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.
On September 20, The Boston Globe broke the story of how the so-called Gore Commission failed conspicuously to address airline safety. The Globe claims this failure “represents the clearest recent public example of the success that airlines have long had in defeating calls for more oversight.” The Globe traces that failure to a series of campaign donations from the airlines to the Democratic National Committee in 1996, in the wake of the crash of TWA Flight 800.
Although on the right track, The Globe has gotten only half the story. The complete story is much more chilling. Yes, the Clinton-Gore team did abandon security planning for sake of campaign cash. But worse, the White House deliberately concealed the real cause of the crash – in no small part to justify that abandonment.
From the very beginning, the Clinton administration knew that the airliner did not explode due to mechanical failure. George Stephanopoulos acknowledged as much on ABC in the wake of the recent World Trade Center attack. “In my time at the White House,” he said off-handedly, “(the situation room) was used in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, in the aftermath of the TWA Flight 800 bombing, and that would be the way they would stay in contact through the afternoon.” This revelation was reported on WND by Reed Irvine recently.
Likewise forgetting himself, Senator John Kerry, on Larry King Live on September 11, 2001, suggested that TWA Flight 800 was brought down by a terrorist act.
These were not mistakes. As we have reported elsewhere, the White House realized from the beginning that the plane had been shot down. So unnerved was the White House by the potential political consequences of this scenario that it singled out “missile” as the one explanation for the crash that could not be pursued, even discussed. Almost immediately, its operatives channeled the investigation into a false dialectic between bomb and mechanical failure.
In the days to come, no government representative would openly volunteer information about a missile. There would be no public discussion of the troubling radar data sent to the White House, no mention of the 96 eyewitnesses who saw an object streak off the horizon towards TWA 800, no reference to the National Guard helicopter pilots who stared the missile attack in its face or the senior Navy NCO who watched it from above on US Air 217.
On July 25th of that year, feigning an open mind, President Clinton announced the formation of a commission to deal with the perceived attack on that doomed airplane. It would be called The White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security and was officially established by Executive Order on August 22. Chairing the commission was to be Vice President Al Gore.
On August 14, 1996, President Clinton invited Victoria Cummock, the widow of a Pan Am Flight 103 victim and an airline-safety advocate, to join the Commission. In inviting her, the president assured Cummock that he wanted to develop tough new counter-terrorism measures. With the timing of this invitation, however, he may well have hoped to offset the bombshell announcement in that morning’s New York Times.
“Now that investigators say they think the center fuel tank did not explode,” wrote The Times on August 14th, “they say the only good explanations remaining are that a bomb or a missile brought down the plane off Long Island.”
That same day, The Times reported that analyses of the debris field, the center wing tank and explosive residue on the plane combined to deal “a serious blow to the already remote possibility that a mechanical accident caused the crash.”
Given the perceived seriousness of the threat that August, Clinton also appointed to the Commission former CIA Director John M. Deutch, Department of Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pe?a, retired Air Force General John Michael Loh, and others with experience in aviation safety and security matters.
The full Commission held its first executive session on September 5, 1996, and on September 9, the Commission submitted its tough preliminary report to the president, advancing 20 recommendations to strengthen aviation security. At a press conference that day, Vice President Gore declared his strong support for these proposals.
But this support did not last for long. “Within 10 days, the whole (airline) industry jumped all over Al Gore,” Mrs. Cummock would claim. As The Globe correctly reports, this pressure took the form of an intense lobbying campaign aimed at the White House. On September 19, Gore backed off the proposal in a letter to Carol Hallett, president of the industry’s trade group, the Air Transport Association.
Wrote Gore, ”I want to make it very clear that it is not the intent of this administration or of the commission to create a hardship for the air transportation industry or to cause inconvenience to the traveling public.”
To reassure Hallett, The Globe reports, Gore added that the FAA would develop ”a draft test concept … in full partnership with representatives of the airline industry.”
What The Globe did not report, however, is that on the same day the administration was sending this letter, it was signaling its cooperativeness to the airline industry through a calculated leak to The New York Times. The lead of The Times story reads as follows:
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, saying they are convinced that none of the physical evidence recovered from T.W.A. Flight 800 proves that a bomb brought down the plane, plan tests intended to show that the explosion could have been caused by a mechanical failure alone.
Weeks before, The Times had reported that “the only good explanations remaining are that a bomb or a missile brought down the plane off Long Island.” In the interim, the evidence for a missile strike had grown only stronger as more explosive residue had been found on the plane and more eyewitnesses had been interviewed.
Now, however, officials were telling the public through the media that a mechanical failure brought down the airplane. It followed, of course, that a mechanical failure did not necessitate urgent security measures. This was the first time the administration had made such a declaration, and its timing is highly suspicious.
The investigators took this new direction despite an admission to The Times that “they have no evidence pointing to a mechanical malfunction.” They claimed instead that “the failure to find proof of a bombing” had led them to re-explore the possibility that an explosion of the center fuel tank destroyed the plane. As was typical, these sources refused to mention even the possibility of a missile.
