On the night of July 17, 1996, while George Tenet was deputy director of Central Intelligence, TWA Flight 800 took off from JFK headed for Paris only to disappear into a black hole off the coast of Long Island 12 minutes later.
So powerful was the gravitational field of that hole that not even a single proton of information about the doomed flight has escaped it, at least not in Tenet’s new book, “At the Center of the Storm.”
There is much to overlook here, and Tenet has no excuse for doing so. A presumed terrorist attack on an airliner in New York is central to the story he tells. He takes pride in warning about the possibility of such an incident,
Tenet cites, for instance, a 1995 National Intelligence Estimate, which highlighted civil aviation as an especially vulnerable target for radical Islamists. In 1997, he tells the reader, another National Intelligence Estimate made the same point even more forcefully.
“We know that the message was received,” Tenet writes somewhat proudly, and here he cites the fact that the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security stressed the concerns he raised.
Tenet was so flattered by the attention of the Commission’s chairman, Vice President Al Gore, that he quotes him favorably. “People and places in the United States have joined the list of targets,” opines Gore gravely.
What Tenet pointedly does not tell us, however, is what happened between 1995 and 1997 to get the White House interested in aviation safety. To be sure, it was not Tenet’s National Intelligence Estimate.
It was the destruction of TWA Flight 800. President Clinton announced the formation of the White House commission a week after the crash. He made the announcement to the grieving families on Long Island as a response to the perceived attack on that doomed airplane.
On Aug. 14, 1996, four weeks after the disaster, the New York Times confirmed what the White House seemingly 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 killed 230 people and upset all expectations.
One would think that Tenet would find some of this worth mentioning. He does not, not a word. His silence underscores the power of TWA Flight 800’s secrets: the black hole as Orwellian memory hole.
To be fair, Tenet does not likely know that on the very same day the Commission was officially established by Executive Order – Aug. 22, 1996 – the White House called the FBI brass down to Washington to tell them the serious investigation was over.
Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick delivered the message. If there were any reason to appoint Gorelick to the 9/11 Commission other than to keep the truth about TWA 800 securely in its hole, I have not seen it.
Four weeks after the Washington meeting, NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, an old Gore family retainer, did yeoman’s work in sealing the truth forever.
Without any evidence – there never would be any – Hall concluded that a mechanical failure had brought down the airliner. As to the explosive residue found all over the downed plane, he wrote that off to a sloppy dog-training exercise on that same plane five weeks prior to the crash.
If a single major media reporter had talked to the police officer who did the dog-training or the pilots who flew the plane or even compared the time logs of the flight and the training, this fiction would have been undone in a heartbeat. Not one reporter did or has.
Curiously, it was the CIA that got the final disinformation assignment – the discrediting of the eyewitnesses – and this was executed after Tenet had been appointed director of Central Intelligence. He had to have known.
In November 1997, the FBI mopped up the remains of the criminal investigation by showing a CIA-produced animation that explained away the FBI’s own “270 eyewitness accounts of a missile-like streak in the sky.” The animation pictured a nose-less 747 zooming upright like a rocket for more than 3,200 feet, thus confusing the eyewitnesses.
Since then, under legal pressure, the NTSB has quietly disowned the notorious zoom-climb, one of the most spectacular and successful deceptions ever visited on the American people.
Tenet, for his part, has chosen not to mention the CIA’s unusual cooperation with the FBI on the TWA 800 project. Indeed, he not does mention TWA Flight 800 at all. To be fair, Tenet is not the only major player to have suppressed this story.
In his 900-plus page memoir, “My Life,” ex-President Bill Clinton reserves just one paragraph to the disaster. In “Living History,” her 500-plus page memoir, the first lady gives it exactly one-third of one sentence.
In his memoir, “My FBI,” former FBI Director Louis Freeh mentions the crash only in relation to the Khobar Towers bombing and gives it 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,” but falls silent about it beyond this mere mention.
Adviser George Stephanopoulos does not offer up a single word about TWA Flight 800 in his memoir, “Only Human.” For its part, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence does not so much as mention TWA Flight 800 in the committee’s “Special Report,” which covers the period of the crash and its aftermath.
The missing computer files of John Deutch – the DCI who resigned shortly after the crash – and the missing archive files of Sandy Berger may well also have been consumed by the same black hole.
This pattern begs a critical question. If this disaster is too sensitive to discuss even now, even by a DCI in confessional mode, must not that sensitivity have deformed aviation-related planning in the years before September 11?
Richard Clarke’s testimony before the 9/11 Commission suggests that the answer is definitely “yes.”
The anti-terror czar told the Commission that the “knowledge about al-Qaida having thought of using aircraft as weapons” was relatively old – “5 years, 6 years old.”
He then asked that intelligence analysts “be forgiven for not thinking about it given the fact that they hadn’t seen a lot in the five or six years intervening about it.”
I would direct his request for forgiveness to the family members of the TWA Flight 800 victims. That is, if they actually exist.
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