Of all the mainstream reporters writing today on the terror front, none has the cojones of five-time Emmy Award winner Peter Lance, author of the new book, “Triple Cross: How bin Laden’s Master Spy Penetrated the CIA, the Green Berets, and the FBI – and Why Patrick Fitzgerald Failed to Stop Him.”
Lance sets out his thesis in the subtitle of this sprawling, daring epic, but as Lance knows, the most explosive part of his book deals not with Ali Mohamed, the master spy in question, but with the fate of TWA Flight 800. This is the Boeing 747 that blew up mysteriously off the coast of Long Island on July 17, 1996.
“Triple Cross” is sufficiently important that I will take at least two columns to explicate it, the second and perhaps third on Lance’s larger thesis, the first on his inquiry into the fate of TWA Flight 800. In the way of full disclosure, Lance and I have over the last year or two shared information on a few of the key elements within the book.
Lance is an honest-to-God boots-on-the-ground reporter. He not only connects the dots, but he also goes out and collects them. In “Triple Cross,” he puts more real raw red intelligence meat on the table than any other reporter has since 9-11. I would strongly urge you to buy this book, read it and make it a topic of conversation in every chat room or talk radio show in which you participate.
That much said, I have some real points of disagreement with Lance’s arguments. Although Lance pushes the mainstream media to their limits, he has largely stayed within their pale. This I understand, especially on the subject of TWA Flight 800. To mention the word “missile” in that context is to risk losing a TV presence.
On some subjects, however, Lance actively shares mainstream biases. By blinding himself to one area of inquiry – Iraq – he does not pull the strongest possible thesis from the data that he himself has collected. Unworried about respectability, and willing to be presumptuous, in next week’s column I will help Mr. Lance connect his dots.
No matter how you align them, those dots lead to the fellow we know as Ramzi Yousef. Yousef is the convicted mastermind of both the first World Trade Center bombing and the Bojinka plot, a devious scheme to blow up a dozen airliners over the Pacific. Where Lance moves beyond the mainstream pale is in his argument that Yousef also engineered the destruction of TWA Flight 800 and served as the original architect of 9-11.
The evidence that Lance presents is compelling. On Jan. 6, 1995, as is well enough known, a fire broke out in Yousef’s Manila apartment where he and his fellow Baluchi, Abdul Hakim Murad, were mixing chemicals. Yousef escaped, but when Murad went back to retrieve Yousef’s laptop, Philippine police apprehended him. On the laptop were the Bojinka plans – and more.
Murad was a pilot. In custody he talked to the police about flying a private plane into the CIA building. This was not a far-fetched plan and has been discussed in the press, though not widely. What has not been not discussed, as Lance reveals, was that al-Qaida had already purchased a used Sabre-40 jet in Arizona.
The plans went deeper still. As Lance documents beyond argument, Yousef had hatched an audacious third plot, this one Murad finally revealed when threatened with extradition to Israel. As early as 1994, Yousef had contemplated hijacking multiple airliners and flying them into U.S. targets, including the CIA headquarters, the White House, the Sears Tower and the World Trade Center. Lance interviewed at least two high-level Philippine police, and both insist that they turned the planes-as-missiles information to the FBI in January 1995 with the rest of the information. For less than honorable reasons, that information has remained buried, much to the surprise of the Filipinos.
Murad would later tell the FBI, and they would record on a witness report called a “302,” that Yousef “wanted to return to the United States … to bomb the World Trade Center a second time.” Murad had learned to fly in the United States in the early 1990s. He was slated to coordinate the training of the other Islamic pilots. Even after his arrest, and well before the “official” beginning of the 9-11 plot, numerous jihadists had enrolled in U.S. flight schools.
In February 1995, Yousef was arrested in Pakistan and eventually returned to New York to stand trial. In the interim, a bomb destroyed the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, for which Murad took credit in Yousef’s name. Lance makes the case that Yousef very possibly instructed Nichols in bomb-making during one of Nichols’ frequent trips to the Philippines.
In New York City, Murad and Yousef were jailed in cells next to mobster Gregory Scarpa Jr. Scarpa’s father was an FBI informant, and Junior followed in the family tradition. An FBI 302 from March 1996 – four months before the destruction of TWA Flight 800 – notes the following, “YOUSEF told SCARPA that during the trial they had a plan to blow up a plane and hurt a judge or an attorney so a mistrial will be declared.” Yousef also revealed that he had “four people here” to help.
