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Say it ain't so, Jim

I hate to see a good cop get screwed.

The reason is, I grew up in a world of cops. My grandfather, my father, my uncle, at least three of my cousins and several of my childhood friends are, or have been, cops, mostly in our hometown, Newark, N.J. – a city where a cop earns his keep. For the same reason, I hate to see cops lie, cheat or betray their trust. It dishonors their profession and my family both.

In fact, what attracted me to the TWA 800 case was less the murky details of an aviation disaster than the conspicuous injustice done to retired cop turned investigator reporter, James Sanders, and his wife, Elizabeth. Both were arrested and convicted for doing no more than seeking the truth.

What, in turn, has troubled me the most since I have been involved is the performance of the chief cop on the case, then FBI bureau chief, Jim Kallstrom. In many ways, Kallstrom reminds me of the blunt, tough, sons of the working class with whom I grew up. In other ways, alas, he reminds me of those opportunistic politicos who would sacrifice a cop’s career in a heartbeat if they thought it would advance their own.

In an article we wrote a month ago, James Sanders and I made the case that Kallstrom was a better man than those around him – a victim of his circumstances. That thesis was largely mine. But after finishing Pat Milton’s account of the FBI’s TWA 800 investigation, “In The Blink of an Eye,” I have begun to reassess it.

There is an irony at work here. Milton’s book, published in 1999, resulted, as she tells us, “from the willingness of the FBI to open itself up to a journalist.” Milton did not disappoint. She fawns on Kallstrom to the point of embarrassment. She refers to all dissenters as “conspiracy theorists” and does so ad absurdum. Even those in Congress who dissent, she accuses of having a “private agenda.”

In reading Milton’s book, I found myself wanting to believe Kallstrom, the “symbol,” as she calls him, of the government’s “strength and caring.” I always have. I hate to see a cop go wrong.

For me, the moment of hard reckoning came late in Milton’s account. Here, she portrays Kallstrom heroically facing down his inquisitors at a congressional hearing in July of 1997, a year after the crash. Among those challenging Kallstrom was then congresswoman Patricia Danner. Danner’s “private agenda” was her need to protect TWA, headquartered as it was, claims Milton, in Danner’s St. Louis district.

“If the government was covering up the cause,” Milton writes, “the airline could avoid the suits brought by the victims’ families.” One problem here. Pat Danner represented the Kansas City area about 250 miles and four congressional districts away. (Random House published Milton’s book by the way. Dan Rather called it “meticulously researched.”)

In any case, Danner asked Kallstrom if the FBI had interviewed all the witnesses. Replied Kallstrom, “We have interviewed all of them once, most of them more than once and some of them as many as three or four times, yes.”

A common complaint – even among key eyewitnesses – is that they were interviewed only once, and indifferently at that. Consider, for instance, the treatment of the three most critical eyewitnesses. National Guard pilot Major Fritz Meyer was interviewed for five minutes by the FBI. Navy NCO Dwight Brumley, who watched the accident unfold from US AIR 217, had one cursory FBI interview by an agent with no aviation experience, and that was it. The CIA based its critical animation upon an FBI “reinterview” with U.S. Army veteran Mike Wire that never took place.

As with Wire, the purpose of most follow-up interviews, even the real ones, seemed less to clarify than to dissuade or discredit. Only one month after the crash, the FBI ceased eyewitness interviews altogether. Not a single interview took place for nearly two months. Since then, the FBI has re-interviewed fewer than 2 percent of the witnesses. For its part, the NTSB interviewed no civilian eyewitnesses. The CIA interviewed no eyewitnesses at all.

If one remembers anything about Oliver North, it is that “he lied to Congress,” a serious offense in the eyes of Washington and the people who report on it. One could argue in Kallstrom’s congressional testimony, however, that he was merely “parsing his words,” a common phenomenon in the Clinton years.

Kallstrom’s responses to Representative James Traficant of Ohio are harder to defend. In speaking of the dog training exercise alleged to have taken place on the Flight 800 plane in St. Louis in June of 1996, Traficant asked Kallstrom, “Do you know for sure that that dog was on the plane.”

“We know for sure,” Kallstrom answered. Curiously, in Nov. 1996, two months after the dog story broke, Kallstrom had been far less conclusive about the dog training. In his conversation with Jim Lehrer on the PBS News Hour, Kallstrom admitted that he was not “absolutely” sure “how the chemicals got there.”

By the time of the congressional hearing, with no new evidence to contradict him, Kallstrom had grown more confident. He and the NTSB had managed to make this storyline stick – even though the story was false, and they knew it.

According to the FBI’s own account, St. Louis airport police officer Herman Burnett finished the training on an empty plane no earlier than 12:15 p.m. on the day in question. Given TWA standards, however, a crew of at least 17 would have boarded the Flight 800 plane at about 10:50 a.m. Besides the crew, there would have been maintenance, food service and gate agents coming and going during the dog training exercise, not to mention the passengers. But the police officer, remember, saw no one.

