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Exposing FBI's red herring, part 1

Posted By Jack Cashill On 08/30/2001 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

Editor’s note: James Sanders, a former police officer turned investigative reporter, co-writes this report with Jack Cashill. Sanders is the author of “The Downing of TWA Flight 800″ and “Altered Evidence,” among other books.

No one pursued the story behind the crash of TWA Flight 800 more doggedly than Don Van Natta Jr. of the New York Times, certainly not in the first few months after the crash.

On Aug. 14, 1996, just four weeks after the incident, Van Natta reported, among other crucial findings, that “residue consistent with an explosive” had been identified by chemists in 10 field tests at Calverton, the center of the investigation on Long Island.

Van Natta added the Times’ imprimatur to prior reports on likely explosives from a variety of news sources. As early as July 22, CNN had reported that explosive residue had been detected “on the trailing edge of one wing near the rear baggage compartment of the jet.”

On July 23, CNN quoted White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta as saying that investigators were “close to finding out what happened” to TWA 800. CNN also referenced Panetta’s admission that “chemical residues had been found on some of the bodies and plane parts.”

On July 23, Newsday reported that “a chemical test showed traces of a rare explosive on a wing from TWA Flight 800.” Added one senior federal official on the condition of anonymity, “The divers reported pitting in the external metal portion of the section.”

On July 31, Reuters reported that “samples of apparent residue found on the landing gear have been sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

On Aug. 1, CNN strongly implied that explosive residue had been found not only on the wreckage of the plane but also on the victims’ bodies. When asked to respond to this allegation, FBI agent-in-charge James Kallstrom answered, “I haven’t said I haven’t found it. I just haven’t commented on it.”

By the end of August, the explosive residue story was well established. On Aug. 30, for instance, CNN reported that investigators had “admitted” that a second chemical had been found on the plane – chemicals officially identified by an FBI Lab report as cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine (RDX) and pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN). The CNN story stated that the residue had been found not only in the passenger compartment but also in the cargo area.

CNN acknowledged, too, that rows 23-26 seem to have taken the brunt of the hit. Rows 24 and 25 were missing and seats in row 23 had “fist-sized holes” punched into the back of them. These seats were located just a few feet behind the front edge of the right wing, “where the wreckage shows the greatest amount of fire damage.”

Yet within three weeks, CNN would all but drop any reference to explosive traces found on the plane. So would the other major media. So even would Van Natta and the New York Times.

Curious as to why, we called Van Natta and asked. His comments did not point the way to a grand media conspiracy. But they did lead us indirectly to a key witness not yet heard from in this investigation. We refer here to the St. Louis police officer who unknowingly planted what would prove to be the ultimate “red herring” of this whole investigation.

The phrase “red herring” has a long history. It derives from the practice by 17th century English foxhunters of using actual smoked herring to test and improve a hound’s sense of smell. The pungent odor of the fish was a powerful distraction, but a well-trained hound could identify it, filter it out, and continue the pursuit of the fox being trailed.

The phrase here works much too well. In mid-September 1996, the NTSB reported that the officer in question had carelessly spread explosive residue on the Flight 800 plane during a June 1996 dog training session and left it there. Van Natta admitted that this revelation sidetracked his pursuit of the explosives angle. It may have even confused Van Natta’s sources within this highly-compartmentalized investigation, the ones who, weeks before, had been “absolutely convinced” that something other than a mechanical problem had caused Flight 800 to explode.

Van Natta’s admission made us aware of just how critical a role the dog training story had played in the success of the cover-up. If it could distract the Times, it could easily send the rest of the media pack yelping in the wrong direction. And it did.

CNN is a case in point. On Sept. 20 the network was reporting the dog-training story cautiously, acknowledging that “at least some of the residue was found in the curtain in the rear cargo hold where test packages were never located.” But by the next day, CNN had fully snatched the bait. The headline of that article, “Investigators: Test explosives set back TWA bomb theories,” well summarizes its slant.

