Long before the Oklahoma City bombing. Timothy McVeigh sent a warning
By DAN HERBECK | The Buffalo News, N.Y. | Published: April 13, 2020
BUFFALO, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — More than three years before the Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy J. McVeigh sent up a red flag, a warning to all the world that he was considering an act of violence against the United States government.
The decorated Army veteran from Niagara County sent an angry and ominous letter to the Lockport Union Sun and Journal, which was printed in the newspaper on Feb. 11, 1992.
“America is in serious decline!” declared the nine-paragraph letter, which complained about rising crime rates, high taxes, crooked “out of control” politicians and national health care policies designed to benefit the wealthy. McVeigh made no secret of his rage, asking if a new civil war is “imminent.”
“Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system?” McVeigh asked at the end of his letter. “I hope it doesn’t come to that. But it might.”
Despite those threatening words, McVeigh’s name did not hit the radar of federal or local law enforcement until after he detonated a truck bomb 25 years ago this month at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, and killed 168 people and wounded 800 more.
The April 19, 1995, bombing stands as the bloodiest attack in the U.S. by a domestic terrorist.
If McVeigh – or anyone – wrote a letter like that today, his name almost certainly would wind up on a government watch list, according to law enforcement experts.
“I just don’t think that domestic terrorism was on law enforcement’s radar, as it is today,” said former Niagara County Sheriff Thomas Beilein. “A letter like that, if it were published today, would get the antennae of law enforcement up very quickly.”
Similar comments came from retired FBI agent Michael Liwicki, one of two Buffalo agents who headed the local investigation into the Oklahoma City bombing; former FBI agent and major crimes expert Clinton Van Zandt; and Steven M. MacMartin, a retired Homeland Security agent who is now the director of Medaille College’s Homeland Security program.
When McVeigh, a Pendleton native, wrote his letter back in 1992, federal agents were watching and monitoring militias and other domestic anti-government organizations, Liwicki said.
But only after McVeigh’s bombing – the first large-scale terrorist bombing in American history – did agents understand how real the threat was.
Before the 1995 bombing, if federal agents became aware of a threat made in a letter such as the one McVeigh wrote, “the letter writer’s name would be indexed, their name and the letter would be put in a file, and probably nothing else would happen,” said retired FBI agent Dan Defenbaugh, who headed the bombing probe in Oklahoma.
“Today, the person who wrote a letter like that would absolutely be put on a database, and he would be questioned,” Liwicki said. “A letter like that would raise red flags, absolutely.”
Although McVeigh wrote a letter before the bombing telling his sister, Jennifer, that he believed “G-men” were watching him, investigators were not investigating McVeigh before the bombing, according to Liwicki, Beilein and other law enforcement officials. Liwicki said he does not recall anyone in the Buffalo office being aware of the McVeigh letter until after the bombing.
“The letter to the Lockport paper should have set off alarm bells,” said retired Rep. John J. LaFalce, whose office once received another, less threatening letter from McVeigh. “People write letters to the editor all the time, but when the letter mentions bloodshed, that should be a clarion call for investigation.”
The former congressman added: “Before the Oklahoma City bombing, there had been no Oklahoma City bombing. People were not taking action on the warning signs as I believe they would today.”
Is law enforcement doing enough today to prevent domestic terrorist groups from igniting another catastrophic bombing?
“Our intelligence agencies have come great lengths since the Oklahoma City bombing and especially since 9/11,” said Defenbaugh, the retired FBI agent.
But in early March, the Justice Department’s inspector general issued a report criticizing the FBI for failing to prevent some domestic terror attacks in the years after Sept. 11, 2001.
Other warning signs
Months and years before the bombing, there were other signs that could have alerted friends or co-workers that McVeigh, a fierce advocate of gun rights, was planning – or at least considering – a violent strike against the government:
• McVeigh was a regular at gun shows all over the nation, where he sold anti-government publications, including "The Turner Diaries," a racist novel whose terrorist hero bombs the FBI's headquarters. McVeigh also distributed a bulletin that included the home address of an FBI sniper who killed Vicki Weaver, the wife of gun rights advocate Randy Weaver, during a 1992 siege in Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
In interviews for our book, "American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing," McVeigh said he had hoped that someone in the Patriot movement would find and kill the FBI sniper.
