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As I sat waiting for Ed Bradley’s producer at the surprisingly shabby 60 Minutes offices in New York, I recalled out of nowhere the theory of “NFL betting.”
I first learned of the theory a few years back on a trip to Dallas to shoot some otherwise forgettable TV commercials. At the time, the OJ Simpson trial was in full fandango. My client, the kind of Texan that people who don’t like Texas think of as being typically Texan—large, loud, always right--knew exactly why Nicole and Ron had been killed.
“Jack,” he said, “it’s all about NFL betting.”
“NFL betting?” I asked, not sure if he were being serious.
“Of course,” he answered, as though he were speaking to a not particularly bright child. “Just about every major conspiracy is ultimately about NFL betting.”
Being that we were in Dallas, I asked the obvious next question.
He stared at me with a new sense of urgency and uttered the deepest of truths: “NFL betting.” Having been Lee Harvey Oswald’s paperboy at the time, he knew whereof he spoke.
When she ushered me into her office, I started by telling Ed Bradley’s producer about my Texas client’s theory. I explained why.
“When I tell you my own story,” I said. “You’re going to be hearing ‘NFL betting.’ Don’t. I can prove what I am going to tell you 20 times over.”
“I then gave her the five-minute version of the thesis at the heart of the book that I co-authored with James Sanders, First Strike—TWA Flight 800 and the Attack on America.
It goes something like this: On the evening of July 17, 1996, Iraqi Liberation Day, two days before the start of the Atlanta Olympics, three weeks after the deadly Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, with the military on the highest state of alert since the Cuban missile crisis, TWA Flight 800 left JFK Airport in New York and headed for Paris.
Twelve minutes later, people up and down the coast of Long Island started seeing things, the same thing, namely streaks of lights with white smoke trails rising off the horizon, zigzagging and arcing over, and converging on an airliner ten miles off shore. A total of 270 of these people—National Guard pilots, fishermen, airplane passengers, sunset watchers—would share these highly consistent observations with the FBI. Many would provide explicit drawings.
At the same moment, at least two senior FAA radar technicians watched in horror as an unknown object merged on their screen with TWA 800. Just at that moment of convergence, the doomed airliner disappeared—silently from the screen, and from the sky in a house-shaking blast of fire.
All that I have just said is irrefutable.
“There are two possible explanations for what happened,” I told the producer. “One is that the 270 people all experienced optical illusions; the FAA radar suffered a computer glitch; and for the first time in the 75-year history of commercial aviation, a plane self-destructed in mid-air because of a fuel tank problem. This is the government’s argument.”
“The second is that what those hundreds of people saw ascending towards Flight 800 culminated in the plane’s destruction. This is ours. By the principle of Occam’s Razor—the simplest explanation is usually the best--we’re right. We put all our evidence on the table. The government puts theirs. You decide.”
You would think that a major reporter would jump at the chance to break open what may well be the greatest untold story of our time. And you would be wrong. In the course of my sojourn to Washington and New York, my publicist and I sat there and talked to one household name after another, and they all found some reason to take a pass, not permanently mind you, just temporarily. Whatever they were doing at the moment was somehow more important.
Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, the fellow who was about to break the Monica scandal when Matt Drudge scooped him, perhaps summed up the prevailing attitude when he asked me with a straight face, “Which three pages should I read?”
I had just argued that had we told the truth about July 17, 1996, there would have been no September 11.
“Three pages?” I asked. “How about a chapter?”
Their motives for dodging the story are complex. Part of it has to do with politics—the blame here points to the wrong White House. Part of it is sloth. Part of it is fear. A large part of it is embarrassment—a couple of clowns from outside their charmed circle had broken the story that they dared not. But none of them dismissed us out of hand.
They all knew at least that we knew more than they did. My partner, James Sanders, has lived this case for the last six years. In 1997, back before whistle blowing was cool, he and his wife Elizabeth were convicted of conspiracy for his receiving information from a whistleblower within the investigation and writing about it. Their Long Island jury was not allowed to know that Sanders was an investigative reporter, and the two were convicted as common thieves.
In the course of his trial, during discovery, Sanders was allowed access to information that no one else had ever seen. The media people know this. Producers at two different networks told me—off the record of course—that they believed we were right. And no one gave us that look that says, “NFL betting.”
In the meantime while we wait for the story to break, I live this almost comically paradoxical life. One moment Bob Woodward is calling me, giving me his home address, and asking that I send him the book. The next minute Joe Sweeney is calling asking me where the introduction is for the building and trade section of the April issue.
My everyday work does, however, provide a nice grounding. The fact that I edit a business magazine in Kansas City makes me, if anything, seem more credible in Washington or New York. There, “ Kansas City” sounds substantial and real. Only in Kansas City, given our sometimes charming inferiority complex, do the media seem to believe that if you live here you can’t possibly know anything worth knowing.
And so today, as I finish this up, I start work on two projects: one is the Industry Outlook for the April Ingram’s. The other is a 3,000-word piece for a major British publication on a cover-up that makes Watergate look like chump change. How the story breaks I still have no idea.
Will Sanders and I be the next Woodward and Bernstein? Or will we boring reporters for the next ten years with a theory that sounds to them all the world like “NFL betting.”
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