On the way to the publisher with still another Bush bash in time for the election, journalist Peter Lance stumbled on to the great untold story of our time, the terrorist attack on TWA Flight 800 in July 1996 off the coast of Long Island.
Unlike so many of his mainstream colleagues, however, Lance had the guts to tell the story of what he unequivocally calls “the second biggest mass murder in American history. He does so in his compelling new book “Cover Up: What the Government Is Still Hiding About the War on Terror,” recently released by Regan Books, an imprint of Harper Collins.
A former correspondent for ABC News and a five-time Emmy winner, Lance had written extensively about al-Qaeda in his most recent best-seller, “1000 Years for Revenge: International Terrorism and the FBI – The Untold Story.” What Lance discovered in his research for “Cover Up” was the exquisitely documented communications between Ramzi Yousef and his New York City jail mate, Gregory Scarpa Jr., a second-generation FBI informant.
In the summer of 1996, Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was being held for trial in New York for the notorious Bojinka plot, his plan to blow up a dozen American commercial airliners over the Pacific more or less simultaneously – a plan that he was scarily capable of executing. Over time, Yousef had grown to trust his neighbor in the next cell, Scarpa, whose Cosa Nostra father had himself been an informant.
Yousef used Junior’s connections to pass information to the outside world, little knowing that Scarpa was routing much of it through his own FBI handlers. Some of that information had to do with Yousef’s ongoing plans to destroy a 747. Yousef told Scarpa that if there were to be a terrorist attack on such a plane during his Bojinka trial, it would surely prejudice the jurors against him, and Yousef would ask for a mistrial on those very grounds. After the July 17 attack on TWA Flight 800, his attorneys made, in essence, just such a request.
As Lance makes clear, Youself was part of the larger al-Qaida network – its evil genius. His uncle, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, with whom Yousef communicated from his jail cell, coordinated the 9-11 plot. And Yousef talked often to Scarpa about Osama bin Laden, also under the code name – as Scarpa heard it – of “Bojinga.”
Upon discovering the Scarpa-Yousef communication in the FBI files, Lance proceeded to double check the research James Sanders and I had done in our book, “First Strike: TWA Flight 800 and the Attack on America,” particularly in regard to the extensive explosive residue found on plane.
Lance recounts, as we do, the Aug. 22, 1996, meeting called by Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick. It was at this meeting that Gorelick charged the FBI with finding a rationale other than terrorism for the explosive residue. A month later, the FBI went public with its claim that the residue was the result of a sloppy dog-training exercise in St. Louis five weeks before the crash.
Among other interviews, Lance had a face-to-face with St. Louis police officer Herman Burnett, who did the dog-training exercise in question. Burnett told Lance what he told us – and Lance concludes, as we did, that the test “was not conducted on the 747 that became TWA 800,” but rather on a nearly identical 747 at a nearby gate.” All other evidence, including the FBI’s own timeline, supports this conclusion.
“If [Burnett] didn’t conduct the K-9 test on the fatal plane,” adds Lance critically, “then the FBI is left with no plausible explanation for the presence of high explosives – two of which were associated directly with Ramzi Yousef.”
For all his moxie in taking on the TWA Flight 800 case, Lance shies away from the political implications as to why the FBI was told to “shut it down.” Lance argues the FBI and the Justice Department did so to protect a whole series of mob-related cases that had been corrupted by the sweetheart relationship between the FBI and the Scarpas, particularly with Gregory Sr.
Although Lance implicates Gorelick, best known now as a 9-11 commissioner, he does not even infer White House involvement. I know something about this. In my own new video production, “Mega Fix,” I follow the same thread Lance does from the first World Trade Center bombing through TWA Flight 800 to 9-11 to the 9-11 commission, but show how Clintonian politics inform the whole process. The Scarpa problem may have induced the FBI to cooperate in the cover-up, but the FBI did not initiate it.
Not having had time to digest the full scope of evidence in the TWA Flight 800 case, Lance argues for a bomb on board the plane, largely because it seems to fit the plot outlines Yousef was feeding Scarpa. In “First Strike,” Sanders and I argue for a flying bomb with missile intervention, which makes more sense out of all the details – especially the eyewitness reports and the Federal Aviation Administration data – but also Yousef’s communications and the “flying bomb” line of inquiry at the 9-11 commission hearings.
What all independent investigators do agree on is that the center wing tank did not self-destruct, that some hostile event triggered its destruction. It is on this issue that Lance compromises his own reporting. He does so by giving a pass to former terrorism honcho, Richard Clarke.
Citing Clarke’s “Against All Enemies” as his source, Lance writes:
Even President Clinton’s terrorism czar, Richard Clarke – perhaps the most knowledgeable man in Washington when it came to the Bin Laden threat – accepted the fuel tank ignition scenario.
Clarke, however, did more than “accept” the fuel tank scenario. As Clarke himself admits in “Against All Enemies,” he devised it.
This is more than a quibble, but Lance deserves a pass. He has done the nation a service by breaking the TWA Flight 800 story into the mainstream. As he learned – and documents – one does not pry into TWA Flight 800 with impunity.
Kudos, Peter Lance. Just watch your back, buddy.
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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.