Why did Al Gore really drop out?
© Jack Cashill
By Jack Cashill & James Sanders
After the events of Sept. 11, Al Gore must have hoped no one remembered.
But someone did.
On Sept. 20, 2001, the Boston Globe broke the story of how the so-called Gore Commission had failed in its mission to address airline safety. The Globe claimed this failure "represents the clearest recent public example of the success that airlines have long had in defeating calls for more oversight." The Globe traced that failure to a series of campaign donations from the airlines to the Democratic National Committee in 1996 in the wake of the crash of TWA Flight 800.
Although on the right track, the Globe had gotten only half the story. The complete story is much more chilling. Yes, the Clinton-Gore team did abandon security planning for the sake of campaign cash. But worse, the White House deliberately concealed the real cause of the crash, in no small part to justify that abandonment.
The full commission held its first executive session on Sept. 5, 1996, and on Sept. 9 submitted its tough preliminary report to the president. The report advanced 20 serious recommendations to strengthen aviation security. The proposals called for a 60-day test for matching bags with passengers on domestic flights and a computer-based system of ''profiling'' passengers that, of course, immediately riled the ACLU.
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 Sept. 9, Vice President Gore declared his strong support for these proposals.
But this support did not last for long. "Within 10 days, the whole [airline] industry jumped all over Al Gore," commission member Victoria Cummock would claim. As the Globe correctly reported, this pressure took the form of an intense lobbying campaign aimed at the White House. On Sept. 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. The lead of the Times story reads as follows:
Weeks before the Times 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 a mechanical failure brought down the airplane:
This story came from briefings not at the New York crash site – but at NTSB headquarters in Washington. NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, who still maintained some credibility, 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." They claimed instead that "the failure to find proof of a bombing" had led them to re-explore the possibility that an explosion of the center fuel tank destroyed the plane.
On the next day, Sept. 20, almost surely to make some sense of its radical change in direction, the administration advanced a new story, one that proved to have extraordinary effect.
As the official story goes, the FAA traced a likely source of the explosive residue to a training exercise at the St. Louis airport on June 10, 1996. Given the almost random state of documentation for these exercises nationwide, this had to have been a laborious task.
On Sept. 21, 1996, the FBI found its way to Officer Herman Burnett who oversaw the exercise. As it happens, this is the day after the stories about the dog-training exercise began to appear in the media. In other words, the authorities were leaking this particular story even before anyone had talked to the officer in question.
According to the FBI, airport management told Burnett that a "wide body" was available for training at Gate 50 that day. The officer then withdrew some exercise "aids" from departmental supplies and drove to Gate 50. Once there, he walked up the exterior jetway staircase and boarded the plane. This information is documented in a letter from the FBI's Jim Kallstrom to Rep. James A. Traficant, dated Sept. 5, 1997.
According to the FBI, Burnett "made no notations regarding the tail number of the aircraft, as it was not his policy to do so." As Officer Burnett told the authors, he made no notation of the gate either. He did say, however, that he listed specific start and stop times on the training form and the notation "wide body." No one claims he did more.
Burnett told the FBI that he saw no TWA crew, cleaners, caterers or passengers when he "began the placement of the explosives at 10:45 AM," nor at any time when he was on board the 747. According to the FBI account, the officer concealed the training aids in specific places throughout the passenger cabin in a "zig-zag" pattern. Burnett let the explosives sit for a while as FAA regulations dictate and then returned to his car to retrieve the dog.
"At 11:45 a.m., the patrolman began the exercise by bringing the dog into the aircraft." Again, according to the FBI, "the exercise lasted 15 minutes, and the dog located all the explosives." Burnett then climbed back down the jetway with the dog, secured the dog in his car and climbed back up to retrieve the training aids from various locations throughout this large aircraft. He placed each aid on the galley counter before carting them all back out. Burnett estimated that this activity took 15 minutes.
