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TWA 800's 'Deep Throat'
Posted By Jack Cashill On 06/07/2005 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled
Editor’s note: In his extraordinary new DVD documentary, “Mega Fix,” Emmy-award-winning filmmaker Jack Cashill traces the roots of Sept. 11 to the political exploitation of terror investigations by the Clinton White House in the desperate 1995-1996 election cycle. To arrange a showing in your city, contact Jack Cashill.
One has to marvel at how fully and conspicuously situational is the media’s affection for whistleblowing. To blow the whistle on a Republican makes one a hero. Witness the legendary “Deep Throat” or Richard Clarke or the Enron whistleblowers.
To blow the whistle on a Democrat – particularly, a Clinton – makes one a pariah. Witness the treatment of Linda Tripp or Kathleen Willey or Paula Jones or the Arkansas State Troopers or the pathologists who pointed out the inconvenient hole in Ron Brown’s head and paid for it with their careers.
Witness, too, the treatment of two lesser-known whistleblowers of that era, Capt. Terrell Stacey and Elizabeth Sanders.
A senior manager at TWA in 1996, Stacey had flown the 747 that would become TWA Flight 800 from Paris to New York the night before it exploded. In fact, he was in charge of all TWA 747 pilot activity within the airline. So it was logical that he would be among the first TWA employees assigned to the National Transportation Safety Board investigation.
Elizabeth Sanders had come to know Stacey through her years as a flight attendant and trainer for TWA. She thought of him as “a straight arrow, go-by-the-rules kind of guy” and respected him for it. Flight 800 would bind their fates in ways neither could have anticipated.
Fifty-three TWA crew members were killed in the explosion, and Sanders had trained several of them. Sanders, Stacey and the other TWA employees found themselves at one memorial service after another. The feeling among the TWA family then – as now – was that a missile had brought down the plane. As the official investigation sputtered, the frustration among them grew.
Elizabeth’s reporter husband, James Sanders, could not help but to pick up the vibes. Aware of the dissatisfaction within the TWA community, Sanders sought out a few good sources within the investigation on Long Island. The best of them proved to be Terrell Stacey. For discretion’s sake, Sanders would refer to him only as “hangar man.”
After a phone introduction arranged by Elizabeth, James Sanders and Terrell Stacey agreed to meet. “What he told me over those first hours,” relates Sanders, “was one thing: ‘I know there’s a cover-up in progress.’”
A few weeks after this first meeting, Sanders and Stacey met a second time. On this occasion, Stacey turned over an NTSB computer printout of the debris field. Sanders computerized what appeared to be key pieces and soon noticed a pattern. The very first damage to the plane centered on rows 17-19 with a general right-to-left bias.
At the next meeting, Stacey revealed for the first time the existence of a reddish-orange trail across the cabin interior of the plane in the same area of the passenger cabin, rows 17-19. The residue was on the foam-rubber seat-cushion backing attached to the metal frame. He claimed the FBI had taken several samples in late August, but refused to share the test results and ignored requests by his NTSB team for the same. In September 1996, the residue had become a hot topic among the investigators.
At a face-to-face meeting in November 1996, Sanders and Stacey agreed that without forensic testing there was no way to know the source of the residue. As Stacey observed, however, the residue appeared to have flakes on the surface. These could probably be coaxed into a plastic bag with very little help.
Unable to scrape off the flakes, Stacey cut out two small samples of foam rubber and sent them to Sanders in January 1997. Sanders made arrangements with West Coast Analytical Services, a commercial laboratory in the Los Angeles area, to determine what elements were found in the reddish-orange residue. They proved to be consistent with those found in the exhaust residue of a solid-fuel missile.
By early March 1997, a decision was made to publish a series of newspaper articles describing Sanders’ findings. “New Data Show Missile May Have Nailed TWA 800,” screamed the one-inch, front-page headline across the top of the Riverside Press-Enterprise on March 10, 1997.
The Press-Enterprise reporters had interviewed the FBI three days prior. Until the article appeared, however, they could not respond. They did not know the extent of the damage they would have to control. Evidence suggests, however, that they had a plan of action prepared in case the information about the residue trail escaped from the hangar.
On the same morning as the article appeared, March 10, Clinton operatives started gradually and anonymously leaking word that the residue was nothing more than glue. They offered no back up, but the major media had long since ceased to ask for any. The media began to report that the missile theory had once again been shot down.
One network, however, held promise for Sanders. It was CBS. Sanders had granted an exclusive interview to Emmy Award-winning producer Kristina Borjesson. After the interview had been videotaped, however, Borjesson grew alarmed when she realized no one on the Evening News was editing the piece. Frustrated, she walked into a morning meeting of news executives and asked why the network wasn’t doing the story on Sanders and his documents.
“You think it’s a missile, don’t you?” queried an executive she didn’t recognize.
“I don’t know what the hell it is,” Borjesson shot back, “but don’t you think we should be doing a story that asks a few questions about this guy and his documents?” The silence that followed was, as Borjesson admits, “deafening.” When she had walked in to the room, she honestly believed she was about to correct an oversight at a level where it could be corrected quickly. “I walked out of there,” said Borjesson, “feeling like I’d cooked my own goose.”
