Monday, 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.
There were two dramatically deceptive turning points in the TWA Flight 800 investigation. The second occurred in November 1997, when the CIA showed its notorious animation to discredit the 270 eyewitnesses to a likely missile strike. More on that tomorrow.
The first occurred on Sept. 19, 1996, and it involves none other than then-Vice President Al Gore.
On Sept. 20, 2001, the Boston Globe broke the story of how the so-called Gore Commission had failed in its mission to address airline safety. The Globe claimed this failure “represents the clearest recent public example of the success that airlines have long had in defeating calls for more oversight.” The Globe traced that failure to a series of campaign donations from the airlines to the Democratic National Committee in 1996, in the wake of the crash of TWA Flight 800.
Although on the right track, the Globe had gotten only half the story. The complete story is much more chilling. Yes, the Clinton-Gore team did abandon security planning for the sake of campaign cash. But worse, the White House deliberately concealed the real cause of the crash, in no small part to justify that abandonment.
On Sept. 19, three months after the crash of TWA Flight 800, Gore promised the airline industry’s trade group, the Air Transport Association, “I want to make it very clear that it is not the intent of this administration or of the commission to create a hardship for the air transportation industry or to cause inconvenience to the traveling public.”
On the same day the administration was sending this letter, it was signaling its cooperative spirit to the airline industry through calculated leaks to the Washington Post and the New York Times. The lead of the Times 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 a missile strike had grown only stronger as more explosive residue had been found on the plane and more eyewitnesses had been interviewed.
On the next day, Sept. 20, almost surely to make some sense of its radical change in direction, the administration advanced a new story, one that proved to have extraordinary effect. The New York Times article on Sept. 21 well summarizes the government’s argument. “Federal officials,” said the Times, claimed “the jetliner was used during a test of a bomb-detecting dog five weeks before the crash, which they said could explain the traces of explosives found in the wreckage.”
The test took place at the St. Louis airport on June 10, five weeks before the crash. As the Times relates, packages containing explosives were placed in the plane’s passenger cabin for the dog to find.
These packages contained “the same explosives as those found by investigators after the crash.”
On Sept. 21, 1996, the FBI first found its way to Officer Herman Burnett, who oversaw the exercise. As it happens, this is the day after the stories about the dog-training exercise were leaked to the media.
According to the FBI, airport management told Burnett that a “wide body” was available for training at Gate 50 on the day in question, June 10. The officer then withdrew some exercise “aids” from departmental supplies and drove to an available gate. Once there, he walked up the exterior jetway staircase and boarded the plane. According to the FBI, Burnett “made no notations regarding the tail number of the aircraft, as it was not his policy to do so.” As Officer Burnett told me, he made no notation of the gate, either. He did say, however, that he listed specific start and stop times on the training form, and the notation “wide body.” No one claims he did more.
Burnett told the FBI that he saw no TWA crew, cleaners, caterers or passengers when he “began the placement of the explosives at 10:45 a.m.,” nor at any time when he was on board the 747. According to the FBI account, the officer concealed the training aids in specific places throughout the passenger cabin in a “zigzag” pattern. Burnett let the explosives sit for a while, as FAA regulations dictate, and then returned to his car to retrieve the dog.
“At 11:45 a.m., the patrolman began the exercise by bringing the dog into the aircraft.” Again, according to the FBI, “the exercise lasted 15 minutes, and the dog located all the explosives.” Burnett then climbed back down the jetway with the dog, secured the dog in his car and climbed back up to retrieve the training aids from various locations throughout this large aircraft. He placed each aid on the galley counter before carting them all back out. Burnett estimated that this activity took 15 minutes.
Based on the scenario developed by the FBI, Burnett could not have left the plane earlier than 12:15 p.m.
Given the time spent climbing up and down the jetway, a 12:20 or 12:25 p.m. exit is more likely. During this time, Burnett saw no one else on board the plane.
Existing records play serious havoc with the FBI scenario. They show TWA 17119 – the plane that would become Flight 800 – flew out of St. Louis for Honolulu at 12:35 p.m. In other words, the plane that would become Flight 800 left the gate no more than 15 minutes after Burnett finished a dog exercise in the cabin during which he had seen no one. To clean the plane, stock it, check out the mechanics and board several hundred passengers would take much longer than the 15-minute window of opportunity the FBI’s own timetable presents.
So if not the 800 plane, which “wide body” could the officer possibly have used? The Flight 800 aircraft was indeed parked at gate 50. Parked at Gate 51 was another 747, number 17116, the sister aircraft, a veritable clone. This second plane – bound for JFK International as TWA Flight 844 – would not leave the gate until 2 p.m. This later departure would have allowed TWA staff ample time to load and board the plane after the officer finished the training exercise at about 12:15 or slightly later. No known documentation puts Burnett and his dog on the Flight 800 plane.
An unquestioning media chose not to check time logs and readily accepted the fiction that a dog-training exercise had taken place on the Flight 800 plane, but this was not enough. As CNN casually reported Sept. 20, the training aids were “well-wrapped packages of explosives.” The authorities would have to convince the media that there was not only an exercise on board, but that it was a sloppy, incompetent one. To pull this off, they needed a scapegoat and found one in an innocent African-American police officer with 17 years on the force, two of those dedicated to daily dog-training exercises.
The media also failed to check whether the training aids matched the explosive residue finds they had been reporting for the last month in location or in content. As is easily and dramatically proved, they do not come close to matching either.
At a July 1997 congressional hearing a year after the crash, Ohio Rep. James Traficant asked the FBI’s Jim Kallstrom, “Do you know for sure that that dog was on the plane?”
“We know for sure,” Kallstrom bluffed.
“Isn’t it a fact,” continued Traficant, “that where the dog was to have visited, that it is not the part of the plane where the precursors of SEMTEX were found?” (Traficant here refers to the PETN and RDX.)
“That’s not true,” Kallstrom dissembled again. He then added the kind of detail that would make a defense attorney cringe: “It is very important where the packages were put, congressman. And the test packages that we looked at, that were in very bad condition, that were unfortunately dripping those chemicals, were placed exactly above the location of the airplane where we found chemicals on the floor.”
In fact, none of the training aids were placed near where the chemicals had been found. Officer Burnett swears that the packages were absolutely intact.
Kallstrom, however, had little seeming need to answer any questions. September’s “well-wrapped packages of explosives” became July’s “dripping” chemicals. The residue traces once on the seat or on a piece of wreckage were now on the floor. All references to residue in the cargo hold had disappeared. The RDX and PETN finds faded into memory.
The only person to call Al Gore’s bluff was Sen. John Kerry. On Sept. 11, 2001, on the Larry King show, he cited TWA 800 as one of the terrorist attacks against the United States. On Sept. 24, 2001, he told Chris Matthews the same thing on “Hardball.” On Sept. 20, 2001, his booster rag, the Boston Globe, let Gore have it both barrels. It was the only paper in the country to do so, and it took him out on the fifth anniversary of this first great deception.
This inconvenient truth may explain why Gore did not run in 2004. Kerry could have had no other motive.
Read previous installments in this series:
Part 4: “1 secret the Times has kept”
Part 5: “What Jamie Gorelick knew”
Part 7: “How the FBI misled the public”
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