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Attorney General Delays McVeigh Execution: What Went Wrong at the FBI?

Aired May 11, 2001 - 19:30   ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE. Tonight: death delayed. For Oklahoma family members wanting relief, for Americans wanting justice, for Timothy McVeigh wanting death, it's going to be at least another month.

Attorney General John Ashcroft delayed McVeigh's execution, originally scheduled for May 16, until June 11, one month from today. A delay necessary, Ashcroft said, to give McVeigh's attorneys time to look over some 3,000 documents discovered in FBI files, and never turned over to the prosecution or the defense during the trial.

The Justice Department says it was just a mistake. But critics say this latest foul-up raises fundamental questions about the professionalism of the FBI and about the death penalty itself.

What a mess, and what's it mean? Is there anything in these documents to change the outcome? And how could the FBI screw up the trial of the worst mass murderer in history? The two congressmen join us shortly. We begin with Mr. Clark and Mr. Jones. Tucker Carlson on the right tonight -- Tucker.

Mr. Jones, the Justice Department clearly made a mistake here, but it seems to me that Timothy McVeigh and his lawyers have an opportunity to make it a lot worse. Why in the world would they be pouring over these 3,100 documents when the documents are literally irrelevant to the question of his guilt or innocence. He's admitted his guilt. There's no reason they should do this, why would they do it? Why would they take time to go through these documents?

STEPHEN JONES, FORMER MCVEIGH ATTORNEY: Well, of course that's the problem for them. Timothy McVeigh ignored his lawyer's advice. He didn't follow it. He gave these interviews, he spoke out and he dismissed his appeals. Had he not done that he would be king of the mountain today.

So I'm not sure in the final analysis other than the 30-day stay, it's going to directly impact on this case.

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Well, when you say he would be king of the mountain, I mean, he murdered all these people, all the evidence pointing to that. Are you suggesting that he shouldn't have admitted it and let the case just work its way through the courts at public expense and to public grief? Would that have been the better course? JONES: Well that would have been the better course for his legal self interest. And I disagree that the evidence points all towards McVeigh. But certainly the jury convicted him and I'm not here to argue their verdict.

I'm just saying from a legal standpoint had he kept his mouth shut and not dismissed his appeals, he could have taken advantage of this situation. Which after all it's the FBI that brought it to public attention and used it in the furtherance of his legal cause. It's going to be more difficult. What he really needs is Houdini on the defense team.

PRESS: Mr. Clark, I remember during the McVeigh trial that Stephen Jones, our guest here tonight, kept repeating that the FBI was holding back documents. There was evidence missing, they were not fully forthcoming. You would have to admit tonight wouldn't you, that Stephen Jones was right all along?

DON CLARK, FORMER FBI SPECIAL AGENT: No, I wouldn't admit that he right all along, because as we go back and follow-through the trial, we saw tons and tons of information, lots of information being processed, being passed along and as rapidly as they could possibly do it. This was a very complex investigation.

To say one was holding back the information would imply that there was some wrongdoing there. And there doesn't indicate -- it does not indicate at this point that there was some wrongdoing there, and I think that's what an internal investigation, as the Attorney General mentioned today, would tend to point out.

PRESS: Well, of course, I think the people hardest hit by the latest event are the families of the victims in Oklahoma City. They were so badly damaged six years ago. And some of them said today it's like another bomb going off yesterday and today. I'd like to you listen to what the mother of one of the victims had to say about this latest discovery, please.


KATHLEEN TREANOR, MOTHER OF BOMBING VICTIM: The fact that everyone who was involved with this case knew how important it was to not make any errors, and now six years later we're finding out there were errors made, and basically, this is wrong. This is just wrong. And somebody needs to pay for this.


PRESS: Who is going to pay for this, Mr. Clark, if not the FBI, and if not Louis Freeh, the director of the FBI under whose watch this inexcusable mistake happened?

CLARK: Well, I think what's going to happen, and again, I can clearly understand the feelings of every family member there and would not challenge that at all. Those people have been pained enough. This was a terrible mistake. It was a horrendous mistake that was made, and it should be looked at. It's going to be looked at. And I think an internal investigation, I understand that the attorney general has already ordered someone to look into this, and then they will find out who the responsible party are or is, in this case so that that person or persons will be held accountable for this mistake.

