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How Richard Clarke concocted the TWA 800 'exit strategy' ... and why

Editor’s note: James Sanders co-authored this commentary. Also, the price has been slashed on “First Strike: TWA Flight 800 and the Attack on America“! The latest book by Jack Cashill and James Sanders explains how a determined corps of ordinary citizens worked to reveal the compromise and corruption that tainted the federal investigation.

Richard Clarke takes no credit for what is likely an act of criminal obstruction of justice

On July 17, 1996 – Liberation Day in Saddam’s Iraq and two days before the Atlanta Olympics – TWA Flight 800 blew up in the sky off the south coast of Long Island. The reader need not endorse a particular theory as to the nature of that crash to appreciate the role that Richard Clarke played in devising the one theory that prevailed.

Clarke’s so-called “exit strategy” was ingeniously conceived, ruthlessly executed and dishonest in its every detail. Whether Clarke was motivated by patriotism or political opportunism only he can tell, but his strategy did spare America an unwelcome war with Iran and assured Bill Clinton’s re-election. Unfortunately, it also led the nation blindly to Sept. 11.

In his new book “Against All Enemies,” Clarke offers the first published inside account of the demise of TWA Flight 800, much of it transparently false, but all of it entirely revealing. At that time, Clarke served as chairman of the Coordinating Security Group on terrorism. Within 30 minutes of the plane’s crash, Clarke tells us, he had convened a meeting of the CSG in the White House Situation Room.

“The FAA,” Clarke reports, “was at a total loss for an explanation. The flight path and the cockpit communications were normal. The aircraft had climbed to 17,000 feet, then there was no aircraft.” In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration did have an explanation. Its radar operators in New York had seen on their screens an unknown object “merging” with TWA 800 in the seconds before the crash and rushed the radar data to Washington. Indeed, when Ron Schleede of the National Transportation Safety Board first saw the data, he exclaimed, “Holy Chr–t, this looks bad.” He added later, “It showed this track that suggested something fast made the turn and took the airplane.”

An NTSB document obtained by the authors reveals that the FAA had picked up the telephone and alerted the “White House” immediately. Clarke is the man at the White House to whom this message would have been relayed. The FAA radar almost certainly prompted this emergency CSG meeting. There was no comparable meeting after the ValuJet crash two months earlier.

Clarke also deceives the reader about the altitude of TWA 800. The last altitude the FAA actually recorded was about 13,800 feet. This is easily verified and beyond debate. There is a reason here for Clarke’s dissembling. He needs to lift the aircraft – even if just in the retelling – above the reach of a shoulder-fired missile.

Within weeks of the crash, the FBI would interview more than 700 eyewitnesses – 270 of whom saw lights streaking upwards towards the plane. Although they were not allowed near the best witnesses, Defense Department analysts also debriefed some of these witnesses. These analysts told the FBI that 34 of those interviewed described events “consistent with the characteristics of the flight of [anti-aircraft] missiles.” There were also scores of witness drawings, some so accurate and vivid they could chill the blood.

About four weeks after the crash, Clarke reportedly met with the late FBI terrorist expert, John O’Neill, who told Clarke that the eyewitness interviews “were pointing to a missile attack, a Stinger.” For the record, no eyewitness ever mentioned a “Stinger.” No credible independent theorist insisted on a Stinger, nor did the Defense Department. Clarke sets up the relatively small, shoulder-fired Stinger missile as a straw man to discredit all terrorist or missile-related theories. In his book, he takes credit for doing the same.

“[TWA 800] was at 15,000 feet,” he reportedly told O’Neill – who died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and can no longer correct the record. “No Stinger or any other missile like it can go that high.” One would think that on so sensitive and contentious a point, Clarke would have made an effort to get the altitude of TWA 800 right or even consistently wrong. He does neither. The real altitude is not 15,000 feet or 17,000 feet, but 13,800 feet – an altitude at which the Stinger could be effective. In a book of this importance, such mistakes and omissions shock the knowing reader.

