The 10th anniversary of the TWA Flight 800 disaster flushed out some interesting new leads, none more specific than one confirming an earlier missive received from the NSA, the famously cryptic National Security Agency.
In the way of background, last year someone sent an anonymous letter to the regional business magazine that I serve – from afar – as executive editor. Thinking it crank, the receptionist bundled it with a bunch of miscellaneous press releases and the like and forwarded it on to me without envelope.
To say the least, the letter intrigued me. The letter writer tells of sending “an internal NSA e-mail and memorandum” to the Washington Times three years ago and getting no response. What follows is the most compelling section of the letter:
The internal NSA e-mail contained information pertaining to a recorded telephone call made from New York with in minutes of the downing of TWA 800. The New York offices of the FBI had intercepted an overseas phone call made by a party under FBI surveillance. As the caller’s language was unknown to FBI analysts, a recording of that call was sent to the NSA at the bequest of James Kallstrom specifically, then the head of the FBI’s New York office, with a request for assistance in its translation. The NSA had no experience with the recorded language and with FBI approval forwarded the tape to the Defense Language Institute [DLI] where it was translated.
The letter’s most provocative sentence follows immediately.
The language was identified as Baluchi and was transcribed as, “What had to be done has been done, TWA 800” (last two words unintelligible).
The person who contacted me last week is a retired NSA employee whom, for shorthand, we will call Susan, not her real name. I do, however, have that name, and her bona fides check out. Susan “absolutely” confirms the content of the translated sentence. She did not hear about it second-hand. She saw it. Where she differs from the letter writer is in her assertion that the NSA does have Baluchi translators, who were not at all pleased to be bypassed on so critical a missive. Susan suggested that the reason for laundering this communiqu? through the DLI was to protect NSA’s sources and methods.
As originally unearthed by investigators Angela Clemente and Stephen Dresch and reported by Peter Lance, a former correspondent for ABC News and a five-time Emmy winner, the “What had to be done” communication came from Ramzi Yousef as passed through his New York City jail mate, Gregory Scarpa Jr., a second-generation FBI informant.
In the summer of 1996, Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was being held for trial in New York for the notorious Bojinka plot, his plan to blow up a dozen American commercial airliners over the Pacific and/or to attack America using planes as bombs, either of which he was scarily capable of executing. Yousef used Scarpa’s connections to pass information to the outside world little knowing that Scarpa was routing much of it through his own FBI handlers.
Some of that information had to do with Yousef’s ongoing plans to destroy a 747. Yousef told Scarpa that if there were to be a terrorist attack on such a plane during his Bojinka trial, it would surely prejudice the jurors against him, and Yousef would ask for a mistrial on those very grounds. The morning after the TWA Flight 800 crash, Yousef, representing himself, made just such a request.
Yousef was part of the larger al-Qaida network, its evil genius. His uncle, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, with whom Yousef communicated from his jail cell, coordinated the 9-11 plot. And Yousef talked often to Scarpa about Osama bin Laden also under the code name, as Scarpa heard it, of “Bojinga.”
Ironically, it was the FBI – seeking to gain intelligence from Yousef and to locate his “people” overseas – that set up the system allowing him to make the outside calls. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the last Bojinka conspirator on the loose who knew how to build, among other devices, a Casio-watch nitroglycerine bomb trigger. Yousef had used such a device on a Philippine Airlines 747 in 1994. Although improperly placed, the bomb killed a Japanese national in seat 26K and almost crashed the plane, proving its lethal effectiveness.
The anonymous letter writer speaks of the contents of the memorandum he sent to the Washington Times, specifically the “detailed instructions to NSA personnel on the handling and control of NSA-derived intelligence relating to TWA 800.” The memo apparently also identified “specific individuals at the White House and their STU (secure) telephone numbers” with whom the NSA could discuss relevant information.
“The reference to the STU (secure telephone) would not be commonly known,” respected TWA 800 researcher Bob Donaldson wrote back to me. “I handled the White House account for Bell Atlantic and the White House secure phones are referred to as STU Xs, with X being the latest model number.”
Donaldson and others, however, raised the question as to why the letter writer referred to these documents but did not send them to me. A good question. I checked with my contact at the Washington Times, who ran the letter past the likely reporters to have seen it, including Bill Gertz, but none had.
My contact read nothing into this as he thought it entirely possible that in the post-anthrax environment an anonymous letter of this sort might not have gotten past the mail room. It almost didn’t at my magazine. The letter writer erred as well in his assertion that no lawsuits were filed after the crash, an area in which he has no particular expertise.
Still, I am inclined to think the letter legitimate if for no other reason than it seems so unlikely a hoax. Before accepting it as such, however, I would invite the sender of this letter to follow up with more specific information. We are interested.
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