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In light of recent FBI disclosures of buried evidence that have resulted in a postponement of the execution of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, new questions are being raised about other high-profile U.S. government terrorism investigations – including the explosion of TWA Flight 800 in 1996.
Those questions are sure to multiply with the release today of a compelling new video documentary shedding light on evidence government agencies once again appear to have ignored or buried.
In “Silenced: Flight 800 and the Subversion of Justice,” footage of National Transportation Safety Board hearings and excerpts from government documents combined with eyewitness testimony and independent forensic analysis cast serious doubts on the veracity of government explanations of the tragedy.
While it has been reported before that 736 official eyewitnesses to the July 1996 mid-air explosion testified that they saw what appeared to be one or two missiles headed for the aircraft, the new documentary shows that several of them were experienced military personnel. One such witness was even flying a National Guard helicopter as he saw the tragedy unfold.
Major Fritz Meyer tells what he saw in the sky at 8:31 p.m. that summer night off the coast of Long Island where 230 people were killed. On site with the documentary’s camera crew, Meyer says he saw a trail of white headed for the plane and then four explosions before the ultimate fuel-tank explosion that erupted into a fireball. But when Meyer approached the FBI to give his testimony, a five-minute interview with a single agent who took no notes was the only time he was given.
Meyer is a Vietnam war combat veteran who flew 46 rescue missions in Vietnam and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. But despite the witness’ credibility, the FBI never contacted him again.
Other eyewitnesses tell their stories. One, whose testimony the CIA says was used to create the agency’s animated account of the plane’s demise, said the animated explanation did not depict what he saw, and he was never contacted by the agency. Other witnesses also say the animated version did not reflect the real-life event. Indeed, according to the documentary, the CIA did not interview a single witness to the disaster, relying instead on FBI summaries of witness testimonies. And no witnesses were allowed to testify in the NTSB hearings about the crash.
Independent writer and producer Jack Cashill produced the documentary. An Emmy-award-winning producer, Cashill also developed the documentary “Triumph of Design” about the life of Charles Darwin.
“Silenced” features investigative reporter James Sanders, a former California police officer-turned-journalist who has written books on prisoners of war and soldiers who were declared missing in action. He also wrote “The Downing of TWA Flight 800” in 1997. Three years after the Flight 800 incident, Sanders was convicted of conspiracy and theft after his research led to the exposure of physical evidence of a missile explosion.
Sanders and his wife, Elizabeth, a former TWA flight attendant and trainer, were both found guilty of the felony offense after one of TWA’s top investigators assigned to Flight 800, Capt. Terrell Stacey, testified against them. The couple knew that Stacey, a pilot who flew the Flight 800 route from Paris to New York the day before the crash, was preparing to scrape a residue sample off the interior of the passenger compartment. But when scraping proved implausible, Stacey removed small pieces of the plane and seat cloth and sent them to Sanders, who had lab tests performed on the residue.
Test results confirmed what Sanders had suspected: The residue could have been produced by a “solid fuel missile or warhead explosion,” Sanders says on the video. Government agents on the case dismissed the lab results, first saying the residue was glue and then claiming it was the result of a bomb-dog drill.
But Sanders’ didn’t have the opportunity to dig deeper as his investigation was cut short. After a California newspaper ran a front-page story about the missile theory, Sanders and his wife – both of whom had gone into hiding to avoid scrutiny – were arrested. Given a three-year probation sentence, Sanders’ research has effectively been halted.
“I cannot go anywhere outside of the federal judicial area I live in without telling them where I’m going,” he said, noting that his financial records are inspected every month as well. “They have effectively removed my ability to open any investigation of them whatsoever during the 3-year period and to have sensitive sources in those 3 years. You can’t investigate them without sensitive sources.”
During the couple’s April 1999 trial, the jury was not allowed to know about Sanders’ occupation as an investigative journalist, according to the documentary.
Experts in aviation, military personnel, a national machinists union and others all contest the CIA’s explanation of the crash. Cashill’s hour-long documentary looks into different explanations and theories about the catastrophe and gives voice to witnesses the FBI, NTSB and CIA chose not to hear. From tampered and stolen evidence to de-bunked theories about the plane’s post-explosion trajectory and the modification of eyewitness testimonies, “Silenced” sheds a startling light on what government officials want to sweep under the rug.
Before beginning production on “Silenced,” Cashill said he personally inquired into Sanders’ research, saying he didn’t want to commit until he was convinced. Once Cashill saw the evidence, his skepticism vanished.
While the documentary does not attempt to point a finger at who allegedly shot down Flight 800, it does condemn officials for covering up what may actually have happened.
“The cover-up is so spectacularly brazen, and the truth is so obvious, it stuns even a cynic. To watch ‘Silenced’ is to come away a believer,” said Cashill, who says the problem in the investigation lies in the Justice Department and perhaps even higher.
Cashill also blames the media for merely accepting the government’s explanation of the crash without investigating further.
What happened to the Federal Aviation Administration’s radar data showing a high-velocity object colliding with Flight 800? Why hasn’t the NTSB been able to prove a mechanical error caused the spark that ignited the fuel explosion? Who was driving the mystery boat at sea under the site of the explosion, and why did it speed away after the incident? What evidence was being removed from the aircraft’s reconstruction site the night three FBI agents were caught fleeing the scene at 3 a.m.? “Silenced” explores these questions and many more.