Graeme Sephton is a man on a mission. After seven years of effort, the electrical engineer affiliated with the University of Massachusetts has forced the FBI to defend its record gathering in a federal appeals court in Boston.
Like retired United Airline pilot Ray Lahr on the west coast, Sephton is focusing on one key area of inquiry in the case of TWA Flight 800. This is the airliner that crashed on the night of July 17, 1996, off the coast of Long Island.
Lahr’s ongoing case in the Los Angeles District Court pivots on the calculations used by the National Transportation Safety Board and the CIA to postulate a 3,400 foot post-crash climb by the nose-less 747. This contrivance was critical in that it allowed the authorities to explain away the testimony of the 270 eyewitnesses who saw an ascending object strike the plane.
Sephton v. FBI pivots on one essential category of evidence as well. Specifically, Sephton wants the FBI to share the forensic information derived from the foreign objects embedded in the bodies of the 230 people killed in the crash. What the FBI has been telling Sephton for the last five years is that its agents can find virtually none of the forensic details about these objects, although released documents make clear that the FBI logged in hundreds of unidentifiable objects as evidence relating to the initial explosion.
Initially, staff from the Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s Office and the Suffolk County Police Department had managed the forensic post-mortem examinations. The pathologists were able to remove many foreign objects from the victims’ bodies. Given the pressure from families to identify loved ones and the initial chaos of the first recovery efforts, however, they did not document what the foreign material was or where it came from. Nor did they record trajectory information.
One organization that remained vigilant even during the chaotic first days was the FBI. “Foreign material removed from the bodies was immediately released to an FBI technician,” notes the NTSB’s Final Report. FBI officials had an exclusive hold on whatever knowledge could be gleaned from the objects. As soon became apparent, the FBI wasn’t about to share this knowledge, not even with the National Transportation Safety Board or the Suffolk County Medical Examiner. That last detail is highly irregular because the SCME has the legal jurisdiction and responsibility to determine cause of death.
If the FBI addressed these issues internally, it has maintained a strict silence on the subject. At its final press conference in November 1997, FBI honcho James Kallstrom made no reference whatsoever to the bodies, their condition, their clothing, or any foreign objects that might have been found within them. This subject was noticeable by its absence from the otherwise comprehensive list of research areas covered at the conference.
Frustrated by the FBI’s failure to share such critical information, the citizen activists of FIRO, the Flight 800 Independent Research Organization, took the matter into their own hands. In September of 1998, the organization requested through the Freedom Of Information Act a list of all foreign objects recovered from the bodies of the victims and the results of the forensic analysis of the physical characteristics of these objects.
Filing the action for FIRO was Sephton. Two weeks after he filed the request, the FBI turned him down cold. The FBI cited a law that exempted agencies from responding if FOIA compliance would “interfere with enforcement procedures.” The FBI, however, did not suggest what that interference might be, especially given that the agency had suspended its investigation a year earlier.
Not one to give up easily, Sephton filed an appeal with the Department Of Justice challenging the FBI’s refusal to release the relevant records. In October 1999, nearly a year after filing, Sephton finally heard back from Justice. To his surprise, the department ruled in his favor. The FBI no longer had a reason for withholding the records and would immediately begin to process “those records that can be made available.”
More than four months later, nearly a year and a half after his initial request, the FBI sent Sephton 14 pages of records. Nowhere among them was any of the forensic data Sephton had specifically requested. Instead, the FBI sent him vague descriptions of the type of investigations undertaken by the NTSB and the FBI.
The saving grace of these documents was the acknowledgement of at least one key fact: FBI agents had not only secured the foreign objects found in the bodies, but they had also had them analyzed. Sephton learned that the FBI’s New York office was “aware that all foreign matter found in or on the victim body was/were highly scrutinized by FBI bomb techs,” that samples taken from simulated missile tests were compared “to actual fragments found in victim bodies,” and, most tellingly, that the “investigation is continuing to identify FB’s [foreign bodies] of unknown origin.”
Despite this humble acknowledgement, Sephton was appalled by the FBI’s transparent game playing. In July of 2000, he filed for an injunction to force the FBI to turn over seven additional pages of documents that it had deliberately withheld.
It would take more than a year and a change in administration before the FBI declassified a meaningful forensics report. The report, an analysis of spectral data recorded by the Brookhaven National Lab, revealed that 20 pieces of 0.2-inch-diameter-round shrapnel had been removed from at least one of the victims’ bodies.
The report noted that these pellets had been tested because of their “dissimilarity in appearance with TWA 800 debris.” As to their source, the analysts could only conclude “unknown origin.” For whatever reason, the FBI still refused to reveal whether other victims were similarly injured.
The forensic evidence derived from an analysis of those objects or any of the hundreds of others collected during the autopsies cannot now be located in the FBI investigation archive, or so Sephton has been told. This is of added concern because those forensic results were never shared with the Suffolk County Coroner or anyone else in the investigation.
In Boston at 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 7, 2005, the FBI will attempt to defend how their $40 million investigation could have mislaid the critical information that underpinned their conclusions that a fuel tank and not a bomb or missile caused the initial explosion.
The one person that Sephton might profitably call as a witness is former anti-terrorist czar, Richard Clarke. In his book, “Against All Enemies,” the talented Mr. Clarke takes full credit for discovering the exploding-fuel tank theory that Sephton is contesting in Boston. Clarke also takes indirect credit for the zoom-climb theory that Lahr is contesting in Los Angeles.
Sephton welcomes the attendance of any concerned citizens in the neighborhood of Boston on Dec. 7. More details about this lawsuit can be found at: www.foiac.org.
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