It should be noted too that no credible analyst – at least one not tasked with creating factually false propaganda – would limit the type of missile seen by so many excellent witnesses. All credible analysis would begin with short, medium and long-range anti-aircraft missiles. Existing evidence would be used to narrow the possibilities. Such simple, reasonable analysis was missing from the TWA 800 investigation.

Likewise missing from the investigation or from Clarke’s book is any mention of satellite data. On Oct. 4, 2001, Defense Department satellites equipped with infrared sensors captured a Ukrainian missile striking a Russian airliner 30,000 feet above the Black Sea. Our government informed Russia within five minutes. In “Against All Enemies,” no one even inquires about the possibility of such data.

In reading Clarke’s book, one can see how thoroughly seduced he was by the Clintons and his proximity to power. He portrays himself as the ultimate insider, flying to JFK Airport with Clinton a week after the crash, briefing him on the new safety regulations that the president would be sharing with the victims’ families. At this point, Clarke tells us that the president is still convinced that terrorists had destroyed the plane. This much is likely true.

About the performance of the Clintons among the victims’ families, Clarke positively gushes. Here is the president “praying with them, hugging them, taking pictures with them.” Here is “Mrs. Clinton” alone in a makeshift chapel, praying, “on her knees.” Clarke, of course, makes no mention of how the administration would soon abandon his strict new safety guidelines for the sake of campaign cash, nor the role Clarke himself played in making that solicitation politically possible.

About four weeks after the crash, based on his own rough timeline, Clarke visited the site of the investigation on Long Island. There he casually stopped to talk to a technician. Their presumed conversation is so utterly disingenuous it needs to be repeated in full:

“So this is where the bomb exploded?” I asked. “Where on the plane was it?”

“The explosion was just forward of the middle, below the floor of the passenger compartment, below row 23. But it wasn’t a bomb,” he added. “See the pitting pattern and the tear. It was a slow, gaseous eruption, from inside.”

“What’s below row 23?” I asked, slowly sensing that this was not what I thought it was.

“The center line fuel tank. It was only half full, might have heated up on the runway and caused a gas cloud inside. Then if a spark, a short circuit …” He indicated an explosion with his hands.

The technician goes on to tell Clarke that these “old 747s” have an “electrical pump inside the center line fuel tank” and lays the blame on the pump. In fact, almost everything about the conversation is wrong, including the technician calling the center wing tank a “center line fuel tank.” The tank was not half full but virtually empty. The evening was a cool 71 degrees. The plane’s pumps were all recovered and found blameless, and the fuel pump wiring is not even inside the tank. The NTSB admittedly never did find the alleged ignition source.

But pride goeth before the fall. In this one chance encounter, Clarke manages to sum up the essence of the exit strategy months, if not years, before the NTSB does, and he takes all credit for it. That same day, Clarke tells us he returned to Washington and shared his exploding-fuel-tank theory with Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and National Security Agency Director Tony Lake, even sketching the 747 design.

“Does the NTSB agree with you,” Lake reportedly asked Clarke. Clarke’s purported response speaks to the priority politics would take over truth in this investigation – “Not yet.”

Clarke adds the telling comment, “We were all cautiously encouraged.” They were “encouraged” because the political people did not want to face the consequences of terrorism. At this same time in the investigation, however, the FBI was ignoring the politics. Its agents were telling the New York Times that explosive residue had been found along the right wing of the plane right around row 23.

Moreover, the FBI’s Washington lab had identified the residue as PETN, a component of either missiles or bombs. According to a Times article on Aug. 14 – four weeks after the crash – investigators “concluded that the center fuel tank caught fire as many as 24 seconds after the initial blast that split apart the plane, a finding that deals a serious blow to the already remote possibility that a mechanical accident caused the crash.”

Something had to give, and it was the FBI. On Aug. 22, Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick summoned the FBI’s Jim Kallstrom to Washington for a come to Jesus meeting. (Although Kallstrom dominated the investigation, Clarke never mentions him by name.) Kallstrom had been a good soldier the past five weeks. He had kept all talk of eyewitnesses and satellites and radar and missiles out of the news. But the evidence had inevitably led him to a terrorist scenario of some sort, and there was no easy way to turn back.