• During his three years in the Army and after leaving the Army in 1991, McVeigh would urge fellow soldiers and co-workers to read literature advocating violence against the federal government. According to witness testimony at the trials of McVeigh and co-conspirator Terry Nichols, McVeigh was so obsessed with "The Turner Diaries" that some of his superiors in the Army and bosses at his workplaces told him to stop distributing the book.
• Liwicki believes at least one person very close to McVeigh – his younger sister, Jennifer – could have contacted police about McVeigh's suspicious behavior and remarks in the year before the bombing.
Liwicki said he believes Jennifer McVeigh did not know "exactly" what her brother was planning but that she knew enough that she should have gone to police to report that he was planning something drastic.
According to Liwicki, the FBI's probe showed that McVeigh told his sister he was working on "something big," that she should burn letters he sent to her, that he possessed a large amount of explosives, and that she should not communicate with him after April 1, 1995 – 18 days before the bombing.
Based on his letters and instructions her brother had given her, Jennifer McVeigh had enough information that she should have gone "to local, state or federal law enforcement and to report what she knew at the time," Liwicki said.
The Buffalo attorney who represented Jennifer McVeigh disputed that notion.
"Jennifer knew her brother was up to something. She knew he hated the government, but she did not know that he was going to harm people," responded the attorney, Joel L. Daniels. "If she knew people were going to be killed, I am sure she would have reported it to someone."
Ultimately, federal prosecutors decided not to charge Jennifer McVeigh. After many days of interrogation in the Buffalo FBI office, she agreed to testify against her brother in the 1997 trial that led to his conviction and death sentence.
• When McVeigh worked in the Buffalo area as a security guard in 1993-1994, his raging diatribes about the government worried a co-worker, Carl E. Lebron Jr. of Amherst, to the point that Lebron took a tape recorder to work and secretly recorded McVeigh. After the bombing, Lebron gave those recordings to the Buffalo FBI office.
FBI agents said Lebron told them he felt like McVeigh was “recruiting” him for something.
While Liwicki said Lebron was “extremely helpful” in the Oklahoma City bombing probe and should have received a government reward, Lebron told The Buffalo News in a 2005 interview that he wished he had gone to the FBI much sooner.
"I wish I could have prevented him from doing what he did,” Lebron said of McVeigh. “I feel like I should have known better."
• Critics of the bombing investigation claim that agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms failed in 1994 to take seriously an informant’s warning that white separatists at the Elohim City compound in Oklahoma had discussed the possibility of bombing a federal office building months before McVeigh’s crime.
“What has bothered me about this case? Knowing the fact that the ATF had an informant in Elohim City, pulled her out and didn’t tell anyone,” Liwicki said.
Defenbaugh said many crime fighters regret that information about the Elohim City informant was not widely shared among law enforcement agencies until it was too late.
“I think that all of us in law enforcement came to realize that we all play in the same sandbox, we all have to share our toys, or this will happen again,” Defenbaugh said.
Inspector general's criticism
In early March, the Justice Department’s inspector general issued a report that said that since 2001, homegrown violent extremists have carried out over 20 attacks in the United States, "some of which occurred after the FBI closed a counter-terrorism investigation or assessment on the individual."
The watchdog agency said at least six of those attacks were committed by "individuals (whom) the FBI had previously assessed or investigated," between 2009 and 2017.
The high-profile cases identified by the inspector general included the 2009 attack at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas, where 14 people were killed and 30 injured; the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, which killed three people and injured 260; and the Orlando Pulse nightclub attack in 2016, which killed 49 and injured 53.
The FBI “has not developed comprehensive strategies for addressing the challenges associated with the potential cross-over between terrorist threats and other categories of threats, for example, those posed by individuals with mental health issues and criminal threats to life,” the inspector general’s report said.
FBI officials in Washington declined to discuss McVeigh or the inspector general's report with a reporter from The News, except to say they have assured the inspector general that corrective actions have been taken.
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