Last week, out of the blue, the New York Daily News ran a column headlined, “Former Obama pilot: TWA Flight 800 was not blown up by a faulty fuel tank; it was shot down. I’ll always believe that, and here’s why.”
For the record, this 747 blew up off the coast of Long Island on July 17, 1996, killing all 230 people on board. The author, pilot Andrew Danziger, is convinced that the plane was shot out of the sky.
Says Danziger, “There’s hardly an airline pilot among the hundreds I know who buys the official explanation – that it was a fuel-tank explosion – offered by the National Transportation Safety Board some four years later.”
Nothing Danziger said will raise eyebrows in the aviation community. For nearly 20 years, there has been a near consensus that the plane was shot down. If so, the FBI orchestrated what is arguably the most successful peacetime cover-up in American history.
What did get the attention of those of us who followed the case is that the New York Daily News saw fit to breach the informal media circle of silence and run this article.
More intriguing still, the Daily News, the more liberal of New York’s two major tabloids, ran this article three days after Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for the presidency.
I would be more inclined to write this off as a fluke except that the FBI has been releasing some unusually useful evidence to researchers who have requested it through the Freedom of Information Act.
These researchers have been petitioning the government for information for years and have ratcheted up their efforts in advance of the crash’s 20th anniversary in July 2016.
That anniversary falls a week before the beginning of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. The disaster itself took place a month before the Democratic National Convention of 1996.
By July 1996, Clinton had fought his way back into the lead after the disastrous 1994 mid-terms and was not about to sacrifice it for a missile shoot-down of an American airliner, belligerent or accidental.
In 1996, this should have been a political story, but the media chose not to press the Clintons. They had a president to re-elect.
In 2016, this remains a political story because Hillary was in the thick of the decision-making process in 1996. This time around, as the Daily News article suggests, the media may not be as obliging.
On the night of July 17, 1996, according to her own logs, Hillary and Bill attended a gala for the Women’s Leadership Forum of the Democratic National Committee at the Sheraton Washington Hotel.
After working the rope line, the Clintons left the Sheraton by presidential motorcade at 8:35 p.m. Four minutes earlier, a few hundred miles away, life had come to abrupt end for 230 good souls.
Two FAA veterans at the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center had observed a target arching and intersecting with TWA Flight 800 as it headed east off Long Island’s south shore.
The controllers reported what they saw immediately. A manager from that center rushed the radar data to the FAA technical center for further analysis. From there, it was faxed to FAA headquarters in Washington and rushed “immediately” to the White House.
“Holy c––-, this looks bad,” said Ron Schleede of the National Transportation Safety Board upon first seeing the data that “suggested something fast made the turn and took the airplane.”
Anti-terror czar Richard Clarke got the message, too. By 9 p.m., he was driving in to the White House to convene a meeting of his security group.
“I dreaded what I thought was about to happen,” he told us in “Against All Enemies,” “The Eisenhower option.”
Had Iran been behind the downing of TWA Flight 800, the president would have had to respond. In fact, Clarke labeled this chapter of his book, “The Almost War, 1996.”
Hillary and Bill arrived at the White House at 8:45 p.m. When Bill Clinton did find out about the disaster, he chose not to join Clarke and the other agency representatives in the White House situation room.
He remained holed up in the family quarters with Hillary. Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Robert “Buzz” Patterson and others have confirmed that the president kept to the family quarters.
Patterson was in a position to know. He carried the nuclear football for the president, and he, too, was in the White House, though clearly out of the loop.
Patterson was not sure who is in the residence with the Clintons. The one person he could tentatively cite was Sandy Berger, the deputy director of the NSA and the kind of future sock-stuffer the Clintons could depend on.
The eyewitness accounts were now confirming what the FAA radar picked up. In time, 270 people along the Long Island coast would tell the FBI that they saw flaming objects streaking up toward the plane, culminating in a series of massive explosions.
Meanwhile, Bill’s national security adviser, Tony Lake – and Sandy Berger’s boss – was downstairs in his office during that night. As a rule, Lake left the room when the talk turned to politics.
By 3 a.m., Bill Clinton had apparently gathered enough information to call Lake with the following message: “Dust off the contingency plans.”
Two weeks later, in an interview with historian Taylor Branch, Clinton was maintaining the line that Iran was responsible for taking out the plane. “They want war,” he told Branch.
But right now, with the 1996 election comfortably in the bag, war was the last thing the Clintons wanted or needed, especially if Iran were not the culprit.
This night of “near war” had to be the most harrowing of the presidency, and Hillary was in the middle of it. Yet for all the peril and intrigue, in “Living History,” her 500-plus page memoir, she mentioned the night not at all and summarized the entire TWA 800 episode in exactly one-third of one sentence.
This is some serious baggage. Now if only someone in the media would open it.
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