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Iran responsible for TWA 800 tragedy?

Few Americans know the Middle East as well as Kenneth Timmerman, author of the eye-opening new book “Preachers of Hate: Islam and the War on America” (Crown Forum). Timmerman, in fact, has been reporting on this part of the world since 1975.

No dilettante, in 1982 Timmerman was taken hostage in Lebanon and spent more than three weeks there in an underground cell. Given his willingness to hit the streets, he has developed excellent sources throughout the Middle East, and his reporting reflects this. “Preachers of Hate” has a scary firsthand freshness about it that few other books about that benighted region can match.

Deeply impressed by the book and Timmerman’s other reporting – he also wrote the bold best seller “Shakedown” about Jesse Jackson – I called him this week to see what, if anything, he knew about TWA Flight 800. His response was stunning and adds a new layer of knowledge to an extraordinary episode in American history.

For the record, TWA Flight 800 was destroyed off the coast of Long Island on July 17, 1996. According to the FBI, 270 eyewitnesses would tell its agents they saw streaks of lights ascending from the sea or arching over towards the plane in the seconds before it exploded. Only the uninformed and self-interested continue to believe that those streaks were all optical illusions unrelated to the destruction of the plane.

As it happens, in mid-June 1996 one of Timmerman’s sources contacted him with a warning. He told Timmerman that the intelligence service of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps was planning an attack on an American airliner. The source, who was living in exile, was himself a former member of the Iranian military with access to Iranian intelligence circles. He had been vetted by several U.S, intelligence agencies and found credible.

Two weeks later, the source repeated the warning. Although his information was not precise, he believed that the targeted flight would originate in Athens – as TWA Flight 800 actually did – but he made no mention of missiles and implied that a bomb would be planted on board.

For his part, Timmerman was concerned enough to contact a friend who worked in counter-terrorism at the State Department, and the friend was concerned enough to bring in the FAA. As far as Timmerman knows, nothing came of this warning.

About a week later, or about a week before the destruction of TWA Flight 800, Timmerman’s source contacted him with an “urgent” warning. This time, he said, the attack was “imminent.” Timmerman alerted a well-placed friend who set up an emergency meeting with a deputy director of operations for the CIA. On this occasion, Timmerman provided the CIA with a written summary of the warnings to date.

Timmerman believes that his warnings were ignored. Indeed, within a week of the meeting, TWA Flight 800 was blown out of the sky. After that tragic event, another Timmerman source – this one from inside the American intelligence community – confirmed that Timmerman’s report to the CIA “jibed completely” with what the source and his colleagues had been hearing as well, namely an imminent “Iranian attack on an American airliner.” Timmerman was dismayed to hear the Clinton administration claim that it had received “no warning” prior to the plane’s destruction. It had likely received several, some possibly more specific than the one he offered.

As I told Timmerman, I am not sure his warnings were ignored. In our book “First Strike: TWA Flight 800 and the Attack on America,” James Sanders and I document at least six highly credible sightings of a U.S. Navy cruiser or cruisers prowling up and down the coast of Long Island on that fateful July 17. Even those who had been vacationing on Long Island for years had never seen anything like this before. It has been argued that these cruisers were on some sort of training exercise, but “training” may well have provided the cover for a more substantive mission, just two days before the start of the Atlanta Olympics.

In “First Strike,” Sanders and I make the case that the mode of attack was a small plane, perhaps a business-class jet, filled with explosives. If we are correct in this deduction, it might explain why missile-bearing cruisers and U.S. Navy submarines were tracking the JFK flight path off the south coast of Long Island. As Timmerman allowed, “Maybe they did take my warnings seriously.”

If Iranian intelligence planned the attack, there is still some question as to who executed it. The fact that the plane was destroyed on July 17 adds a rogue variable to the equation. This past July 17 the major media made no mention of the Flight 800 anniversary, but they did call attention to the fact that the date was posted prominently in public places throughout Iraq. It was – I should say “had been” – Iraq’s National Liberation Day, the day the Baath Party took power 35 years earlier, and these are a date-conscious people.

Were Mecca to be bombed on the 4th of July, the disinterested observer would logically conclude that either the USA was responsible or that some provocateur did it to implicate the U.S. The same holds true with the destruction of TWA Flight 800 on July 17. The odds are strong that either Iraq was involved or that the Iranians timed the attack to shift the blame to Iraq. In either case, the timing is not likely to have been coincidental

None of this information seems to have intrigued the bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In its annual reports for 1996 and 1997, the committee made no mention at all of TWA Flight 800, this despite the fact these reports document virtually all CIA activity, from the serious to the trivial.

And the CIA was surely involved with TWA Flight 800. We have long known that the CIA was responsible for the notorious animation that discredited the eyewitnesses. We now know that the CIA had received highly credible warnings before the plane’s destruction. The absence of any information at all about the CIA on a still unsolved case cries out for explanation.

A good person to ask might be Sen. John Kerry. He sat on the Select Committee in 1996 and 1997. He has twice on national TV referred to the destruction of TWA 800 as a “terrorist act,” and now he is desperately refocusng his presidential campaign.

Senator, what better way to attract national attention than to tell the truth about TWA Flight 800?

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