8 years later, TWA 800 case just heating up

By Jack Cashill

Editor’s note: Today, July 17, is the eighth anniversary of the destruction of TWA Flight 800. Today’ column by Jack Cashill covers the latest action being taken by those who don’t buy the government’s explanation of the event. Cashill’s extraordinary expose on the incident, “First Strike,” cowritten with James Sanders, is available at ShopNetDaily.

Last July 17, the major media made no comment that seven years prior, on July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 exploded off the coast of Long Island, killing all 230 people on board.

If the media took note of the date “July 17” at all last year it was only to observe that American soldiers had found it scrawled on walls throughout Iraq. July 17, after all, was Iraq’s national liberation day, the day Saddam helped lead the Baath Party to power in 1968, the day that he assumed the presidency in 1979, and not impossibly, the day he took his revenge on the United States in 1996.

This year, as every year, thousands of TWA Flight 800 family members and other interested parties will honor the date. Among them is Capt. Ray Lahr. Just last week the retired United Airline pilot learned that his case against the National Transportation Safety Board and the Central Intelligence Agency is still on track. On Monday, Aug. 2, Lahr and his attorneys John Clarke of Washington and John Dunne of Santa Monica will square off against the NTSB and the CIA at the United States District Court in Los Angeles.

Lahr is hoping to force the NTSB and CIA to disclose the data upon which they based what he calls “the impossible zoom-climb.” As the agencies and Lahr both understand, the zoom-climb is the Achilles heel of the TWA Flight 800 investigation.

The FBI first publicly advanced the zoom-climb scenario when it bowed out of the case in November 1997. Its agents did so to negate the stubborn testimony of the hundreds of eyewitnesses who had sworn they saw a flaming, smoke-trailing, zigzagging object destroy TWA Flight 800.

To make its case, the FBI presented a video prepared by the CIA. A key animation sequence in that video showed an internal fuel tank explosion blowing the nose off the aircraft, which then “pitched up abruptly and climbed several thousand feet from its last recorded altitude of about 13,800 feet to a maximum altitude of about 17,000 feet.” This rocketing aircraft, claimed the video, looked like a missile and confused the eyewitnesses.

This animation was essential to close the investigation. Without it, there was no way to explain what these hundreds of eyewitnesses, many of them highly credible, had actually seen. A veteran safety investigator and a serious researcher in the field of gravity, Ray Lahr watched this animation in utter disbelief. He knew this scenario to be impossible, and he set out to prove it. When he learned that not a single eyewitness had seen the plane ascend, including other airline pilots who watched it from above, he redoubled his efforts to discover the basic physics behind the alleged zoom-climb. For the last several years, however, despite numerous FOIA requests, the NTSB has refused to cooperate. The impressively stubborn Lahr finally took the agency to court.

Lahr has done an excellent job pulling the sometimes-fractious TWA 800 community together to assist him. Many key people have filed sworn affidavits with Lahr, including retired Rear Admiral Clarence Hill, and their collective commentary has to impress even the most skeptical of observers. All of this evidence, including the court papers, can be found at RayLahr.com as well as in past articles on WorldNetDaily.

One question that has never been resolved is just how the CIA animation project came to pass. Two recent books, however, do shed light on the dynamics of the video’s creation. One is the much-discussed “Against All Enemies” by Richard Clarke, then chairman of the Clinton administration’s Coordinating Security Group on terrorism, or CSG. The second is Murray Weiss’s recent book, “The Man Who Warned America,” on the subject of John O’Neill, a terrorist expert with the FBI who died in the World Trade Center on September 11.

Within 30 minutes of TWA Flight 800’s destruction, Clarke relates in his book, he had convened a meeting of the CSG in the White House situation room. “The FAA,” Clarke reports, “was at a total loss for an explanation. The flight path and the cockpit communications were normal. The aircraft had climbed to 17,000 feet, then there was no aircraft.”

