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The Road to Oklahoma City

Inside the world of the Waco-obsessed right.

AFP/Getty Images

"I don't think there's something fishy going on," says Al Thompson, a friendly, soft-spoken Indianan. "I know there's something fishy. Right now I'm asking myself which `alphabet agency' of the federal government might have done it."

"It" is the Oklahoma City bombing, and Thompson is part of a surprisingly large cohort of right-wing conspiracy theorists who have already decided that the government--and not unhinged, rogue militia members--orchestrated the blast. This belief is part of a larger theory that Al and his wife, Linda, who together head an Indianapolis-based "patriot" organization called the American Justice Federation, have assembled after two years of poking through the ashes of Waco. Their aim has been to discover what "really happened" during the fifty-one-day siege of the Branch Davidian compound in 1993, and though their arguments sound laughably weird, it's probably not wise to laugh them off. Last week, The New York Times contended that Waco has become "the Patriot Movement's main anti-government rallying cry largely as a result of ... Linda Thompson."

The Thompsons are completely open about their views, and they don't sound crazy, though Linda does dish out her theories with a slightly wheels-off intensity. Their research, however, has led to conclusions that most people will find deranged. For starters, they don't believe what the news media have been saying about Timothy James McVeigh and the alleged Waco connection--that is, the idea that McVeigh may have been enraged over the government's deadly assault on the Branch Davidians and may have decided to exact revenge. McVeigh hasn't been convicted of anything, of course, but the McVeigh-Waco-rage-Oklahoma City linkage is looking awfully strong in the early going. In the right-wing militia scene, Waco has become the ultimate symbol of government intrusiveness and evil. McVeigh is known to have visited Waco after the disastrous April 19, 1993 climax, and a Michigan acquaintance of McVeigh's has said he was the type of person who considered Waco "a battle cry." One unnamed FBI witness said he was "enraged" and obsessed by Waco, and a neighbor of McVeigh's in Kingman, Arizona, has told The San Francisco Chronicle of seeing McVeigh's violent side at the end of a session of target practice with semiautomatic weapons. "It scared the hell out of me," the man said. "He pretty much went crazy on anything: trees, rocks, anything there. He just went ballistic."

All the same, the Thompsons aren't buying it. They don't rule out McVeigh's having detonated the truck bomb, but they consider him "too stupid" to have been a major player. Al's guess is that he'll prove to be either a "patsy" or a government agent. Linda says "it's already been announced on CNN" that someone, probably the government, had installed a microchip in McVeigh's buttocks, so he might have been a Manchurian Candidate.

Linda is also convinced that a government agency, "probably the FBI but I don't know that," used the truck blast as a decoy to hide the fact that two other bombs--the ones that really did the damage--were going off inside at the same time. "We have a seismographic report from the University of Oklahoma that shows there were two distinct blasts," she says. Together, the Thompsons contend that the government arranged the Oklahoma City bombing to deflect attention from its original sin: the murder of David Koresh and the more than eighty men, women and children who died with him in the Mt. Carmel compound.

When the Thompsons say murder, they don't mean, as some mainstream critics from the left and right have argued, that the government's heavy-handed tactics at Waco "drove" the Branch Davidians to commit mass suicide, or that government tanks started the fire by bashing through walls into flammable substances (see "Not So Wacko," page 18). They mean that the Davidians were literally whacked--in a premeditated stroke of Orwellian evil that was part of Big Brother's broader effort to quash religious freedom and the rights of private gun owners.

Illustration by John Springs
Timothy McVeigh

This hypothesis is fully explored in two videos produced by Linda. In Waco, The Big Lie and Waco, The Big Lie Continues, she claims that the Mt. Carmel blaze was intentionally set by government tanks equipped with flame-throwers, and that the four Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents who died during the initial February 28, 1993, raid on the Davidians' compound were former bodyguards of President Bill Clinton. Thompson suggests that these men were offed by fellow agents because they knew too much about Clinton's past. As proof of both themes, the tapes show what she insists is a tank spewing flames as it crashes though a compound wall. (In fact, it's sunlight reflecting off a piece of fractured Sheetrock.) She also displays autopsy sketches of the dead ATF agents. Against this grisly backdrop, the viewer is informed that three of the agents received head wounds, professional execution style.

"It would appear," the narrator of Waco, The Big Lie Continues intones spookily, "that someone in the government wanted these men real dead."

