About once a month over the course of his presidency, Bill Clinton would unburden himself to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch.
Last year, Branch published the taped revelations, heavily edited and embellished with his own commentary, in an overpraised but useful volume called “The Clinton Tapes.”
I say “overpraised” because anyone who knows the underside of the Clinton White House can see how Branch allowed, even encouraged, Clinton to spin a selectively remembered, self-absolving account of his presidency.
I say “useful” because every now and then Branch caught up with Clinton before the White House has had a chance to shape the narrative.
For instance, Branch scheduled a visit with Clinton for the night of April 19, 1995. Earlier that day, a truck bomb took out the Murrah building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, most of them federal workers.
Clinton shocked Branch by keeping his appointment. The two old friends talked for hours. The phrase “painful loss” came up between them only in reference to the Arkansas defeat in the NCAA basketball tournament.
Clinton spent but a few minutes on Oklahoma City. The reader learns that the only person Clinton spoke to at the scene was Oklahoma’s “right-wing Republican” governor, Frank Keating. That’s it.
Branch returned to a more cheerful White House a month later. He opens this chapter with a revealing sentence: “Oklahoma City did not lead overseas as President Clinton had feared, but domestic terror did spawn confusion and denial.”
This translates: Clinton did not want the investigation to lead overseas especially when he could exploit the two white, right-wing suspects – Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols – for all their political capital.
All politics aside, military action unnerved Clinton. According to the FBI’s James Fox, Clinton’s Justice Department stopped the 1993 World Trade Center bombing investigation at “the water’s edge” lest the facts lead to war.
The “water’s edge” is where the Oklahoma City investigation would stop, too. Although the search was allegedly still on for the world’s most wanted man, John Doe No. 2 – the “foreign looking” suspect multiple witnesses saw with McVeigh – Clinton Justice was not really looking.
By this time, the FBI now knew that Nichols had made several inexplicable trips to the Philippines, home base of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef.
Said Clinton anti-terror czar Richard Clarke about the connection, “We do know that Nichols’ bombs did not work before his Philippine stay and were deadly when he returned.”
No matter. Clinton had an election to win in 1996, and no messy foreign involvement – no Somalia, no Haiti, no Bosnia, no al-Qaida – was going to bog him down.
Fate intervened again on July 17, 1996, when TWA Flight 800 exploded off the coast of Long Island, killing all 230 people aboard. Branch met with Clinton on Aug. 2, two weeks after the disaster. The Clinton White House was still searching for a narrative.
“Unless some telltale chemical survived the brine,” Clinton told Branch, “[the investigators] must try to reassemble the plane to determine the cause.”
During that Aug. 2 taping, Clinton also told Branch that the FBI was “rechecking” its interviews with “some 15 ground witnesses who saw a bright streak in the sky near the plane.” If corroborated, Branch adds, this “could suggest a missile rather than a bomb.”
In fact, the FBI had by this time interviewed at least 200 eyewitnesses who had seen a bright streak ascending towards the doomed airliner. Many provided precise illustrations. A few detailed the exact break-up sequence of the 747.
In addition, analysts from the DIA’s Missile and Space Intelligence Center had arrived on the scene two days after the explosion and begun interviewing eyewitnesses.
“They reported to us,” the FBI’s Lewis Schiliro would later testify, “that many of the descriptions given by eyewitnesses were very consistent with the characteristics of the flight of [surface-to-air] missiles.”
This would go nowhere. From night one, the Clintons – Hillary was alone with her husband and Sandy Berger in the family quarters – knew what happened to TWA Flight 800.
For posterity’s sake, Clinton traced the likely attack to Iran.
“They want war,” Branch quotes Clinton as saying. What Branch did not know is that Clinton was setting up his alibi.
On Aug. 2, 1996, Clinton had yet to get the investigation under his full control. If telltale chemicals were not found, perhaps the eyewitness testimony could be marginalized. This seems to be the plan.
If so, the investigators could “reassemble the plane,” and that Potemkin dumb show would take the investigation past the November election.
Unfortunately for Clinton, the FBI found “telltale” residue of the explosives PETN and RDX throughout the plane, and the New York Times reported the same.
The Aug. 23 Times headline story – “Prime Evidence Found That Device Exploded in Cabin of Flight 800” – stole the thunder from Clinton’s election-driven approval of welfare reform in that same day’s paper.
The revelation also threatened to undermine the peace and prosperity message of the next week’s Democratic convention. It could not stand.
It did not. The Times revelations of Aug. 23 marked the end of any real investigation. The White House prevailed on FBI honcho James Kallstrom to ignore the undeniable missile evidence and “reassemble the plane.”
More than a year later, an uneasy Kallstrom would write the explosion off as a mechanical failure.
I suspect Clinton told Kallstrom what he told Branch: Iran wants war. If we acknowledge a missile attack, we will have to go to war. For national security purposes, we cannot let that happen.
Kallstrom, I believe, has been tortured by his submission ever since. “We need to stop the hypocrisy,” he blurted out to Dan Rather on Sept. 11 before catching himself. “Not that hypocrisy got us to this day. I’m not saying it did.”
Fifteen years later, save for those involved, we still do not know for sure who shot down TWA Flight 800. As at the World Trade Center, as in Oklahoma City, the Taylor Branches of the world did not want to know.