Based on the scenario developed by the FBI, Burnett could not have left the plane earlier than 12:15 p.m. Given the time spent climbing up and down the jetway, a 12:20 or 12:25 p.m. exit is more likely. During this time, Burnett saw no one else on board the plane. He did not expect to. He carried out these daily exercises in as "sterile" an environment as possible – that is, without anyone present.
Existing records play serious havoc with the FBI scenario. They show that Capt. Vance Weir piloted TWA No. 17119 – the plane that would become Flight 800 – from St. Louis to Hawaii that day and that Thomas D. Sheary served as first officer. Weir's "Pilot Activity Sheet" from June 10, 1996, adds an important detail. It indicates that on this day, and on this plane, he flew out of St. Louis for Honolulu at 12:35 p.m. Please note the time of departure.
Federal officials were aware of this time as well. The letter from Kallstrom to Traficant referenced above makes this clear:
In other words, the plane that would become Flight 800 left the gate between 12:30 and 12:35 p.m. The police officer, however, did not leave the plane until 12:15 p.m. at the earliest and saw no one. To clean the plane, stock it, check out the mechanics and board several hundred passengers would take more than the 15-minute window of opportunity the FBI's own timetable presents.
TWA regulations in effect in 1996 mandated that the crew of a wide body report for briefing 90 minutes before scheduled takeoff. Crew members had 30 minutes to complete their briefing and board the 747 as the regulations also mandated that they board one hour before scheduled takeoff. This means that the crew was most likely on the plane by 10:50 a.m. Even if there had been a planned delay, the crew, the pilot, the first officer, the engineer and a minimum of 14 flight attendants would have been on board the 747 no later than 11:35 a.m. They would have been preparing the plane for a full load of passengers – stowing their belongings, performing safety equipment pre-flight, and checking food and beverage supplies. Besides a crew of at least 17, there would have been maintenance, food service and gate agents coming and going during the exact same period that the officer was alleged to be exercising his dog and seeing no one.
David E. Hendrix, an investigative reporter for the Riverside, Calif., Press-Enterprise newspaper, interviewed Capt. Weir personally, and First Officer Sheary by telephone. They told him they saw no dog or officer on the plane that day. How could they be so certain? As they told Hendrix, they have each flown commercial aircraft for 20-plus years, and neither has ever seen a dog training exercise on their plane in all that time.
So if not the 800 plane, which "wide body" could the officer possibly have used? Gate 50 and 51 at St. Louis Lambert International Airport, (now gates C-36 and C-38, respectively) are at the end of Concourse C. According to TWA records provided by the FBI, the future Flight 800 aircraft was indeed parked at gate 50. Parked at Gate 51 was another 747, Number 17116, the sister aircraft, a veritable clone. This second plane – bound for JFK International as TWA Flight 844 – would not leave the gate until 2:00 p.m. This later departure would have allowed TWA staff ample time to load and board the plane after the officer finished the training exercise at about 12:15 or slightly later.
To be sure, this second plane was not parked at Gate 50 where the FBI conveniently alleges the exercise took place. But how could either management or the officer remember the site of a routine exercise performed 70 days prior? According to the FBI, "The manager on duty, whose name the patrolman could not recall, told him that a wide body was available at gate 50." In other words, the officer could not remember the manager's name, but he could remember the gate. This very recollection is suspicious. No known documentation puts Burnett and his dog at this gate or on the Flight 800 plane. No one had anything but memory to call on.
Federal officials had searched the nation, and probably the world, to find an airport at which a dog exercise had taken place on a day when the Flight 800 plane was parked there. They placed the dog exercise on Flight 800 plane fully indifferent to the truth. If the time of day did not square, so be it. Although Kallstrom would later boast of the more than 7,000 interviews his agents completed, his agents chose not to interview Weir or Sheary. They would not want to know any facts that might undermine the story they were pressured to create.
