Scooped by the Washington Post on the second biggest political scandal of our time, Watergate, the New York Times had a chance to even the score. The paper had an all but proprietary lock on the most consequential political cover-up in recent American history, the case of TWA Flight 800. But the Times, alas, blew it, undone less by its ideological affinity for President Clinton than by old-fashioned journalistic hubris.
On July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 exploded only 12 minutes out of JFK along the south shore of Long Island, New York Times territory to be sure. On July 18, the last day of official honesty, Times reporters were all over the place, and they were pressing for the truth.
On that day, unnamed “government officials” – most likely the FBI – told the New York Times that air traffic controllers had “picked up a mysterious radar blip that appeared to move rapidly toward the plane just before the explosion.”
These officials and the Times unequivocally linked the radar to the eyewitness sightings and the sightings to a missile attack. According to the Times’ sources, “The eyewitnesses had described a bright light, like a flash, moving toward the plane just before the initial explosion, and that the flash had been followed by a huge blast – a chain of events consistent with a missile impact and the blast produced by an aircraft heavily laden with fuel.” As one federal official told the Times that first morning, “It doesn’t look good,” with the clear implication of terrorism.
This was the last day these officials were open with the media about the possibility of a missile strike. The words “radar” and “eyewitness” would all but disappear from the Times’ reporting after that. Nor would the Times investigate the role of the military in the downing of TWA 800, not one paragraph, and not one word about satellites and what they might have captured.
As it happens, the Atlanta Olympics opened on July 19, the day the above stories were reported. Were the White House to acknowledge that a terrorist attack from outside the plane had caused its destruction, the FAA would have been compelled to shut down aviation on the east coast. The president, running single-mindedly for reelection on a buoyant peace and prosperity message, would have had neither. Accordingly, all missile talk ceased on that day (at least for a while). The investigation was forced into a false dialectic between bomb and mechanical failure. And the government, especially the FBI, would make the Times its unwitting messenger.
The day of the president’s visit to Long Island eight days after the crash would prove to be something of a milestone. On that same day, for the first time, unnamed “law enforcement officials,” most assuredly the FBI, told the New York Times that they “supported the theory that the plane was destroyed by a bomb.” At a separate briefing that day, FBI honcho James Kallstrom reinforced the theory. “We know there was a catastrophic explosion,” he admitted, “It was caused by some kind of bomb, obviously explosion.” Yet, there was never any evidence of the same then, nor would there ever be, at least not a conventional bomb within the plane.
To its credit, the FBI pushed to the terrorist side of the equation and pulled the Times with it. The Times’ article on Aug. 14 – “Fuel Tank’s Condition Makes Malfunction Seem Less Likely” – was the most provocative yet.
According to the Times, investigators “concluded that the center fuel tank caught fire as many as 24 seconds after the initial blast that split apart the plane, a finding that deals a serious blow to the already remote possibility that a mechanical accident caused the crash.” One official was quoted as saying that parts of the tank were in ”pristine condition.” Said another official who insisted on anonymity, ”It is clear that whatever set off the tank did not severely damage the tank. Something else, most likely later, blew up the tank.”
There was more. Investigators told the Times that the pattern of the debris “persuaded them that a mechanical malfunction is highly unlikely.” From their analysis of the debris field, these investigators concluded the following, a summary that still has all the appearance of unvarnished truth:
- The blast’s force decapitated the plane, severing the cockpit and first-class cabin, which then fell into the Atlantic Ocean. The rest of the plane flew on, descending rapidly, and as it did thousands of gallons of jet fuel spilled out of the wings and the center fuel tank between them. At 8,000 feet, about 24 seconds after the initial blast, the fuel caught fire, engulfing the remainder of the jetliner into a giant fireball.
“Now that investigators say they think the center fuel tank did not explode,” read the Times account, “they say the only good explanations remaining are that a bomb or a missile brought down the plane.”
If the FBI was indeed steering the Times towards a terrorist scenario, the agency was also steering it away from any talk of missiles. When “government officials” stopped talking about missile sightings, so did the Times. The paper’s first article on the subject, and first serious reference in a month, occurred on Aug. 17. The article featured one Michael Russell, an engineer who witnessed the explosion from a boat. According to the Times, “His sober, understated story was one of only a few that investigators have judged credible.” The Times took its story straight from FBI sources and picked up its spin as well. These few “clear accounts” like Russell’s, the reader is told, have “substantially weakened support for the idea that a missile downed the plane.”
