July 17 marks the 10th anniversary of the destruction of TWA Flight 800, the investigation of which represented the most conspicuous and consequential misdirection of justice in American history. This column is part of an in-depth look at the incident, presenting several compelling reasons why the investigation must be re-opened.
When Jamie Gorelick left her position as Vice-Chairman of the Federal National Mortgage Association to devote more time to the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, more routinely known as the 9-11 commission, I was the first to protest. I knew the role she had played as President Clinton’s Deputy Attorney General in shaping – some would say ”corrupting” – the outcome of the TWA Flight 800 investigation.
In 1994, Gorelick assumed the Deputy position after Clinton crony Webster Hubbell resigned in disgrace. Gorelick was much brighter and more nimble than Hubbell and kept a lower profile. Like him, however, she served as the ”political officer” in the 100,000 employee department, the eyes and ears of the administration, the one who could be trusted. An article in the June 3, 1996, Newsweek, six weeks before the crash of TWA Flight 800, described, for instance, how Gorelick had set up a ”campaign-like war room” in her office because ”in a campaign year, Justice can’t afford to be totally blind.”
On Aug. 22, 1996, five weeks after the plane’s demise, Jim Kallstrom, who headed up the FBI investigation into TWA 800, was summoned to Washington to be served up a dose of survival reality. His boss, Louis Freeh, had little to do with the summons or the investigation. Nor did Freeh’s boss, Attorney General Janet Reno. Although both were ineffectual, neither was entirely reliable. The task of reining in Jim Kallstrom would fall to 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 explosive residue had been found all over the plane and that the possibility of a mechanical failure was more ”remote” than ever.
Kallstrom, however, knew more – much more. For one, he knew that traces of PETN and RDX on the plane had been confirmed by the D.C. lab. For another, he knew what the witnesses saw. Tellingly, the FBI had performed its last interview two days before the meeting. The eyewitness accounts now numbered more than 700. At least 270 of these were so specific, so consistent and so credible they could not be ignored. 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 his disposal, Kallstrom must finally have realized what happened the night of July 17, if not in perfect detail, at least in its rough outlines. He must have known that there were two different ascending streaks of light and reports of two high-velocity explosions, one lower than the other.
He might have concluded that the first blast damaged the right wing where it meets the fuselage, and a second, much larger blast, the lower one, savaged the nose gear, ripped open the underbelly of the plane, spilled its cargo and severed the plane’s head. These possibilities, however, never even cross the mind of the Jim Kallstrom that AP reporter Pat Milton reveals in detail in her fulsome book, ”In the Blink of an Eye.” The very absence of such rumination alerts the knowing reader.
This was surely a come-to-Jesus meeting on Aug. 22. Kallstrom had been a good soldier the past five weeks. He had kept all talk of eyewitnesses and satellites and 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.
Although Newsday puts Janet Reno in the meeting with Kallstrom that day, Milton does not. The only Justice Department official she mentions by name is Jamie Gorelick. To be sure, no account of the meeting provides any more than routine detail, but behaviors begin to change immediately afterwards, especially after the New York Times broke a 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 next week’s Democratic convention.
The story that Milton tells of how this story came to be is not convincing. In her account, Kallstrom learned that the story was about to break on the way back from the Washington meeting and ”was stunned.” Milton has him wondering, ”Could there be any doubt that someone in Reno’s office had leaked the news?”
Yes, there could be. No one in Reno’s office had any interest in doing so. Just the opposite. Nor did anyone in that office know enough to satisfy the always careful Times. Janet Reno herself likely did not know enough. More concretely, the Times attributes the story to ”three senior officials deeply involved in the investigation.” No one person in Reno’s office fits that bill, let alone three.
A more likely explanation is that Kallstrom had orchestrated this story to force the White House’s hand before he was effectively silenced. The last time a major story broke on explosive residue Kallstrom was also in Washington. That one he blamed on agent Joe Cantamessa, this one on Reno’s office. Washington, it seems, was his alibi.
The one part of Milton’s story that squares with the logic of that time and place is Kallstrom’s efforts to kill the story. Whatever he had learned in the meeting on Aug. 22 made him regret the article to come. And if the meeting didn’t entirely break his will, it surely dimmed his enthusiasm for finding the truth.
Aug. 23 represented something of a turning point in the investigation. It was on this day the FAA began to inquire whether any dog-training exercises had ever taken place on the plane that would become TWA 800. The FAA had never kept systematic records of such exercises. Further, from that day forward there would be no more eyewitness interviews done by the FBI, at least not for the next two months, and only a handful after that – and all of them for the wrong reasons. On Aug. 23, 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 adds an interesting detail: He was ”reading a prepared statement.”
On Aug. 25, 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. Yet, in checking with TWA and the U.S. Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., CNN learned the plane had been completely refurbished after its last use by the troops, making this scenario much less likely.
On Aug. 29, at the convention, President Clinton dedicated only one paragraph to the question of terrorism or aviation safety, and this toward the very end of a long, self-congratulatory acceptance speech:
”[We] will improve airport and air travel security. I have asked the vice president to establish a commission and report back to me on ways to do this. But now we will install the most sophisticated bomb detection equipment in all our major airports. We will search every airplane flying to or from America from another nation – every flight, every cargo hold, every cabin, every time.”
The implication was clear: If the FBI had not ruled out a missile, the White House had. The president, however, could live with a “bomb” and maybe even score a few political points off of it.
Thanks to Colonel Robert Patterson’s book ”Dereliction of Duty,” we do know that the White House was deeply concerned with air terrorism that summer. Patterson carried the ”nuclear football” for the president and as such had almost total access. One morning, which Patterson identifies only as ”late-summer” 1996, he was returning a daily intelligence update to the NSC when he noticed the heading ”Operation Bojinka.” As Patterson relates, ”I keyed on a reference to a plot to use commercial airliners as weapons.” As a pilot he had a keen interest in the same.
Obviously, after September 11, the idea of using airplanes as flying bombs to attack American targets no longer seems far-fetched. In the way of omen, Islamic terrorist Ramzi Yousef was on trial in New York on the day of July 17, 1996, for his role in Bojinka.
To be sure, Patterson makes no connection between Bojinka and TWA Flight 800. He was not in a position to. Although he was in the White House on the night of July 17, he was not in the loop between the situation room and the ”residence” where the president had holed up.
What Patterson did learn from seeing the president’s hand-annotated response to this intelligence report on Bojinka is that Clinton had read it carefully. ”I can state for a fact that this information was circulated within the U.S. intelligence community,” Patterson writes, ”and that in late 1996 the president was aware of it.” That Clinton was reviewing this information in the immediate aftermath of TWA Flight 800’s demise suggests more than mere coincidence. The Philippine police had given this information to the FBI eighteen months prior. The search for ”prior knowledge” was at the heart of the 9-11 commission, and no one on the commission was in a better position to shed light on this issue than Jamie Gorelick.
She could have begun by sharing the contents of her meeting with Jim Kallstrom on August 22, 1996. She obviously did not, which suggests she was appointed to the 9-11 commission to make sure that no one else did either.
Read Cashill’s previous installments in this series:
Part 4: “1 secret the Times has kept”
Related special offer: