects Hamm's basic premise of a larger plot involving the ARA.

In the end, In Bad Company collapses like a house of cards. It is a shame, in part because the story of the ARA is an important one, and in part because there are many indications that "others unknown," in the phrase of the McVeigh indictment, were involved in the Oklahoma City bombing.

This week's revelations, while interesting, are not necessarily earth-shaking. In a case like Oklahoma City, where tips and "leads" were thick like kudzu, it is probably not surprising that some evidence went relatively unexamined. The question is whether or not any real connection between McVeigh and Nichols and the ARA blasting caps and ID card can be made.

If one can, then the investigation should be reopened, and the case may finally be properly reexamined. But it probably shouldn't surprise anyone if there is no connection, either.

No comments: