Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 13, 2015

Twenty years from Oklahoma

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on April 13, 2015

On April 19th, 1995 I was walking around the muddy fields of the Georgia International Horse Park in Conyers, Georgia when the rented Ryder truck exploded outside the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It was 10:02 in Georgia. 9:02 in Oklahoma.

One hundred and sixty-seven people were murdered that day. More than 600 were injured.

This Sunday marks 20 years.


I was part of an Olympic security exercise.  My memory is partial, but I think the main exercise event promised ATF would blow up a car. Twenty years ago that was a big deal.

FBI agents were the first ones to tell us about the Oklahoma events. About a dozen federal agents were participating in the exercise. Most of the time those agency representatives — like rabid football fans – could not stand the people from other agencies.  But on that day, when they heard the news their first concern – to a man (they were all men) – was who from their agency, from anyone’s agency, was in that building.

I think that was the first time I saw public safety agencies come together as a community.

I’ve seen it happen a lot since then, but that was the first time.


I remember almost everyone knowing with all but moral certainty that Muslims were behind the attack.

The betting here is on Middle East terrorists,” declared CBS News‘ Jim Stewart just hours after the blast (4/19/95). “The fact that it was such a powerful bomb in Oklahoma City immediately drew investigators to consider deadly parallels that all have roots in the Middle East,” ABC‘s John McWethy proclaimed the same day.“It has every single earmark of the Islamic car-bombers of the Middle East,” wrote syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer (Chicago Tribune, 4/21/95). “Whatever we are doing to destroy Mideast terrorism, the chief terrorist threat against Americans, has not been working,” declared the New York Times‘ A.M. Rosenthal (4/21/95)….  “Knowing that the car bomb indicates Middle Eastern terrorists at work, it’s safe to assume that their goal is to promote free-floating fear and a measure of anarchy, thereby disrupting American life,” the New York Post editorialized (4/20/95)….. An op-ed in New York Newsday by Jeff Kamen (4/20/95) complained that officials had ignored “a sizable community of Islamic fundamentalist militants in Oklahoma City,” and urged that military special forces be used against “potential terrorists”: “Shoot them now, before they get us,” he demanded. Syndicated columnist Mike Royko wrote (Chicago Tribune, 4/21/95): “I would have no objection if we picked out a country that is a likely suspect and bombed some oil fields, refineries, bridges, highways, industrial complexes. . . . If it happens to be the wrong country, well, too bad, but it’s likely it did something to deserve it anyway.”

Except for Twilight Zone episode Number 22, called The Monsters are Due on Maple Street, I believe that was the first time I saw so many opinion leaders go so uniformly crazy, so quickly.

I’ve seen it happen many times since.  I expect it to happen again.


Edye Lucas was a 22 year old single mother of two boys, Chase (2 years old)  and Colton (3 years old). Lucas worked in the Murrah Building IRS office.

[She] only intended on being up at the office for a little bit to celebrate her upcoming birthday with co-workers. So, she dropped Chase and Colton at the American Kids daycare, planning on only keeping them there part of the day. She remembered walking to the conference room to blow out the candles on her birthday cake when the bomb went off….

“I look back now and I think why didn’t I just stay home,” said Lucas [two weeks ago]. “ Why? Could have, would have, should have – and I didn’t. And what happened, happened.”

“The outpouring of love and compassion from everyone was amazing.” Lucas said that is what helped her and others heal and move on. And to remind them that they are not alone, and that their loved ones will never be forgotten.

She said both the [Oklahoma City National Memorial]…and the museum are a testament to that. And Lucas said she often finds little tokens left behind along the fence or on the chairs for Chase and Colton. And that makes her smile.

“It’s sacred ground,” said Lucas. “And it’s such an honor to have that to memorialize my children forever and ever because it’s going to be there forever.”


Somerset Maugham told this story sometime in the 1930s.  The speaker is Death:

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.

The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.

Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning?

That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

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5 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 14, 2015 @ 9:02 am

Thanks Chris for this post and reminder.

In this case my comment is largely factual IMO but sure some might disagree.

1. The first WTC bombing occurred in February 1993. AQ only later identified but Islamic Extremist already identified and arrested.

2. The perps had first looked over the FRC [federal relocation center] at Denton, TX, and decided too tough a target. That center authorizeded under JFK and built largely underground.

3. FEMA Director James Lee Witt became the de facto OSC [On Scene Commander] after arriving in under 24 hours from Washington.

4. The FBI arrived but without funding, communications, or food and shelter and labeled the entire area a CRIME SCENE.

5. A declared Presidential EMERGENCY and then Disaster FEMA funded all federsal activities including law enforcement and deployed many of its URBAN SEARCH AND RESCUE [SAR] teams.

6. The bombing was highly geographically limited and largely limited to OKC but since it was a federal building the initial response was considered to be a uniquely significant event.

