On Oct. 3, the History Channel premiered a new documentary on the fate of TWA Flight 800 that proved to be – by far – the most honest broadcast account to date of the 1996 destruction of that ill-fated aircraft.
For starters, producer Bob Schneiger took the critics of the investigation seriously. He began by establishing the credibility of the foremost of those critics, the late Cmdr. William Donaldson, who joined with other retired military officers, including a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to get at the truth. Viewers then witnessed a well-staged recreation of Donaldson’s highly plausible scenario of a terrorist missile strike.
The show next told the story of my partner, James Sanders, his wife, Liz, and one of their informants from inside the investigation, 747 pilot and manager, Terrel Stacey – all of whom would be arrested for conspiracy. Viewers then saw a recreation of the scenario that Sanders and I think most likely, that of a terrorist aircraft filled with explosives blown out of the sky by the U.S. Navy in fatally close proximity to TWA Flight 800. Other than the fact that the plane pictured was too small and that the missiles pictured were fired by a destroyer – we never specify – this, too, was well and credibly done.
To provide the required balance, the show then presents the government case. Producer Schneiger gives the two lead investigators, Jim Kallstrom, formerly of the FBI, and Bernard Loeb, formerly of the National Transportation Safety Board, just about all the rope they need to hang themselves. Although reasonably convincing on the surface, the pair strive too hard to get their story down. In the retelling, perfected over time, history begins to repeat itself as farce.
- Kallstrom is at pains to establish that it was a “nice July warm night,” the emphasis his. In fact, it was a relatively cool night. The average July high in New York City is 85 degrees. In July 1999, a warm month, the mean temperature was 81 degrees. At 8:30 p.m. on July 17, when TWA Flight 800 took off, it was 71 degrees. Kallstrom added “heat” to the retelling because Loeb will claim that the air conditioning packs on that hot night likely vaporized the fuel in the nearly empty tank and rendered it vulnerable to a spark. That 747s routinely sit for long periods on runways in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia did not disturb Loeb’s logic.
- Kallstrom infers that he questioned the U.S. Navy only after Pierre Salinger accused the Navy months later of shooting down Flight 800. In fact, Kallstrom tried to question the Navy immediately. What triggered his interest were reports from two flight attendants that they had seen “a grey warship” off the coast of Long Island an hour before the crash. Sanders and I identified at least four other highly credible witnesses who saw a cruiser, probably the same one. Kallstrom tells the History Channel that after checking with the Navy, “We know for a fact where [the cruiser] was physically located” and that was “beyond the range” where it could have struck TWA Flight 800. This is not what he told the nation at the FBI’s November 1997 public “disengagement.” Then, he quietly admitted that there were three named subs and a named cruiser in the “immediate vicinity” of the crash site.
- Kallstrom and Loeb dismiss the explosive residue found on the plane as irrelevant. Kallstrom identifies the find as mere “microscopic traces on a two-sided tape” on the cabin floor. In fact, however, as Assistant FBI Director Donald Kerr had told Sen. Grassley’s subcommittee in a casual boast that “116 pieces of debris” had been sent to the FBI lab in Washington for further testing. These pieces had all been screened and/or pre-tested for explosive residue at the Long Island site, and at least a dozen hits were re-confirmed in Washington as well, including hits on the right wing of the plane and in the cargo hold.
- Loeb’s claim that the NTSB “never did find specific evidence” of a bomb or missile rings a bit hollow when one considers the 116 pieces of suspect debris that they never did get to see.
- Kallstrom and Loeb leave the impression that Kallstrom championed a missile theory from the beginning. He may have done so privately, but publicly he did just the opposite. After some honest moments on the first day, there was no more talk of missiles, the military, radar data, satellites, or even eyewitnesses. Kallstrom was steering the New York Times, to whom the FBI leaked exclusively, to the less frightening but disingenuous scenario of a bomb. This steering culminated in an above-the-fold headline on Aug. 23, 1996: “Prime Evidence Found That Device Exploded in Cabin of Flight 800.”
- Loeb dismisses the Federal Aviation Administration radar track that shows an object that “merged with TWA Flight 800” as an “an innocent electronic glitch.” In fact, this “glitch” provoked a high-level emergency meeting at the White House and, as the History Channel shows, nearly precipitated a war. Loeb later leaned on the FAA to back off its claim, but the FAA refused. Investigators would offer at least five separate explanations for the FAA data before settling on “glitch.”
- Loeb claims that if a bomb or missile had destroyed the aircraft, investigators would have found “particles in the body.” He must not have read the NTSB final report, which notes, “Foreign material removed from the bodies was immediately released to an FBI technician.” The FBI would not share its analysis of this “foreign material” even with the NTSB. A document, unearthed through a Freedom Of Information Act request by the Flight 800 Independent Research Organization, revealed that these “particles” had, in fact, been “highly scrutinized by FBI bomb techs” and that the “investigation is continuing to identify [foreign bodies] of unknown origin.”
For careful viewers, there were several more such revelations, none more graphic than Loeb’s presumed accidental explosion in the center wing tank. Watching it slowly unfold, the viewer has to ask himself how could the pilots not have noticed. There was, after all, not a word out of the cockpit, all but unprecedented in the case of a mechanical failure.
To its great credit, the History Channel did not let Loeb and Kallstrom spin their way out of these dilemmas. The viewers saw a series of highly credible eyewitnesses and technical experts, including former NTSB board member Vernon Gose, debunk one explanation after another. Producer Bob Schneiger closes with the observation that the FAA made no effort to address the alleged fuel tank problem for eight years, but spent a billion immediately on beefed up airport security.
Unfortunately, it was the wrong kind of beef. Had a network news magazine presented a program of this caliber six or seven years ago – as they all most certainly should have – there would likely not have been a 9-11.
In this stunning, surprisingly entertaining, 90-minute DVD video documentary, Emmy-award-winning filmmaker Jack Cashill traces the roots of Sept. 11 to the perfect storm of disinformation that surrounded the Clintons’ desperate drive for the White House in the years 1995-1996.
Cashill leads the viewer from Oklahoma City to Dubrovnik, where Ron Brown’s plane crashed, to the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia to the destruction of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island to the Olympic Park bombing.