In July, I had the privilege of speaking on the subject of TWA Flight 800 at the famed Commonwealth Club in San Francisco to a surprisingly large and impassioned audience. To help publicize the talk, both Melanie Morgan and Barbara Simpson obliged me by having me on their respective talk shows on San Francisco’s radio superstation, KSFO.
It was on Barbara Simpson’s excellent show that the call came in. The caller, a banker, had neither read the book, “First Strike,” nor was he familiar with its thesis. But he did have an interesting story to tell. Two years earlier, in a conversation with one of his customers, a high-level TWA employee, he inquired about the fate of TWA 800.
The banker had a more knowledgeable interest than most. As a radarman and electronic counter measures specialist while in the U.S. Navy, he had been involved in several missile-firing exercises on the Pacific missile firing range. He also had a keen knowledge of aviation.
What the TWA employee had told the banker made everyone’s ears perk up on the “Barbara Simpson Show.” In fact, more than a few people at the Commonwealth Club a day later asked me if the banker had been a plant. He most definitely was not.
The TWA man related to the banker that he had been at a party in Los Angeles in 2000. There, he had the chance to ask the then CEO, “What really happened to Flight 800.” The CEO, in turn, told him that the U.S. Navy had shot down the plane inadvertently. This, the banker had heard before, and he was skeptical.
As the banker would later tell me, missile drills are conducted under the strictest security. Should a ship or plane enter into the range, it is escorted out post haste. No missiles are ever fired until the range is completely secure. The missiles themselves have efficient self-destruct capabilities in case of a mistaken targeting. The idea that TWA Flight 800 could have mistakenly entered the Atlantic Firing Range during a live test and been shot down was, in the banker’s opinion, “totally without merit.”
But there was one more detail that the CEO had shared with his TWA colleague, a detail that made the banker rethink his take on Navy involvement. The U.S. Navy, he learned, was “aiming at a small plane that was trying to ram the 747.”
When the banker called the “Barbara Simpson Show” with this story, he did not know that James Sanders and I had advanced this very scenario in our book. In my conversations with the banker off the air, he fully convinced me of both his knowledge and his integrity. He also helped answer a question that has nagged at investigators as well: Why has no shipboard witness come forward with the truth?
For the banker, this was a no-brainer. As he explained, a missile firing is almost inevitably classified top secret. For someone to share that information with the media to him was unthinkable, regardless of the circumstances. And although many on board a ship or sub would know that a missile had been fired, few would know the details, and those few would be least inclined to talk. Indeed, we know the names of the P-3 Orion crew that was about a mile away from the TWA 800 destruction, and they refused at first to talk even to the FBI, and when they did talk, they did not tell them the truth.
So why did TWA’s top executives remain silent if they knew what happened? The TWA employee had an answer for this as well: TWA was given millions of dollars of financial help in return for its executives’ silence. Remember, TWA had recently come out of Chapter 11. The company could ill afford to flout the wishes of the government.
I have heard this same argument advanced when I have spoken to TWA pilot groups. Indeed, after one such talk, a pilot stood up and yelled, “Follow the money.” Almost to a person, the pilots are convinced that then-CEO Jeff Erickson had made several trips to the Pentagon in the wake of the crash and struck a deal that ultimately doomed the airline.
Other TWA employees have told me that Erickson hosted a fundraiser for Bill Clinton in St. Louis shortly before the 1996 election and coerced them into attending. I called Erickson to confirm or deny, and he, of course, has chosen not to return my phone call.
Internet journalism has the flexibility and the freedom that the major media lack. What it does not have is the clout that a handful of the majors have to force a response from people in possession of information. When we have approached the major media, we have asked for their help to do just that.
“You are,” as I have told them, “a few phone calls away from a Pulitzer.” For them, that is a few phone calls too many.
We are now at a crossroads in American journalism. If our scenario is correct, the White House knew in 1996 that the use of airplanes by Islamic terrorists to attack targets in America had gone well beyond the planning stages. The White House had the plans in hand as early as January 1995 and, according to Lt. Col. Buzz Patterson, who carried the nuclear football for the president, Clinton himself had reviewed them in that fateful summer of 1996.
On July 17 of this year, no one in the major media mentioned that this date was the seventh anniversary of the destruction of TWA 800. To underscore the continued resistance in Iraq, however, several mentioned that the date “July 17″ was inscribed on walls throughout Iraq as that also happens to be “Iraq Liberation Day,” the date that Saddam’s party took power in 1969.
As the media make a show of seeking the “truth” about prior knowledge to 9-11, they will have to start making some connections and making some phone calls if they are to retain any credibility at all.
They might start with Jeff Erickson or the FBI’s Jim Kallstrom or the 9-11 Commission’s own Jamie Gorelick, the woman who may well have orchestrated the TWA 800 cover-up. If I worked for the New York Times, I would start with Sen. John Kerry.
“Senator,” I might say, “why have you twice referred to TWA 800 as a terrorist act on national television?” As a presidential candidate, he at least has to offer some kind of answer.