Attorney Beth Wilkinson Discusses Attorney General Nominee Merrick Garland NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with attorney Beth Wilkinson about Merrick Garland, President Biden's nominee for attorney general, and his work on the Oklahoma City bombing prosecution in 1995.

Attorney Beth Wilkinson Discusses Attorney General Nominee Merrick Garland

Attorney Beth Wilkinson Discusses Attorney General Nominee Merrick Garland

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NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with attorney Beth Wilkinson about Merrick Garland, President Biden's nominee for attorney general, and his work on the Oklahoma City bombing prosecution in 1995.


The FBI warned of potential violence before last month's riot at the Capitol, and former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund testified today that he never got that warning.


STEVEN SUND: We properly planned for mass demonstration with possible violence. What we got was a military-style coordinated assault on my officers and a violent takeover of the Capitol building.

SHAPIRO: The man who's on track to lead the investigation into the insurrection is Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland. At Garland's confirmation hearing yesterday, he drew a parallel between January 6 and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.


MERRICK GARLAND: Well, Mr. Chairman, I certainly agree that we are facing a more dangerous period than we faced in Oklahoma City.

SHAPIRO: In Oklahoma City, a truck bomb explosion killed 168 people, including 19 children. Garland led that investigation and worked closely with Beth Wilkinson, who joins us now to talk about the parallels and lessons learned.


BETH WILKINSON: Thank you, Ari. I'm delighted to be here.

SHAPIRO: Let me begin by asking you about Garland's statement that this time is more dangerous than Oklahoma City was at that time. Can you put the Oklahoma City bombing in context for us?

WILKINSON: Well, if you go back to that time, there are some real similarities. There was absolute shock that there was this type of attack on U.S. soil. And I think on January 6, there was absolute shock that there was an attack or an insurrection on our U.S. Capitol. So I think there's a lot of similarities. Where I believe it differs - and of course, I can't speak for Judge Garland, but I do know him well - is that the threat today seems to be more widespread after we did the investigation in Oklahoma City. While there were other believers, there were very few people who supported McVeigh and Nichols.

SHAPIRO: Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrator.

WILKINSON: Exactly. That type of threat that could be widespread and across the country seems to be a far graver problem than we faced in retrospect in Oklahoma City.

SHAPIRO: Do you see similar threads in terms of the underlying motivations, the grievances?

WILKINSON: Well, of course, I'm not privy to the investigation, so I don't know all of that. But the general grievances, I think, are similar - a lot of anger towards, you know, the federal government and dissatisfaction with certain citizens in their, you know, current status. That is something, unfortunately, that is often tinged with, you know, racial attitudes that are contrary to our values and principles of our country. The general dissatisfaction and the belief that somehow some type of violence would change the governance of the country seems to be what was similar and was what was so disturbing in Oklahoma City and was disturbing on January 6.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us any story, a specific moment or anecdote, that you think illuminates the way Garland approached the task that the two of you faced in Oklahoma City that might be relevant today?

WILKINSON: Yes. I mean, first of all, there were many people who worked on this case. And I know that Merrick would want to give all of them credit. But he was the leader at the beginning who went out there from the very start. And when he came back, there was such public outcry over what had happened. As you said earlier, 19 children killed and 168 people. It was just shocking. And there was a big call, you know, for vengeance. And he was so calm and really gave us very simple guidance about always doing what was right and being clear with the American public about what we were doing and why we were doing it. And I am sure that's how he will approach it when he goes to the Justice Department. He will not be swayed by anything but the facts and the law. And sometimes that's very difficult. He will never reach beyond the evidence, but he's fearless about charging and prosecuting and holding those responsible for crimes that occur.

SHAPIRO: In the case of the January 6 insurrection, while there is outrage at the rioters, as you point out, the beliefs the rioters held are also widespread in the country today. And so does that make the task of explaining the Justice Department's actions and the task of transparency even more important than it was in the Oklahoma City investigation?

WILKINSON: No, I think there are similarities. You know, I remember working on the death penalty summation for McVeigh and talking to Merrick about that. And the whole idea behind the prosecution was and I think would be here, you know, people are entitled to their views. And they're entitled to have contrary views and to protest peacefully. The only thing we don't permit in our country is for you to take violent action in support of those views. And that's where there's a clear line. And I think Judge Garland will easily know the difference between those two things and will be comfortable protecting people's rights to speak out and have views that differ from the government.

SHAPIRO: That's former Justice Department official Beth Wilkinson of the law firm Wilkinson Stekloff.

Thank you for talking with us.

WILKINSON: Thank you so much, Ari.

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