In our book “First Strike: TWA Flight 800 and the Attack on America,” James Sanders and I argue that on the night of July 17, 1996, U.S. Navy missiles struck a small terrorist airplane filled with explosives in close proximity to TWA Flight 800, causing the instant and catastrophic demise of both planes.
We have no quarrel with those who believe that missiles were involved, but who dissent from our final scenario. For all their cumulative value, the eyewitness observations are too sketchy and imperfect to allow for complete certitude on the details. Our mutual quarrel should be with those who knew exactly what happened that night and who have withheld the full range of evidence.
We refer to the Clinton White House, specifically the man of the hour, Sandy Berger, and his boss, Bill Clinton. The president himself was aware of the “flying bomb” scenario in the summer of 1996. This information comes from the entirely credible account of Retired Lt. Col. Robert Patterson (USAF) in his compelling book, “Dereliction of Duty.”
Patterson carried the “nuclear football” for the president during that fateful summer and, as such, had almost total access. One morning that Patterson identifies only as “late-summer” 1996, he was returning a daily intelligence update to the NSC when he noticed the heading “Operation Bojinka.” As Patterson relates, “I keyed on a reference to a plot to use commercial airliners as weapons.” As a pilot, he had a keen interest in the same.
In the way of omen, Islamic terrorist Ramzi Yousef was on trial in New York on the day of July 17, 1996, for his role in Bojinka (Serbo-Croatian for “loud bang”). The publicly known part of this plot was Yousef’s plan to blow up 11 American airliners over the Pacific.
A lesser-known element of Bojinka, the one Patterson stumbled upon, was the plan to use planes loaded with explosives as flying bombs. The following excerpt comes from a classified Phillippines intelligence report that was based on information stored in Yousef’s seized computer and turned over to the FBI in early 1995.
The document [from Yousef’s computer] specifically cited the charter service of a commercial type aircraft loaded with powerful bombs to be dive-crashed by SAEED AKMAN. This is apparently intended to demonstrate to the whole world that a Muslim martyr is ready and determined to die for the glorification of Islam.
Patterson was not in position to connect Bojinka and TWA Flight 800. The knowledge of what happened the night of July 17, 1996, had been kept remarkably tight. What Patterson does learn from seeing the president’s hand-annotated response to this intelligence report is that Clinton had read it carefully.
“I can state for a fact that this information was circulated within the U.S. intelligence community,” Patterson writes, “and that in late 1996 the president was aware of it.” That Clinton was reviewing this information in the immediate aftermath of TWA Flight 800’s demise suggests more than mere coincidence – the FBI had received these documents from the Philippine police 18 months earlier.
This scenario makes sense of at least three other variables. One is the insistence by FBI honcho James Kallstrom that a “bomb” destroyed TWA Flight 800. The second is John Kerry’s two TV references in September 2001 to TWA Flight 800 as a “terrorist” act. The third is George Stephanopoulos’ on-air comment to Peter Jennings on that fateful Sept. 11 in which he talked about the “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.
Patterson was not sure who was in the residence with Clinton that night. The one person he tentatively cited was Sandy Berger. If correct, this confirms our belief that the decisions being made that night were largely political. Sandy Berger was a political person. He first met Clinton in 1972 working on Sen. George McGovern’s presidential campaign. Fifteen years later, Berger urged his friend to run for president. Clinton rewarded Berger with a position as deputy assistant to the president for national security, a position for which Berger had little useful background other than his experience as an attorney focused on international trade.
Tony Lake, by contrast, had 30 years of high-level foreign service experience when Clinton appointed him national security adviser. What is curious is that on the night of July 17, 1996, Lake, who obviously outranked Berger, was not in the residence. He was downstairs in his own office. Not being an insider, Lake had been known to remove himself from meetings when they turned political. A few months after the destruction of TWA Flight 800, Lake was to be kicked sideways to the CIA, but he withdrew his nomination under Senate criticism. Berger was given Lake’s job, a position that did not require congressional confirmation.
Fast forward eight years. At the very beginning of her interview before the 9-11 Commission, Chairman Thomas Kean asked National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice the most important question of the day:
I’ve got a question now I’d like to ask you. It was given to me by a number of members of the families. Did you ever see or hear from the FBI, from the CIA, from any other intelligence agency, any memos or discussions or anything else between the time you got into office and 9-11 that talked about using planes as bombs?
“To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Chairman,” Rice replied, “this kind of analysis about the use of airplanes as weapons actually was never briefed to us.” Rice was almost assuredly telling the truth. Republican Kean would have not asked this question – the second of the whole session – to catch her in a lie. What is more, no Democrat member of the panel challenged her.
In fact, Richard Clarke had acknowledged as much during his earlier testimony before the panel. In response to a question by Democrat Richard Ben-Veniste, Clarke admitted that the “knowledge about al-Qaida having thought of using aircraft as weapons” was relatively old, “five years, six years old.” He asked that intelligence analysts “be forgiven for not thinking about it given the fact that they hadn’t seen a lot in the five or six years intervening about it.”
As we have documented before, Clarke chaired the emergency meeting of the anti-terrorist task force in the White House situation room on the evening of July 17. It is likely that he did not learn the true cause of the plane’s demise until his chummy trip with the Clintons to Long Island a week later.
We accept Richard Clarke at his boastful word that he consequently played the key role in devising the “exit strategy” from this “Almost War.” In “Against All Enemies,” Clarke claims to have discovered the TWA 800 “exploding fuel tank” theory even before the National Transportation Safety Board did and while the FBI was still insisting on terrorism.
As we have also documented beyond doubt, it was the 9-11 Commission’s Jamie Gorelick who, as deputy attorney general, summoned the FBI to Washington on Aug. 22, 1996, a few days before the Democratic Convention, and warned them off the pursuit of a terrorist explanation.
This is the only kind of information – especially Clinton’s annotated “planes as bombs” notes – that justifies the risks Berger ran. It is clear, too, that he would not have run these risks without urging.
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“First Strike: TWA Flight 800 and the Attack on America” 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.