Did Timothy McVeigh have Iraqi helpers?

The Justice Department says no, but an Oklahoma City TV reporter says yes. With war against Iraq looming, her conspiracy theory has new support among right-wingers and hawks.

By Eric Boehlert
Published December 2, 2002 9:13PM (EST)

Whatever you do, don't call Jayna Davis the darling of the right wing. A former Oklahoma City television reporter, Davis for the last seven years has been amassing a 2,000-page dossier which, she says, shows that a Middle Eastern terrorist cell made up of former Iraqi soldiers helped Timothy McVeigh plot the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

As an investigative reporter for local NBC affiliate KFOR-TV, Davis first started hammering away at the story of an Iraq-McVeigh connection right after the deadly terrorist blast killed 168. Few people paid attention. Now, with a war against Iraq pending, Davis' conspiracy theory has suddenly gained new currency inside the Beltway, and all sorts of doors are being opened for her. Even though some intelligence pros, like Vince Cannistraro, the CIA's former chief of counter-terrorism, label Davis' dossier "total bullshit," some conservatives in Congress and in the media are hyping a possible connection between Baghdad and the Oklahoma City massacre.

Davis insists neither she nor her suddenly hot conspiracy have been bought and paid for by the right. "I hate it when they say 'She's right wing.' You can't categorize Jayna Davis, except to call me a reporter and a crusader," she told Salon.

Still, her theory has been embraced by Fox News celebrity Bill O'Reilly and by the wild Clinton-haters at Free Republic. She's recently been toasted in the far-right editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and Washington Times as a "brave" and "intrepid" reporter.

And defense hawks like former CIA director James Woolsey, and former Reagan Defense Department official Frank Gaffney--always on the hunt for additional reasons to invade Iraq -- have been singing Davis' praise. Woolsey told the Journal that when the truth finally comes out, America will owe Davis "a debt of gratitude."

Meanwhile, in September Davis shared the bill with right-wing Fox host Sean Hannity and former Clinton impeachment general Rep. Bob Barr, at Phyllis Schlafly's 31st annual Eagle Forum, where Schlafly recalled her battles against the Equal Rights Amendment.

Another major player from the impeachment saga, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., sent staff investigators from the House Government Reform Committee out to Oklahoma City to interview Davis' 22 confidential witnesses. They're local bartenders, motel workers, gas station attendants, and joggers who say they saw McVeigh in the company of former Iraqi soldiers -- men who relocated to Oklahoma City in the '90s and supposedly helped him plan the terrorist attack, perhaps as revenge for the Gulf War. Like the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Burton and his committee were at the heart of the darkest Clinton conspiracies; the congressman once shot at a pumpkin to prove it was possible White House Counsel Vince Foster, who committed suicide, had been murdered.

Still, Davis insists she hasn't signed up to play on anybody's team. "I deeply respect the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, and Frank Gaffney, and Phyllis Schlafly," she says. "But I'm not a right-wing darling. I pride myself for being an objective, mainstream reporter."

The theory that Middle Eastern terror played a role in the Oklahoma City bombing is not a new one. In the immediate aftermath of the Murrah Building explosion, terrorism expert Steven Emerson went on television and suggested Islamic terrorists may have been responsible. Ostracized when proven wrong, Emerson admits his mistake in his recent book, "American Jihad," and stresses, "I have refused to support the conspiracy theorists who insist that McVeigh himself was actually involved with Muslim groups."

That's exactly what Davis insists: That McVeigh worked alongside Middle Eastern terrorists in plotting the Murrah Building attack and that law enforcement has refused to investigate the connection. The theory is anchored in the government's own prosecution and the elusive "John Doe 2" figure who has baffled Oklahoma City experts for years.

Immediately following the Murrah Building attack, prosecutors issued warrants for John Does 1 and 2, along with artist sketches of the men who were reportedly seen together prior to the bombing. John Doe 1 turned out to be McVeigh, a dead ringer for the sketched rendition. With McVeigh and his co-conspirator Terry Nichols in custody, prosecutors came to the conclusion that there was no John Doe 2, and that witnesses who say they saw a man with McVeigh right before the attack were confused. (Since Nichols was not with McVeigh immediately before the attack, he couldn't have been John Doe 2.)

"It's like all the [erroneous] talk about a white van being used in the Beltway sniper case," says Cate McCauley, an investigator appointed by the U.S. District Court to assist with McVeigh's appeal. "There was no John Doe 2." But Davis argues the man she's identified as a former Iraqi soldier is the real John Doe 2.

"The whole idea was pretty much dead in the water a couple years ago," notes Mark Potok, who covered the Oklahoma City bombing for USA Today as the paper's Southwest bureau chief. "Now it's come back to life like a zombie. I think it's being used by people who'd very much like to go to war with Iraq."

To be fair to Davis, she's not suggesting there's a Saddam Hussein link hidden in her dossier. "I don't think this is a reason to go to war with Iraq," says the Oklahoma city wife and mother. "Was there Iraqi sponsorship? I am so far away from connecting those dots. I don't think anybody's going to find evidence between Iraq and Oklahoma City unless we go over there and literally find documents outlining the attacks. All I know is those guys [with McVeigh] were Iraqi soldiers."