The next day, the Democratic National Committee received a $40,000 contribution from TWA. On that same day, to make some sense of its radical change in direction, the NTSB started leaking the story of the St. Louis dog-training exercise. The NTSB claimed that a careless airport cop had spilled explosive residue on the plane during a training exercise a month before the crash. This exercise, the NTSB implied, was responsible for the traces of explosive residue found on the plane – not a bomb or missile.
As we have reported, this story broke even before the FBI had a chance to interview the St. Louis cop who was involved. The release of the Gore letter and the receipt of the TWA donation may explain the haste of the NTSB leak. Those responsible needed something, anything, to throw the press off track and allay public anxiety.
As can be proved beyond any reasonable doubt, the dog-training exercise did not take place on the 747 that would become TWA Flight 800. Ms. Cummock sensed this possibility herself when, at an FBI briefing, she had asked to see the FAA log for the training exercise.
“They said, ‘It’s not conclusive this particular plane was involved,’” she told the Village Voice. “They couldn’t produce the log.” FBI honcho Jim Kallstrom, however, tried to browbeat Cummock into submission. “It’s absolutely confirmed that it was that plane,” he reportedly told her.
Incredibly, the dog story worked. The all-too-credulous media did not bother to check the documentation and backed off the terrorist angle. The public relaxed, and the pressure for increased airport security deflated quickly. The Boston Globe reports what happened next:
By the time of the presidential election, other airlines had poured large donations into Democratic Party committees: $265,000 from American Airlines, $120,000 from Delta Air Lines, $115,000 from United Air Lines, $87,000 from Northwest Airlines, according to an analysis done for the Globe by the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks donations. In all, the airlines gave the Democratic Party $585,000 in the election’s closing weeks. Over the preceding 10-week period, the airlines gave the Democrats less than half that sum.
Unaware of the specifics of the spin or the motivation behind it, Victoria Cummock nonetheless sensed that something was awry. “It was quite obvious,” Ms. Cummock has told us, “that we were being railroaded.”
Ms. Cummock grew alarmed in January 1997 when the vice-president’s staff circulated a draft final report that essentially eliminated all security measures from their findings. She was not alone in her concern. CIA Director and fellow Commissioner John Deutch also protested.
Gore, as Tony Blankley reports in The Washington Times, withdrew the draft. On February 12, 1997, Gore issued a final report that has all the appearance of seriousness. Although released five months after the breaking of the dog-training story, the following excerpt seems to refer to the demise of TWA Flight 800, the event that triggered this report and the only possible such attack within the last eight years:
When terrorists attack an American airliner, they are attacking the United States. They have so little respect for our values – so little regard for human life or the principles of justice that are the foundation of American society – that they would destroy innocent children and devoted mothers and fathers completely at random. This cannot be tolerated, or allowed to intimidate free societies. There must be a concerted national will to fight terrorism.
Following this paradoxical introduction was a series of recommendations that seem both forceful and reasonable, to wit, “3.13 Conduct airport vulnerability assessments and develop action plans.” These recommendations did not trouble Cummock in general. What she criticized was their vagueness. She cited 3.13 above, like many others, for its absence of “specificity,” “accountability” and “timetables/deadlines.”
“In summary,” Cummock wrote, “the final report contains no specific call to action, no commitments to address safety and security system-wide by mandating the deployment of current technology and training, with actionable timetables and budgets.” Without tough and timely enforcement, she rightly believed that the recommendations would become just so many words on a page, pure Washington spin.
“After much thoughtful consideration and with a very heavy heart,” Cummock filed a dissent against the Gore proposal. Gore stated publicly that he would include the dissent in the final report. But when he presented that report to the president, he not only failed to accommodate Cummock, but he also claimed that the report’s findings were unanimous. “Both of those Gore lies are on video tape,” reports Blankley in The Washington Times. “NBC’s Dateline has the tapes.”
With her dissent suppressed, Cummock sued the vice president, the secretary of Transportation, and the Commission in district court. In her view, as expressed in her ultimately successful appeal of a dismissed suit, “The Clinton administration had formed the Commission simply to obtain rubber-stamp endorsement of a predetermined policy agenda, rather than to facilitate genuine deliberations.”
As her suit successfully but slowly made its way through the courts, the Clinton administration kept on spinning its apocryphal tale that “mechanical failure” destroyed TWA 800, a tale that deceived an all too gullible media and lulled an all too complacent public.
Instead of action, President Clinton gave us the illusion of peace and security. He had a talent for giving us exactly what we wanted, and before September 11, illusion is all we asked for. As for TWA 800, the man on the street will still tell you, “It was mechanical failure or something, wasn’t it?”
While the public slept and the White House spun, a band of assassins began to “conduct airport vulnerability assessments” of their own. On September 11, 2001, these terrorists launched an “action plan” that sliced through our unfortified security like butter and dispelled every illusion of peace or security we ever entertained.
Our illusions shattered, the time may be right to start asking for the truth.