A car bomb in Damascus last week put an abrupt end to the career of Hezbollah honcho Imad Fayez Mughniyah, a man responsible for more American deaths than any terrorist other than Osama bin Laden.
There are, however, any number of U.S. Marines and Navy Seals who believe that Mughniyah’s career should have ended years ago. They were part of a 1996 Persian Gulf operation designed to nab Mughniyah, code named GOLDEN OX RETURNS.
If these servicemen still simmer about the last-minute aborting of this operation, they do so for good reason. Mughniyah had masterminded the un-avenged bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, which killed 241 of their fellow Marines and Navy corpsmen.
These servicemen remember, too, that in June 1985, Mughniyah’s thugs hijacked TWA Flight 847 out of Athens and had it flown to Beirut. There, they executed a U.S. Navy diver on board and dumped his body on the tarmac.
In the way of background, the Clinton White House had ordered these Special Operations forces to pre-position in the Persian Gulf in the run-up to the Atlanta Olympics, scheduled to begin on July 19, 1996.
The June 25, 1996, bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. Air Force personnel, ratcheted the alert level in the Gulf even higher.
As reported in the May 2006 edition of Leatherneck.com, a publication for Marine veterans, the military concealed the purposeful Gulf build-up under the cover of a routine training exercise called EXERCISE RUGGED NAUTILUS.
Almost assuredly, the “routine” U.S. Navy exercises taking place off the Long Island coast on the night of July 17, 1996, were no more routine than those in the Persian Gulf, and for the same reason.
It was on that evening of July 17, with a small fleet of Navy ships and subs cruising off shore locked and loaded, that TWA Flight 800 was blown out of the sky, killing all 230 on board.
TWA 800’s destruction, evidently by missile fire, heightened the tension in the Persian Gulf even more. Four days later, on July 21, the U.S.S. Rushmore received a close-hold mission from the Commander Fifth Fleet.
The mission involved a Kuwaiti merchant ship, allegedly carrying Mughniyah. According to best intelligence, only about a half-dozen bodyguards accompanied the Hezbollah terrorist.
What made the tactical situation even more attractive was the fact that Mughniyah was currently under indictment. There was no legal reason not to kill or capture him.
Marine Col. John Garrett, now retired, immediately began the rapid-planning process, complicated by the need to pull the Navy, the Marines, the SEALS, the CIA and the FBI under his tactical control.
Garrett and his team worked around the clock. By the night of July 24, Garret had 60 Seals prepared to board the ship in secret, four teams of Marine snipers in position, including one team on a helicopter, and dozens of Marine commandos ready to search the ship.
Then, all of a sudden, with little explanation as to why, the word came from Washington that the operation was off.
“I was just stunned, I mean disbelief,” SEAL platoon Cmdr. Tom Short would lament in a May 2002 segment of “Dan Rather Reports.”
“I mean, it had been almost 48 hours at that point. And none of us had slept, and at the end of that, they tell you that it’s off, not standby, not be prepared, to just forget about it.”
“The explanation that I recall,” said Garrett, “was they couldn’t verify that the target was still on board the vessel.” Many on the mission would never forgive President Clinton for not going through with the operation, and they do not know the half of it.
Several hours earlier on July 24, half a world away, a Navy diver found one of TWA 800’s two bright orange “black boxes” sitting on the ocean floor as obvious as the hassock in his living room.
Moments later, with the cameras still rolling, a second diver picked up the other box just as easily and only a few feet away.
As the investigation’s top priority, the boxes should have been found almost immediately, especially given their location in 130 feet of water, 10 miles off Long Island, with their “pingers” still working.
Earlier in that same year, by contrast, the Navy had located both black boxes at the crash site of a Turkish 757 in 7,200 feet of water within seven hours of the crash.
In their innocent delight, the divers off Long Island seemed oblivious to the likelihood that these recorders had been removed from the site, edited and put back in place.
The very next day, July 25, President Clinton was scheduled to speak to the victims’ families on Long Island. Conveniently, he had some pacifying news.
“Just last night the divers who were braving the waters of the Atlantic to search for answers recovered both flight data recorders,” he told them. “Our experts are analyzing their contents at this very moment.”
“This is major step toward unraveling the mystery of Flight 800,” the president continued. “In the meantime let me again ask every American not to jump to conclusions. This investigation is moving forward with great care and even greater determination.”
Great care indeed. Something else happened on July 25 that deserves mention. The one NTSB investigator allowed to review the FBI’s crucial eyewitness statements inexplicably abandoned the task and headed back to Washington, the job barely begun.
The NTSB Witness Group Summary Report would later concede that in an investigation illegally taken away from it by the Justice Department, this review had been “the only way for the Safety Board to gain access to the information gathered by the FBI.” No matter.
Here is what the evidence suggests: With the mission to edit the flight data and cockpit voice recorders successfully completed, the White House had no more political need to seize a terrorist in a dangerous high-seas operation that might jeopardize a sure re-election.
Mughniyah had been a particularly appealing target in that he had already masterminded the hijacking of a TWA aircraft. But with black boxes under control, his capture was no longer worth the risk.
After July 25, there would be no more serious mention of eyewitnesses, radar, satellites – nothing. All talk of a missile had disappeared, and investigative paths now led inexorably to the politically acceptable “mechanical failure.”
Admittedly, this is a hard charge, but it is reinforced by Clinton’s subsequent willingness to alter a mission for apparent political reasons.
On Nov. 15, 1998, Clinton aborted what the New York Times approvingly called “a huge campaign of air strikes on Iraq” as inexplicably as he had the seizure of Mughniyah.
This time, President Clinton did not cancel. He merely postponed the attack for a more fortuitous time, Dec. 17, 1998, the day before his impeachment.
Predictably, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate called for a postponement of the impeachment proceedings, and the Washington Post – comically, in retrospect – scolded the Republicans for “rudely” shattering “the unwritten rule that politics stops at the water’s edge.”
With the media in his pocket, Clinton could get away with most anything. And in the case of TWA Flight 800, he did.
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