Regardless of its weaknesses, the story had a powerful effect. Investigators admitted that the dog exercise "deepened the mystery of whether the plane exploded because of sabotage or mechanical failure." Don Van Natta summed up the story's impact: "For some investigators," he wrote in the Sept. 22 Times, "the revelation of the bomb-sniffing dog amounted to a stunning setback." Van Natta quotes one investigator as saying that the news hit him like ''a punch in the gut.''
The NTSB could have cleared up many of these issues when it sent one of its own people, Tom Lasseigne, to St. Louis, to evaluate the dog-training story. According to the Chairman's Report of Nov. 15, 1996, Lasseigne "anticipates the preparation of a factual report for the public docket by Dec. 20, 1996." The report was never released. Freedom of Information Act requests for the report have not been honored.
As to the FBI, the administration seems to have worn down its resistance over time. In fact, one can trace Kallstrom's descent into bitter compromise through his own retelling of the dog story. Two months after the story broke, Kallstrom appeared on PBS "News Hour" with Jim Lehrer. At this time, Kallstrom still hedged his bets on the dog exercise, admitting that he was not "absolutely" sure "that that's how the chemicals got there." The real proof, Kallstrom acknowledged, would be in the "evidence of the metal," the forensics to go with that."
Kallstrom's tone had changed by the time of a congressional hearing in July of 1997, a year after the crash. Kallstrom's responses to Representative James Traficant of Ohio show how deeply he had been compromised. In speaking of the dog training exercise, Traficant asked Kallstrom, "Do you know for sure that that dog was on the plane."
"We know for sure," Kallstrom answered. By the time of the congressional hearing, with no new evidence to contradict him, Kallstrom had grown more confident.
"Isn't it a fact," continues Traficant, "that where the dog was to have visited, that it is not the part of the plane where the precursors of SEMTEX were found?" Traficant here refers to the PETN and RDX.
"That's not true," Kallstrom answered. He then added the kind of detail that would make a defense attorney cringe: "It is very important where the packages were put, congressman. And the test packages that we looked at, that were in very bad condition, that were unfortunately dripping those chemicals, were placed exactly above the location of the airplane where we found chemicals on the floor."
In fact, none of the training aids were placed near where the chemicals had been found. And the Kallstrom letter is just one source of this admission. In September of 1996, when the FBI was less sure that the dog story would work, the New York Times reported as follows, "The packages were not placed in the same place where the traces were located." FAA bomb technician, Calvin Walbert, made a comparable claim. "Where the bureau got hits on the wreckage," said Walbert, "there was no explosive training aids anywhere near that." Added Irish Flynn, FAA associate administrator, "It's a question of where those traces came from. The dog doesn't answer the questions."
For all its convincing detail, not everyone simply accepted the dog-training story at face value. At an FBI briefing Victoria Cummock, citizen activist on the safety and security commission, 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." FBI honcho Jim Kallstrom, however, tried to browbeat Cummock into submission. "It's absolutely confirmed that it was that plane," he reportedly told her.
The authorities, 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:
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 the authors, "that we were being railroaded." Cummock grew alarmed in January 1997 when the vice president's staff circulated a draft final report that essentially eliminated all security measures from their findings. She was not alone in her concern. CIA Director and fellow Commissioner John Deutch also protested.
As reported in the Washington Times, Gore withdrew the draft. On Feb. 12, 1997, Gore issued a final report that has all the appearance of seriousness. Although released five months after the breaking of the dog-training story, the following excerpt seems to refer to the demise of TWA Flight 800, the event that triggered this report and the only possible such attack within the last eight years:
Following this paradoxical introduction was a series of recommendations that seem both forceful and reasonable, to wit, "3.13 Conduct airport vulnerability assessments and develop action plans." These recommendations did not trouble Cummock in general. What she criticized was their vagueness. She cited 3.13 above, like many others, for its absence of "specificity," "accountability," and "timetables/deadlines."
"In summary," Cummock wrote, "the final report contains no specific call to action, no commitments to address safety and security system-wide by mandating the deployment of current technology and training, with actionable timetables and budgets." Without tough and timely enforcement, she rightly believed that the recommendations would become just so many words on a page, pure Washington spin.
