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.
“I always start with the premise that the question is, why should we not publish?” said New York Times beleaguered editor Bill Keller. “Publishing information is our job. What you really need is a reason to withhold information.”
Keller, of course, was defending his paper’s decision to expose the government’s classified banking program used to investigate Islamic terrorists. His case for such bold reporting would ring a good deal truer, however, if his paper had not played an indispensable role in the single greatest and most gratuitous act of information withholding in recent American history.
On July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 exploded on a beautiful summer night only 12 minutes out of JFK. Had the plane crashed in Kalamazoo or Keokuk or Kansas City, chances are the American people would have known the cause of the crash almost immediately.
But it didn’t. It crashed in the New York Times’ backyard. The Times’ reporters owned the story from day one.
On July 18, the last day of official honesty, Times reporters were all over the place, and they were pressing for the truth. On that day, unnamed “government officials” – most likely the FBI – told the New York Times that air traffic controllers had “picked up a mysterious radar blip that appeared to move rapidly toward the plane just before the explosion.”
These officials and the Times unequivocally linked the radar to the multiple eyewitness sightings and the sightings to a missile attack.
According to the Times’ sources, “The eyewitnesses had described a bright light, like a flash, moving toward the plane just before the initial explosion, and that the flash had been followed by a huge blast – a chain of events consistent with a missile impact and the blast produced by an aircraft heavily laden with fuel.” As one federal official told the Times that first morning, “It doesn’t look good,” with the clear implication of a missile strike.
This was the last day these officials were open with the media about the possibility of a missile. Once they changed the story, so did an oddly quiescent Times. The words “radar” and “eyewitness” would all but disappear from the Times’ reporting after the first day. Nor, inexplicably, would the Times investigate the possible role of the military in the downing of TWA 800 – not one paragraph – and not one word about satellites and what they might have captured.
As it happens, the Atlanta Olympics opened on July 19, the day the above stories were published. Were the White House to acknowledge that an attack from outside the plane had caused its destruction, the FAA might well have been compelled to shut down aviation on the East Coast. Accordingly, all missile talk ceased on that day. The investigation was forced into a false dialectic between bomb and mechanical. And the government, especially the FBI, would make the Times its messenger.
To its credit, the FBI pushed to the terrorist side of the equation and pulled the Times with it. The Times’ article on Aug. 14 – “Fuel Tank’s Condition Makes Malfunction Seem Less Likely” – was the most provocative yet.
According to the Times, investigators “concluded that the center fuel tank caught fire as many as 24 seconds after the initial blast that split apart the plane, a finding that deals a serious blow to the already remote possibility that a mechanical accident caused the crash.” There was more. Investigators told the Times that the pattern of the debris “persuaded them that a mechanical malfunction is highly unlikely.”
“Now that investigators say they think the center fuel tank did not explode,” read the Times account, “they say the only good explanations remaining are that a bomb or a missile brought down the plane.”
In retrospect, one can see that the FBI was indeed steering the Times towards a terrorist scenario but away from any talk of missiles. When “government officials” stopped talking about missile sightings, so did the Times. The paper’s first article on the subject, and first serious reference in a month, occurred Aug. 17. The article featured one Michael Russell, an engineer who witnessed the explosion from a boat.
According to the Times, “His sober, understated story was one of only a few that investigators have judged credible.” The Times took its story straight from FBI sources and picked up its spin as well. These few “clear accounts” like Russell’s have “substantially weakened support for the idea that a missile downed the plane.” The Times claimed that Russell’s account of a quick flash well before the large fireball has “bolstered the idea that a bomb, and not an exploding fuel tank, triggered the disintegration of the airplane.”
In due time, the FBI would acknowledge that 270 eyewitnesses saw not just the white flash, but streaks of light in the sky converging on TWA Flight 800 before the flash. The New York Times would interview not a single one of them.
For all its misdirection, the FBI seemed to have been struggling against the White House throughout August. The Aug. 23 Times headline story – “Prime Evidence Found That Device Exploded in Cabin of Flight 800” – 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 the next week’s Democratic convention.
“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 the 23rd. The paper referred specifically to the traces of PETN, first identified by a bomb-sniffing dog more than two weeks before.
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.
Now, however, senior investigators “were not ready to declare that the crash was the result of a criminal act in part because they did not yet know whether the explosion was caused by a bomb or a missile.”
But there was a speed bump ahead. On the 25th, for the first time, the New York Times published a story with a “missile” lead. “The discovery of PETN,” claimed the article, “has kept alive the fearsome though remote possibility that the airliner was brought down by a surface-to-air missile.”
On Aug. 30, the FBI announced that it had discovered additional traces of explosive residue “on a piece of wreckage from inside the Boeing 747 near where the right wing meets the fuselage.” The location is critical. This is exactly where the first explosion seemed to be centered. At the briefing, the FBI did not identify the type of chemical, but “senior investigators” tipped off the Times that the substance was RDX. One agent told the Times that finding the two ingredients together, RDX and PETN, was ”virtually synonymous with Semtex.”
The Times, which prided itself on its sources, was now being steered by the FBI agents exactly where they wanted this investigation to go – away from the “missile” and back towards the bomb, even if it meant revealing more information. If PETN alone allowed for the possibility of a missile, PETN and RDX together argued much more strongly for a bomb.
For the next three weeks, there was almost no news from the investigation. On Sept. 19, the same day that Al Gore was quietly telling the airline industry that it had nothing to fear from his security and safety commission, the Times was summoned to NTSB headquarters in Washington to be brief by longtime Gore family retainer and now NTSB chair, Jim Hall. The lead of the Times’ subsequent story reads as follows:
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, saying they are convinced that none of the physical evidence recovered from TWA Flight 800 proves that a bomb brought down the plane, plan tests intended to show that the explosion could have been caused by a mechanical failure alone.
Weeks before, the Times had reported that “the only good explanations remaining are that a bomb or a missile brought down the plane off Long Island.” In the interim, the evidence for an external strike had grown only stronger as more explosive residue had been found on the plane and more eyewitnesses had been interviewed. Now, however, officials were telling the public through the media that a mechanical failure brought down the airplane.
The New York Times did not say boo. Soon enough, its editors would move from misinformation to disinformation and demand punishment for those who dared to tell the truth.
Read Cashill’s previous installments in this series:
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