The most controversial part of our new book, “First Strike – TWA Flight 800 and the Attack on America,” comes at the end, in Chapter 14, when James Sanders and I argue that terrorists used a small airplane as a flying bomb to destroy TWA Flight 800. We further argue that had the truth been told on July 17, 1996, there might not have been a Sept. 11, 2001.
Since the publication of the book, we have received additional evidence of the terrorist plane and, even more significantly, compelling evidence that President Clinton was aware of the “flying bomb” scenario in the summer of 1996.
Given the willful complacency that reigned in that pre-election summer, one can understand why U.S. Navy Master Chief Dwight Brumley did not think “terrorist” as he watched a small, private plane – a “six seater” – head right at the airliner on which he was a passenger. That airliner was US AIR 217, flying at 22,000 feet. Brumley’s observation came about a minute before 217’s north-bound path would intersect Flight 800’s eastbound one just south of the Long Island coast.
All understanding of what transpired that night begins with this “unknown plane.” What is surprising about his sighting is that no official denied it. No agency of government claimed that Brumley was seeing things. “Now you can go back and use the radar data,” said a CIA analyst at an NTSB briefing in 1999, “and indeed there is a plane that flies below [Brumley].”
Cover-ups unravel when the various parties fail to tell the same cover story. Here, the CIA, the FBI and the NTSB would offer different accounts about the plane that Brumley saw, and none of these stories would ring true. This plane clearly did not have its transponder switched on. If it had, secondary radar could have read the number and easily identified the plane. In the absence of such a reading, government agencies were able to characterize this unknown plane as best suited their purposes.
The CIA’s now notorious animation, produced in 1997 to discredit the eyewitnesses, refers to the plane only as a “small aircraft” and visualizes it as such. By 1999, the CIA had changed its story. When asked about the plane by the NTSB, the CIA analyst responsible for the animation replied, “We think it’s a P-3 and we think the P-3 was at an altitude of 20,000 feet and the US AIR was at an altitude of 21,700 feet.” The U.S. Navy P-3 Orion has four engines and a near-100 foot wingspan. Given his Navy experience, Brumley could never have confused a P-3 with a six-seater.
Pat Milton, who wrote “In The Blink of an Eye” in 1999, argues the FBI case as follows: “Radar pinpointed the coordinates of both US AIR 217 and the small commuter plane passing near it just before Flight 800 exploded.” The small commuter plane? Which airline? How could it possibly have passed so close? Why were not its pilot or passengers interviewed by the FBI?
At the NTSB hearing in August 2000, the NTSB’s David Mayer took the revised CIA line: “We used radar data to study this sequence. First, here’s the track of US Air Flight 217 which was at about 22,000 feet. We determined the identity of the airplane that this witness saw pass underneath Fight 217 and used it as a reference point. The other airplane was a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion operating at about 20,000 feet.”
As Mayer and the CIA both knew, however, the P-3 did not fly under US AIR 217. Mayer, in fact, had tried to check the CIA analyst at the 1999 briefing when the analyst first volunteered that the unknown plane was the P-3. “Not that you have a clear memory of …” said Mayer. “It’s been a year ago,” said the CIA analyst, catching Mayer’s drift, “I’m sorry.”
The radar data tell the better story. The P-3 was flying in the same direction as the plane Brumley saw at roughly the same altitude and just a few miles behind it. An intelligence plane like the P-3 had reason to track a small plane flying with its transponder off almost directly at a U.S. airliner. The crew likely shut off the P-3’s own transponder to avoid detection. They must have all breathed a deep sigh of relief, as Brumley himself did, when the plane passed under US AIR 217 not by 2,000 feet, but by “300 or 400 feet.”
As we argue in “First Strike,” the small plane had to have done something dramatic, something that would have caused the U.S. Navy to fire within 10 to 20 seconds after the plane had passed under 217, namely initiate a high-G dive and begin its attack on TWA Flight 800.
When Sanders and I were first alerted to this possibility by sources within the military, Sanders swore that at least one eyewitness had described just such a scenario. I read through all 700-plus FBI witness statements and could not find it. But Sanders memory had not betrayed him. This past week, an observant reader of the book volunteered its source.
This particular eyewitness was cited in Exhibit 25-2 of the “Interim Report on the Crash of TWA Flight 800” by retired Cmdr. William S. Donaldson, U.S. Navy, as “provided by Michael Hull.” According to the report, “A pilot interviewed on CNN (July 17, 1996) said that he saw something like a ‘stunt plane’ dive down into the jumbo jet, which then split into two parts.”