That is correct, weakened. The Times continues to track with the FBI’s spin, claiming that Russell’s account of a quick flash well before the large fireball has “bolstered the idea that a bomb, and not an exploding fuel tank, triggered the disintegration of the airplane.”
At this stage in the article, the FBI account, as reported by the Times, devolves into fantasy:
- The winnowing of witnesses’ accounts, investigators have said, involved teams of Federal agents and safety board officials. They watched for distinctive body language and listened for phrases that appeared to have been taken from newspaper headlines about the crash. Certain cues marked some witnesses as “pleasers,” or people eager to say what they thought interviewers wanted to hear, said one crash investigator, who refused to be identified. Most of the accounts were embellished, with many approaching the outlandish, the investigator said.
The notion of “teams” of FBI officers and NTSB agents working together, methodically evaluating witness testimony, proved to be utterly preposterous. The NTSB was roughly excluded from the process, and the FBI was notoriously unsystematic in its interviews.
The Times adds that there were “fewer than a dozen accounts” that the FBI considered “believable enough to hold clues to what happened.” In due time, the FBI would acknowledge of the roughly 750 eyewitnesses, some 270 saw streaks of light in the sky converging on TWA Flight 800, sightings that, according to the NTSB, were “generally similar to one another.” The article also fails to mention the intelligence analysts from Defense Department, the ones who had reported to the FBI, “Many of the descriptions given by eyewitnesses were very consistent with the characteristics of the flight of such missiles.”
Obviously, the FBI had access to more interview data than it let on when its agents told the Times that there were fewer than a dozen credible witnesses. It had all but completed its interviewing by this time. The Times, however, did not challenge the FBI data and did not bother to seek out witnesses on its own. The FBI surely recommended the one witness the Times interviewed. The major media followed the Times lead.
For all its misdirection, the FBI seems to have been struggling against the White House throughout August. On Aug. 23, the New York Times broke a headline story, top right: “Prime Evidence Found That Device Exploded in Cabin of Flight 800.” This article stole the thunder from Clinton’s election-driven approval of welfare reform in that same day’s paper and threatened to undermine the peace and prosperity message of next week’s Democratic convention.
“Investigators have finally found scientific evidence that an explosive device was detonated inside the passenger cabin of Trans World Airlines Flight 800,” reported the Times authoritatively. The paper referred specifically to the traces of PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate, first identified by a dog more than two weeks before.
These investigators told the Times that PETN is commonly found in bombs and surface-to-air missiles, “making it impossible, for now, to know for sure which type of explosive device destroyed the Boeing 747.” The Times reminded its readers that 10 days prior the FBI had said that ”one positive result” in the forensic tests would cause them to declare the explosion a crime. Now, however, senior investigators “were not ready to declare that the crash was the result of a criminal act in part because they did not yet know whether the explosion was caused by a bomb or a missile.”
But there was a speed bump ahead. On the 25th, for the first time, the New York Times published a story with a “missile” lead. “The discovery of PETN,” claimed the article, “has kept alive the fearsome though remote possibility that the airliner was brought down by a surface-to-air missile.” The article steers wide of any possible military involvement and relies only on information that had already been revealed, but it showed at least a streak of independence on the Times’ part that had to have worried the White House. On the next day, the 26th, the Democratic Convention opened.
On the 29th, President Clinton dedicated only one paragraph to the question of terrorism or aviation safety, and this towards the very end of a long, self-congratulatory acceptance speech:
- [W]e will improve airport and air travel security. I have asked the vice president to establish a commission and report back to me on ways to do this. But now we will install the most sophisticated bomb detection equipment in all our major airports. We will search every airplane flying to or from America from another nation – every flight, every cargo hold, every cabin, every time.
The implication was clear: If the FBI had not ruled out a missile, the White House had. The president, however, could live with a “bomb” and maybe even score a few political points off of it. There was, after all, a momentum building at the New York Times for a terrorist scenario that even the White House did not seem able to not check.
The next day, the 30th, the Times explained the details of such a scenario in a lengthy piece. As reported, investigators had prepared a second-by-second computer simulation of the disintegrating plane. The simulation was based on the physical evidence, the debris field, even the radar tracking, but not any eyewitness testimony. Despite this deficiency, the simulation is still revealing. It shows that almost everything first blown out of the plane came from one area on the right side along the right wing. Two seats on the right side of row 23 had fist-sized holes in the back, and row 24 was missing altogether as was much of the material from rows 20-27. Traces of PETN were also found in this general area.