Although CBS News had no interest in the sample, “60 Minutes” did. Borjesson warned Senior Producer Josh Howard that a federal grand jury had been convened to deal with legal issues around the TWA 800 investigation, but Howard wasn’t put off. “We’ve dealt with grand juries before,” he told her. Borjesson was elated. In the world of news, she told him, “60 Minutes” was the “last broadcast with balls.” Borjesson put a sample that Sanders had sent so CBS could do its own independent testing in Howard’s desk for safekeeping until she could locate a lab.
A few days later Borjesson got a call from her executive producer. The FBI wanted to talk to her “about some stolen evidence.” As she learned, management had meekly handed over the untested sample to the FBI “where it disappeared forever.”
Despite the CBS rollover, the government suspected that investigative reporter James Sanders had additional residue scraped from the seatbacks of TWA Flight 800. As soon as its agents fixed onto an alternate explanation, he could produce a second or third sample for testing, possibly publicly.
Almost immediately, Justice Department officials zeroed in on what they sensed was Sanders’ Achilles heel, his wife Elizabeth. The Justice Department found its rationale on page A-12 of the Press-Enterprise story where Elizabeth Sanders was mentioned by name. In fact, James Sanders had had no real choice but to mention her. Elizabeth was a TWA employee and the wife of the journalist. Disclosure was mandatory.
In April 1997, James Sanders and his attorney met with the Justice Department, represented by Valerie Caproni, chief of the New York Justice Department Criminal Division. Caproni – now chief counsel for the FBI – was the same attorney who muscled the NTSB out of the witness interviews in its first few days. Arguably, she was a participant in the subversion of the investigation, and here she was prosecuting those who would expose that subversion. At the meeting, Caproni laid down her nuclear option: Unless he gave up “Hangar Man,” his own “Deep Throat,” the government would indict Elizabeth Sanders as well.
The Justice Department underestimated Elizabeth Sanders. Although confused and disheartened by the FBI’s harassment of her, she advised the government though counsel that she declined to cooperate in its investigation of her husband’s journalistic pursuits. Regardless of the cost, she cold not even conceive of betraying his source and her friend, Terrell Stacey – “Hangar Man.”
To escape her pursuers, Elizabeth Sanders had to take leave from TWA and avoid her home or anywhere else the FBI agents might find her. For eight unnerving months in 1997, she found refuge with a friend in a lonely house trailer in the Northwest semi-wilderness. She was cut off from her career, her co-workers, her mother and sisters, her husband and her adolescent son. The experience threw her into a profound depression.
Despite the Sanders’ silence, the FBI seized Sanders’ phone records and found their way to Stacey. The agents’ job was to intimidate, to create a feeling of terror and helplessness, to get Stacey to roll over before he regained his composure, before he developed the presence of mind to request an attorney.
Stacey knew that if he, too, chose not to cooperate, it would cost him significant legal fees and quite likely his job. He instantly faced a weighty decision. How long could he keep his daughter in college? How long could he make the monthly payments on his beautiful home? How long could he continue the lease payments on his three cars? How long could he pay for a defense team capable of opposing the awesome power of the Justice Department? The only alternative was to cooperate. He pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of stealing airplane parts from a crash scene.
The Sanders were not charged with theft. They were charged with conspiracy, aiding and abetting a source to obtain parts of an airplane, namely “residue.” Their motive was transparently not to steal these parts, but to test evidence – evidence of potential federal lawlessness.
The major media, however, found it comfortable to report the Sanders’ transgression as theft. The New York Times would later note without a hint of irony or outrage that “the Sanderses were charged under a federal law enacted in 1996 after a truck driver in Florida was accused of taking a piece of the wreckage of the May 1996 Valujet crash as a souvenir.” In fact, the law had been enacted in the 1960s to discourage souvenir hunters from carting away wreckage at a crash scene before authorities arrived. But the motive behind the act was, as described, to discourage scavengers. The Times also noted that the Sanders’ attorney “tried yesterday to portray the matter as a free press issue,” but the very word “tried” suggests the Times’ lack of sympathy.
Newsday’s online headline cut right to the chase: “Missile theorist, wife and pilot accused of stealing.” Through this selective misinformation, the FBI was turning the potential Long Island jury pool against the Sanders.
It stunned the Sanders that none among the media managed to frame even one First Amendment question. When the Sanders’ attorney attempted to bring this issue into focus, Newsday’s Bob Kessler, began to argue the government’s case. Another reporter asked the attorney why his client did not immediately return the residue and turn Stacey in to the FBI. James Sanders shook his head in disbelief.
Was it only a generation ago that the New York Times made Daniel Ellsberg a hero by publishing the purloined and fully classified “Pentagon Papers”? Or that the Washington Post had celebrated the daring-do of its own FBI source, the legendary “Deep Throat”?
“The day I was arrested was surreal,” recalls Elizabeth Sanders. “It was something I would never thought could happen to an innocent, normal person in the United States.” What made it all the worse was that the major media were celebrating her arrest. How times had changed, and how they would change again.
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About Mega Fix: 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.
As Cashill proves beyond dispute in this DVD, these are not multiple conspiracies, but all part of one major political fix, the mother of all fixes … the Mega Fix.
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To arrange a showing in your city, please send an e-mail to Jack Cashill.
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