"After much thoughtful consideration and with a very heavy heart," Cummock filed a dissent against the Gore proposal. Gore stated publicly that he would include the dissent in the final report. But when he presented that report to the president, he not only failed to accommodate Cummock, but he also claimed that the report's findings were unanimous. "Both of those Gore lies are on video tape," reported the Washington Times. "NBC's Dateline has the tapes."
With her dissent suppressed, Cummock sued the vice president, the secretary of Transportation, and the commission in District Court. In her view, as expressed in her ultimately successful appeal of a dismissed suit, "The Clinton administration had formed the commission simply to obtain rubber-stamp endorsement of a predetermined policy agenda, rather than to facilitate genuine deliberations."
As her suit successfully but slowly made its way through the courts, the Clinton administration kept on spinning its apocryphal tale that "mechanical failure" destroyed TWA 800. This tale climaxed at the final NTSB hearing in August of 2000. Although the NTSB's Bernard Loeb was much more circumspect about the source of the explosive residue – "We don't know exactly how the explosive residues got there," he admitted – it no longer mattered. "We do know from the physical evidence I've just discussed," Loeb noted, "that the residues were not the result of the detonation of a bomb."
As to the Gore Commission, despite Cummock's valiant efforts, it came to naught or something close to it. Al Gore, however, may well have paid a serious political price for his failure to act.
In the weeks following Sept. 11, 2001, several political insiders referred to the destruction of Flight 800 as a terrorist incident. But only one did it twice. That person is Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Appearing on Larry King Live on Sept. 11 itself, Kerry suggested that TWA Flight 800 was brought down by a terrorist act. On Sept. 24, on Hardball with Chris Matthews, the authors watched as Kerry casually recited a number of terrorist attacks against the United States, among them TWA "Flight 800." Like Larry King before him, Chris Matthews either did not catch the remark or chose to let it pass.
If the first admission seemed more or less innocent and accidental, the second one had to be purposeful. Indeed, Kerry's office took and responded to calls about his remarks on Flight 800 after the first incident. If a mistake, it seems highly unlikely that it could have happened again. But it did.
There is more evidence to consider. On Sept. 20, one mainstream newspaper broke the story of how the so-called Gore Commission failed to address airline safety. That newspaper just happened to be John Kerry's hometown Boston Globe. As it happened, the paper released the story five years to the day after the dog-training story broke. This was a damning revelation, certainly to Al Gore. The Boston Globe was the only medium to the left of the Washington Times to have released this information, and the Times did so at least a year before the attack on the WTC and the Pentagon.
Of course, it is possible that Sen. Kerry merely misspoke about a terrorist attack against TWA 800 on two occasions, and it is possible too that the Globe's entrance into the fray was merely coincidental, as was its timing. But given the brutal realities of presidential politics, it seems likely that these revelations were calculated and perhaps even coordinated.
As of this writing, John Kerry is the most visible and viable contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. When Kerry made his revelations, Al Gore loomed as Kerry's major opponent for the nomination. John Kerry knew that Gore plays internecine hardball. It was Gore, after all, who introduced the Willie Horton gambit against another Massachusetts candidate, Michael Dukakis, in the 1988 Democratic primaries.
But John Kerry seemed to have his sights on Al Gore's Achilles' heel. After the events of Sept. 11, the story of how Al Gore helped subvert the investigation into TWA 800 and undermine airport security may well have been part of the calculus that put Al Gore out of the race.
Jack Cashill and James Sanders' First Strike: TWA Flight 800 and the Attack on America is now available. First Strike explains how a determined corps of ordinary citizens worked to reveal the compromise and corruption that tainted the federal investigation. With an impressive array of facts, Jack Cashill and James Sanders show the relationship between events in July 1996 and September 2001 and proclaim how and why the American government has attempted to cover up the truth.