To be sure, no account of the meeting provides any more than routine detail, but behaviors begin to change immediately afterward, especially after the New York Times broke a headline story the next day, top right, above the fold – “Prime Evidence Found That Device Exploded in Cabin of Flight 800.” This article stole the thunder from Clinton’s election-driven approval of welfare reform in that same day’s paper and threatened to undermine the peace and prosperity message of next week’s Democratic convention.

From that day forward, the administration would spend all its energies making Clarke’s exploding-fuel-tank theory stick. When, under coercion, the FBI changed its story, so did the New York Times – to which the FBI had been speaking almost exclusively. When the Times fell, so did the rest of the major media. They would soon enough brand all honest dissent “conspiracy theory.” As to Kallstrom, he was never the same. “We need to stop the hypocrisy,” he confessed to Dan Rather in a troubled, honest moment on Sept. 11, but he would not explain what that hypocrisy was.

With Kallstrom reluctantly on board, the administration could advance the fuel-tank theory by losing or corrupting the physical evidence. In our book, “First Strike: TWA Flight 800 and the Attack on America,” we document in detail how this was done. No fewer than four serious professionals within the investigation made specific and unprecedented allegations of evidence theft or tampering: Linda Kunz and Terrel Stacey of TWA, Jim Speer of TWA and the Air Line Pilots Association, and Hank Hughes of the NTSB. Their allegations were taken seriously. Kunz and Speer were suspended from the investigation – Kunz permanently. Stacey was arrested. And Hughes was denounced by the FBI’s Kallstrom for his participation in a “kangaroo court of malcontents,” namely a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing. Stacey’s reporting partner, James Sanders, and his wife Elizabeth, a TWA trainer, were also arrested and convicted of conspiracy.

The one block of evidence that proved tamperproof, however, was the eyewitness testimony. Here, Clarke proved his ingenuity again.

Clarke, as has become apparent, has the habit of changing stories. In the book, it is he who persuades the FBI’s John O’Neill that a Stinger could not have taken down TWA Flight 800. In an earlier New Yorker article, however, Clarke reports that it was O’Neill who insisted that TWA 800 was out of range of the Stinger. And it was O’Neill, who believed that the “ascending flare” must have been something else, like “the ignition of leaking fuel from the aircraft.” Never mind that the center wing tank was empty at the time of the explosion.

In the New Yorker piece, Clarke gives the already deceased O’Neill credit for persuading the CIA to create an animation of the “ascending flare” theory. Students of this crash have long been troubled by how the CIA got involved and who bridged the deep territorial divide between the FBI and the CIA. That person had to be Richard Clarke. All evidence points to him. Only he had the respect of the agencies and the confidence of the Clintons. In the book, he blandly describes the CIA animation:

A simulation of the crash would later indicate that what witnesses saw as a streak of a missile going up towards the aircraft was actually a column of jet fuel from the initial explosion and rupture, falling and then catching fire.

Clarke’s description of what the witnesses saw does not begin to square with what the witnesses actually did see. Here, for instance, is the FBI “302” for Mike Wire, a Philadelphia millwright taking a break on a Westhampton bridge:

Wire saw a white light that was traveling skyward from the ground at approximately a 40-degree angle. Wire described the white light as a light that sparkled and thought it was some type of fireworks. Wire stated that the white light “zig zagged” [sic] as it traveled upwards, and at the apex of its travel the white light “arched over” and disappeared from Wire’s view … Wire stated the white light traveled outwards from the beach in a south-southeasterly direction.

Later, the NTSB would allege that no witness observed the telltale zigzag of a missile as it attempted to acquire its target. But Mike Wire did indeed observe that key signature of an anti-aircraft missile at work, as did many others. And like them, Wire told the FBI that this streak culminated in a huge “fireball.”