The second-hand nature of this account diminishes its evidentiary value, but two facts enhance it. One is that there was indeed honest reporting in the media for the first 20 hours after the crash. The second is that neither Donaldson nor Hull had any interest in advancing this particular theory.
Another reader of “First Strike” pointed us to eyewitness testimony that is more precise, and all but irrefutable – that of James Nugent, who was sitting immediately behind Brumley on US AIR 217. Nugent was looking out the window to the east, as was Brumley, but he was apparently looking in a different direction. (The positioning and size of windows on airliners makes such differential sightings altogether possible.)
Nugent did not see the unknown plane pass right underneath 217. It is altogether likely, however, that he did see this same plane after it had looped around and begun its descent toward TWA Flight 800. In his first interview with the FBI, Nugent relates that he first sees this plane flying “in an easterly direction to the right and below the aircraft he was aboard.” Nugent believes this plane to be about 10,000 feet below US AIR 217. He observes its “cabin lights” and what he took to be “landing lights.” According to the FBI, “He watched the aircraft for approximately 30 to 40 seconds.”
During the time he was watching, this plane banked to the left and headed back to the west. An FBI agent reported what Nugent saw:
As [Nugent] observed it, the aircraft exploded and a large round orange fireball appeared which seemed to emanate from the front area of the plane. The fireball was approximately twice the size of the aircraft. The plane seemed to stop in mid air “like a bus running into a stone wall – no forward motion.”
Approximately one second after the first explosion, it exploded again and an orange and yellow fireball appeared, the size of which was about 50 to 75 percent larger than the first explosion. This second explosion occurred almost in the same location as the first explosion. And flame from this second explosion, seemed to shoot toward the front of the aircraft ahead of the path of the-vessel.
On Aug. 8, 1996, the FBI interviewed Nugent for the second time. The FBI “302” details the reason, namely “his sighting of an aircraft just prior to his observation of TWA flight 800.” The FBI tacitly acknowledges that the burning plane Nugent saw, whose size and shape he was “unsure of,” was not TWA Flight 800. As the second interview records, “[Nugent] observed what later turned out to be TWA FLIGHT 800 flying in an easterly direction” but only “30 to 60 seconds” after he had keyed in on the unknown plane.
As was typical, the FBI reporting is sloppy and imprecise. But the drawing that Nugent provided to the FBI is not. His illustration recreates the geography of the area and the path of both US AIR 217 and TWA 800 with impressive precision. This precision lends credibility to his mapping of the unknown plane.
As Nugent depicts it, the unknown plane, represented by small dashes, banks fully to the left and is heading almost due west when it merges with the larger dashes representing TWA 800 heading east. From this point of intersection, Nugent draws an unbroken line heading northeast, which tracks almost perfectly with the known path of the doomed TWA 800. (I have been unable so far to contact Nugent).
Nugent presented such serious problems for the NTSB that it buried his testimony in a footnote to its final report. Although arguing that what Nugent (like all other witnesses) saw was TWA 800 “in crippled flight,” the NTSB made one fully contradictory admission – a critical one.
The NTSB report admits that “the center wing tank explosion aboard TWA flight 800 and the subsequent loss of electrical power would have occurred before TWA flight 800 could have been visible to the witness seated in 6F.” In other words, given his position on the right side of 217, Nugent could not have seen TWA 800 with its lights on. The plane he observed with its lights on for 35 to 40 seconds had to have been another plane altogether.
FBI witness 550 adds confirming detail. This still unknown witness was out fishing a mile south of the East Moriches inlet when, according to the FBI, he observed the following:
He saw a plane coming from west to east and then what looked like a “smaller” plane coming from the northeast on a dead course heading toward the nose of the larger plane. There was no smoke tail on the “smaller plane.” [The witness] saw the smaller plane for about 3 or 4 seconds before hearing a crackling sound and saw what looked like aerial bomb fireworks. The larger plane blew up and became a big fireball which then broke into four pieces.
This smaller plane coming from the east and heading west was very likely the plane that Brumley and Nugent saw. A nearby surfer, who, like the fisherman, had the advantage of an uncluttered view, told FBI agent John Kintzing, he “remembered seeing a plane with a light on the left wing, flying from west to east just before the fireworks.”