We know the boarding time because we know the departure time. The “Pilot Activity Sheet” for June 10, 1996 shows that TWA No. 17119 – the plane that would become Flight 800 – left St. Louis for Honolulu at 12:35 p.m. with Vance Weir as pilot and Thomas D. Sheary as first officer.

Federal officials were aware of this time as well. A letter from Kallstrom to Traficant reveals that the Flight 800 plane, according to FAA documents, “was parked at Gate 50 from shortly before 700 hours (7 a.m.) until approximately 1230 hours (12:30 p.m.) on that date.”

Officer Burnett recorded only his time and “widebody.” No documentation puts the officer and his dog at this gate or on the Flight 800 plane. And no one in management could have possibly remembered an unwritten gate assignment 10 weeks after so routine an exercise.

So if not the 800 plane, which “widebody” could the officer possibly have used? According to TWA records provided by the FBI, another 747, Number 17116, the sister aircraft – a veritable clone – was parked one gate over.

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.

By the way, although the FBI conducted 7,000 interviews in Kallstrom’s “no stone unturned” investigation, its agents did not bother to interview Capt. Weir or First Officer Sheary. For the record, neither has ever seen a dog exercise on any plane they have flown. For that matter, the FBI interviewed Burnett only after the NTSB had leaked the dog-training story, and Burnett believes he was on another plane.

It gets worse. “Isn’t it a fact,” asks Traficant, “that where the dog was to have visited, that it is not the part of the plane where the precursors of SEMTEX were found?” Traficant here refers to PETN and RDX, chemicals commonly found in bombs and in missile warheads.

“That’s not true,” Kallstrom answered. He then added the kind of detail that would make a defense lawyer cringe. “It is very important where the packages were put, Congressman. And the test packages that we looked at, that were in very bad condition, that were unfortunately dripping those chemicals, were placed exactly above the location of the airplane where we found chemicals on the floor.”

As CNN casually reported on Sept. 20, 1996, the training aids were “well-wrapped packages of explosives.” If the explosives remained well wrapped throughout the exercise, the FBI could not make a convincing case that these training aids were the source of the residue.

The FBI and the NTSB had to convince the media that not only was there an exercise on board, but that it was a sloppy, incompetent one. To pull this off, they needed a scapegoat – and found one in Burnett, an officer with 17 years on the St. Louis airport police force, two of those dedicated to daily dog-training exercises. The Feds portrayed the African-American Burnett as a buffoon, one who, with his dog Carlo, quickly became something of a running joke among the FBI.

Patricia Milton piled on. “Yeah, I could have spilled more than just a little,” she quotes Burnett as saying of the training aids. “The training aids were old and cracked, and we hadn’t used them in a while, so more than usual might have come out.”

Burnett said no such thing. I talked to him a few months ago. The first thing he said of his treatment at the hands of the Feds: “I am pissed off to this day.”

“I never lost any,” he said of the chemicals. “I never spilled any.” The officer related this to me with clarity and conviction. He added, “There was never any powder laying loose.” As to his alleged confession of the same, he answered, “I just hate that they twisted my words. I know what I did and how I did it.”

To give further cover to this elaborate charade, NTSB Chairman Jim Hall had to pretend that the St. Louis episode exposed some larger system-wide problem. In a letter to the FAA that chastised Officer Burnett, he demanded that the agency “develop and implement procedures” to assure “an effective K-9 explosives training program.”

In this same letter, however, Jim Hall makes a curious admission: “During the recovery of wreckage from TWA Flight 800, trace amounts of explosives were found on the interior surfaces of the cabin and cargo area.”

Unexplained by Hall or Kallstrom is how explosives could possibly have been found in the cargo area where dog training never takes place. Kallstrom, in fact, swore that these “dripping” packages were placed “exactly above the location of the airplane where we found chemicals.”

The “location” in the passenger cabin runs roughly from rows 17 to 27 on the right side of the plane, This is beyond dispute. But this area in no way matches the “zig zag” pattern in which the officer placed the five training aids. In fact, the officer made no placements at all within the area where the chemicals were found.

This was brazen. Kallstrom was claiming that the five training aids placed by an experienced officer in “well wrapped packages” accounted for confirmed residue traces across a wide swath of the right side of the passenger cabin and in the cargo hold. He had told Traficant that all of the aids had been placed in this swath when, in fact, none of them had. There is no way to “parse” so conscious a distortion.

After reading Kallstrom’s testimony to Traficant, knowing what I know, I lost all faith in Kallstrom. I still think he resisted doing what he had to do, but he did it. He squandered a lifetime’s credibility on a cover-up that has no justification. In the process, he hurt a lot of people – cops Sanders and Burnett among them – and betrayed many more, his fellow FBI agents included.

“Telling the truth is one of my great faults,” Milton quotes Kallstrom as saying.

That is one fault, alas, that Kallstrom has kept well under control.

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