Now keep in mind too, that this was the FBI who surfaced this and said we have these documents here and they did not let it go on further to let May 16 pass by and then bring that out.

JONES: And I've said that. I mean I recognize that the FBI did come forward, but, and I'm not saying that they were deliberately withheld, but I do remember a letter that I received from the United States attorney saying that we would receive every 302, and insert with respect to the Oklahoma City bombing investigation.

And clearly 3,000 documents, although it was a large case, it's a little difficult to understand, particularly when they come from some 40 plus field agencies or field offices of the Bureau, how that could have been overlooked, coupled with our continuing insistence with the court and court's continuing inquiry of the government, "Are you sure that you have given the defense everything?"

CLARK: Now...

CARLSON: Go ahead, I'm sorry.

CLARK: I think the proof is going to be in the pudding. Eventually when these documents are carefully reviewed to see what's actually contained within the documents...

JONES: But Mr. Clark, that's not the issue. There was a judicial order in place. Representations were made to the court and to the defense by the United States Attorney and representatives of Janet Reno, that we had it all. It's not a defense to say, "Well, we didn't think it was important."

CLARK: No, no, no, no, no. And that's not my point and that's not what I'm saying, that they were making a decision that they were not going get them out. I'm simply making a point as to whether or not FBI would have intentionally withheld that information. If it has nothing in it then it would have made no purpose whatsoever. I do fully agree that the agreement that was signed back in 1996 should have been upheld and held to.


CARLSON: If we can just step back from the lawyer world here really quickly. The documents, it's hard to imagine what could be in these documents that would change the fundamental fact of the case which is Timothy McVeigh did it. So why in the world is it relevant -- essentially relevant -- to anything, these documents?

JONES: Well, it might be relevant on the issue of the punishment because the judge instructed the jury that it could take into consideration its view of where Mr. McVeigh fit in the conspiracy. In other words, the judge didn't use these words, these are mine, was he a foot soldier or was he a general? Now if there is something in these documents that would bear on that issue favorably to him that might cause just one member of the jury to hold out, that's a different thing.

CARLSON: But we already have the answer to that question because Timothy McVeigh has answered it again and again. He said, I acted alone. There is no conspiracy.

JONES: That's a self curving statement and it's clearly contrary to the statements of Michael and Lori Fortier and the verdict in the Terry Nichols case. I mean one should not accept Mr. McVeigh's word alone. One has to look at the evidence.

CARLSON: But wait, see, he's being executed for it. In what way is that self serving? He's going to die for a crime he says he committed alone. How is he getting off the hook by saying there's no conspiracy?

JONES: He's not getting off the hook. But that doesn't mean that he's not serving some larger issue by taking responsibility. That's not unusual in terrorists or revolutionaries to die to protect the others.

PRESS: Mr. Clark, almost out of time, but I just have this last question for you. You keep saying a mistake, a mistake, a mistake. I mean we remember a lot of FBI mistakes. We remember the Olympic bombing with Richard Jewell. Remember the problem with the tapes from Waco, the problem with Wen Ho Lee. Why should we believe the FBI that this was a mistake? They don't have any credibility anymore.

CLARK: Well, I don't agree with you that they don't have any credibility anymore. But I think what you should look at too is the results of each internal investigation and outside investigation as looked at the cases you mentioned, as to how they were taking place, and that's what's going to take place with this one too. The chips will fall where they may. If it wasn't a mistake and there were some other issues there, that will come out and I'm sure that action will be taken there. But nonetheless, it has happened. It should not have happened, but I'm sure someone's going to take a close look at it.

CARLSON: Don Clark, Stephen Jones, thank you both very much. Bill Press and I will be back in just a moment to talk to two members of Congress about the aftermath of the snafu, what's going to happen next? We'll be right back.


CARLSON: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. It's off, for now. Thanks to a Justice Department snafu, Timothy McVeigh's execution has been postponed for a month. It could be years before it actually takes place. McVeigh's guilt isn't in question, the FBI's conduct is. How did this happen? What is Congress going to do about it? How will McVeigh's saga affect other pending federal executions? We'll ask those questions of two lawmakers tonight, Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, and Bob Barr, Republican of Georgia -- Bill. PRESS: Congressman Barr, good to have you back on CROSSFIRE. President Reagan was man enough the stand up several times and say this happened on my watch, I take responsibility. This McVeigh snafu has happened on Louis Freeh's watch, Congressman, and of course, it's not the first.