The surfer was not talking here about Flight 800, as Kintzing made clear with the following detail: “[The witness] thought this was strange because news reports said there weren’t any planes observed on radar at the time of the explosion.” The surfer might well have seen the unknown plane as it looped east before banking back toward the west – that is, “before the fireworks.”
The sightings of Nugent and the fisherman, in particular, may help make sense of what Air National Guard helicopter pilot Chris Baur saw on that tragic and troubling night. As Baur would tell the NTSB at some length in January 1997, he saw a “device” coming from the west strike an “object” coming from the east.
[The object from the west] was moving quick. And it had this light phosphorous glow coming out of the tailpipe. It may have also had something red and phosphorous on it, too. And it was level in its altitude. And it struck something. And the thing that it struck sort of blew up in this big explosion.
Based on the evidence of the debris field and the structural damage to TWA Flight 800, neither of these two colliding objects was likely TWA Flight 800. We believe instead that one was a plane and one was a missile and that the plane was packed with high-energy explosives. Based on Nugent’s observations, the unknown plane may have been struck more than once. TWA Flight 800, we argue, was passing close above this “mid-air,” as Baur describes the collision, and was destroyed in the massive blast that followed.
We have no quarrel with those who believe that missiles were involved, but who dissent from our final scenario. For all their cumulative value, the eyewitness observations are too sketchy and imperfect to allow for complete certitude on the details. Our mutual quarrel should be with those who knew exactly what happened that night and who have withheld the full range of evidence.
We refer specifically to the Clinton White House. We have recently learned that the president himself was aware of the flying bomb scenario in the summer of 1996. This information comes from the entirely credible account of retired Lt. Col. Robert Patterson, U.S. Air Force in his compelling new book, “Dereliction of Duty.”
Patterson carried the “nuclear football” for the president during that fateful summer and, as such, had almost total access. One morning that Patterson identifies only as “late-summer” 1996, he was returning a daily intelligence update to the NSC when he noticed the heading “Operation Bojinka.” As Patterson relates, “I keyed on a reference to a plot to use commercial airliners as weapons.” As a pilot he had a keen interest in the same.
Obviously, after Sept. 11, the idea of using airplanes as flying bombs to attack American targets no longer seems far-fetched. In the way of omen, Islamic terrorist Ramzi Yousef was on trial in New York on the day of July 17, 1996, for his role in Bojinka (Serbo-Croatian for “loud bang”). The publicly known part of this plot was Yousef’s plan to blow up 11 American airliners over the Pacific.
A lesser-known element of Bojinka – the one Patterson stumbled upon – we detail in “First Strike.” The following excerpt comes from a classified Republic of the Phillippines intelligence report. It was based on information stored in Yousef’s seized computer, and it shows that Islamic terrorists had plans to use small planes as flying bombs as early as 1994.
The document [from Yousef’s computer] specifically cited the charter service of a commercial type aircraft loaded with powerful bombs to be dive-crashed by SAEED AKMAN. This is apparently intended to demonstrate to the whole world that a Muslim martyr is ready and determined to die for the glorification of Islam.
To be sure, Patterson makes no connection between Bojinka and TWA Flight 800. He was not in a position to. The knowledge of what happened the night of July 17, 1996, has been kept remarkably tight. To read the insider memoirs which cover that summer, or the histories, or even Senate intelligence reports, one gets the eerie sense that TWA Flight 800, the biggest news story of 1996, was unworthy of anyone’s attention.
What Patterson does learn from seeing the president’s hand-annotated response to this intelligence report on Bojinka is that Clinton had read it carefully. “I can state for a fact that this information was circulated within the U.S. intelligence community,” Patterson writes, “and that in late 1996 the president was aware of it.” That Clinton was reviewing this information in the immediate aftermath of TWA Flight 800’s demise suggests more than mere coincidence.
Patterson also relates in chilling detail the president’s “ambivalent, indecisive way of dealing with terrorism.” He is not the first to do so. It is just this ambivalence and indecision we argue in “First Strike” that leads ultimately to the need for a cover-up of the true cause of TWA Flight 800’s demise. Yes, a forceful president can enhance his popularity through a firm response to a terrorist act. But President Clinton was neither firm nor forceful.
The case for “prior knowledge,” at least loosely understood, demands a serious look by the major media. One good place to start is with an honest look at TWA Flight 800. To this point, the sad excuses offered by “journalists” for not doing so diminish what little faith we have in the so-called “free press.”
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