"I know many Americans will question why the execution of someone who is clearly guilty of such a heinous crime should be delayed," Ashcroft said. But he added: "I want justice to be carried out fairly."
President Bush expressed sympathy for the families of the bombing's victims. Many have said they hope for closure from McVeigh's execution at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.
McVeigh, the President said, "is lucky to be an American . . . [in] a country that will bend over backwards to make sure that his constitutional rights are guaranteed, as opposed to rushing his fate."
McVeigh, who had waived appeals of his death sentence, is reviewing the newly recovered FBI documents, defense lawyer Robert Nigh told reporters in Terre Haute. McVeigh was to die there on Wednesday by lethal injection. "He is keeping all of his options open," Nigh said after meeting with McVeigh.
"It's astounding," said Nathan Chambers, another of McVeigh's lawyers, "that the FBI could have had these documents for six years and not released them until now."
Exactly when the documents were identified as improperly withheld and by whom remains cloudy. Ashcroft said that would be determined by the Justice Department's inspector general, who was asked by Ashcroft to investigate.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he supported Ashcroft's decisions to delay the execution and to investigate the problem. "I think all the information ought to be before the court," he said during a news conference yesterday in the lobby of the Bellevue Hotel.
"I just wonder, again and again and again, how records turn up after the fact," Specter said. "Suppose they had been discovered a month later," after McVeigh had been executed.
The FBI lapse angered relatives of bombing victims, triggered a new round of criticism of the agency and of the death penalty, and prompted lawyers for convicted bombing coconspirator Terry Nichols to consider seeking a new trial.
Although defense lawyers learned only this week that more than 3,000 pages had not been given to them, the FBI began looking for the papers in December, an FBI official acknowledged to the Inquirer Washington Bureau.
"There was a message circulated about six months ago asking for documents on the McVeigh case," said a senior field agent who works in one of the 46 field offices that had such documents. "We were told to send them to a central collection point for archiving." He spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
Many of the documents were leads called in to field offices and follow-up interviews that went nowhere, the FBI concluded.
It is not clear when the FBI realized the collected documents should have been part of the material given to McVeigh's lawyers years earlier. Ashcroft and Bush said they were not told about the problem until Thursday.
Danny Defenbaugh, the FBI agent in charge of McVeigh's case, said in a statement yesterday that the purpose of collecting the documents was to ensure that all "investigative records were appropriately archived."
In the process, Defenbaugh said, agents realized "some of the materials from various FBI field offices were not a part of the investigative database."
Part of the delay in realizing the materials' relevance, FBI officials said, was due to the FBI's switchover to a new computer system. The FBI also blamed computer problems for the agency's failure to detect 15 years of surfing through sensitive case information by accused FBI spy Robert Hanssen.
In a letter dated Wednesday, May 9, Sean Connelly, a Justice Department lawyer, alerted McVeigh's lawyers to the mistake. Included was a list of hundreds of FBI "materials" from 46 field offices from Albany to Anchorage to Paris. Los Angeles had the most documents, with 446. Miami was second with 226.
The only known documents likely to be helpful to McVeigh involve claimed sightings of an alleged accomplice of McVeigh's, whom the FBI called John Doe No. 2, FBI officials said. None panned out, and the FBI eventually concluded there was no John Doe No. 2 involved in the bombing.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R., Iowa), another member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said there had been too many cases recently in which the FBI's mistakes turned up suddenly and belatedly.
"The problem is an FBI culture that's focused on image instead of product," Grassley said. "And the casualty in this case, as with others, is the public's confidence in the FBI."
Lenny Savino's e-mail address is email@example.com.
Inquirer staff writer Gwen Florio contributed to this article.