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Saudi plot has Flight 800 implications

Last Saturday, the Mail on Sunday, a British newspaper, credibly reported a Saudi terrorist plot that may well have implications for understanding the destruction of TWA Flight 800.

According to the Mail, Saudi authorities arrested two pilots who were preparing to fly two light aircraft, each loaded with explosives, into a passenger plane. Apparently, they were stopped while on the flight-line at an airport near Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital. Details are sketchy because the Saudis have allegedly attempted to withhold information from authorities abroad.

“These terrorists are potent and inventive and I very much hope the British government will take note of these developments,” Patrick Mercer, the opposition Conservative spokesman for British Homeland Security, told the Mail. “They must defend our airspace and issue timely, accurate and meaningful warnings to both airlines and passengers.”

If the Saudis covered up an attempted mid-air bombing, they may not have been the first to do so. In our book “First Strike,” James Sanders and I make the case that U.S. Navy missiles intercepted a terrorist plane packed with explosives on a mission comparable to the one planned by the captured Saudi pilots. We believe the resulting explosion devastated the doomed 747, which was then in close proximity.

We learned of the flying bomb scenario after Sept. 11 from at least two sources within the military, in each case discreetly and indirectly. Although there are other plausible missile-based scenarios to explain TWA 800’s destruction, we found enough substantiation of this one in the public record – especially in the FBI eyewitness statements and our own interviews – to present it in our book as the most likely.

We were well into our research before we realized that the Philippine police had uncovered plans for the use of small planes as flying bombs as early as December 1994 and shared them with the FBI in January 1995. The man responsible for those plans, Ramzi Yousef, was on trial in New York City on July 17, 1996, the day of TWA 800’s undoing, which also just happened to be Iraq’s National Liberation day.

Col. Buzz Patterson, in his best-seller, “Dereliction of Duty,” reveals that President Clinton had carefully reviewed these same plans in the “late summer” of 1996, which would have been soon after the demise of Flight 800.

This scenario makes sense of at least two other variables. One is the insistence by FBI honcho James Kallstrom that a “bomb” destroyed TWA Flight 800. The second is Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos’ spontaneous on-air comment to Peter Jennings on that fateful Sept. 11 in which he talked about the second, less-public “situation room” in the White House.

“In my time at the White House,” Stephanopoulos told Jennings, “it was used in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, in the aftermath of the TWA Flight 800 bombing, and that would be the way they would stay in contact through the afternoon.”

Although the situation room was a busy place on the night of July 17, 1996, the president himself was elsewhere. Col. Patterson, in my conversation with him, confirmed that Clinton holed up in “the residence,” the White House family quarters. Patterson is in a position to know. He carried the nuclear football for the president and that night was in the White House, though clearly out of the loop.

Ray Lahr, the retired United Airline captain suing the National Transportation Safety Board, is actively looking for those who were in the loop that night, particularly the crew of the Navy P-3 Orion, which was just a mile or two away at the time of the crash.

The P-3 crew and a few others have the potential to end seven years of speculation by sharing with the world what they saw and know. If they continue to remain silent, however, the United States continues to lose its credibility when it comes to the war on terror.

We can scarcely criticize Saudi Arabia for suppressing information when we have done worse.

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