Let me just remind you and our viewers, over the last five years Louis Freeh has been there, there were of course: the Waco tapes that were missing, found under his watch, the crime lab mistakes, including most recently a man convicted of rape who was released, the Los Alamos case, Wen Ho Lee held in prison and released, Robert Hanssen, the FBI spy, these McVeigh papers, and Richard Jewel's case with the Olympic bombing right there in Atlanta.

Wouldn't you have to admit, Congressman, that after all of this, if Louis Freeh had not already resigned, he would and should be fired?

REP. BOB BARR (R), GEORGIA: This raises the most serious questions, I think, in the history of the FBI, about the competence of this agency. But Bill, if we focus on Louis Freeh, I think we're missing the larger question, and maybe missing the real solutions here. The problem is not any one individual. The problem is systemic. It's institutional with this agency. It's gotten too powerful, too large, too much jurisdiction. It's being asked to do too much and there is far too little oversight.

These are very serious questions that require the immediate and long term attention of the new attorney general and the new president. If they don't, this thing is going to get out of hand big time.

PRESS: Well, I agree with you that it certainly demands a closer look and more supervision, but Congressman, the man responsible -- why are you letting him off the hook -- again, is Louis Freeh. Let me ask you directly. Isn't it true that Republicans like you let Louis Freeh off the hook because he went out against Bill Clinton and he went out against Janet Reno whenever you ask him to dance. That's why you stuck with Louis Freeh, isn't it?

BARR: Well, I think that's very fundamental, because it indicates that this is a man of high integrity, insofar as...

PRESS: But incompetence? .

BARR: Bill, I'm not necessarily disagreeing with you. What I'm saying is you're wearing blinders. If you look at this as a problem with Louis Freeh then you're really doing a disservice. This is a problem that is fundamental to this agency. And whether or not we are going to be a nation that lives by the rule of law or allows these bureaucracies to become so big and so powerful that they can make mistake after mistake after mistake, affecting people's lives and death, and we don't take a fundamental look at it. That's what we have to be doing, not focusing on one particular individual.

CARLSON: Now, Congressman , I want to read you a quote that, doubtless, you have heard before, but I think it's worth repeating tonight. This is Timothy McVeigh on the bombing -- quote -- "It was my choice and my control to hit that building when it was full. I understand what they felt in Oklahoma City. I have no sympathy for them."

Hard to imagine a more revolting sentiment. My question to you, Congressman, is how is justice served when this execution is delayed?

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: Well, justice is served because we now know that the law wasn't followed, and the material that should have been given to defense attorneys wasn't. Now, I assume the odds are that it won't make a difference. But you have to -- but the rule of law demands that the attorneys be given an opportunity to look at this material now. In addition to which, it's far beyond just Mr. McVeigh. The fact of the matter is if this material wasn't given in this case, in what other cases wasn't it given? Cases where guilt might not be so clearly established.

We are in a hurry to execute people in this country, and this just shows that you have to be very careful, you have to stop, look and listen, and make sure that all the evidence is there. And I agree with Bob Barr -- rarely do we agree with each other. But I agree that we have to take a very hard look at the FBI. I wouldn't exonerate Mr. Freeh.

I think that the presumption is always that the man in charge is to a large extent responsible. We ought to look at him, we ought to look at the FBI. And I think that the -- not only the president and the attorney general ought to do that, but the Congress, in particular, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.

CARLSON: Well, first of all, of course, it was Bill Clinton's Justice Department under which all of these things happened. But you said it doesn't make a difference. It may not make a difference to you, but then again, you're not a victim of the Oklahoma City bombing. We're talking about a case that could conceivably drag on...


CARLSON: Hold on. Literally, for years. This man has admitted his guilt. I'm missing why...

NADLER: There's another reason, too, and that other reason is he said he did it alone. Maybe some of this material will bring up some evidence that there were other accomplishes, and we may want to question him about that.

CARLSON: So for a conspiracy theory, it's worth extending the agony of the families?

