By John F. Fox Jr.
Special for the Newseum
On a Wednesday morning 20 years ago on April 19, 1995, the hatred of a domestic extremist shocked the nation and changed the way many of us lived our lives. A truck bomb set off outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City took the lives of 168 men, women and children and injured hundreds others.
The bombing was the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.
The FBI and its federal, state, and local partners, immediately responded — acting and reacting to the chaos left in the bomb’s wake even as the media sought to inform the public about what was happening. In the days and weeks that followed, the bureau — and the American people —learned many things about the attacks, and consciously and subconsciously integrated that knowledge into our daily actions up to and through the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
On the national level, streets near the White House were closed, and enhanced security measures were taken to protect federal facilities around the country. Day care centers — like the one in which so many Oklahoma children lost their lives, and where the youngest victim became the face of our national shame — were also banned from federal buildings.
Less noticeable, but significant, were changes to how the FBI worked.
My purpose here, in memory of our fellow Americans lost that day, is to remember some of those changes and to reflect on the lessons that the Oklahoma City bombing taught us.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, emergency personnel, as well as FBI agents and technicians, rushed to the scene. Like other terrorist attack responses, the FBI’s purpose was two-fold: aid in the rescue operations, and begin work to ensure a smooth transition to the criminal investigation that would follow. Tips poured into the FBI’s toll-free tip line, which the media made known nationwide, and FBI personnel across the country sifted and followed these potential clues.
FBI and other law enforcement specialists working at the scene continued to comb the wreckage, identifying truck parts, bomb residue and other clues. Within a day and a half, we were able to develop and release a sketch of a likely suspect. Widely distributed by the media, the sketch quickly led to a person — Timothy McVeigh. The bureau’s massive criminal history and identification database told us that he was already in police custody on another matter.
The FBI and its partners continued looking for possible conspirators and eventually arrested several suspects associated with McVeigh. The media continued to solicit tips and report on progress in the investigation and its aftermath.
The Oklahoma City bombing investigation helped the FBI continue to advance its ability to manage massive cross-jurisdictional cases and led to the adoption of new case management software that handles the massive volume of records we develop in such investigations. More significantly, the way the United States approached terrorist attacks began to change, and the FBI was at the center of these changes.
In the wake of the Oklahoma City attacks, President Bill Clinton issued a directive that clarified the FBI’s status as the lead agency in investigating terrorist attacks against Americans. This directive aimed to cut down on conflict and duplication and to indicate how cooperation in such cases should be handled.
The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act followed, increasing protections afforded to federal workers and the facilities they work in, as well as expanding the FBI’s authority to investigate terrorist attacks against U.S. persons overseas.
More presidential directives were issued, which addressed the detection, prevention and response to terrorist attacks at home and endorsed the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force approach to these matters. Organizationally, the FBI created a counterterrorism division, bringing together responsibility for foreign and domestic terrorist investigations for the first time since the 1970s. The bureau also upgraded its crisis response center, opening a new Strategic Information and Operations Center at FBI headquarters in Washington.
The 9/11 attacks led to additional changes, pushing these improvements in federal and, specifically, FBI policy into a more international focus. But the impact of the unprecedented attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995 remains etched in the nation’s memory and in the institution of the FBI.
FBI historian John F. Fox Jr. was an adviser to the Newseum on its popular exhibit that features the top news stories of the FBI’s first century.
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