On June 25, 1996, terrorists bombed the Khobar Towers, an American barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American Air Force personnel and wounding hundreds more. No event during his eight-year tenure as head of the FBI troubled Louis Freeh more.
Clinton’s failure to respond to this act of terror serves as the central metaphor of Louis Freeh’s new book, , “My FBI: Bringing Down The Mafia, Investigating Bill Clinton, and Waging War on Terror.” In the book, Freeh credits the family members of the Khobar victims with inspiring him to stay on the job and pursue the case until the Bush administration finally obtained indictments against the guilty parties.
Unfortunately, Freeh has no such regard for the family members of the victims of TWA Flight 800. As is also true in memoirs by both Bill and Hillary Clinton and aides George Stepanopoulos and Dick Morris, the disaster passes very nearly unmentioned. For Freeh and Bill Clinton in particular, the oversight is damning. An event that almost provoked a war and consumed the energies of the FBI for 16 months demands more than a few throwaway sentences from each of them.
As Freeh and others have detailed, the Khobar Towers bombing put the United States on something very close to a war footing. Three weeks later, on July 17, National Liberation Day in Saddam’s Iraq, two days before the start of the Atlanta Olympics, with the military on an extremely high state of alert after a series of specific threats, TWA Flight 800 exploded 12 minutes out of JFK without a word from the cockpit and with 230 people on board.
At the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center two veteran controllers observed a target arcing and intersecting with TWA 800 just as it exploded. They reported what they saw immediately. A manager from that center rushed the radar data to the FAA technical center in Atlantic City for further analysis. In Atlantic City a playback of the data was recorded on videotape and plotted onto paper. From there, it was faxed to FAA headquarters in Washington and rushed “immediately” to the White House.
On this first critical night, while Richard Clarke and others in the security apparatus convened in the White House situation room, Clinton holed up in the family quarters. Credible accounts identify only Deputy National Security Adviser Sandy Berger as being with the president. Freeh pointedly confirms Berger’s intimate relationship with the president despite his “deputy” status.
“The lens through which he seemed to view everything,” adds Freeh of Berger, “was the politics of getting Bill Clinton re-elected.” Freeh himself was kept fully out of the loop. When James Kallstrom of the FBI’s New York office called Freeh at 3 a.m. that morning, he found him home asleep.
Despite its strained relationship with Freeh, the White House quickly recognized the value of working through the Justice Department and the FBI rather than through the more independent National Transportation Safety Board. Although by law the NTSB “has priority over any investigation by another department, agency or instrumentality of the United States government,” Justice seized the investigation from the NTSB, an admittedly illegal act, and set the FBI to work. Tellingly, the FBI played no such role in the ValuJet crash two months prior.
For the next six weeks, only FBI agents were allowed to interview eyewitnesses, and these accounts were now confirming what the FAA radar had picked up. Witnesses along the Long Island coast – 270 surfers, fishermen, pilots, vacationers and others – would eventually tell the FBI that they saw flaming objects streak up toward the plane, culminating in a series of massive explosions.
During those weeks, Kallstrom, who headed up the FBI investigation into TWA 800, leaked investigative details exclusively to the New York Times. Although he suppressed all talk of radar and eyewitnesses, he and his colleagues shared some interesting forensic data.
“Investigators have finally found scientific evidence that an explosive device was detonated inside the passenger cabin of Trans World Airlines Flight 800,” reported the Times authoritatively on Aug. 23, 1996. The paper referred specifically to the traces of PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate. According to the Times, the positive test result came from “a part of a seat” from the area in “the epicenter of the blast,” somewhere between Rows 17 and 27, close to the area of the right wing and near the spot where the plane split in two.
These investigators told the Times that PETN is commonly found in bombs and surface-to-air missiles, “making it impossible, for now, to know for sure which type of explosive device destroyed the Boeing 747.” The Times reminded its readers that 10 days prior the FBI had said that ”one positive result” in the forensic tests would cause them to declare the explosion a crime.
That was not about to happen. The day before this story ran, Kallstrom had been summoned to Washington to be served up a dose of survival reality. The task of reining in Jim Kallstrom fell to Jamie Gorelick, deputy attorney general and future 9-11 commissioner. At this juncture in the investigation, even if Gorelick knew no more than what she read in the New York Times, she would have known that explosive residue had been found all over the plane – and was now confirmed – and that the possibility of a mechanical failure was more “remote” than ever.
To be sure, no account of the meeting provides any more than routine detail, but behaviors began to change immediately afterwards, especially after the Times broke the aforementioned headline story, top right – “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 FBI was tasked with contriving an explanation other than bomb or missile.
Throughout the course of the TWA 800 investigation, Freeh was conspicuous by his absence. There was close to no media mention of him whatsoever. Investigative reporter James Sanders believes he knows why.
“Kallstrom was to be the firewall protecting Freeh,” Sanders notes. “Kallstrom was to become the No. 3 FBI manager after the TWA 800 ‘investigation’ wrapped.”
Sanders threw a wrench into that investigation. Working with an inside source, Sanders was able to obtain a portion of a seat from the area exposed to the blast and had it tested in a California laboratory. When he reported his findings in March 1997, all hell broke loose.
“Kallstrom and Freeh were very close,” adds Sanders. “I had a source in Freeh’s FBI inner circle. Kallstrom was told he would be the sacrificial lamb if I gained traction.”
Freeh, in fact, describes Kallstrom as “a great New York agent and a longtime friend and colleague.”
To silence Sanders, the Clinton Justice Department arrested him, his wife, Elizabeth, and Sanders’ source, 747 pilot Terrel Stacey. They were then prosecuted for violating a law designed to protect crash sites from scavengers.
The official investigation limped on, and at a Nov. 18, 1997, press conference, Kallstrom finally put it to bed.
“No evidence has been found which would indicate that a criminal act was the cause of the tragedy of TWA flight 800,” he announced. “The law enforcement team has done everything humanly possible, has pursued every lead, has looked at every theory and has left no stone unturned.” Kallstrom then detailed the thousands of man-hours spent on the investigation and a cost that approached $20 million.
Sanders believes that he did enough damage that Kallstrom was forced to take an early retirement. This he did awkwardly and abruptly two weeks after the press conference. Then just 54, Kallstrom took a job with MBNA America Bank, Freeh’s current employer.
In “My FBI,” Louis Freeh says not a single word about the cost, the controversy or resolution of the TWA Flight 800 investigation. He mentions the crash only in relation to the Khobar Towers bombing: “Three weeks later. On July 17, TWA flight 800 exploded off Long Island minutes after taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport. No one knew what brought it down: mechanical failure, a bomb, a ground-to-air missile all seemed possible in the early stages.”
And that is the sum of it. Freeh dismisses the No. 1 news story of 1996 in two sentences. He pays considerably more attention to other misbegotten investigations like those into Wen Ho Lee, Richard Jewell and Vincent Foster.
To his very humble credit, the generally honest and sincere Freeh avoids the deceitful braggadocio of his boss. In “My Life,” Clinton dedicates one paragraph out of 900-plus pages to the disaster:
On July 17, TWA Flight 800 exploded off Long Island killing some 230 people. At the time everyone assumed – wrongly, as it turned out – that this was a terrorist act; there was even speculation that the plane had been downed by a rocket fired from a boat in Long Island Sound. While I cautioned against jumping to conclusions, it was clear we had to do more to strengthen aviation safety.
Clinton devoted more space to a June 1996 day in Albuquerque “to support the community’s curfew program” than to a July 1996 night when 230 people were killed and America almost went to war. Freeh devoted conspicuously more space to ethics training at the FBI.
How can the rational American not be suspicious?
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