NADLER: Look, the agony of the families is going to go on forever, unfortunately, because these people were killed. What's important is that justice be done. And if there were other people, for example, who helped with the bombing that we don't know about but that this evidence shows us something about, and that we would want to the question Mr. McVeigh about to find out so that other people who were responsible could be punished also. We want him around to answer those hard questions in the next month. PRESS: Congressman Barr, if you and I can agree that the FBI has grown too big, and maybe a little out of control, maybe we can agree on another point, that this foul-up with these papers raises some serious questions, not just about this case, but maybe about something else. And Timothy McVeigh -- one of Timothy McVeigh's attorneys, he seems to have a lot of attorneys -- but one of them today spoke to this point. Please listen on that and let me know what you think. Here's Mr. Nigh.


ROBERT NIGH, MCVEIGH'S ATTORNEY: Why these recent failures in the system of justice and equally prevalent failures in other federal death penalty cases. Not only is a stay appropriate in Mr. McVeigh's case, I believe that a moratorium on all federal executions is in order.


PRESS: Doesn't this say there's something fundamentally never complete or fair about the way the death penalty is applied, congressman?

BARR: Well, we're one for two. We agree on the first point, but on this one, absolutely not.

PRESS: Not surprised.

BARR: This has nothing about the propriety and the necessity to have a death penalty and to finally have some of these executions carried out.

What it does do, again, is it indicates to me that there are very serious systemic problems with the power of the FBI, and perhaps some other federal law enforcement agencies that we need to get a grip on pretty quick, or we will forever lose the opportunity to do that.

PRESS: But congressman, we have seen more and more people off of death row because they were found innocent through DNA testing...

BARR: No, that is not...


PRESS: ... if I may, if I may, congressman, that has led a Republican governor of Illinois, Governor Ryan, to say there should be a moratorium on executions. Why don't we just back up until we're sure that we're doing it right?

BARR: Well, that same governor testified before out Judiciary Committee last year in support of a piece of legislation that dealt with stopping federal death penalties. I asked him if he had even read the legislation, he had to admit that he hadn't.

The fact of the matter is, that there has not been one single case in our modern history in which there's been a death sentence carried out in which there has been any credible evidence that that person who was put to death was innocent.

CARLSON: Now, congressman, very quickly, if you were a victim of this, or a family member watching this program, and you hear a United States congressman imply that there was some sort of a grand conspiracy in which Timothy McVeigh was but one part, this would be upsetting news. I'm wondering, do you have evidence at all that he was a part of such a conspiracy?

NADLER: No, I'm certainly not saying that. I'm simply saying, who knows? You have new evidence, which no one has looked at before. Look into it -- and I'm not -- if in -- maybe that evidence would show there was such a thing. God forbid.

But if it did, you certainly would want to question Mr. McVeigh about it. I have no indication that that's the case, but you can't exclude it. And I would also say that this failure here to deliver all these documents, I presume there were failures in a lot of other cases to deliver documents to the defense, cases where it may really have impinged on guilt and innocence...


NADLER: Such as any number of cases, and the fact of the matter is, therefore I endorse the suggestion by that Republican governor, or whoever else made it, that there ought to be a moratorium on executions until we make sure that we know what we're doing.

PRESS: Congressman, there will be an investigation of what happened here. I'm sure we'll be talking about it. I'm sure we'll have you back to talk about it. Congressman Barr, Congressman Nadler, thank you for joining us.

Tucker Carlson and I, we will be back with some closing comments about what to do about all these FBI mistakes. We're coming right back.


PRESS: Tucker, you know, who's the happiest person in the country tonight? It's George W. Bush. He wanted Louis Freeh to stay, and I know that he's breathing a sigh of relief that Louis Freeh already resigned.

CARLSON: Well, first of all, Louis Freeh -- the only reason, the single reason you're blaming Louis Freeh is because he refused to be a Clinton stooge. He is one of the few people who left that administration with integrity intact, and Louis Freeh gets all the blame simply for that political reason.

PRESS: I'm blaming him for five years of screw-ups! And you're defending him!

CARLSON: He worked for Janet...

PRESS: Bring back J. Edgar!

CARLSON: Right. He worked for Janet Reno and Bill Clinton, and if there's blame, it goes to them.

PRESS: They should have fired him! You and I agree on that.


PRESS: From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night from CROSSFIRE, and we'll see you later in THE SPIN ROOM.

CARLSON: Paul Wellstone from Minnesota! I'm Tucker Carlson. Good night from the right. See you again next week on CROSSFIRE.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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