To get beyond the information gleaned from passed notes, the FBI set up a dummy Mafia front company called the “Roma Corporation.” Scarpa gave Yousef the number and conned him into believing that the Roma people could patch his calls anywhere in the world. The FBI was, of course, listening in. Yousef outsmarted the FBI by making his critical calls in Baluchi, a language its agents could not translate.
Last year, I received an anonymous letter from someone within the National Security Agency. According to the letter’s author, he actually saw the transcription of one of Yousef’s calls, this one made from New York within minutes of the downing of Flight 800. A recording of that call was sent to the NSA at the request of James Kallstrom, then the head of the FBI’s New York office, asking for help in its translation. The NSA forwarded the tape to the Defense Language Institute where it was translated as follows, “What had to be done has been done, TWA 800 (last two words unintelligible).” This year, I received verification from a second NSA source. Lance followed up with this person and confirmed the account.
As Lance reports, “Evidence now suggests that that ‘flaw’ in the Roma Corp. operation led to the second biggest act of terror and mass murder in U.S. history: the crash of TWA Flight 800.” In other words, Yousef used the FBI phone to plot the plane’s destruction. The day after the crash, true to his word, Yousef applied for a mistrial claiming that the New York environment was now prejudicial to plane bombers.
Yousef had, in fact, already bombed a plane. In December 1994, he boarded a Japan-bound 747 in Manila, assembled a small bomb on board, and placed it under seat 26K, which he had thought to be right above the center wing tank. Yousef set the time and disembarked at the plane’s stop in Cebu City. After the plane took off, the bomb exploded, killing a Japanese passenger but narrowly missing the center wing tank. The pilots wrestled the plane to an emergency landing on Okinawa.
In “Triple Cross,” Lance argues that a Yousef acolyte likely planted a comparable bomb on the TWA 800 leg from Athens to New York, this time right above the center wing tank. Whether accurate or not, and more on this next week, Lance makes a significantly more credible argument for the downing of TWA Flight 800 than does the NTSB, while using the very same evidence. He does not contest the notorious zoom-climb scenario that the authorities concocted. He does not need to. He argues, as the NTSB does, that the center wing tank explosion brought down the plane. Lance, however, adds that the explosion was triggered by a bomb, not by some random, untraceable spark. As to the claim that there was no physical damage of the kind found at the Lockerbie crash, Lance rightly contends that Yousef’s was a much smaller bomb designed specifically to trigger a fuel tank explosion. As such, it had a unique, nearly invisible signature.
Lance follows up on the work James Sanders and I did in “First Strike” – and reporter Dave Hendrix before us – on the FBI claim that a botched dog training exercise led to the explosive residue found all over the TWA 800 aircraft. He interviews the training officer and reviews the aircraft logs and concludes that we were right: The TWA 800 plane could not have been used in the training exercise in question. A sister plane nearby was almost assuredly the site of the exercise. In short, the FBI knowingly corrupted the investigation to steer it away from terrorism.
To make sure the TWA Flight 800 story never saw the light of day, Lance argues, the feds rewarded Scarpa with a hard 40 in the Florence, Colo., Supermax, an unusually severe sentence for a non-lethal RICO conviction. Lance introduces a motive for FBI cooperation in the 800 cover-up beyond national security, namely that one of its agents had been involved in a corrupt relation with Scarpa Sr., one that if revealed would unravel any number of high-level mob convictions.
These are bold claims by Lance especially given that most writers on terrorism won’t touch TWA Flight 800. In his elegant but orthodox book on the run-up to 9-11, “The Looming Tower,” Lawrence Wright dedicates all of three paragraphs to the crash. Wright describes it as “largely a public relations problem” that distracted the FBI from its real work. This problem was resolved when an FBI middle-manager, John O’Neill, “persuaded the CIA to do a video simulation of [the zoom climb] scenario,” thereby discrediting all 270 FBI eyewitnesses to a likely missile attack. This was no small accomplishment on O’Neill’s part in that the CIA would spend a year on the project, and the thesis of Wright’s book is that the failure of the CIA and FBI to communicate led to 9-11. No matter. Wright has his story, and he is sticking to it. He did not respond to my query on his sourcing.
It will be interesting to see whether mainstream interviewers dare broach the subject of TWA 800 with Lance, even though his information points to a scandal that would dwarf Watergate if ever opened. My guess is that they will not. My concern is that they will not even book Lance for fear that he raises the subject himself.
There is a lot more to this always revealing and rigorously sourced book than I can explore herein. It is definitely worth an exploration on your own.
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