FBI Questions Outlived McVeigh

050701, timothy mcveigh story image, JM AP / CBS

In a drama played out behind closed doors, senior FBI agents unsuccessfully sought permission in 2001 to interview Timothy McVeigh to resolve lingering questions about the case before the convicted Oklahoma City bomber was put to death, officials say.

The agents wanted to clear up uncertainties about McVeigh's whereabouts on specific dates that were left unanswered by his public statements and the evidence, essentially filling in gaps in his timeline before the bombing, the officials told The Associated Press.

The plan was scrapped when the government couldn't resolve who would attend the interview or how it would be conducted. Officials also became distracted by the belated discovery of some 4,000 pages of documents that had not been turned over to McVeigh's defense during his trial.

That discovery prompted a one-month delay in McVeigh's execution, during which FBI and Treasury agents continued to press unsuccessfully for access to McVeigh on death row.

The interview debate was described by several current and former officials. They said it showed the government didn't know everything it wanted about McVeigh before he was put to death.

McVeigh's massive fertilizer bomb killed more than 160 people at the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.

In the latest revelations, the officials said the potential last-minute interview with McVeigh became a primary focus of the remaining McVeigh investigative team during the spring of 2001 and was the subject of a high-level meeting in Oklahoma City in March of that year.

The officials said the debate was documented in numerous FBI e-mails, and they were uncertain whether those e-mails should have been turned over to lawyers for the upcoming Oklahoma state murder trial of Terry Nichols, McVeigh's co-conspirator.

Besides filling in the gaps for McVeigh's whereabouts, one senior official said agents had seen instances in the past where "death row inmates were willing to give us some of their thought processes as their execution neared, and we hoped McVeigh might do the same."

The officials would only discuss the interview debate on condition their names not be used. The Justice Department has ordered its employees not to discuss the McVeigh case as Nichols' trial begins this week.

Several officials said the debate over interviewing McVeigh continued between the FBI, Justice Department and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms without resolution, ending when McVeigh was executed in June 2001.

Some called it a missed opportunity, especially because much of the speculation about additional accomplices in the Oklahoma City case focused on periods in which there were uncertainties about McVeigh's whereabouts.

For instance, agents never were able to determine where he spent the final night before he detonated his bomb. They also wanted to inquire about time he spent in Arizona in February 1995, when he began to finalize his bomb design.

FBI agents determined McVeigh tried unsuccessfully to contact an explosives expert while in Arizona, and they wanted to know whether he sought help from anyone else.

Since McVeigh was put to death — at the time, it was the first federal execution in 38 years — a steady stream of new evidence has called into question both the government's handling of the investigation and the official version of events:

  • An Oklahoma newspaper, the Idabel McCurtain Daily Gazette, and a college criminology professor, Mark Hamm, have studied McVeigh's movements extensively and developed timelines showing a white supremacist bank robbery gang was in the same vicinity as McVeigh several times during gaps in the government's official version of events.

  • Documents that have surfaced since the execution show two separate federal law enforcement agencies had information before the bombing that suggested white supremacists living nearby were considering an attack on government buildings.

  • Others indicate the FBI and prosecutors ordered the destruction in 1999 of evidence from a bank robbery they once suspected linked McVeigh to the white supremacists.

  • Less than two weeks before McVeigh was executed, the Justice Department received a letter suggesting a
    key prosecution witness
    had given false testimony. Prosecutors didn't disclose the allegations to McVeigh's lawyers and later sought to recover all copies of the letter in exchange for a lawsuit settlement.

  • Last summer, the FBI internal affairs office investigated their crime lab's chief of scientific analysis about his conduct in the bombing case, according to people familiar with the investigation

  • Last week, AP reported that FBI agents in another case developed evidence suggesting a gang of white supremacist bank robbers might have become involved in McVeigh's conspiracy, but the agents failed to forward some of the information to their colleagues in the Oklahoma case.

    That prompted the FBI on Friday to reopen portions of the case to determine whether other conspirators were involved, and the judge in the Nichols' trial warned he might dismiss the case if defense lawyers provided proof information was withheld from Nichols.

    Jury selection in Nichols' trial began Monday and initial screening of prospective jurors concluded Wednesday.

    Nichols is already serving a life sentence on federal convictions for the deaths of eight federal law enforcement officers in the bombing. The state charges are for the other 160 victims and one victim's unborn fetus.

    Prosecutors say Nichols, 48, helped McVeigh acquire components for the bomb, assisted McVeigh in building the device and robbed the Arkansas firearms dealer.
    • Lloyd Vries

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