A few months later, Van Natta was promoted, transferred to Washington, and taken off the story. It is highly unlikely that his bosses did this to silence him. By this time, the trail had grown cold, and it would take more time, resources and good fortune than even the New York Times could muster to heat it up, especially with a government intent on throwing the media off the scent.

In fact, had not the Internet emerged as a popular force just about the time of the Flight 800 disaster, the story would have died with the 230 good souls on board. As no other medium before it, the Internet has enabled hundreds of interested citizens, many of them with a high level of aviation and/or investigative expertise, to participate in the unraveling of this, the most complex cover-up of our time.

One of those citizens, a retired New Jersey homicide detective, volunteered to serve as a liaison between us and the St. Louis police officer. Just as this article was going to press, the detective relayed to us the officer’s anxieties about his continued participation in our efforts. (We had asked to interview him on camera for an extended version of “Silenced” planned for theatrical release.) We chose to withhold his name from this story but to include his initial observations.

As the official story goes, the FAA traced a likely source of the explosive residue to training exercise at the St. Louis airport on June 10, 1996. Given the almost random state of documentation for these exercises nationwide, this had to have been a laborious task.

On Sept. 20, 1996, the FBI found its way to the officer who oversaw the exercise. As it happens, this is the same date that stories about the dog-training exercise began to appear in the media. In other words, the Feds were leaking this particular story even before anyone had talked to the officer in question – compelling evidence the FBI was committed to pulling the media off the explosive residue story regardless of the facts. They already knew the truth. Now they had to create the lie.

According to the FBI, airport management told the officer that a “wide body” was available for training at Gate 50 that day. The officer then withdrew some exercise “aids” from departmental supplies and drove to Gate 50. Once there, he walked up the exterior jetway staircase and boarded the plane. This information is documented in a letter from Assistant Director in Charge James K. Kallstrom to Rep. James A. Traficant, dated Sept. 5, 1997.

According to the FBI, the officer “made no notations regarding the tail number of the aircraft, as it was not his policy to do so.” As the officer told us, he made no notation of the gate either. He did tell us, however, that he listed specific start and stop times on the training form.

The officer told us and the FBI that he saw no TWA crew, cleaners, caterers or passengers when he boarded at 10:45 a.m. nor at any time when he was on board the 747.

According to the FBI account, the officer concealed the training aids in specific places throughout the passenger cabin in a “zig-zag” pattern. The officer then returned to his car to retrieve the dog and reentered the plane with the dog at 11:45 a.m. According to the FBI, “the exercise lasted 15 minutes, and the dog located all the explosives.” The officer then climbed back down the jetway with the dog, secured the dog in his car and climbed back up to retrieve the training aids from various locations throughout this large aircraft. He placed each aid on the galley counter before carting them all back out. The officer estimated that this activity took 15 minutes.

Based on the scenario developed by the FBI, the officer could not have left the plane earlier than 12:15 p.m. Given the time spent climbing up and down the jetway, a 12:20 or 12:25 p.m. exit is more likely. During this time, the officer saw no one else on board the plane. He did not expect to. He carried out these daily exercises in as “sterile” environment as possible – that is, without anyone present.

Existing records play serious havoc with the FBI scenario. They show that Capt. Vance Weir of Fallbrook, Calif., piloted TWA No. 17119 – the plane that would become Flight 800 – from St. Louis to Hawaii that day and Thomas D. Sheary of Seminole, Fla., was first officer. Weir’s “Pilot Activity Sheet” from June 10, 1996, adds important detail. It indicates that on this day and on this plane he flew out of St. Louis for Honolulu at 12:35 p.m. Please note the time of departure.

Federal officials were aware of this time as well. The letter from Kallstrom to Traficant referenced above makes this clear:

    The FAA in St. Louis provided the FBI with a copy of a TWA document listing gate assignments for June 10, 1996. This document, a copy of which is attached, shows that a 747 bearing TWA # 17119, which is the number for the 747 that was Flight 800, was parked at Gate 50 from shortly before 700 hours (7 AM) until approximately 1230 hours (12:30 PM) on that date.

