DEFENDING AMERICA
David H. Hackworth
June 27, 1995

A TALK WITH PRISONER TIMOTHY MCVEIGH

At El Reno Prison, Oklahoma, Timothy McVeigh seemed more like a college honor student than a mad bomber accused of killing 167 people at the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Of course, that's just what McVeigh and his lead attorney, Stephen Jones, wanted me to believe, and why last week they granted me an exclusive interview. Jones is high on his client. "He's the boy next door," he told me, lowering his voice to deliver the main message in a soft Oklahoma drawl: "He's innocent."

A 70-minute interview wasn't long enough to ask all the questions I had in mind, but there was enough time to form an impression of McVeigh, who is exceptionally bright and very cool under fire. Remember, I was the first member of the press he had spoken to, and believe me, he knew he was playing for high stakes.

I could immediately see why he was a crackerjack soldier who raced up the Army promotion ladder far ahead of his contemporaries, decorated both for bravery on the Iraqi battlefield and high efficiency on the training field. Six-foot-two, lanky, the product of Small Town, U.S.A., McVeigh is a leader, and contrary to what I've read in the press, he showed no sign of being an angry, sullen loner.

Expecting a monster, I was momentarily disarmed by his charm, engaging personality and keen sense of humor. There was no trace of a militia loony-tune frothing at the mouth.

I had reviewed his Army records before we got together in the prison's small visiting room. His test scores are collectively the highest I've ever seen. An Army personnel expert says his entrance test scores were "brilliant." He rated in the "top five percent" and had the potential to be "a great combat officer." His electronic aptitude qualified him for the most complex communications training.

The only question out of about 150 I asked that struck a nerve dealt with his treatment while in the slammer. He said the El Reno authorities were "most professional" and treated him "very well." But his eyes blazed, and I could feel his anger as he told of asking for a bulletproof vest when he was being transferred from the Perry, Okla., jail.

He said, "I specifically requested an armored vest. They said they'd work on it. And of course, you've seen the picture coming out of the courtroom -- they're all (an angry, shouting crowd) standing at arm's length away from me."

I asked if the agents gave a reason for not giving him the vest. He said, "They only said they'd work on it and never mentioned it again." I asked if he thought of Lee Harvey Oswald as he was walked through the gauntlet, and he replied, "Yes, yes."

Remembering how Oswald was gunned down as he was leaving the Dallas police headquarters, I studied McVeigh's now famous photo taken outside the Perry police station again. My initial impression had been, 'This is some hard-core mother," but now I recognized McVeigh was wearing that hunted, 1,000-yard stare common to infantrymen, a look I had seen on a lot of battlefields. I now reckon he was damn scared, expecting a slug in the head.

I asked him what his reaction to the bombing was. He said, "For two days in the cell we could hear news reports, and of course everyone, including me, was horrified at the deaths of the children. And you know, that was the number one focal point of the media at that time, too, obviously -- the deaths of the children. It's a very tragic thing."

I said, "This is the question everybody wants to know: Did you do it?" McVeigh's reply was Marcia Clark precise. He said, "The only way we can really answer that is that we are going to plead not guilty." Jones quickly chimed in with, "And we're going to go to trial." I shot back, "But you've got a chance right now to say 'Hell, no! '" McVeigh replied, "We can't do that."

Guilty? Not guilty? That's for the judge, jury and God to work out, but my gut tells me we're going to see one hell of a trial, with a hell of a lot of surprises.