Clarke here serves up two significant untruths in a book replete with them. The first is that the FAA was at “a total loss” for an explanation. In fact, it was the FAA that prompted the meeting and did so for a very specific and frightening reason. Its personnel believed that the aircraft had been attacked. As NTSB Chairman Jim Hall would report in a confidential November 1996 report, “Top intelligence and security officials were told in a video conference from the White House Situation Room that radar tapes showed an object headed at the plane before it exploded.”

Clarke also deceives the reader about altitude. The FAA never reported an altitude of 17,000 feet, nothing close. The FAA knew that the last recorded altitude of TWA Flight 800 was “about 13,800 feet” as even the CIA animation later admits. In the retelling, Clarke pads in the zoom-climb differential on the night of the crash and attributes it falsely to the FAA.

Weiss, who had excellent access to O’Neill’s FBI colleagues, gets much closer to the truth as to the motive behind the emergency White House meeting.

“The FAA,” he writes, “initially reported spotting a radar blip on their tapes that indicated there was another plane or projectile near TWA Flight 800 when it exploded.” This much is true. Weiss is misled on his next point, namely that the FAA told the FBI one day later that “there was no blip. There were no missiles picked up on the JFK scanners.” The sighting was an “anomaly.”

In truth, to its credit, the FAA refused to change its story despite the pressure to do so. When in November 1996, the NTSB leaned on the FAA to “agree that there is no evidence that would suggest a high-speed target merged with TWA 800,” the FAA refused.

“We cannot comply with your request,” the FAA’s David Thomas responded. “By alerting law enforcement agencies, air traffic control personnel simply did what was prudent at the time and reported what appeared to them to be a suspicious event. To do less would have been irresponsible.”

To set the record straight on this issue, Ray Lahr persuaded one key witness, James Holtsclaw, to go public for the first time. In 1996 Holtsclaw was serving as the deputy assistant for the Western Region of the Air Transport Association. Within a week of the crash, Holtsclaw received the radar tape directly from an NTSB investigator frustrated by its suppression. “The tape shows a primary target at 1200 knots converging with TWA 800, during the climb out phase of TWA 800,” swears Holtsclaw on the Lahr affidavit.

In fact, before the investigation was through, authorities would introduce five different explanations to rationalize away that “blip.” This obvious dissembling may explain why investigators felt the need to smuggle out evidence. Holtsclaw’s informant would be the first of several, at least four of whom would be either suspended from the investigation or arrested.

Within weeks of the crash, the FBI would interview more than 700 eyewitnesses. By its own count, 270 of them saw lights streaking upwards towards the plane. Defense Department analysts also debriefed some of these witnesses, 34 of whom, according to the FBI, described events “consistent with the characteristics of the flight of [anti-aircraft] missiles.” There were also scores of witness drawings, some so accurate and vivid they could chill the blood.

About four weeks after the crash, Clarke reports in “Against All Enemies,” he met with O’Neill, who told him that the eyewitness interviews “were pointing to a missile attack, a Stinger.” Given what the FBI knew at the time, this much seems credible.

“[TWA 800] was at 15,000 feet,” Clarke allegedly responds. “No Stinger or any other missile like it can go that high.” One would think that on so sensitive and contentious a point, Clarke would have made an effort to get the altitude of TWA 800 right or even consistently wrong. He does neither. In his scarily sloppy book, the boastful Clarke finesses credit for the zoom-climb and seizes full credit for the exploding fuel tank part of the scenario.

Clarke, however, has had a hard time keeping his story straight. In an earlier New Yorker article on O’Neill soon after September 11, Clarke tells reporter Lawrence Wright that it was O’Neill who insisted that TWA Flight 800 was out of the range of the Stinger, and O’Neill who believed that the “ascending flare” that the witnesses saw must have been something else, like “the ignition of leaking fuel from the aircraft.”

Weiss, who knows little about TWA Flight 800, likewise gives all credit to O’Neill for the zoom-climb scenario, thinking that it is indeed “credit” O’Neill deserves. Weiss contends that O’Neill not only conceived the zoom-climb scenario, but that he also “persuaded the CIA to do a video simulation of his scenario.” Under an eight-panel recreation of the zoom-climb in the photo section of his book, Weiss writes that O’Neill used the CIA video simulation “to quash any fears that the disaster was a terrorist event.” This last point is tellingly true.

