Rush Limbaugh does not get much wrong, but on Wednesday, in his discussion of the CNN coverage of Flight MH370, he went seriously astray.
Rush’s mistake, an understandable one, was to put way too much trust in one man, James Kallstrom, the FBI honcho who supervised the investigation into the destruction of TWA Flight 800, a 747 that blew up off the coast of Long Island in July 1996.
“Kallstrom is a man of complete, total integrity, unquestionably,” said Limbaugh. Given his trust in Kallstrom, Limbaugh bought uncritically into the FBI’s concocted explanation of what brought the plane down, “which was that something sparked the fumes in that empty fuel tank, causing the explosion.”
“Nobody accepted it,” said Limbaugh accurately of the FBI explanation. “To this day everybody believes that there’s a conspiracy to hide from people what really happened to TWA 800.”
Limbaugh was making the point that no one will believe the official explanation of MH370’s disappearance, if there ever is one. He was, uncharacteristically, criticizing the skeptics.
Limbaugh was half right about Kallstrom. In 1996 at least, Kallstrom was a serious man with an admirable record. As an FBI agent, he worked on the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and led his office in its successful assault on John Gotti and the New York mob.
The corruption of the Flight 800 investigation was not Kallstrom’s idea. It came from the top, the Clinton White House. But, reluctantly or otherwise, Kallstrom let it happen.
He allowed the investigation to become a farce, an unfunny running gag, an open sore in America’s psyche, and the source of an unprecedented and deeply felt cynicism among its aviation community.
To verify the depths of that cynicism, all Limbaugh need do is ask any former TWA pilot or mechanic or Boeing engineer what brought down that doomed airliner. “Mechanical failure” will not be among the answers.
On Aug. 22, 1996, five weeks after the plane’s demise, Kallstrom was summoned to Washington for a come-to-Jesus meeting.
AP reporter Pat Milton, who had almost total access to Kallstrom for her book on TWA Flight 800, “In The Blink of An Eye,” puts only one Justice Department official in the Aug. 22 meeting with Kallstrom: Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick.
At this juncture in the investigation, even if Gorelick knew no more than what she read in the New York Times, she would have known that according to investigators, “… the center fuel tank did not explode” and that “the only good explanations remaining are that a bomb or a missile brought down the plane.”
Gorelick must have known, as Kallstrom did, that traces of PETN and RDX had been confirmed by the FBI lab and that some 270 eyewitnesses had reported seeing at least two different ascending streaks of light that culminated in two or more two high-velocity explosions.
Defense Department missile analysts had debriefed some 34 of the witnesses. There were also scores of witness drawings, some so accurate and vivid they could chill the blood.
Given all the information at their disposal, Gorelick and Kallstrom must finally have known what happened the night of July 17, if not in perfect detail, at least in its rough outlines.
Kallstrom had been a good soldier the past five weeks. He had kept all talk of eyewitnesses, satellites, radar and missiles out the news. But the evidence had led him far away from mechanical failure, and there was no easy way to turn back.
To be sure, no account of the Aug. 22 meeting provides any more than routine detail, but behaviors began to change immediately afterward, especially given the Times headline story the next day, top right: “Prime Evidence Found That Device Exploded in Cabin of Flight 800.”
This article stole the thunder from Clinton’s election-driven approval of welfare reform in that same day’s paper and threatened to undermine the peace and prosperity message of the Democratic Convention just three days away.
Aug. 23 represented something of a turning point in the investigation. It was on this day that the FAA began to inquire whether any dog-training exercises had ever taken place on the plane that would become TWA 800.
Further, from that day forward, the FBI would do no more eyewitness interviews for the next two months, and the few its agents did after that were done to undermine earlier eyewitness testimony.
On the 23rd itself, as CNN reported, Kallstrom was now saying for the first time that “it was possible that the PETN could have been brought on the plane by a passenger and was not part of a bomb.” CNN added an interesting detail: He was “reading a prepared statement.”
On the 25th, the day before the start of the Democratic Convention, Kallstrom continued to spin the story away from terrorism. The aircraft, Kallstrom said, had been used as a military charter during the Gulf War five years earlier. Maybe a “passenger” did have some residue on his person.
On Aug. 29, at the convention, President Clinton dedicated only one paragraph to the question of terrorism or aviation safety, and this made not the slightest reference to a possible missile attack.
On Sept. 19, the administration introduced a stunning new angle, namely that, as reported in the Times, “None of the physical evidence recovered from TWA Flight 800 proves that a bomb brought down the plane.”
For the first time since the crash itself the White House was floating the idea that “the explosion could have been caused by a mechanical failure alone.”
Conveniently, the next day, the administration was claiming, “The jetliner was used during a test of a bomb-detecting dog five weeks before the crash, which they said could explain the traces of explosives found in the wreckage.”
Those who have followed this story know that the dog-training story proved false in every detail and that the CIA – the CIA? – was eventually recruited to discredit the eyewitnesses.
How Gorelick persuaded Kallstrom to change direction I do not know. I suspect that it was an appeal to his patriotism along national security lines.
Gorelick was rewarded for her work with the most plum job in Washington, vice-chair of Fannie Mae, a job that would pay her more than $25 million over the next six years. Kallstrom’s reward was a tortured conscience.
“We need to stop the hypocrisy,” he blurted out to Dan Rather on Sept. 11, 2001, before catching himself. “Not that hypocrisy got us to this day. I’m not saying it did.”
Yes, Mr. Kallstrom, you said exactly that, and you were right.
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