If TWA Flight 800 had exploded off the coast of Long Island in July 2001 as visibly as it had in July 1996, the world would have been told a different story, even if there had been a Democrat in the White House.
On the night of July 17, 1996, and into the early morning hours of the 18th, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Deputy National Security Adviser Sandy Berger huddled fretfully in the family quarters of the White House.
The election they thought was in the bag no longer was.
The air-traffic controllers had already reported. The radar data told a story not easily untold.
And now, eyewitness reports were flooding in. The explosion had taken place right at sunset, just 10 miles off the coast, on a perfect night, with thousands of people looking out over the sea from Long Island’s popular south shore.
In 2001, some clever soul would have started collecting their tales on a website before the tide turned, literally and figuratively. And the tales they had to tell!
FBI witness No. 73, an aviation buff, watched a “red streak” with a “light gray smoke trail” move up toward the airliner, and then go “past the right side and above the aircraft before arcking [sic] back down toward the aircrafts [sic] right wing.”
She even reported the actual breakup sequence before the authorities figured it out on their own.
High-school principal Joseph Delgado might have posted his comments as well. He would tell the FBI that he had seen an object like “a firework” ascend “fairly quick,” then “slow” and “wiggle” then “speed up” and get “lost.” Then he saw a second object that “glimmered” in the sky, higher than the first, then a red dot move up to that object, then a puff of smoke, then another puff, then a “firebox.”
Mike Wire would surely have gone public. The no-nonsense millwright and U.S. Army vet watched events unfold from the Beach Lane Bridge in Westhampton on Long Island.
Wire had seen a white light traveling skyward from the ground at approximately a 40-degree angle, sparkling and zigzagging before culminating in a massive fireball.
In addition to the testimony, others would have been posting their videos and stills, all of which supported the eyewitness testimony. Others still would have shared the drawings of the incident that they would later give to the FBI.
But in 1996, the Internet was still in its embryonic stages. All information posted thereon was deemed, by the major media at least, suspect and even laughable.
In the absence of an effective Internet, the White House hit upon a control strategy that dazzled in its simplicity and in its sheer nerve.
The Clintons’ trusted point person, Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, would take the investigation away from the professionals in the National Transportation Safety Board and give it to the amateurs of the FBI. There was one reason why. The FBI reported to her. The NTSB did not.
This was illegal, of course, but the media had a president to re-elect soon enough, and they were not about to scruple over details.
The second part of the strategy was as simple as the first. The FBI would talk only to The New York Times. This essentially made the Times Gorelick’s ministry of propaganda.
Of the 270 eyewitnesses who told the FBI they saw what looked like a missile strike TWA Flight 800, The New York Times would interview exactly none of them.
Fearing perhaps to lose their privileged status and trusting the FBI more than they should have, the Times people followed the FBI lead. The other media, some grudgingly, followed the Times.
Most FBI agents, of course, worked hard and tried to do the right thing. They may have suspected but could not know that their work was being subverted at the top.
As each week passed, the Clintons had to be stunned that so obvious a truth remained so thoroughly ignored. To sustain the lie, however, insiders had to tell more lies still.
The FBI would fabricate a second interview with Witness No. 73. The CIA would fabricate a second interview with Mike Wire. The NTSB would lie outright about what Joseph Delgado saw, but the election came and went without anyone even knowing who these people were.
Gorelick could not have slept easily through all of this, but the lotto was around the corner, and she knew she had the winning ticket. In May 1997, they called her number.
Out of all the likely finance and mortgage experts in America, the Fannie Mae Board picked her, a lawyer with no relevant experience, to be its new vice chair. Gorelick would earn more than $4 million a year for the next six years, and no one in the media asked why.
They did not even ask why when she stepped down. Always the patriot, Gorelick resigned to take one of five Democratic seats on the Sept. 11 Commission.
Who knew where talk of aviation terrorism might lead? Someone had to keep talk of TWA Flight 800 off the table, just as someone had kept it off from 1996 to 2001.
And lest some messy scraps of information find their way to the committee’s Republicans, the Clintons dispatched their most trusted adviser to do a little cleanup work.
Alas, Sandy Berger got caught, but this proved much easier to bury than TWA 800. The Justice Department slapped his wrist on a Friday, the day after Terry Schiavo died and the day before Pope John Paul II did.
The media did not want to know anyhow, and, this time, there would be no eyewitnesses.