It's a truism that among JFK assassination buffs there are responsible researchers, and then there are people who think JFK's brain is alive and playing computer chess on a secret floor of Parkland Hospital in Dallas. The same thing holds for the robust and apparently growing subculture of Waco conspiracy researchers, a group of mostly rightward-leaning burrowers who, in the aftermath of Oklahoma City, probably should receive more attention. Above all, they illustrate the amazing amount of Waco-oriented rage that has been clanging around on the American fringe for the past two years.

To be fair, it must be said that most of the Waco buffs consider Linda Thompson a flake, and that in some ways she's unique. Thompson is actively involved with the militia movement--a loose confederation of right-wing paramilitary groups whose members are also united in their loathing of the government and their fondness for guns. Unless they're hiding it, most of the other Waco buffs are not connected to the militias. What unites them instead, says Ron Engelman, an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based archivist who was a talk-radio host in Dallas during the Waco siege, is a belief that the government behaved recklessly, criminally and murderously at Waco, that government investigations of Waco were whitewashes, and that an independent reinvestigation is overdue.

Most Waco buffs are Texans who, like many JFK researchers, had not been involved in any kind of journalism or research prior to the event that changed their lives. The main targets of their wrath are the FBI, the ATF, Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno, the news media and the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network, which they accuse of demagoguing the government into believing that Koresh could never be taken alive. Though they're not as strident as Thompson, neither are they shrinking violets, and all of their work alleges government conspiracy rather than, say, government clumsiness. Among the key players:

* Jack DeVault, a retired Air Force major whose book, The Waco Whitewash, focuses mainly on the San Antonio trial and subsequent imprisonment of eleven surviving Branch Davidians, five of whom were convicted of manslaughter. DeVault believes--and makes a coherent case--that the judge was determined from the start to impose a harsh penalty. DeVault says his goal is to "put our oppressive, freedom-sucking government back into its constitutional cage."

* Richard Mosley, a Texas blueprint draftsman and producer of Day 51, a video that promises: "In chilling detail, you will learn how the BATF and FBI murdered nearly 100 Branch Davidians." It also explores possible connections between "the Cult Awareness Network and the CIA's MK-Ultra program," and argues that thirty survivors of the fire possibly were murdered by FBI snipers.

* Ron Cole, author of Sinister Twilight, a pro-Davidian pamphlet that's less interesting than Cole's ongoing street theater. Hitting Waco after the April 19 fire, Cole styled himself as sort of a Son of Koresh, wearing a "DAVID KORESH: GOD ROCKS" t-shirt and vowing to buy and restore Koresh's Camaro. In late 1994, he and an ex-Davidian named Wally Kennett took part in an armed but ineffective effort to reclaim the Mt. Carmel property from Mrs. Amo Bishop Roden, a Branch Davidian who is squatting there. (Roden's former husband, George Roden, was the Branch Davidian's leader until he was routed in 1987 by Koresh.) Cole has recently been traveling among militia groups out west, and told The Denver Post the day after the explosion that it was "definitely connected" to Waco.

* Carol Valentine, a northern Virginian, who organized an April 19 Waco protest in front of the FBI building, called "A Day of Focus on U.S. Government Domestic Terrorism." Carol, like Linda Thompson, is "not convinced McVeigh did it at all. I think it's the Reichstag fire all over again."

* Carol Moore, of Washington D.C., who is currently writing The Massacre of the Branch Davidians, which will be published by Gun Owners of America, a northern Virginia gun-rights group. Among her claims: that the ATF conspired with the FBI to burn the compound, trying to hide the fact that it had used helicopter-borne machine guns during its initial raid.

* James Pate, a Maryland-based writer for Soldier of Fortune who has been using the Freedom of Information Act to pry loose Waco-related documents. The best journalist of the bunch, he says he can prove that, in violation of the Posse Comitatus Act, the ATF was "aided by U.S. Special Forces" in planning its attack.

* Ken Fawcett, a Texan who helped produce a video called The Constitution Foundation of America/Ken Fawcett Theory, which posits that the four dead ATF agents probably were felled by "friendly fire." At one point during the siege, Fawcett said on Engelman's radio show that he saw the Branch Davidians flash a Morse code signal one night that read: "Three die DDT milk."

