I have to smile when I read about the FBI "documents" that have come to light in the Timothy McVeigh case. The word "document" has an official ring to it, conjuring up images of writs and wills. And so journalists, forever anxious to cover and uncover the next Watergate, drop the word as a way to pump up the drama of the McVeigh story.
The FBI's detractors, of course, are numerous in the D.C. press corps; reporters here have generally disliked the bureau since the days of J. Edgar Hoover.
But here's a prediction: When these 3,135 "documents"--out of nearly 1 billion generated in the case--are analyzed, they will prove to be of little consequence.
How can I say that? Because most of the paper FBI gumshoes produce is, simply, junk. I know that because years ago I helped produce some of it.
In early 1985, I was working at the Fund for America's Future, the political action committee for the campaign of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. I was asked to meet with conservative activist Carl "Spitz" Channel, who wanted the vice president to raise $3 million for his group, the National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty, which would in turn send the money to the anti-communist guerrillas in Nicaragua.
"Aid to the Contras," from private as well as public sources, was one of the big controversies of the '80s.
But the so-called "Iran-Contra" brouhaha had yet to erupt; luckily for me, when I met with Channel, I had never heard of Oliver North. After all, the Fund for America's Future was a PAC located six blocks from the White House; we had no policy role. And that's what I said to Channel; I couldn't help him, I said, but I would write a memo of introduction to the Office of the Vice President, not knowing that some OVP staffers were in fact deeply involved in Contra aid.
Late the following year, 1986, the Iran-Contra story blew up, spewing seamy details of ayatollahs and missiles all over the world.
I thought back to my single brief meeting with Channel and thanked my lucky bureaucratic stars that I had no exposure in the scandal. Or so I believed.
By the summer of 1987, as Iran-Contra Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh was digging into the White House, I was working at the headquarters of the Bush presidential campaign. The phone rang. "This is the FBI, and we'd like to come and see you." Gulp.
The next day, two agents came to my office and got right to the point. Did I know a "Spitz" Channel? I met him once, I said, recounting the inconclusive nature of the meeting. Then one of the G-men reached into his briefcase and tossed a binder-clipped sheaf of papers on my desk. It landed with an impressive thud. "Then what about THIS?" he asked in a tone of triumph. I stared at the half-inch stack of paper.
But then I examined those papers and I relaxed. Yes, there was a photocopy of my innocuous memo to the OVP in regard to Channel's request from two years before, but the other "documents" weren't the stuff of conspiracy; they were detritus from an office--photocopies of message slips and illegible scribbles and doodles. Even Post-It notes were reproduced, one to a page.
The agents took still more notes as I recounted, several times, my tiny tale.
Then they left. While the Iran-Contra counsel stayed in business until 1993, I had no further contact with any investigator.
I see now from the National Archives Web site that the government's files stretch some 1,948 feet; in a warehouse somewhere is my half-inch.
And now it's the McVeigh case that's making news. No doubt defense lawyers dreaming of appeals, hourly fees, endless air time and book contracts will make a show of reviewing these unearthed "documents," and most likely, reporters will goose the story, pursuing their own dreams of glory.
But when I think of all that paper, lost and found, I borrow wisdom from the computer world: If garbage goes into a file, garbage will come out of that file.