In releasing documents on the Oklahoma bombing investigation days before McVeigh's scheduled execution, the FBI knew there would be untold legal repercussions and bad press. What happened in Birmingham back in 1963 exposes a darker side of the FBI.
There is an eerie convergence between the postponing of Timothy McVeigh's execution and the recent murder conviction of Thomas Blanton Jr., a Ku Klux Klan member who helped dynamite a Birmingham church in 1963, killing four black girls.
Blanton should have been tried in the late 1970s, but then-Alabama Attorney General William Baxley was unable to get the FBI to turn over a surveillance tape he needed for an indictment. Baxley put one of the bombers behind bars. A generation later, a federal attorney in Alabama got FBI cooperation and brought a successful prosecution against Blanton.
Under the law, prosecutors must provide the defense with exculpatory evidence, information that might in some way benefit the person standing trial. The most charitable interpretation about the late development in the Oklahoma City bombing case -- in which the FBI discovered materials that had not been given to the defense prior to trial -- is simple human error. "All signs suggest that the [FBI] worked in good faith to turn over everything but was overwhelmed by the extraordinary volume of material," Stanford Law professor George Fisher has noted in The New York Times.
What happened in Birmingham back in 1963 exposes a darker side of the FBI. The problem in Alabama was an informant, one Gary Thomas Rowe, who was paid for leaking information on his Ku Klux Klan comrades in the 1960s, even as he joined them in committing crimes.
Diane McWhorter follows the depths and turns of this Byzantine drama in a new book, Carry Me Home: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (Simon and Schuster), which charts the blunders of the FBI in failing to prevent violence. McWhorter's 700-page epic follows many trails in the history of the era, including a kind of parallel symbiosis between the KKK and Birmingham's industrial aristocracy. Steel industry leaders had been using sadistic thugs to terrorize African Americans and wreck union organizing campaigns for years before Martin Luther King came to town. Just as the barony lost control of the monster it created, so did the FBI fail to make arrests in Klan cells where it had a snitch. The cops were siding with the Klan. In that moral vacuum, Birmingham was rocked by a string of bombings.
Gary Thomas Rowe was a loser at life who had just been invited to join the Klan when, by chance, an FBI agent recruited him as a spy. Among those Rowe got to know were Blanton and his father, exactly the kind of cruel, marginal men Birmingham's power structure had relied upon to drive wedges between the white and black poor. Rowe "had singled out the Blantons as bellyaching weirdos in his reports to the FBI," writes McWhorter in Carry Me Home.
She continues: "For some time now, Tommy had been talking about the ultimate Klan act: church bombing, albeit of Catholic rather than Negro congregations. His associates pronounced him not intelligent enough to make a bomb but dumb enough to place it."
But the FBI soon had problems with Rowe. A photograph showed him beating a Freedom Rider. Why didn't the FBI arrest him?
The answer lies partly in the nature of bureaucracy, says McWhorter, in a recent phone interview from her home in New York: "At the time Rowe signed on, the FBI was beefing up enforcement staff. With the Freedom Riders they found themselves in a real bind. They couldn't trust local law enforcement because they were part of a conspiracy [with the Klan and Birmingham's power structure]. Because a bureaucracy's logic is to protect bureaucracy, they ended up feeling their primary concern was to protect Rowe's cover, rather than to prevent or prosecute a crime from happening."
In 1963, some two years after the church bombing, Rowe rode in a car in Selma with three other Klansmen who fired shots, killing a Detroit housewife, Viola Liuzzo, who had gone South to march with activists for civil rights. Rowe died before McWhorter could interview him. But she holds him, and the Bureau, responsible in the killing of Liuzzo.
"The FBI was trying to protect their own culture rather than rooting out evil," she says. "My research strongly suggests that Rowe was involved in the bombing of the Gaston Motel which had been Martin Luther King's headquarters for four months before the church bombing. ... The FBI had a lot to hide about internal workings, particularly the informant system."
Another part of the FBI's internal conflict in those years was that the director, J. Edgar Hoover, was hostile to the civil rights movement and detested Martin Luther King Jr. Hoover's racism was a knee-jerk attitude that marked many federal offices across the South in the 1960s, a time when most federal employees in the region were white. Alabama state tax collectors harassed Dr. King with a vengeance, as Taylor Branch has documented in the civil rights epic Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (Simon and Schuster).
The bureaucratic psychology of counter-attacking civil rights initiatives escalated in the early 1970s as IRS agents audited the tax returns of dozens of civil rights leaders across the South. A civil rights leader who directed an antipoverty program in rural Georgia was indicted --11 months after his death in a plane crash -- as the lynchpin of a fraud conspiracy. Despite IRS and FBI investigations, and indictments of several people who worked in the organization, the sweeping allegations were never proven. In addition, the Delta-Democrat Times newspaper in Greenville, Miss., was audited for nearly two decades, starting in the mid-1950s, as Hodding Carter Jr. -- and later his son, Hodding III -- took editorial stands that bucked the tide of white resistance.
"The Bureau's access to tax returns and investigative reports made the IRS an especially attractive resource against the targets of the '60s," Frank J. Donner wrote in his 1980 monumental study, The Age of Surveillance : The Aims and Methods of the American Political Intelligence System (Knopf). "The enlarged corps of informers recruited to infiltrate the protest movements were briefed to obtain information about the income of their targets, which was transmitted routinely by their contacts to IRS offices for possible tax action."
The Watergate scandal triggered Congressional investigations of the FBI and IRS that documented the infiltration of anti-war and civil rights activists. In all of this, the FBI continued its surveillance activities on the Klan and ultra-right wing extremists. By the 1990s, hate groups and conspiracy-fueled militia sects had become the overwhelming political threat to domestic tranquility.
Timothy McVeigh never joined the Klan. But his ideological journey, shaped by neo-fascist conspiracy beliefs, gazes back to the Klan mentality in the South of a generation ago. Where once the enemy was African-American, today it is the menacing octopus of a federal government against militant patriots.
The FBI's role in the carnage at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco has been rightly criticized by elected officials and media commentators on the right and left. But there is a great difference between failing to halt a Gary Thomas Rowe or a Thomas Blanton, and overreacting in a crisis fomented by a sexually deranged megalomaniac like David Koresh, who had an arsenal to boot. That is not to praise government forces that burned the Davidian compound or perhaps shot indiscriminately. But for weeks the nightly news showed government agents trying to bring the standoff to a peaceful end -- intervention of a sort that never happened in the South of the 1960s. That the FBI failed at Waco is less indicative of changes within the "culture" than the fact that they kept trying for so long not to fail.
"The FBI is not designed to lay bare the inner workings of their bureaucracy," says McWhorter, in reference to the saga in Birmingham.
Indeed, most bureaucracies instinctively protect their internal dynamics from outside scrutiny. In releasing documents on the Oklahama bombing investigation days before McVeigh's scheduled execution, the FBI knew it would postpone the execution, with untold other legal repercussions and bad press. In so doing, the Bureau has shown a certain moral bearing at its center quite evolved from the years when Alabama and other parts of the South were ravaged by the precursors of Timothy McVeigh.