On that same day, the FBI announced that it had discovered additional traces of explosive residue “on a piece of wreckage from inside the Boeing 747 near where the right wing meets the fuselage.” The location is critical. This is exactly where the first explosion seemed to be centered. At the briefing, the FBI did not identify the type of chemical, but “senior investigators” tipped off the Times that the substance was RDX. The Times learned that RDX was “a major ingredient of Semtex, a plastic explosive developed in Czechoslovakia that has become a favorite of terrorist bombers.” In fact, one agent told the Times that finding the two ingredients together, RDX and PETN, was ”virtually synonymous with Semtex.”
The Times, which prided itself on its sources, was now being steered by the FBI agents exactly where they wanted this investigation to go – away from the “missile” and back towards the bomb, even if it meant revealing more information. If PETN alone allowed for the possibility of a missile, PETN and RDX together argued much more strongly for a bomb.
Note, too, how voluble the once tight-lipped FBI had become. Kallstrom’s claim that FBI “evidence was never discussed, period” is revealed as no more than a PR strategy. So perfect is the set-up that it causes one to doubt whether the PETN and RDX had, in fact, been found in the same area.
For the next three weeks there was almost no news from the investigation. On Sept. 19, the same day that Al Gore was quietly telling the airline industry that it had nothing to fear from his security and safety commission, the Times was summoned to NTSB headquarters in Washington. The lead of the Times subsequent 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.
Recall that 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 an external 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:
- In fact, a senior N.T.S.B. official said, if there was a bomb, investigators probably would have seen ”classic signs” of it by now, including metal that is pitted and bent by high-energy shock waves. Likewise, he said, the fact that they have not found any parts of a missile puts that theory in more doubt.
The investigators took this new direction despite an admission to the Times that “they have no evidence pointing to a mechanical malfunction.” (They never would.) 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.
On the next day, Sept. 20, almost surely to make some sense of its radical change in direction, the administration advanced a new story, one that proved to have extraordinary effect. The Times article on Sept. 21 well summarizes the government’s argument. “Federal officials,” said the Times, claimed that “the jetliner was used during a test of a bomb-detecting dog five weeks before the crash, which they said could explain the traces of explosives found in the wreckage.”
The test took place at the St. Louis airport on June 10, five weeks before the crash. As the Times relates, packages containing explosives were placed in the plane’s passenger cabin for the dog to find. These packages contained “the same explosives as those found by investigators after the crash.”
The explanation was not perfect. For one, as the Times admitted the next day, “The packages were not placed in the same place where the traces were located.” Then, too, the records found in St. Louis failed to mention the tested plane by tail number or gate.
Despite these limitations, investigators admitted that the dog exercise “deepened the mystery of whether the plane exploded because of sabotage or mechanical failure.” The effect of this discovery was powerful. The Times summed up its impact: “For some investigators the revelation of the bomb-sniffing dog amounted to a stunning setback.” The Times quotes one investigator as saying that the news hit him like ”a punch in the gut.”
Don Van Natta, who pursued this case diligently for the Times, admitted to me during a phone conversation in August 2001 that the dog training revelation sidetracked his pursuit of the terrorist angle. It likely 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.
Unfortunately, the Times had been seduced by its sources. It did not bother to check whether the Flight 800 plane had, in fact, been the one on which the exercise took place. If its reporters had done even a cursory investigation, they would have learned that the Flight 800 plane was filled with hundreds of happy Hawaii-bound passengers at the very same time that the police officer was tracking his dog through an entirely empty 747 sitting right next to it. “Time” was the only identifying variable the officer ever recorded.
Times’ reporters might also have learned with just a bit of snooping that the training aids did not match the residue found on the plane either in placement or in substance. The dog-training story was, in fact, a knowing fraud, the ultimate red herring of the investigation.
If the dog-training story could distract the Times, it could easily send the rest of the media pack yelping in the wrong direction. And it did. The interest of the major media in the TWA 800 story all but died on Sept. 20, 1996. Worse – perhaps to protect their own reputations – reporters would begin to turn on those who challenged the official version with a passion bordering on fury.
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