7. The Governor of Oklahoma and local officials provided important official and voluntary assistance in the response. And the people of OKC and Oklahoma volunteered in many ways to help in the response, even to providing food and shelter for all responders, including federal. As the FEMA senior ETHICS official I was asked to rule on these many gifts and granted blanket acceptance authority. IT SHOULD BE NOTED THAT MANY DEPARTMENTS AND AGENCIES OF THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT CANNOT BY LAW ACCEPT GIFTS OF SERVICES BUT FEMA IS ONE OF THE EXCEPTIONS AND SPECIFIC AUTHORITY TO DO SO IS IN THE DISASTER LEGISLATION AND THE CORA BROWN FUND.

8. The Clinton Administration almost immediately circulated a draft of what became PD-39 issued in June 1995. Fully vetted that document attempted to split the domestic terrorism role into a CRISIS MANAGEMENT and a CONSEQUENCES MANAGEMENT system. The FBI/FEMA implentation effort for that PD-39 was in the issuance of a CONOPlan for DOMESTIC TERRORISM IN 2001.

9. FEMA review of PD-39’s assignment to FEMA of STATE and LOCAL non-law enforcement preparedness and response resulted in agreement with PD-39 issuance. Almost immediately FEMA backed off from the PD-39 Presidential written assignment on the basis of lack of staffing and funding to accomplish the assignment. The result was a panic from Senator Sam Nunn and Richard Clarke, then at then NSC and author of AGAINST ALL ENEMIES [written after leaving government service in 2002]. The result were red-in-the face meetings of Clark and Witt with the denouement at a brilliant young civil servant LISA GORDON-HAGGERTY [then on detail to the NSC staff from the DoE] was given the job of overlooking State &Local preparedness and response.

10. The milieu of the OKC bombing is extremely important with the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics on the horizon and the funding and organization of federal security for that event still in evolution.

And as a footnote, the MIPT [Memorial Institute for Prevention of Terrorism] established in OKC, led by Retired USAF General Dennis Reimer, and funded with up to a $16M annual federal appropriation. It would be of great interest to me to have information on the current funding, staffing, and activities of the MPIT!

And the federal departments and agencies housed in the MURRAH BUILDING [leveled after the bombing] would also be of interest.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 14, 2015 @ 9:16 am

FEMA and Management of the Consequences of Terrorism, Historical Chronology of FEMA’s Terrorism Consequences Management Role As Assigned by Section 2-103 of E.O. 12148, by Thomas E. Baldwin, Argonne National Laboratory, October 2007

Included document at http://www.fas.org/irp/agency/dhs/fema/index.html

Comment by Vicki Campbell

April 14, 2015 @ 5:59 pm

I don’t want this to sound overly harsh, but with all due respect, the Maugham quote at the end of this post came off pretty obscene to me. I didn’t know anyone who died in the Oklahoma City bombing, but posting a quote whose basic message seems to be that when its your time to go, its your time to go in the face of any kind of serious terrorist attack is a pretty bizarre way to commemorate it, and really seems like an incredible slap in the face in relation to both the act and its impact. It left me wondering if you would have posted it if the bomber had in fact been Muslim, etc.

Also, just historically speaking, the OK bombing was a lot more in keeping with the types of terrorist attacks perpetrated by the Jewish terrorist group the Irgun, and Menachem Begin, who, as many may already know, was the originator of terrorist car bombings targeting civilians (primarily Arabs, but also the British) in the Middle East – than the tactics Arabs have historically been likely to use. (I use the term Arabs, because to the vast majority of Americans, they’re erroneously synonymous with Muslims, and usually seem to be the group that’s actually being referred to.)

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 15, 2015 @ 9:49 am

Imagine the OKC bombing if it had spread contamination.

A relatively new book RIGHT OF THE BOOM analyzes the poor public policy choices should a NUDET explode in the USA.

Comment by Joseph Miller

April 15, 2015 @ 11:20 am

Ms. Campbell,

You have framed your critique of the Maugham quote in terms of sentiment… taste… aesthetics… But I wonder if something more fundamental is lurking nearby?

I was not offended by the quote in the context of the bombing. I was surprised by your concern, which did initially strike me as harsh. But on reflection, I wonder how many of the divisions within the homeland security enterprise (and expectations for it) may emerge from different attitudes toward death?

For me death is not just inevitable, but worth embracing. To be prepared for a “good death”, however and whenever it may come is something to which I aspire. Good does not mean, for me, painless or timely.

It may well seem austere in the extreme to apply this personal value on the lives of those nineteen babies and children who died twenty years ago Sunday. I am not comfortable doing so. But every day many children die in even more horrific contexts than April 19, 1995… or even two years ago today in Boston. We grieve. We honor. We do what is prudently possible to prevent. But it seems to me we ought, especially as an enterprise, and perhaps as a culture, face death without fear and prepared for conversation.

Which is what I read as the moral of Maugham’s brief fable.

Joseph T. Miller

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