While counter-terrorism expert and man-of-the-hour Richard Clarke is in a chatty mood, someone might choose to ask him what he knows about TWA Flight 800. If no one in the media will, perhaps retired United Airline pilot Ray Lahr will get the chance to put Clarke under oath.
Lahr next goes to court on April 5 in Los Angeles to advance his suit against the National Transportation Safety Board, the CIA and a reluctant Boeing for their role in creating the CIA’s preposterous zoom-climb animation, the one that was used to discredit the 270 eyewitness to a likely missile attack.
Clarke, you see, was involved in the creation of that animation. He has boasted about it. Clarke, in fact, was involved with TWA Flight 800 from the beginning. As designated chairman of the Coordinating Security Group on terrorism in July 1996, it was he who called the critical meeting that began about 90 minutes after the crash of TWA Flight 800 in the White House situation room.
Gathered in the room that night were some 40 representatives of the agencies involved. Teleconferencing in on the room’s eight monitors were terrorist experts from around the nation. Represented either in person or on screen were the Pentagon, the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Secret Service, the CIA, the State Department, the Justice Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the White House. The NTSB, which should have been present, was not.
The FAA made it clear that, at this point, there was no effective deterrence if terrorists were planning to take out additional planes. The attendees realized that two days before the Olympics and a month before the political conventions, a terrorist scenario had the potential to virtually shut down the airline industry and cripple the economy.
President Clinton knew this all too well and dreaded it. He was squirreled away that night in the family quarters, likely with access to satellite and other data not shared in the situation room. Just four months shy of pulling off one of the great political comebacks of all time, Clinton lived in mortal fear of an incident that could throw the advantage to war hero, Bob Dole. And this was one such incident.
Unlike President Bush, Clinton obviously did not share his sentiments with Clarke. Clarke called the security meeting in good faith and executed it in the same spirit. The presumption reigned during the meeting that the destruction of the plane had been a terrorist act. Years later, Clarke casually acknowledged “the widespread speculation within the CSG that [TWA 800] had been shot down by a shoulder-fired missile from the shore.” Those gathered had received the heads-up from the FAA on the radar data. They were aware of reports that streaks of light had been seen in the sky heading towards the plane prior to the explosion. They knew that the plane had vanished without a word of distress from the pilots, a fact that suggested terrorism as well.
When, however, the White House let it be known the next day that all talk of missiles should go away, an obliging Richard Clarke played a role in helping the missiles do just that.
The final cleansing of the likely missile attack from history came some 16 months later. What made Nov. 18, 1997, so memorable – and so controversial – was less the FBI press conference that concluded the criminal investigation than the 15-minute, CIA-produced zoom-climb animation that concluded the press conference.
As with all perceived successes, everyone wanted credit. A New Yorker profile post-Sept. 11 gave the honors to the late FBI anti-terrorism expert John O’Neill. The New Yorker’s source was none other than Richard Clarke. According to Clarke, O’Neill insisted that TWA 800 was out of range of the most-likely shoulder-fired missile, the Stinger.
O’Neill believed that the “ascending flare” must have been something else, like “the ignition of leaking fuel from the aircraft” Clarke, who was clearly in the loop, played along He also credits O’Neill with persuading the CIA to create a visual recreation of the same. It is hard to know whether Clarke was complicit in the CIA plot or just plain ignorant, but neither speaks well for his credibility.
“The case of TWA 800 served as a turning point because of Washington’s determination and to a great extent ability to suppress terrorist explanations and ‘float’ mechanical failure theories,” wrote Director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism Yossef Bodansky in1999. “To avoid such suppression after future strikes, terrorism-sponsoring states would raise the ante so that the West cannot ignore them.”
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, while terrorists prepared to raise that ante, New Yorkers went about their business, unknowing, unsuspecting and totally unprepared.
For this, they can thank, among others, Richard Clarke.
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