Jul 1 2002

The Thrill of a Good Conspiracy

Iraq and the Oklahoma bombing case

Few episodes in American history attracted more conspiracy theories than the Oklahoma bombing case. The idea that Iraq was actually involved with the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City is a theory long ago dismissed–for good reasons. Sadly, after the attacks of 9-11, it reemerged with a vengeance.

“A few top Defense officials think Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh was an Iraqi agent,” U.S. News & World Report‘s Paul Bedard wrote in his “Washington Whispers” column (10/29/01). “The theory stems from a never-before-reported allegation that McVeigh had allegedly collected Iraqi telephone numbers.”

Insight magazine writer Kenneth Timmerman (4/15/02) took this a step further: “Sources tell Insight that the phone numbers apparently were contained in a sealed manila envelope that was turned over to the FBI unopened by the Oklahoma state troopers who arrested McVeigh. The FBI logged in the evidence as ‘manila envelope with content,’ but never disclosed what was inside.”

In fact, that envelope and its contents–mostly right-wing propaganda–were discussed at length in court testimony and in the press (e.g., New York Times, 4/29/97). Until the “sources” or “top Defense officials” can produce a piece of paper with Iraqi phone numbers on it, written in McVeigh’s distinct penmanship, this is nothing more than an unsubstantiated rumor.

From envelopes to Manila

Another cornerstone of the Iraqi-Oklahoma bombing connection is the claim that McVeigh co-conspirator Terry Nichols met with convicted World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef during Nichols’ travels to the Philippines. These speculations were based on an informant named Edwin Angeles, a founding member of Abu Sayyaf, an Islamacist guerrilla movement operating in the southern Philippines.

“In fact, the groups that were operating in the Philippines, Abu Sayyaf in particular, were involved with Terry Nichols and Tim McVeigh,” Larry Johnson, a former U.S. State Department employee turned terrorism expert, told Fox News viewers (O’Reilly Factor, 5/7/02).

Insight‘s Timmerman (4/22/02) also pushed this theory: “The earliest meetings took place at a Del Monte canning plant in Davao in late 1992 and early 1993,” he reported.

In Angeles’ official statement, made public prior to the McVeigh trial, he claimed to have attended a meeting in 1992 or 1993 with Yousef and two Americans–one of whom, known only as the “farmer,” was assumed by some to have been Terry Nichols.

But Nichols was not in the Philippines at all in 1992. The only time he was there in 1993, from late January to mid-February, Yousef was in the New York City area executing his attack on the World Trade Center, which occurred on February 26, 1993. Therefore, at the time Angeles claimed to have attended a meeting with Nichols and Yousef, these two men were half a world apart.

Multiplying meetings

Although the story was easily debunked, the Angeles tale was accepted as fact, and continued to grow.

Timmerman (Insight, 5/6/02) reported that “later meetings with Nichols [and] Yousef…took place at Angeles’ house in late 1994.” He referred matter-of-factly to “Angeles’ second wife, who had prepared the meals for Nichols and Yousef. ”

Wait a minute! In his official statement, Angeles–who died in 1999–never mentioned any 1994 meeting, nor did he identify the “farmer” as Nichols. Neither did anyone else. Where did these embellishments come from?

James Patterson, who has zealously promoted these theories for several months in his Indianapolis Star editorials, provided an answer. The source was the Manila Times, which he quoted (2/23/02): “Before slain Abu Sayyaf Group co-founder Edwin Angeles surrendered in 1994…he met with Ramzi Yousef…. That meeting…was unique–in that the group was meeting for the last time with…Terry Nichols.”

Patterson added: “The Philippine terrorist network has communicated in the past with American right-wing dissidents, including executed Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and accomplice Terry Nichols. Nichols traveled to that country more than half a dozen times between November 1994 and January 1995.”

In the same article Patterson relied upon, the Manila Times also claimed that McVeigh attended one of these meetings, even though, in reality, he never traveled to the Philippines. Additionally, Patterson misreported Nichols’ travels. It’s well-established that he only went to the Philippines once–not “more than half a dozen times”–during that timeframe.

The deceased widow’s story

Patterson’s exaggerations derived from a highly questionable source:

“In a death-bed interview…Elmina Abdul told correspondent Dorian Zumel Sicat that her husband Edwin Angeles had met with Nichols and another unidentified American in 1994” (Indianapolis Star, 4/6/02). Days later, Patterson elaborated on this hearsay: Now Angeles was said to have met someone named “Terry” every day for a week in 1994 to talk about bombings (Indianapolis Star, 4/27/02).

Were there any nefarious meetings in 1994? No. Nichols’ wife, family and friends were investigated thoroughly. No one ever said strange people met with him, or that he disappeared for any lengths of time. There were no mysterious phone calls or travel, nothing to indicate involvement with any Filipino terrorists.

Besides, Nichols was in the Philippines only a few weeks before Angeles was taken into custody. If this alleged 1994 meeting really happened, why didn’t Angeles, or anyone else, say so back then? Couldn’t that have prevented the deaths in Oklahoma?

And how reliable was the Manila Times? In one of Timmerman’s postings (Insightmag.com, 4/22/02), we are told that the paper’s reporter, Dorian Sicat, was “serving as an investigative liaison in the Philippines and the Pacific Rim for Oklahoma City lawyer Mike Johnston.”

Johnston is one the attorneys who, along with Larry Klayman of Judicial Watch, filed a lawsuit in March 2002 on behalf a few Oklahoma bombing survivors, seeking $1.5 billion in damages from Iraq. If Sicat is working for a lawyer engaged in a suit against Iraq, that would seriously compromise his stance as an impartial journalist.

Editors at the Manila Times and Indianapolis Star declined an invitation to review the evidence.

O’Reilly’s “bigger picture”

In the world of conspiracies, rumor and hearsay are like a runaway train. Even worse are the presumed connections between the bombing in Oklahoma and the attacks of September 11.

Bill O’Reilly recently pondered aloud (O’Reilly Factor, 5/7/02): “It gives a bigger picture that this [Oklahoma] may have been the first attack, and 9-11 might have been the second attack…on American soil by organized terrorist groups. Now, is there an Al-Qaeda connection at all?”

Since the question was based on his theories, guest Larry Johnson naturally responded:

I think that’s very likely. One of the things that’s evident right now in connection with this investigation, the motel in Oklahoma City where the April bombing against the Murrah building was planned and executed from, that same hotel figures in two of the 9-11 hijackers and Zacarias Moussaoui…. Those three guys tried to check into that motel.

According to Johnson’s chat with this motel owner, in late July or early August 2001, Moussaoui and these September 11 hijackers asked for a room and mentioned “going for flight training.”

But no connection between “that motel” and the Oklahoma bombing case was ever substantiated. And evidence reported in Moussaoui’s published indictment shows the hijackers in question–both whom already had pilot licenses–were most likely in Florida during that timeframe. There is no evidence to show that either traveled to Oklahoma in 2001.

These are only a few examples of how easily journalists can be derailed by a lack of background information and analysis, especially when it comes to the Oklahoma bombing case. While everyone may enjoy the thrill of a good conspiracy, the downside of this sort of reporting is more pain and confusion for terrorism survivors–as well as for the general public, who are left to wonder if any of these unsubstantiated theories are true.

Cate McCauley researched the Oklahoma City bombing case for many years. A private investigator licensed by the state of Oklahoma, she was appointed to the McVeigh federal appellate team and was one of the witnesses to his execution.