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.
FBI agent James Kallstrom has been named head of anti-terrorism for New York. He was chief investigator of the explosion aboard TWA 800. He’s just weeks away from concluding that the World Trade Center collapsed due to mechanical failure.
– Comedian Argus Hamilton
Sept. 11 had to be a day of agony for James Kallstrom. He had spent more than 20 years of his FBI career in the New York City office, the last four of those years as bureau chief. How many good people he knew among the dead and wounded, we do not presume to calculate.
Yet the burden Kallstrom bore that day went deeper than the loss of friends and colleagues. As the FBI agent in charge of the TWA 800 investigation starting five years prior, he had had the opportunity to prevent an event like this from happening. But he did not. The lessons that might have been learned – and the changes that might have been made – were not.
The corruption of the Flight 800 investigation was not Kallstrom’s idea. It came from the top. But, reluctantly or otherwise, Kallstrom let it happen. He allowed the investigation to become a farce, an unfunny running gag, an open sore in America’s psyche, and the source of an unprecedented and deeply felt cynicism among its aviation community. To verify the depths of that cynicism, just ask any TWA pilot or mechanic or Boeing engineer what brought down that doomed airliner. “Mechanical failure” will not be among the answers.
The case of TWA 800 also served as a “turning point” in the Islamic jihad. In his authoritative book, “Bin Laden, The Man Who Declared War on America,” Yossef Bodansky argues that in its “ability to suppress terrorist explanations and ‘float’ mechanical failure theories” about the demise of TWA 800, the Clinton administration opened a hellish Pandora’s Box.
“To avoid such suppression after future strikes,” Bodansky prophesied, “terrorism-sponsoring states would raise the ante so that the West cannot ignore them.”
Bodansky wrote this in 1999. As the director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, he knew whereof he spoke. For the record, he is also the director of research of the International Strategic Studies Association and a senior editor for the Defense & Foreign Affairs group of publications.
In his book on Bin Laden, Bodansky unequivocally cites the crash of TWA 800 as a terrorist act. Although imprecise on the specifics of the act itself, he details the events leading up to it and the claims of responsibility afterwards. The intelligence we (Sanders and Cashill) have received since Sept. 11 strongly supports his claim. (The actual terrorist scenario, however, differs from what most people believed. More on this when fully confirmed.)
Having spent 25 years in the highly Catholic culture of the FBI, Kallstrom surely understands guilt. His actions suggest as much. A month after the destruction of the World Trade Center, he abandoned a comfy sinecure as executive vice president at credit card giant MBNA Inc., and assumed the gritty top job at New York state’s new Office of Public Security. The new job may well be his own attempt at atonement. He has much to atone for.
Unlike the hacks at the National Transportation Safety Board – Chair Jim Hall and Vice-Chair Robert Francis – Kallstrom could find no easy refuge in willful ignorance or political opportunism. In 1996 at least, James Kallstrom was a serious man with an admirable record. As a young Marine platoon commander, he had served in Vietnam near the DMZ and fought in the grueling battle of Khe Sanh. As an FBI agent, he worked on the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and led his office in its successful assault on John Gotti and the New York mob. In sum, he had established a worthy record for himself long before he ever knew the name “Bill Clinton,” a name that today, he must regret ever hearing.
The Clinton pattern now seems clear. Right after the crash, the White House pressured investigators into silence under the guise of national security. But Kallstrom was savvy enough to recognize political expediency when he saw it, especially in the run up to a presidential election.
Unlike Clinton, Kallstrom truly felt the pain – in his own words – “of walking into a Ramada Inn on day two or day three, and seeing a thousand plus people that have just lost their daughter or their son, a mother or father in some cases, the entire family.” In reviewing the record, one finds an impulse towards truth telling on his part that is unique in the investigation.
“We do have information that there was something in the sky,” he told the press soon after the crash. “A number of people have seen it. A number of people have described it similarly. It was ascending.” No one at the NTSB dared even imply as much.
