FBI bungle a boost for McVeigh

Timothy McVeigh planned the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building as the ultimate act of anti-government protest.

Now, just six days before his scheduled execution, a massive FBI bungle has handed McVeigh the opportunity to spark a new wave of anti-government fervor by delaying his own execution.

The US Justice Department made a staggering admission on Thursday that up to 200 crucial pieces of FBI evidence had been withheld from the mass murderer's defence team before his trial.

The disclosure would be enough to earn McVeigh an automatic stay of execution. All he would need to do is request one. So far, he has shown no inclination to do so, but the emergence of the FBI bungle may be enough to change his mind.

"Mr McVeigh is going to think about it and decide how he wants to proceed," McVeigh's lawyer, Nathan Chambers, said after receiving the documents from the FBI on Thursday. "We're considering all our options."

The Justice Department, which is ultimately responsible for the bungle, was the prime target of McVeigh's murderous 1993 attack that killed 168 people. McVeigh admitted responsibility for America's worst peace-time atrocity in interviews with the authors of a recent book on the bombing. He said he planned the bombing as retaliation at the FBI's 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, which was conducted on Justice Department orders.

An investigative series in London's The Independent, this week purported to disprove McVeigh's claim that he acted alone. The paper said it had assembled evidence showing that he was part of an underground network of white-supremacist guerrillas, the Aryan Republican Army, which was dedicated to the overthrow of the US government.

The FBI and the Justice Department would face an angry backlash for botching the execution if McVeigh were now to apply for a stay of execution. The Justice Department conceded on Thursday that the documents, including transcripts of initial interviews with witnesses and descriptions given of a number of suspects, should have been provided to McVeigh's lawyers during the discovery phase of his 1997 trial. "While the department is confident the documents do not in any way create any reasonable doubt about McVeigh's guilt and do not contradict his repeated confessions of guilt, the department is concerned that McVeigh's lawyers were not able to review them at the appropriate time," a department statement said.

The FBI said its agents discovered the mistake as they were assembling the documents for archiving. Several US newspapers quoted unnamed Justice Department sources saying the failure to produce the documents under discovery had been an accident. McVeigh's lawyer, Mr Chambers, said he found it difficult to understand how such important documents could be inadvertently withheld. "Here we are, a full six years after the bombing, and less than a week before Mr McVeigh's scheduled execution and these reports mysteriously appear," Mr Chambers said. "It's a cause for concern."

Legal analysts said the FBI's admission was enough to win an automatic stay of execution and could even be considered sufficient grounds for a retrial. McVeigh decided in February to drop all his appeals and requested that he be executed promptly. He is due to be put to death by injection in a federal prison in the Indiana township of Terre Haute at 10pm (Melbourne time) on Wednesday. McVeigh has up until two hours before his execution to lodge an application for a stay. Several thousand protesters, both in favor and against the execution, are expected to descend on the town next week. More than 1400 journalists have been granted accreditation to cover the event. Only 30 people will be allowed to watch the execution from an adjoining viewing room, but more than 200 survivors of the bombing and relatives of the dead will watch the execution live by closed circuit television in Oklahoma City.