In other words, the plane that would become Flight 800 left the gate between 12:30 and 12:35 p.m. The police officer, however, did not leave the plane until 12:15 p.m. at the earliest and saw no one. To clean the plane, stock it, check out the mechanics and board several hundred passengers would take more than the 15-minute window of opportunity the FBI’s own timetable presents.

Much more. TWA regulations in effect in 1996 – provided by a TWA source for this article – mandated that the crew of a wide-body report for briefing 90 minutes before scheduled takeoff. The crew therefore had to report to the TWA airport briefing room no later than 10:20 a.m. for a scheduled 11:50 a.m. departure.

Crew members had 30 minutes to complete their briefing and board the 747 as the regulations also mandated that they board one hour before scheduled takeoff. This means that the crew was most likely on the plane by 10:50 a.m.

In the rare circumstance that a “scheduled” delay was known to be in effect during the 10:20 a.m. briefing, and the crew knew the length of the delay, they could have waited to board until 11:35 a.m., 10 minutes before the patrolman is alleged to have brought the dog onboard.

In other words, the crew, the pilot, the first officer, the engineer and a minimum of 14 flight attendants were on board the 747 no later than 11:35 a.m. They would have been preparing the plane for a full load of passengers – stowing their belongings, performing safety equipment pre-flight, and checking food and beverage supplies. Besides a crew of at least 17, there would have been maintenance, food service and gate agents coming and going during the exact same period that the officer was alleged to be exercising his dog and seeing no one.

David E. Hendrix, an investigative reporter for the Riverside, Calif., Press-Enterprise newspaper, interviewed Captain Weir personally and First Officer Sheary by telephone. They told him they saw no dog or officer on the plane that day. How could they be so certain? As they told Hendrix, they have each flown commercial aircraft for 20-plus years, and neither has ever seen a dog training exercise on their plane in all that time. Nor, they said, have they ever had take-off procedures delayed because of such exercises.

So if not the 800 plane, which “wide body” could the officer possibly have used? Gate 50 and 51 at St. Louis Lambert International Airport, (now gates C-36 and C-38, respectively) are at the end of Concourse C. According to TWA records provided by the FBI, the future Flight 800 aircraft was indeed parked at gate 50. Parked at Gate 51 was another 747, Number 17116, the sister aircraft, a veritable clone.

According to TWA records, both aircraft normally operated out of JFK in New York but were shifted to St. Louis for that day because other 747s were undergoing maintenance work. This second plane – bound for JFK International as TWA Flight 844 – would not leave the gate until 2:00 p.m. This later departure would have allowed TWA staff ample time to load and board the plane after the officer finished the training exercise at about 12:15 or slightly later.

To be sure, this second plane was not parked at Gate 50 where the FBI conveniently alleges the exercise took place. But how could either management or the officer remember the site of a daily exercise performed 70 days prior? No known documentation puts the officer and his dog at this gate or on the Flight 800 plane. No one had anything but memory to call on. The officer told us that he believes the exercise took place on a plane other than the one to become Flight 800. In other words, he believes he boarded the 747 at Gate 51. All evidence suggests he’s right.

Federal officials had searched the nation, and probably the world, to find an airport at which a dog exercise had taken place on a day when the Flight 800 plane was parked there. If the time of day did not square – and they knew it didn’t – so be it.

FBI agents chose not to interview Capt. Weir or First Officer Sheary. They couldn’t. They did not want to hear any truth that would undermine the story they were ordered to create. Theirs was not a search for evidence. It was a search for an alibi. The murky documentation that made the search difficult for the feds would make it nearly impossible for a media that did not have access to it.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is just the half of it.

Tomorrow: Part 2 of the red-herring dog story.


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