July 17 marks the 10th anniversary of the destruction of TWA Flight 800, the investigation of which represented the most conspicuous and consequential misdirection of justice in American history. This column is part of an in-depth look at the incident, presenting several compelling reasons why the investigation must be re-opened.
On July 17, 1996 – Liberation Day in Saddam’s Iraq and two days before the Atlanta Olympics – TWA Flight 800 blew up in the sky off the south coast of Long Island.
In his book “Against All Enemies,” Richard Clarke offers the only published inside account of the demise of TWA Flight 800, much of it transparently false, but all of it entirely revealing. At that time Clarke served as chairman of the Coordinating Security Group on terrorism.
Within 30 minutes of the plane’s crash, Clarke tells us, he had convened a meeting of the Coordinating Security Group in the White House situation room. This is not something he had done for the ValuJet 592 crash in Florida two months prior or for any other crash.
“The FAA,” Clarke reports, “was at a total loss for an explanation. The flight path and the cockpit communications were normal. The aircraft had climbed to 17,000 feet, then there was no aircraft.” In fact, the FAA did have an explanation. Its radar operators in New York had seen on their screens an unknown object “merging” with TWA 800 in the seconds before the crash and rushed the radar data to Washington. This is why Clarke called the meeting.
In fact, the last altitude the FAA actually recorded was about 13,800 feet. This is easily verified and beyond debate. There is a reason here for Clarke’s dissembling. He needs to lift the aircraft – even if just in the retelling – above the reach of a shoulder-fired missile.
About four weeks after the crash, Clarke met with the late FBI terrorist expert, John O’Neill, who told Clarke that the eyewitness interviews “were pointing to a missile attack, a Stinger.” For the record, no eyewitness ever mentioned a “Stinger.” But by this time some 270 eyewitnesses had described to the FBI something looking very much like a missile attack. Many of them had provided detailed drawings.
“[TWA 800] was at 15,000 feet,” Clarke reportedly answered O’Neill, who died at the World Trade Center on September 11 and can no longer correct the record. “No Stinger or any other missile like it can go that high.” One would think that on so sensitive and contentious a point, Clarke would have made an effort to get the altitude of TWA 800 right or even consistently wrong. He does neither. The real altitude is not 15,000 feet or 17,000 feet, but 13,800 feet – an altitude at which the Stinger could be effective. In a book of this importance, such mistakes and omissions shock the knowing reader.
At about this same time, based on his own rough timeline, Clarke visited the site of the investigation on Long Island. Why a man with no particular technical background was encouraged to wander through the tightly guarded site is never explained. As Clarke tells it, he casually stopped to talk to a technician. Their presumed conversation is so utterly disingenuous it needs to be repeated in full:
“So this is where the bomb exploded?” I [Clarke] asked. “Where on the plane was it?”
“The explosion was just forward of the middle, below the floor of the passenger compartment, below row 23. But it wasn’t a bomb,” he [the technician] added. “See the pitting pattern and the tear. It was a slow, gaseous eruption, from inside.”
“What’s below row 23?” I asked, slowly sensing that this was not what I thought it was.
“The center line fuel tank. It was only half full, might have heated up on the runway and caused a gas cloud inside. Then if a spark, a short circuit …” He indicated an explosion with his hands.
In this one supposedly chance encounter Clarke manages to sum up the essence of what he calls the “exit strategy” – namely the way out of the TWA 800 mess– months if not years before the NTSB does, and he takes all credit for it. That same day, Clarke tells us, he returned to Washington and shared his exploding fuel tank theory with chief of staff Leon Panetta and NSA director Tony Lake, even sketching the 747 design.
“Does the NTSB agree with you?” Lake reportedly asked Clarke. Clarke’s purported response speaks to the priority politics would take over truth in this investigation – “Not yet.”
Clarke adds the telling comment, “We were all cautiously encouraged.” They were “encouraged” because the political people did not want to face the consequences of terrorism.
As to the motives for concealing the real cause of the crash, Clarke provides this as well. He tells us that on his drive in to the White House on July 17 to convene the post-crash meeting, “I dreaded what I thought was about to happen. The Eisenhower option.”
Three weeks after the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, Clarke and his colleagues had been discussing a massive retaliation against Iran. Had Iran been behind the downing of TWA Flight 800 – or Iraq for that matter, or al-Qaida – the president would have had to respond.
Less than four months before an election that he already had in the bag, one that he had desperately scrambled to secure, the Eisenhower option was simply not good politics.
Read Cashill’s previous installments in this series:
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