Two federal law-enforcement agencies had information before the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing suggesting that white supremacists living nearby were considering an attack on government buildings, but the intelligence never was passed on to federal officials in the state, documents and interviews showed.
FBI headquarters officials in Washington were so concerned that white separatists at the Elohim City compound in Muldrow, Okla., might lash out on April 19, 1995 the day Timothy McVeigh chose that a month earlier they questioned a reformed white supremacist familiar with an earlier plot to bomb the same federal building McVeigh selected.
“I think their only real concern back then was Elohim City,” said Kerry Noble, the witness questioned by the FBI on March 28, 1995 just a few weeks before McVeigh detonated a truck bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and killed 168 persons.
Mr. Noble told the Associated Press that his FBI questioners appeared particularly concerned about what Elohim City members might do on April 19, 1995, because one of their heroes, Wayne Snell, was being executed that day and another, James Ellison, was returning to Oklahoma after ending parole in Florida.
FBI officials confirmed Mr. Noble’s account, including concerns the group at Elohim City might strike on April 19.
Snell, Mr. Ellison and Mr. Noble had plotted to attack the Murrah building in 1983 with plastic explosives and rocket launchers, Mr. Noble and FBI officials said. The plan never reached fruition before the group was arrested in a siege by law enforcement in 1985.
The FBI wasn’t alone in its concerns, according to thousands of pages of federal investigative memos and handwritten notes obtained by AP, which portrayed government miscommunications that mirrored the intelligence failures before the September 11 attacks.
In the days before he was executed for the 1983 murder of a pawnbroker, Snell began making threats from his Arkansas prison that a bombing or explosion would occur on April 19 to avenge his death, said prison and FBI officials. He also had contact in his last days with members of Elohim City, who later took his remains back to their compound.
“Some of the corrections officers heard [Snell] in a visitors room talking with people, saying there would be a large explosion or event of some type. He said the immediate reaction would be to blame it on Middle Eastern types. This was prior [to his execution],” said Alan Ables, a former Arkansas corrections official.
Jeff Rosenzweig, Snell’s death-row attorney, said yesterday that he did not believe that his client knew of McVeigh’s plot but that “Snell tended to talk in apocalyptic terms and certainly, frankly, I wouldn’t doubt if Snell said something bad is going to happen.”
Separately, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had an informant inside Elohim City who had disclosed before the bombing that white supremacists were “preparing for a war against U.S. government.” Other reports quoted members of the compound discussing plans for “assassinations, bombings and mass shootings.”
The government also had information suggesting that compound members had detonated a 500-pound fertilizer bomb like the one McVeigh would use and had visited Oklahoma City several times. The FBI never could verify the detonation.
The ATF informant would tell the FBI shortly after McVeigh’s bombing that Elohim City members specifically had discussed targeting federal buildings in Oklahoma for “destruction through bombings.”
When ATF considered raiding Elohim City two months before McVeigh struck, the FBI agent in charge in Oklahoma, Bob Ricks, stopped the plan.
“I do remember I told them I didn’t want another Waco on our hands,” Mr. Ricks said, comparing the danger of a raid on Elohim City to the ill-fated ATF action on David Koresh’s compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993. “At the time, they hadn’t told me everything they apparently knew.”
Neither law-enforcement agency passed on any information or concerns to the agency that managed the federal buildings in Oklahoma City.
“We never received any warning of a specific threat against the Murrah building or any other building in Oklahoma,” said Viki Reath, a spokeswoman for the General Services Administration that manages federal buildings.
Federal investigators said that although they had concerns, they had no information before April 19 about a specific target and had not heard of McVeigh until his arrest, making it impossible to issue a useful warning.
“ATF, as it has said before, never had any information or evidence beforehand about the attack on the Oklahoma City building,” spokesman Andrew L. Lluberes said yesterday.
Agents said they had concerns about the credibility of the informant and afterward investigated whether McVeigh received help from Elohim City and concluded there were no additional accomplices.
“We believe we conducted an exhaustive investigation that pursued every possible lead and ran it to ground,” FBI spokesman Mike Kortan said. “We are confident that those who committed the crime have been brought to justice.”
Elohim City, which means “City of God” in Hebrew, is about 150 miles east of Oklahoma City. The compound is dotted with rudimentary buildings frequented by leaders of the white supremacist movement in the 1990s.
The ATF agent who supervised the key informant inside Elohim City disclosed in sealed court testimony in 1997 that she had received information before McVeigh struck that federal buildings might be at risk.
The informant, Carol Howe, mentioned “threats to blow up federal buildings, didn’t she?” a lawyer asked ATF Agent Angela Finley Gram in sealed testimony reviewed by AP.
“In general, yes,” Mrs. Gram answered.
“And that was before the Oklahoma City bombing?” the lawyer asked.
“Yes,” Mrs. Gram answered. She said she considered the threats “general militia rhetoric” used frequently by members of Elohim City.
ATF documents showed that the informant provided agents with fragments of practice explosives detonated by Elohim City members and had suspicions about a target. “It is understood that ATF is the main enemy of the people of EC,” one report states. ATF offices were in the building that McVeigh struck.
Mrs. Gram also disclosed that Miss Howe provided, before McVeigh’s attack, a copy of “The Turner Diaries,” a book about a plot to blow up a federal building with a truck bomb that was circulating around Elohim City. Prosecutors later would contend the book inspired McVeigh’s attack.