Unknown to Wire, the CIA chose to build its case squarely on his testimony. Among these Hamptons-area eyewitnesses, Wire was the rare working-class guy. He was not in a position to notice or protest. In the CIA video, the narrator claims that “FBI investigators determined precisely where the eyewitness was standing” while the video shows the explosion from Wire’s perspective on Beach Lane Bridge. The narration continues, “The white light the eyewitness saw was very likely the aircraft very briefly ascending and arching over after it exploded rather than a missile attacking the aircraft.”

The CIA animation converts Wire’s “40-degree” climb to one of roughly 70 or 80 degrees. It reduces the smoke trail from three dimensions, south and east “outward from the beach,” to a small, two dimensional blip far off shore. Worse, it fully ignores Wire’s claim that the object ascended “skyward from the ground,” and places his first sighting 20 degrees above the horizon, exactly where Flight 800 would have been.

Curiously, however, the CIA narrator repeats Wire’s claim that the projectile “zigzagged.” The CIA’s studied indifference to facts helps answer the larger question of how the agency could recreate events at such obvious odds with Wire’s original and detailed 302. Here is what CIA Analyst 1 finally reported to the NTSB in a 1999 interview:

[Wire] was an important eyewitness to us. And we asked the FBI to talk to him again, and they did. In his original description, he thought he had seen a firework and that perhaps that firework had originated on the beach behind the house. We went to that location and realized that if he was only seeing the airplane [TWA 800], that he would not see a light appear from behind the rooftop of that house.

The light would actually appear in the sky. It’s high enough in the sky that that would have to happen. When he was reinterviewed, he said that is indeed what happened. The light did appear in the sky. Now, when the FBI told us that, we got even more comfortable with our theory.

This may be the single most egregious and conscious bit of dissembling in the entire investigation. Here’s why: The FBI never contacted Mike Wire after July 1996. He has never changed his account, and there is no new 302 in his file. Someone made up this new interview out of whole cloth. That the CIA and FBI cooperated in its fabrication strongly suggests Clarke’s involvement. To be sure, Clarke takes no credit for what is likely an act of criminal obstruction of justice.

As to the motive for devising an exit strategy, Clarke provides this as well. He tells us that while driving to the White House to convene the post-crash meeting, “I dreaded what I thought was about to happen. The Eisenhower option.” After the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia three weeks earlier, Clinton had told Clark and his colleagues that “he wanted a massive attack” against Iran. Had Iran been behind the downing of TWA Flight 800 – or Iraq for that matter or al-Qaida – the president would have had to respond. In fact, Clarke labels this chapter of his book, “The Almost War, 1996.”

As the terrorism czar, Clarke was indeed in the loop. He knew an act of war had brought down TWA Flight 800. The question that had to be answered before retaliating, however, was who was responsible. Although Iran was the chief suspect, U.S. intelligence could not narrow the field to one believable culprit. This is critical, because a suspect had to be identified with sufficient specificity to convince the United Nations to sanction a war without whose approval Clinton would not move.

So the American public and the world could not be told the truth. The United States had suspects, but not enough compelling intelligence to name the nation or entity responsible. Such confessions equal bad politics – the kind that lose elections. The nation would demand retribution, which Clinton could not deliver. Clinton was the consummate politician. Declaring the loss of TWA Flight 800 to be the result of an exploding fuel tank was simply good politics.

At the Washington meeting of Aug. 22, it is likely that Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, also a trusted Clinton insider, told the FBI’s Jim Kallstrom something close to the truth, that a public revelation of terrorism would push America into a possibly inappropriate war. The fact that such a revelation would also have jeopardized Clinton’s re-election might have influenced Gorelick and Clarke, but it would not have stopped Kallstrom. Up until this point, he had a serious career. One has to suspect that Gorleick was placed on the 9-11 Commission to keep the TWA 800 story under wraps.

Unfortunately, actions have consequences. In this case a brilliant political decision deprived the nation of an opportunity to focus on the problem of terrorism and prepare to foil the next attack on America – one that would surely come, this time, once again, to New York and through the air.

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“Altered Evidence” from Flight 800

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