WASHINGTON -- The disclosure that the FBI withheld documents from Timothy McVeigh's lawyers seems certain to ignite a controversy that will burn for years, perhaps decades.
"If any questions or doubts remain about this case, it would cast a permanent cloud over justice," said Attorney General John Ashcroft in delaying McVeigh's execution until June 11.
But for some people, the cloud has been there all along and always will be. They will never accept the government's assertion that the withholding of the documents was simple human, bureaucratic error. And so the 1995 bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City seems likely to join the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as events whose truth -- in the eyes of some Americans -- is forever untold.
"Gee, how did that happen?" Charles Key, a former member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, said in sarcastic response to the news that McVeigh's defense team had been denied evidence held by the government.
Key, who lives in Oklahoma City, said he has always been convinced that McVeigh had accomplices beyond Terry Nichols, the other person convicted in the bombing. The government has not pursued the case aggressively, he said, because the full truth would be too damning. Perhaps there was a law enforcement informant, aware of the bombing plot, who didn't tell his handlers in time to prevent the carnage, Key suggested.
Then there are people such as Richard Baldridge, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Terre Haute, Ind., where McVeigh was to have been executed this week.
"I won't say that McVeigh didn't do it, but he wasn't the brains, he wasn't the one who orchestrated it," he said.
When asked who did, Baldridge replied, "The government."
Anti-government theories abound: The government either planned the bombing or knew about it and allowed it to happen. That way, Washington would have a good excuse to pass anti-terrorism laws and stamp out basic rights.
Stephen Jones, McVeigh's trial lawyer, asserts in his book, "Others Unknown: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing Conspiracy," that there is far more to the case than has been brought out.
"The real story of the bombing, as the McVeigh defense pursued it, is complex, shadowy and sinister," Jones writes. "McVeigh, like the government, had its own reasons to keep it so. It stretches, weblike, from America's heartland to the nation's capital, the Far East, Europe, and the Middle East, and much of it remains a mystery."
To those who see something terribly wrong with the McVeigh case, it doesn't matter that he admitted his guilt and expressed regret only for not bringing down the entire building. Conspiracy theories can sprout from the tiniest seeds.
A plot of Texas land was fertile ground. On April 19, 1993, federal agents raided the quarters of the Branch Davidian cult near Waco to end a standoff in which several lawmen had been killed. The resulting fire killed 74 men, women and children. The authorities said the cult leader, David Koresh, started the fire, a contention some would never believe, especially after the FBI disclosed in 1999 that, contrary to earlier denials, pyrotechnic tear gas canisters were in the federal arsenal on the day of the raid.
Official accounts that they were fired hours before the flames erupted, or that they fell harmlessly into a puddle, were ignored or derided.
By his own account, McVeigh took revenge for Waco on the second anniversary of the conflagration. The 1999 backtracking by the FBI convinced him the government had burned out the Davidians and hidden the truth.