Fawcett now says he's planning an expedition to scuba-dive in a five-acre pond near the Mt. Carmel site. Why? "I believe that the fire coming from the compound was extremely limited, and that it's possible no shots were fired from that direction," he says. "I think I'll find bullets that, instead, can all be shown to have come from the law enforcement helicopters." Like other Waco outfits, his group, the Waco Independent Review Coalition, has strongly objected to early efforts to link the Oklahoma bombing to Waco.

Though their anger is real and deep, most of the Waco buffs are in a much tamer league than Thompson, whose zeal obviously rattles them. "Linda Thompson is a total flake, she's only out to make a buck, and she has all the tendencies of a demagogue," says Pate. Another foe, who wants to remain anonymous because "I'm scared of her," calls Thompson "the Merchant of Babylon"--a nod to the widespread perception that she's "profiting cynically off the dead of Waco." Thompson is especially resented, says Engelman, because her outer-limits beliefs make other researchers look frivolous by association.

Even so, it's unwise simply to shrug off Thompson's style of rhetoric, because she has probably been more effective at getting her message out than any other figure in the Waco conspiracy subculture. An attorney who has extensive contacts with militias all over the United States--among whose ranks The Big Lie is said to be quite popular--she maintains a computer bulletin board that contains reams of incendiary, downloadable material about Waco. She's also made it clear that she thinks violent action isn't a particularly bad idea. During the Waco siege, for example, Thompson organized a sizable group of "unorganized militia" to protest at a point about eight miles from the security perimeter, brandishing unloaded weapons. In July 1994 she was arrested in Indianapolis for using her car to block a bus carrying supporters of Clinton's health care plan. According to a 1994 report on the militia movement by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, police charged her with obstructing traffic, and during the arrest confiscated a .45-caliber pistol, a derringer and an assault rifle with 295 rounds of ammunition. Last fall, Thompson designated herself "acting adjutant general" of the "Unorganized Militia of the United States" and tried to organize a march on Washington, D.C., in which participants were supposed to be "armed and in uniform." Her demand was that Congress repeal the Fourteenth, Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments to the Constitution, along with the Brady Bill and NAFTA. Ultimately, she was unable to gather enough support, and the scheme fizzled.

It's a safe bet that McVeigh was a fan of the The Big Lie tapes or of Day 51. On "Nightline" last week, a neighbor of McVeigh's said Day 51 was a tape that serious Waco buffs might watch "over and over, a hundred times." With its talk of mind-control programs and essentially premeditated murder, Day 51, like Thompson's work, grows out of a milieu of quasi-apocalyptic brooding about what Waco signified.

Mosley could not be reached, but Dianna Bogard, a Dallas-based Waco buff who helped research the tape, says that she also believes the government is "probably" responsible for Oklahoma City. "The government is doing exactly what Nero did," she says politely. "They manufactured a crisis so they could crack down even more on our personal freedoms." She also explains that the fight for Waco justice is part of a larger battle between good and evil that is explained by her peculiar religious faith, Christian Identity. These are solely Bogard's beliefs and are not explored in Day 51, but they do illustrate themes sometimes voiced by the far-rightists incensed about Waco. According to this doctrine, which can be traced back to the writings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British scholars who were on the religious fringe such as Richard Brothers, John Wilson and Edward Hine, the lost tribes of Israel made their way to--yes--Britain, and the course of history has seen a massive, tragic case of what Bogard calls "mistaken identity" as to who the Jews really are.

"We believe that the people of the Book, the people of Israel, are basically white Anglo-Saxon Christians," she says. The people who "call themselves the Jews" are actually a mongrel race with strains from three low-quality ancient tribes: the Edomites (that is, descendants of Esau, Jacob's "satanic" brother), the Canaanites ("Very evil people who practice child sacrifice and sexual pornography," says Bogard) and the Khazars ("an Asiatic tribe from the ninth century" whose members "pretended to be Jews" to stay out of trouble during raging conflicts between Christianity and Islam). As James Coates points out in his book, Armed and Dangerous: The Rise of the Survivalist Right, such beliefs are surprisingly widespread throughout the far right--there are even Christian Identity churches--and lead to very familiar conclusions.

