How Al Gore Subverted His Own Aviation Safety Commission
Posted: July 20, 2007
by Jack Cashill
On August 23, 1996, five weeks after the crash of TWA Flight 800, The New York Times recalled the FBI’s earlier contention that “one positive result” in the forensic tests of the plane’s wreckage would cause the FBI to declare the plane’s destruction “a crime.”
The positive results had come in, as the Times duly reported, but the FBI made no such declaration. Its heretofore plain-spoken brass had been taken to the Washington woodshed just the day before.
August 23 represented a turning point in the investigation. On this same day, the FAA began to inquire whether any dog-training exercises had ever taken place on the plane that would come to be designated TWA 800.
Unknown to the media, the White House was desperately seeking an explanation other than a bomb or missile as to why explosive residue had been found throughout the wreckage of the plane.
The Gore-chaired aviation safety commission held its first executive session on September 5, 1996, and on September 9 submitted its tough preliminary report to the president.
The report advanced twenty serious recommendations to strengthen aviation security. The proposals called for a sixty-day test for matching bags with passengers on domestic flights and a computer-based system of “profiling” passengers.
Also proposed were “vulnerability assessments” at every commercial airport in the country, increased numbers of bomb-sniffing dogs, better screening and training of the workers who examined bags, and more frequent tests of their work.
At a press conference on September 9, Vice President Gore declared his strong support for these proposals.But this support did not last for long.
“Within ten days, the whole [airline] industry jumped all over Al Gore,” commissioner Victoria Cummock, a citizen activist whose husband was killed on Pan Am 103, would later claim.
As the Boston Globe would report five years later, this pressure took the form of an intense lobbying campaign aimed at the White House.
On September 19, Gore backed off the proposal in a letter to Carol Hallett, president of the industry’s trade group, the Air Transport Association.
Wrote Gore, “I want to make it very clear that it is not the intent of this administration or of the commission to create a hardship for the air transportation industry or to cause inconvenience to the traveling public.”
To reassure Hallett, the Globe reported, Gore added that the FAA would develop “a draft test concept … in full partnership with representatives of the airline industry.”
What the Globe did not report, however, is that on the same day the administration was sending this letter, it was signaling its cooperative spirit to the airline industry through calculated leaks to the Washington Post and the New York Times.
“Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board,” read the lead of the September 19 Times, “saying they are convinced that none of the physical evidence recovered from T.W.A. Flight 800 proves that a bomb brought down the plane, plan tests intended to show that the explosion could have been caused by a mechanical failure alone.”
Just weeks before, the Times Don Van Natta had reported that “the only good explanations remaining are that a bomb or a missile brought down the plane off Long Island.”
In the interim, the evidence for a missile strike had grown only stronger as more explosive residue had been found on the plane and more eyewitnesses had been interviewed.
Now, however, officials were telling the public through the media that either a bomb or a mechanical failure brought down the airplane, most likely a mechanical failure.
This story came from briefings not at the New York crash site as usual, but at NTSB headquarters in Washington.
NTSB Chairman Jim Hall had personally orchestrated them. An old political hand from Tennessee—described by an associate as “a personal retainer” to the Gore family—Hall was finally justifying his appointment.
It followed, of course, that a mechanical failure did not require urgent security measures. This was the first time the NTSB had made such a declaration, and its timing was highly suspicious.
The investigators took this new direction despite an admission to the Times that “they have no evidence pointing to a mechanical malfunction.”
On the next day, September 20, almost surely to make some sense of its radical change in direction, the administration advanced a new story, one that proved to have legs.
The New York Times article on September 21 well summarizes the government’s argument.
According to the Times, unnamed federal officials claimed that “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.”
The test took place at the St. Louis airport on June 10, five weeks before the crash. As the Times relates, packages containing explosives were placed in the plane’s passenger cabin for the dog to find.
These packages contained “the same explosives as those found by investigators after the crash.” The explanation was not perfect.
For one, as would be proven later, the explosives were not the same, not even close. For another, as the Times admitted the next day, “The packages were not placed in the same place where the traces were located.”
Much more problematically still, the FBI did not even talk to the dog training officer in question until after the story broke in the Times. The Times never talked to him at all.
If either had inquired, they would have learned from Officer Herman Burnett that the Flight 800 plane was just departing for Hawaii with a full crew and hundreds of passengers when he was doing his training aboard an empty 747.
The only records Burnett kept were of the time of exercise and the designation “widebody.” A sister 747 was parked at the gate next to the Flight 800 plane at St. Louis and did not leave for several more hours.After I talked to Burnett in August 2001 and saw the logs that proved he could not have done his exercise on the Flight 800 aircraft, I called the Times. They had no apparent interest in the information.
Not everyone on Gore’s commission accepted the dog-training story as readily as the Times did. At an FBI briefing Victoria Cummock asked to see the FAA log for the training exercise.
“They said, ‘It’s not conclusive this particular plane was involved,’” she told the Village Voice.“They couldn’t produce the log.”
The authorities and the media, alas, convinced just about everyone but Cummock. The public relaxed, and the pressure for increased airport security deflated quickly. The Boston Globe reports what happened next:
By the time of the presidential election, other airlines had poured large donations into Democratic Party committees: $265,000 from American Airlines, $120,000 from Delta Air Lines, $115,000 from United Air Lines, $87,000 from Northwest Airlines, according to an analysis done for the Globe by the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks donations. In all, the airlines gave the Democratic Party $585,000 in the election’s closing weeks. Over the preceding 10-week period, the airlines gave the Democrats less than half that sum.
Unaware of the specifics of the spin or the motivation behind it, Victoria Cummock nonetheless sensed that something was awry.
“It was quite obvious,” Cummock has told me, “that we were being railroaded.”
Next week: How Obama Can Keep Gore Out of the Race
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