But don't tell Gaffney and his circle of hawks. He wrote a column for Fox News suggesting Davis' reporting "implicates Saddam Hussein" in deadly terrorist acts against America.

"I just think it's folly. The Oklahoma City case attracted every conspiracy theorist on the planet, including some second-rate reporters who believe they've stripped the cover off the conspiracy of the 20th century," says Potok, now spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "Nothing against Jayna Davis, but she's gotten an idea in her head that's not based on real evidence."

Others are even harder on Davis and her crusade. "She's gone off the deep end," says former CIA official Cannistraro. He told Rep. Burton the same thing, after his staff requested a meeting with the terrorism expert this fall to discuss Davis' investigation. "I looked Burton right in his eye and told him this was bullshit and that he was wasting his time. He seemed taken aback. I'd be amused if the whole thing weren't being used as a pretext for war." Burton's office did not return calls seeking comment.

In mid-November Burton's investigators announced the most newsworthy finding from their conspiracy investigation: One of Davis' witnesses had lied. He not only lied about his military background, but about seeing a video surveillance tape that showed a Middle Eastern man getting out of McVeigh's rented Ryder truck just moments before a homemade bomb inside brought down half the Murrah Building. The witness may soon be prosecuted by the Justice Department.

Davis' defenders dismiss the possible perjury charge as a hiccup. "Does that discredit the whole investigation? Not in my mind," says James Patterson, columnist for the Indianapolis Star. He remains one of Davis' staunchest backers in the mainstream press and is convinced she's onto something very big. "I told Jayna Davis, it's the biggest coverup since Watergate. She said it's bigger."

For the record, Oklahoma City FBI spokesman Gary Johnson insists, "Through an extremely extensive investigation, we're 100 percent confident we've investigated and prosecuted all of the individuals responsible for the 19995 Oklahoma City bombing. We found absolutely no ties to any Middle Eastern connection."

By Jayna Davis' account, the Oklahoma City coverup began just hours after the blast, as rescue workers were digging through the rubble, searching for survivors. That's when federal agents, "without explanation" she says, canceled an all-points bulletin searching for Middle Eastern subjects seen speeding away from the Murrah Building moments after the bombing. The APB was based on eyewitness accounts.

Another key piece of evidence Oklahoma City conspiracy buffs point to is a conversation the CIA's Cannistraro had with an FBI agent in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. Cannistraro told the Bureau a Saudi Arabian intelligence source, after hearing the news of the Murrah Building attack, called to tell him he'd heard reports that an hit squad of terrorists, possibly Iraqi, had been sent to America. Cannistraro told the FBI he could not vouch for the information, but that the Saudi source had been credible in the past.

But Cannistraro stresses his Saudi source called him back days later to tell him the information about the hit squad was "bogus." "That part doesn't get into their story because they have their theory of what happened," he says. And the early APB about Middle Eastern subjects, too, turned out to be based on a bad tip. "The fact that a particular bulletin after the Oklahoma City bombing turned out to be inaccurate would not be a surprise at all," says Potok. "The vast majority of tips that day were worthless."

What gave Davis' investigation its initial momentum, back in 1995, was her claim to be able to identify the mysterious "John Doe 2." Davis and her team at KFOR-TV took a version of the John Doe 2 sketch, which some people suggest depicts a Middle Eastern man, and went to work. "We looked at the pattern of behavior of Timothy McVeigh and he frequented strip bars so we took out pictures of this Middle Eastern man and hit the streets looking for every establishment we could find," she says.

She eventually found two witnesses who claimed to have seen McVeigh drinking beer with John Doe No. 2 four days before the attack. Davis ran the story without revealing the man's name. Angered by her reports, which he felt made clear his identity, the man came forward and announced himself as Hussain al-Hussaini. An Iraqi soldier who surrendered during the Gulf War, lived in a Saudi Arabian refugee camp and eventually came to American and worked as a restaurant employee, al-Hussaini sued Davis for libel and defamation. The case was dismissed, with the judge noting Davis had proven al-Hussaini "bears a strong resemblance to the composite sketch of John Doe #2." Al-Hussaini is currently appealing.

Davis left KFOR-TV in 1997 after the New York Times bought the station and, she claims, showed no interest in her McVeigh work. During the al-Hussaini litigation, though, Davis was able to get access to some of al-Hussaini's medical records. The records reveal al-Hussaini quit his job at Boston's Logan Airport in 1997 because, as he complained to a nurse at psychiatric clinic at the time, "If anything happens here I'll be a suspect." Davis labels the exchange "shocking," since Logan is where two of the four hijacked planes on Sept. 11 originated from.

