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Army Takes Action to Defend Its Image : Military: Oklahoma City bombing suspects' service history is a sore point. Officers begin to engage in damage control.

May 21, 1995|ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FT. BRAGG, N.C. — Lt. Gen. James T. Scott is a man with a problem.

Scott is head of the Army's Special Operations Command here, and the Oklahoma City bombing has put him--and much of the rest of the Army--on the defensive.

Although no direct connection between the Army and the bombing has been proven, circumstantial evidence has tarnished the Army's image and sent senior military officials scurrying to limit the damage.

The two prime suspects in the Oklahoma City case, Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols, are veterans who served in the same infantry unit and got their first exposure to explosives as part of their military training. Some critics have complained that the Army has made its manuals for making and using explosives too easily available.

During the early stages of the investigation of the April 19 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, federal agents speculated about links to the military. Were the explosives stolen from Army posts? Were the right-wing militias to whom the suspects were linked recruiting members from among active-duty soldiers?

Then there is the Resister, a clandestine newsletter that purportedly is published by the "Special Forces Underground," presumably near Scott's own Special Warfare Center at Ft. Bragg.

It has called for "resistance to government tyranny at all levels" and "appropriate force-in-kind retaliation."

"This is a major problem for the military," said Don M. Snider, a retired Army colonel now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Although McVeigh and Nichols did not complete Special Forces training, Snider pointed out, the exposure that an ordinary infantryman gets to the fundamentals of making explosives is "enough to give him a start."

Top officials, starting with Defense Secretary William J. Perry, have issued reminders to field commanders that regulations prohibit soldiers from participating in extremist organizations, saying that participation is "inconsistent" with military service.

Earlier this month, officials at Camp Grayling, a National Guard base in Michigan, ordered a local gun club to leave the base's firing range after discovering that its members also belonged to a local paramilitary group.

That action aside, Army commanders have announced no major steps in the weeks since the Oklahoma City bombing to prevent contact between soldiers and paramilitary groups.

Scott and Maj. Gen. Randolph House, commander of the 1st Infantry Division at Ft. Riley, Kan., where McVeigh and Nichols once served, have launched informal investigations of activities at their bases. So far, they said, they have pinpointed nothing improper.

Army officials investigating whether militias have been seeking to recruit active-duty soldiers at Ft. Riley have found no evidence that the groups have even tried to do so. The Army said there are no links between the two Oklahoma City suspects and GIs now on active duty at Ft. Riley.

And here at Ft. Bragg, officials said top Army legal authorities and intelligence officers have reviewed the latest editions of the Resister and found them to be "objectionable" from a moral standpoint but not in violation of any regulations.

As a result, Army officials said, there is little that Scott or House can do to crack down on possible militia activity. Scott declined, through a spokesman, to comment, and House was not immediately available for comment.

Indeed, officials contended that despite the Army's desire to keep active-duty soldiers and extremists apart, commanders have only limited tools at their disposal. Although some base commanders in the past have declared specific rallies and even some bars off limits to their soldiers for being "prejudicial to good order," their authority falls far short of arbitrary power.

Essentially, Army regulations allow commanders broad leeway to bar soldiers from participating in any activities that are likely to result in violence or is prejudicial to "good order, morale or discipline."

So, for example, a commander can bar his troops from activities such as recruiting or training militiamen and leading or organizing rallies or even actively participating in them. He can declare a rally--or even a bar--off limits. And he can punish any soldier who disobeys.

But if a soldier limits activities to "passive" participation--such as merely attending meetings as an observer or getting on a group's mailing list--there is little a commander can do beyond verbal discouragement.

"The military is ultra-sensitive on the subject of civil liberties," Snider said. "They'd rather take bad press for failing to move against extremists than be criticized for seeming to deny a soldier his civil liberties."

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