On April 19, 1995, a disgruntled military veteran named Timothy McVeigh drove a rental truck packed with explosives into downtown Oklahoma City and detonated it in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building at 9:02 a.m. Central time.
Emergency crews raced across the United States to Oklahoma City to aid the rescue effort. When it ended two weeks later, the death toll had reached 168 people, including 19 small children who were in the building’s day-care center when the blast went off.
Another 650 people were injured in the explosion, which destroyed or damaged more than 300 other buildings in midtown Oklahoma City.
McVeigh said he had targeted the federal building to avenge the federal raid on the Branch Davidian religious compound in Waco, Texas, which occurred two years earlier to the day. More than 80 members of the sect died in a fire that began during the raid.
Two people were convicted in connection with the Oklahoma City bombing: McVeigh, who was executed in June 2001, and another Army veteran, Terry Nichols, who is serving a life sentence in federal prison for his role in the crime.
A third man, Michael Fortier, served 11 years in prison for failing to notify authorities of McVeigh and Nichols’ intention to blow up the building. Fortier, who had been a friend of both men, testified against them in their trials.
But with the 20th anniversary of the bombing coming up, questions remain about the conduct of the investigation and whether law enforcement may have overlooked other possible co-conspirators and even missed opportunities to prevent the bombing.
As The Guardian noted Monday, one problem (which would re-emerge in the wake of the 9/11 attacks) was chronic interagency rivalry.
In 1995, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) were both monitoring the radical “far-right” groups. But trust between the two federal agencies had hit bottom after the disastrous ATF raid two years earlier on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, and the subsequent FBI-led siege that ended with the place burning to the ground.
In early 1995, The Guardian reported, the ATF failed to inform the FBI that it had an informant inside Elohim City, a community in eastern Oklahoma, and that the informant had reported talk of bombings.
But the ATF — afraid of triggering another disaster like Waco — had decided to pull the informant out rather than act on her information.
“McVeigh telephoned the community, Elohim City, two weeks after the informant was shut down, and there are multiple indications he came visiting days later in search of recruits,” The Guardian said.
John Magaw — ATF director in 1995 — reportedly said later that if the informant had been kept on, the bomb plot might have been thwarted.
For its part, the FBI had its own difficult history with Elohim City, and the failure of both the bureau and the ATF to exploit potential leads there is widely thought to have hampered investigations of extremist networks both before and after the bombing of the Murrah building.
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