His instinct to tell the truth warred with the pressure to remain silent. A few months after the attack, for instance, TWA attendant Marge Gross, whose brother was killed in the crash, heard a reporter yell to him, “You can’t tell me it was anything but a missile that took that plane down.” According to Gross, Kallstrom shot back, “You’re right, but if you quote me, I’ll deny it.” Denial would become his MO.
With all talk of missile off the table, Kallstrom focused the FBI’s energy on a bomb – an explanation that, technically at least, may prove defensible. (Indeed, on Sept. 11, on ABC TV, Clinton aide George Stephanopolous referred to the incident as “the bombing of TWA 800.”) For months, Kallstrom pushed this theory in spite of the overt resistance of the NTSB and covert resistance from the White House. In the process, he made few friends anywhere.
Kallstrom was the only official, for instance, to acknowledge that the U.S. Navy had a significant presence in the area of the crash. The Navy had, in fact, claimed that its closest ship was the Aegis-missile cruiser Normandy, 185 miles to the south. When asked about the three vessels within six miles of the crash site by Reed Irvine of Accuracy In Media, Kallstrom answered, “We all know what those were. In fact, I spoke about those publicly. They were Navy vessels that were on classified maneuvers.” This response is tape-recorded.
Revealing, too, is Kallstrom’s take on the likely residue trail that James Sanders and TWA pilot and investigator Terry Stacy had identified within the cabin of the airliner. Dr. Bernard Loeb of the NTSB told a House Aviation Subcommittee, “One thing I can say categorically is that there is no such thing as a red residue trail in that airplane.” A few days earlier, however, Kallstrom had told The Riverside Press-Enterprise, “There is a red residue trail.”
Kallstrom’s instinct may have been to tell the truth but, somewhere along the way, he seems to have lost it. To observe him in his final year at the FBI is to see a man whose self-loathing finds a tortured outlet in increasingly brutish, dishonest behavior. Unlike his ultimate boss, Kallstrom was not a very good liar.
“I watched a news conference,” Jim Lehrer once asked him on his show, “Newshour.” “It seemed to me you got a little hot when the reporter asked you about why it took so long.”
As the investigation progressed, Kallstrom often got hot – or worse. On one well-documented occasion, in full view of the press, Kallstrom yelled “Remove him” after a reporter asked a tough but appropriate question. His agents grabbed the man by his arms and did just that.
If Kallstrom came clean about the three naval vessels, he insisted on lying about the fourth, telling Reed Irvine that the critical “30 knot track” represented a helicopter, a preposterous speculation.
Kallstrom helped spread the lie that a dog-training exercise in St. Louis was the source of the explosive residue found on the plane, a fabrication that humiliated the officer in question. When flight-safety advocate Victoria Cummock questioned this assertion, Kallstrom tried to browbeat her into submission. “It’s absolutely confirmed that it was that plane,” he reportedly told her. In fact, the exercise did not take place on the Flight 800 plane, and he knew it.
On another occasion, Kallstrom informed Jim Lehrer – a few months after the
crash of TWA 800 – the streak of light a Pakistani pilot had seen
“ascending” from the ocean was likely a “meteorite shower,” an explanation
that is laughable on the face of it.
Most egregiously, although Kallstrom acknowledged that there was a “red residue trail” across the cabin of the plane, he claimed that it was nothing but “glue.” This falsehood would lead to the conviction of Sanders and his wife, Elizabeth, on conspiracy charges.
Kallstrom’s downward spiral culminated in the November 1997 press conference in which he showed the now notorious CIA animation and announced the FBI’s withdrawal from the case.
“That’s correct, not one scintilla of evidence after all these months and all the investigation.” Kallstrom told Jim Lehrer after the press conference. “We left no stone unturned. In fact, we looked under every rock multiple times. We owe that to an investigation of this magnitude and this much tragedy.”
To watch Kallstrom at this sad phase of his career is to see a man so badly bruised and compromised, it takes one’s breath away. No stone unturned? The FBI interviewed Major Fritz Meyer, the National Guard helicopter pilot who stared the attack on Flight 800 in its face, for all of five minutes and took no notes.