Critics say trying to selectively use a single quote to create a link between al-Hussaini's job at Logan four years before the 9/11 hijackings is irresponsible. "Al-Hussaini's just some poor sucker," says investigator McCauley, who finds nothing compelling about Davis' accumulated evidence. "All I know is he's not involved in the Oklahoma City bombing and he shouldn't be appointed a mass murderer. Because what happens if somebody plugs this guy in the head? Who's going to be responsible for that?"

Davis though, has no reservations about her public crusade to implicate al-Hussaini: "Absolutely not. I truly believe the evidence shows he was involved in the Oklahoma City bombing." Al-Hussaini's attorney could not be reached for comment.

Other experts on the bombing reject the notion that McVeigh, the model of an angry white American male, was befriending Middle Easterners in the days leading up to the terrorist attack. After returning home from the Gulf War, McVeigh "hits the road and gets into gun culture" where he's meeting "Bubbas, not Middle Eastern terrorists," says Lou Michel, coauthor along with Dan Herbeck of "American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Tragedy at Oklahoma City." "He was traveling to Michigan and Arizona, with some time in Kansas. That was his world, white America. He wasn't buddying up to African-Americans or Hispanics or Middle Easterners. That only happened when he went to prison."

But Davis remains undeterred, as she recites the minutia of her investigation with boundless enthusiasm: "I have 300 pages of Terry Nichols' home phone record if you want to go over them." She points to lots of other circumstantial evidence to support her premise that Middle Easterners were involved in the April 1995 attack. She says al-Hussaini cannot account for his whereabouts that morning, that former Iraqi soldiers living in Oklahoma City, and absent from work the day McVeigh rented his Ryder truck that carried the bomb, were overheard pledging their allegiance to Saddam when a radio newscast reported Islamic terrorists had claimed responsibility for the bombing, and that one of al-Hussaini's Oklahoma City employers was once suspected of having ties to the PLO. Davis says a brown Chevy pickup truck, just like the one seen by some witnesses speeding away from the Murrah Building, was also spotted in front of that employer's office days before the attack.

Davis says she also has 22 sworn affidavits from witnesses who link Middle Eastern men collaborating with McVeigh and Nichols during various stages of the bombing plot, including seven witnesses who place al-Hussaini in McVeigh's company before the bombing.

What is missing from Davis' dossier, though, is an explanation for why U.S. officials would ignore evidence of Middle Eastern terrorists' involvement in the bombing. Why would FBI agents who investigated the Oklahoma City massacre look the other way and allow an Iraqi terrorist to get off free? After all, the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building "was an attack on the federal family of employees," notes Cannistraro.

"The theory that makes the most sense to me is that [the government] just didn't want to deal with the panic of Middle Eastern terrorism coming home to roost," answers Davis. "Because if it was state-sponsored, that would have been tantamount to an act of war."

Perhaps more importantly, how would such a far-flung coverup, including dozens, if not hundreds, of investigators all working in concert to suppress evidence of a Middle Eastern connection, ever maintain itself over the years? Patterson at the Indianapolis Star argues it could have been a small number of officials in the Oklahoma City field office who decided not to pursue the Middle Eastern leads.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Davis got a break. After spending six years "pounding the pavement in Oklahoma City," as she puts it, and with little success getting noticed on the national stage, the dogged television reporter got an offer from Alexander Magnus, an ailing Chicago real estate magnate with a penchant for conspiracy theories, to help get the story told.

"He's a very nice gentleman who got involved in a lot of crazy conspiracy stuff," says Davis, referring to Magnus' suspicion that the government was behind the crash of TWA Flight 800 as well as the 1993 World Trade Center attack. Magnus died in August.

"He came to me and said I want to help you," says Davis. "I never wanted to be labeled right-wing. I fought that label for a long time but after working on this for six years without a dime of income I was penniless and could not break through the wall. And I knew I needed to get to Washington" to tell my story.

After consulting with her husband, Davis decided to accept Magnus' $57,000. "And if I hadn't, I wouldn't be talking to you right now" about this story, she says.

With Magnus' infusion of cash, Davis made two trips to Washington early this year, where she met with former CIA Director Woolsey, as well as Rep. Burton, who agreed to launch an investigation. Their interest then spread to conservative commentators in the press, and Fox News in general, where Davis has been welcomed on the air many times.

Another media connection paid off when a Philadelphia talk-show host and friend of Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., embraced Davis' conspiracy theory and started discussing it on his show. Specter soon agreed to hear a presentation from Davis, which convinced him to promise her he'd support an inquiry into her evidence. That promise brought Davis fresh media attention from the Philadelphia press. The senator's enthusiasm may have cooled, though, after speaking with Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who told Specter there was nothing to Davis' allegation. The senator is currently waiting to hear back from the FBI about its handling of the case.

Davis claims she simply wants the Department of Justice to interview her 22 witnesses and determine the validity of their claims. "I'm so ready to hang this up and let justice take its course. It's not my responsibility to do the work of the FBI or the DOJ."

Says Patterson, "Just investigate. If her witnesses don't know that they're talking about, you can say we're all crazy."

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

MORE FROM Eric Boehlert

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Iraq Middle East