Clarke and O’Neill have not been the only two agents angling for credit. The best-documented claim, in fact, comes from “CIA Analyst 1” during his April 1999 grilling by a few honest, rank-and-file NTSB investigators. As the CIA analyst relates, the zoom-climb insight came to him like an epiphany. He traced the moment of awareness to the precise hour of 10 p.m.. on Dec. 30, 1996.

Said the analyst, “There was a realization, having all the data laid out in front of me, that you can explain what the eyewitnesses are seeing with only the burning aircraft.” The analyst came to his startling conclusion after reviewing only about 12 percent of the interview statements. The CIA did no interviews of its own.

What puzzled the NTSB guys was just how many eyewitnesses actually saw a plane with a ruptured center fuel tank rocketing upwards with burning fuel spewing behind it –especially given that the center fuel tank was essentially empty. The CIA cited only 21 witnesses. But as the questioning of CIA Analyst 1 wore on, it became clear that there were fewer still. An NTSB investigator finally sighed in frustration, “If it’s only one or two of [the eyewitnesses], it’s not representative of all of them.”

Analyst 1 then pulled out his trump card, his key witness, the man who had seen everything: “That [zoom-climb] is something that a few eyewitnesses saw. The guy on the bridge saw that.” As we have documented on these pages before, the man on the bridge saw no such thing. The CIA or the FBI (or both or Richard Clarke) manufactured an interview with this man, Mike Wire of Philadelphia, out of whole cloth. Wire’s “second interview” is the most crucial bit of evidence in the entire investigation, the evidence around which the zoom-climb scenario was created, and it’s fully and provably counterfeit.

Whether Clarke or O’Neill or the CIA analyst were responsible for the zoom-climb scenario individually or together is not relevant to technicians like Ray Lahr. Nor has he focused on how an FBI middle manager like O’Neill could have breached the historic wall between the two agencies and enlisted the CIA in a project that would take at least 11 months from conception to execution. No, what most troubles Lahr is how three men with no discernible aviation or engineering experience could possibly have used any science whatsoever to arrive at such critical conclusions.

The truth of the matter proves elusive. The CIA Analyst lied shamelessly in his testimony. Richard Clarke lies shamelessly throughout his book. The jury is still out on O’Neill, but the evidence is not encouraging. As Weiss well documents, O’Neill maintained a wife and two children in New Jersey and simultaneously cajoled at least three women in three different cities into thinking that he was going to marry them. What is more, despite maintaining two households, O’Neill somehow managed to live extravagantly on a government salary. In an otherwise flattering profile, Weiss concedes of O’Neill, “He always seemed to be lying about some aspect of his life.”

Whether O’Neill helped conceal the demise of TWA Flight 800 remains unclear. Although Weiss attributes both the zoom-climb scenario and the final TWA 800 report to O’Neill, no reporter made this connection while he was alive. In her book on the crash investigation, “Deadly Departure,” CNN reporter Christine Negroni does not even mention O’Neill. In her FBI-friendly book, “In The Blink of an Eye,” AP reporter Pat Milton pays O’Neill little heed, but she does reveal that upon hearing the news of the crash, John O’Neill’s first call went to none other than Richard Clarke, and it is O’Neill, Clarke’s best friend in the FBI, who plays the role of tragic hero in “Against All Enemies.”

Ray Lahr will leave it to other courts to establish who was the architect of the greatest peacetime deception in American history. His interest is the zoom-climb scenario itself, according to Weiss, “the most significant part” of the final case-closing FBI presentation.

“A little basic physics,” adds Weiss naively, “helped explain what witnesses saw and heard in the summer skies off Long Island.” Lahr is hoping that the federal courts will finally force the NTSB and CIA to explain finally what those “little basic physics” are.

Purchase Cashill’s book, “First Strike: TWA Flight 800 and the Attack on America.”