The FBI gave Navy Master Chief Dwight Brumley one quick, cursory interview. The FBI agent had no aviation experience and used no navigational aids. Brumley was an essential eyewitness. He had watched a small private plane miss US AIR 217 – on which he was a passenger – by a few hundred feet and then saw a likely missile rise up off the surface 10 seconds later and destroy TWA 800.
More troubling still, the CIA based its animation – a “super job” in Kallstrom’s words – squarely on an FBI “interview” with Philadelphia mechanic Mike Wire that never took place. This needs to be repeated. The most critical FBI interview in the investigation was manufactured out of whole cloth.
When these and other key eyewitnesses protested that they were being silenced, Kallstrom tried to bully them into submission, “I have no idea why they say what they say,” he told the press. “It’s nonsense. It’s stupid. It has no base in fact at all.”
When journalists and researchers tried to peek under Kallstrom’s frequently turned stones to confirm his veracity, his agency argued “national security” and feigned the loss of a massive number of critical documents. By alleging “not one scintilla” and then thwarting all efforts to confirm those allegations, Kallstrom betrayed the idea of “integrity and public service” at the heart of the FBI mission.
To protect his legacy – or at least its fa?ade – Kallstrom silenced even the NTSB. He sent a four-page letter to Jim Hall on the eve of the NTSB’s first public hearing in December of 1997 demanding that the Board not discuss eyewitness reports, explosives, residue trails, or any other “raw investigative details of the criminal investigation.” These details were to remain under wraps at least “until the NTSB has definitively determined an accidental cause for the crash,” which Kallstrom knew would be never. For good measure, Kallstrom also banned the showing of the “super” CIA animation. In the two weeks since its debut, the video had become the laughingstock of the aviation community.
To further silence all protest on the eve of the NTSB hearing, Kallstrom had Jim and Elizabeth Sanders arrested for conspiracy – “Conspiracy Theorist and Wife Arrested” in the memorable words of the FBI press release. Kallstrom quit the FBI days afterward. One senses in him at this time a self-disgust not apparent in the squirrelly behavior of his NTSB colleagues. Unlike them, unlike the Clintons, Kallstrom knew his behavior was indefensible.
Predictably, after the FBI’s departure, the NTSB squandered several more years and some 40 million dollars in its pursuit not of the truth, but of a plausible scenario that did not involve terrorists.
To preserve this possibility, the administration had to lose, suppress or corrupt that radar data, the satellite imagery, the explosive residue, the debris field, the red residue trail, the flight data recorder, the cockpit voice recorder, the metallurgy, the autopsy reports, witness drawings, flight-path calculations, missile tests, fuel-tank tests, ignition sources – indeed, every salient bit of evidence within the investigation.
While the NTSB was busy wasting the taxpayers’ time and money, the White House was busy spinning the story of mechanical failure, one that imposed no demands on the economy. As to the FBI, which has counter-terrorism responsibility for the United States, it was forced to pretend that the only terrorists worth worrying about were American right wingers.
“Did you not get even a scintilla of a smell,” Jim Lehrer asked Kallstrom about TWA 800 in that culminating interview, “that this might have been a terrorist act?”
“You always get a few smells when you – I mean, you always get information, and I don’t want to make it sound like we didn’t get any information,” Kallstrom stumbled. “We didn’t get anything that we put much credence in. We didn’t get anything with real specificity. We didn’t get any golden nuggets or any grains of gold, quite frankly.”
Kallstrom is too good a man to be too good a liar. Now he takes this job with New York state to put the lies behind him, to wash away the slime of the Clinton years, to seek the forgiveness of the 5,000 or so Americans whose lives he might have saved.
As Kallstrom knows, however, there is no redemption without contrition. And there will be no redemption for America until someone exposes from within the dark heart of the Clinton years. It will hurt him, but James Kallstrom may be the one man with honor enough to do it.