For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction … it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in.
George Orwell, “1984”
On Aug. 14, 1996, four weeks after the crash of TWA Flight 800, the New York Times confirmed what the White House feared, namely that America had suffered the most lethal attack on its homeland ever.
“Now that investigators say they think the center fuel tank did not explode,” wrote the Times, “they say the only good explanations remaining are that a bomb or a missile brought down the plane.”
That first month after the crash had to have been the most harrowing in the Clinton presidency. Just weeks before the Democratic convention and months before the election, a likely terrorist attack in front of literally thousands of Long Island residents had upset all expectations. Just by itself the trip by Bill and Hillary Clinton to Long Island to console the families of the 230 victims must have been memorably poignant. Then, too, one can only imagine the fevered late night meetings to assess the political fallout and to plan retaliation.
To clarify this troubled time, the historian turns to the various memoirs, and here is what he learns:
In “Living History,” her 500-plus page memoir, the first lady dedicates to this perilous chapter in American history exactly one-third of one sentence. She does not even mention her emotionally wrenching day among the victims’ families in Long Island.
In his 900-plus page memoir, “My Life,” ex-President Bill Clinton dedicates just one paragraph to the disaster:
On July 17, TWA Flight 800 exploded off Long Island killing some 230 people. At the time everyone assumed – wrongly, as it turned out – that this was a terrorist act; there was even speculation that the plane had been downed by a rocket fired from a boat in Long Island Sound. While I cautioned against jumping to conclusions, it was clear we had to do more to strengthen aviation safety.
Clinton devoted more space to a June 1996 day in Albuquerque where he discussed that community’s curfew program than to a July 1996 night when 230 people were killed and to the anxious two-month period that followed in which America almost went to war.
In his memoir, “My FBI: Bringing Down The Mafia, Investigating Bill Clinton, and Fighting the War on Terror,” former FBI Director Louis Freeh mentions the crash only in relation to the Khobar Towers bombing: “Three weeks later. On July 17, TWA Flight 800 exploded off Long Island minutes after taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport. No one knew what brought it down: mechanical failure, a bomb, a ground-to-air missile all seemed possible in the early stages.”
That’s it. Despite the fact that this highly controversial investigation involved hundreds of FBI agents full time for months and some agents for years, Freeh could spare it only two sentences.
In his memoir, “Off With Their Heads,” presidential adviser Dick Morris refers to TWA 800 as one of “three attacks” in the “terror summer of 1996.”
“Americans demanded action,” Morris writes of the three attacks. “But all they got were speeches.” About two of the attacks, Khobar Towers and the Olympic Park bombing, Morris is entirely forthcoming. About TWA Flight 800 he is silent beyond its mere mention. On July 15, 2003, Morris and I were both on Paul Schiffer’s excellent Cleveland-area radio show at the same time. Three times I asked him to elaborate on the TWA Flight 800 crash. Three times he absolutely evaded the question.
On Sept. 11 2001, George Stephanopoulos, former assistant to President Clinton, talked with Peter Jennings on ABC TV about how the president would use the White House “situation room” to communicate with key staff in the wake of an attack. Said Stephanopoulos: “In my time at the White House [the situation room] was used in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, in the aftermath of the TWA Flight 800 bombing, and that would be the way they would stay in contact through the afternoon.”
In his memoir, “Only Human,” Stephanopoulos does not mention a single word about TWA Flight 800, let alone what he knows about the “bombing” of the same.
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
If there were ever a subject for review by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, TWA Flight 800 would seem to have been it. But curiously, the committee’s “Special Report,” which covers the period of the crash and its aftermath, dedicates not a word to the crash, despite the CIA involvement in helping find an “exit strategy.”
The report does detail the terrorist bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia three weeks earlier and even explores the much more questionable and controversial subject of the CIA-Contra-cocaine story that was then creating a fuss in the left-wing media. But the committee’s report, issued on Feb. 28, 1997, does not raise the subject of TWA Flight 800, even to dismiss it.
One of the committee’s members, however, proved more honest, if only accidentally. Said Sen. John Kerry on the Sept. 24, 2001, edition of “Hardball”: “You know, we’ve had terrorism for a long time now. We’ve had the Achille Lauro, the Munich Olympics, the pipe bomb at the Olympics in Atlanta, the TWA 800, the bombing of embassies, and it’s not going to disappear overnight.”
What has disappeared, however, right down Orwell’s memory hole, is American history. In the case of TWA Flight 800, the holes might better be called “memoir holes,” though they serve the same purpose – namely, the purging of an inconvenient truth.
The anti-terrorist honcho Richard Clarke proves to be the proverbial exception that proves the rule. Among all the players, the boastful Clarke writes the only memoir to offer more than a paragraph on the crash. Much of what he writes is transparently false, but all of it is revealing.
Within 30 minutes of the plane’s crash, Clarke tells us in “Against All Enemies,” he had convened a meeting of the Coordinating Security Group in the White House situation room. On his drive in to the White House, he recalls, “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, the option in question. 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 in a major way.
A week later, on July 25, still suspecting a terrorist attack, Clarke flew with the Clintons to Long Island. About the performance of the Clintons among the victims’ families, Clarke positively gushes. Here was the president “praying with them, hugging them, taking pictures with them.” Here, too, was “Mrs. Clinton” alone in a makeshift chapel, praying, “on her knees.” That day, the president told the families, “We do not yet know what caused Flight 800 to crash.” Nothing about this trip proved sufficiently memorable to make the final edit in either of the Clintons’ massive memoirs.
Only after some anonymous technician on Long Island persuaded Clarke – of all people – that mechanical failure caused the crash was there any relief. Says Clarke of his much too fortuitous discovery, “We were all cautiously encouraged.” Iran was spared. Or Iraq. Or whoever.
Deception by political leaders is not admirable but it is at least understandable. For journalists and historians, it is not even understandable. Ten years after the fact, those who track this period without even acknowledging the gaping memory hole in their path betray their profession.
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