It may be years before the nation understands exactly how and why more than 3,000 documents related to the Murrah Building bombing case never reached their intended destination - an Oklahoma City command post and, eventually, the hands of defense attorneys. But the misplaced documents are already raising serious questions about the internal workings and culture of the FBI.
FBI Director Louis Freeh told Congress last week that he issued 11 separate memos to the bureau's field offices asking that they send "all evidence" to the Oklahoma City center, but it appears that many didn't follow his orders.
That has emboldened critics of the bureau, who say the FBI's mismanagement of files is standard operating procedure. Indeed, the Oklahoma City case is just one of at least five recent high-profile investigations in which the FBI has failed to turn over critical documents - including the Waco and Wen Ho Lee cases, among others.
While no one has made the argument that the missing Oklahoma City documents were intentionally "lost," some critics say the FBI's decentralized system of organization may have contributed to the problem. Many are now questioning whether the bureau's field offices have become too autonomous, making them prone to disregard directives from Washington.
"Those documents were not lost," says one former Justice Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "What I want to know is: How can the FBI, on the Oklahoma City case - the biggest case of domestic terrorism ever - send out these directives over and over again and have the field offices not comply?"
Three-and-a-half tons of evidence
Certainly, the Murrah case was massive in size and scope. According to Mr. Freeh, the FBI followed up on more than 43,000 leads, stretching beyond the borders of the United States. The agency conducted 28,000 interviews and collected nearly 3-1/2 tons of evidence. Overall, Freeh says, there were literally 1 billion pieces of information involved in the case.
Normally, all that information would be sorted, and, when the government was prepared to make its case, the bureau - working with prosecutors - would decide what bits of it were relevant to the defense's efforts.
But in the bombing case, the bureau decided to turn over all the documentation to the defense. And while releasing everything may sound like a Herculean task, it should have made the job easier in some ways. " 'Everything' is every scrap of paper. How could they miss anything?" says the former Justice official.
Some observers charge that the FBI's decentralized nature may have helped prevent full disclosure. In each field office, the special agent in charge sets the tone. Often SACs are used to having autonomy and bristle at orders from Washington. "You'll get SACs saying, 'What does headquarters know about this? I'm running this operation,'" says a former FBI official, who asked not to be named.
Even in the days of the powerful Director J. Edgar Hoover, SACs were a maverick group. But changes in the ranks - and in society at large - have resulted in even more autonomy, the official says. "We're not as disciplined as we once were in our society, and FBI agents aren't as disciplined either. Agents tend to exercise more discretion."
This independence can be a positive feature, since top-down command structures are often unwieldy and inefficient. But it can also lead to inconsistent, sloppy, or even suspect activities.
"The cultural issues go all the way back to Hoover's time," says the Justice official. "It's still there, and in some ways, it's more pervasive."
He says Freeh has cultivated an ethos of each agent being a solo cop fighting for what's right - and that this lone-eagle approach may have contributed to recent foul-ups.
The errors came as no surprise to Jeff Weiner, a Miami defense attorney who has dealt with the FBI and says he's faced similar problems. While he believes the FBI's errors in this case are purely accidental, he doesn't believe that's always true.
"A lot of it is gross negligence from an agency people believe is infallible, but I have no doubt that sometimes it is intentional," says Mr. Weiner, a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
The former Justice official, who says he believes the errors in the Oklahoma City case were caused by bumbling, says he also believes there have been cases in which the FBI deliberately withheld material. "The bureau did not always tell me everything when I was working on a case with them," he says. "And if that's the case with me, I can't imagine it not being the case with defense lawyers."
But Milt Ahlerich, a former agent who once headed the bureau's New Haven, Connecticut office, says such problems never occurred on his watch, nor did he ever witness them. "We might fight with a prosecutor about what to turn over, but we never withheld information."
Nonetheless, Mr. Ahlerich says he's shocked at the bureau's mismanagement of the Oklahoma City case. "I ran a field office, and when you get an order like that, you pull your best people and you simply say, we're going to turn this office inside out until we know we have every document associated with this case."
That didn't happen - and in more than one field office. Furthermore, reports indicate that as early as December, Danny Defenbaugh, the lead agent on the case, discovered that all the documents had not been turned over, but waited to make that information public until he could determine the size of the error.
The problems, Ahlerich says, look to be managerial. "Look, they sent what, eleven directives? Does that mean there was a suspicion they weren't getting it all? It sure sounds like it."
And while the real cause of the Oklahoma City document problem may not be known for some time, the best solution, Ahlerich says, may simply be transparency. "This whole episode must be laid bare, and you have to get the nastiest, toughest, most cynical person you can find to do the investigation."