"I believe the government, which is dominated by false Jews, functions as the Antichrist, as the embodiment of evil," says Bogard. Which Jews dominate government? "For example, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg." Is Clinton a Jew? "I have no idea what his ethnic group is. I assume he's a white Christian, but his fruits say something else." (Bogard is referring to the familiar line from the Sermon on the Mount: "Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.") "So even if he's not ethnically influenced by other blood, then he's just turned to his own dark side."

A final disturbing aspect of Oklahoma City is how quickly news of the bombing developed into a new conspiracy theory that, should anyone choose to believe it, is many times more nefarious than Waco conspiracy theory. The gestation, birth and mutation occurred at hyperspeed on the Thompsons' computerized news service and bulletin board, Associated Electronic Network News. To be fair, not everyone jumped on the bandwagon. "One thing seems crystal clear at the moment," reads one entry. "If the perps were motivated by revenge for perceived wrongs at Waco ... they managed to choose the worst possible way to respond." But this sentiment was quickly drowned out by dozens of entries, many of them written by Linda Thompson, that interpret events through a conspiratorial lens.

For example, at 10:40 a.m. on April 19, Thompson posted a NEWSFLASH about the explosion that read: "Half a federal building in Oklahoma City was blown up earlier this morning.... We don't know right now if it is where the FBI is located, however, Bob Ricks, of Waco, is from Oklahoma City and today is April 19, the second anniversary of Waco.... My guess on this is it could be: (1) CIA, tired of waiting on the concerned citizens; (2) ADL/FBI in order to blame it on `militia.'"

Subsequent entries go on in the same manner:

"News media is already moved back over five blocks," Thompson wrote just after noon. "Helicopters are using a `blur' lens, very obvious--this is fishy as all get out."

"News on CNN just said on the air that Carl Stern was in charge at the White House.... Carl Stern, well known in government cover-up circles."

"While all the media froths over the federal building in Oklahoma City, about what a tragedy it is, where were these same media when the government slaughtered ninety-six people, including twenty-five children, seventeen under the age of 5, in Waco, Texas?... Are the lives of feds' children worth more? Are feds' lives worth more than the lives of `ordinary' American citizens?

"Sure they are. Just watch. The `perpetrators' (or someone framed as the perpetrators) will be arrested within days."

Neither of the Thompsons nor Bogard thinks right-wingers actually committed the crime, so naturally they don't feel guilty because their work may have inspired it. For Linda, it's simply a matter of asking: Who benefits? Certainly not the Branch Davidians, she says. Now that an angry public sees them (falsely) as being indirectly responsible for the crime of the decade, they'll be hated even more. But why would the government do it?

"A lot of this is just too convenient," says Al. "Every time there's a gun control bill pending in Congress, someone goes and shoots a bunch of people. Now there's this Omnibus Counterterrorism Bill of 1995. New hearings on Waco were supposed to happen next month, but now they won't. Meanwhile, on Saturday, Hillary and Bill Clinton got interviewed under oath by Starr on Whitewater. If Oklahoma hadn't happened people would have paid attention to that. And how many federal law enforcement officers were killed? I've heard there were none, and I find that very interesting."

On its own eerie terms, much of this is true, at least if you judge by "the fruits." The Clintons did have to testify on Saturday, April 22--and nobody noticed. On Sunday, warning that "those who trouble their own house will inherit the wind," Clinton vowed to push through exactly what the far right loathes most: broad new power to fight domestic terrorism, including increased surveillance and infiltration, broader wiretap capability and easier access to credit records of suspected terrorists. Representative Bill McCollum, chairman of the subcommittee on crime, has talked about holding hearings, but, as an opponent of the idea observed on CNN last week, there's a good chance those will be canceled now. And, he added, that's good, because Congress has already investigated the matter thoroughly.

Who was it that said this, with a smile of satisfaction on his face? None other than that notorious Democratic Khazar from New York, Representative Charles Schumer. Linda Thompson knows what to make of that, and it might surprise you. "First thing, Schumer's CIA." Is Schumer's Jewishness a factor? "That's probably irrelevant. I've found out that those ADL people, even though a lot of them are Jewish, they don't give a damn about the Jewish people. Schumer's real agenda is to destroy President Clinton, who I've just come to realize is not all that bad. In fact, this whole Oklahoma City thing may have been a setup to get him. Clinton's like, he's like in a little cookie jar up there."

Alex Heard is the editorial director of Outside and author of Apocalypse Pretty Soon: Travels in End-Time America (W.W. Norton)