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Clarke, O’Neill and the Path to 9-11





Mega Fix


TWA Flight 800





Posted: September 14, 2006
© Jack Cashill

For all the controversy surrounding ABC’s first rate Path to 9-11, almost no one in the media has questioned the starring roles given to counterterrorism honcho Richard Clarke and the FBI’s John O’Neill.

On the one level, this plot line does not trouble me because a dramatic presentation needs identifiable characters. On another level, it troubles me deeply because both of these characters may have undercut their own investigations, Clarke for political reasons and O’Neill for personal ones.

As I have previously written, Clarke takes actual credit for devising the “exit strategy” from the messy investigation into TWA Flight 800, the plane that mysteriously blew up off Long Island in July 1996. In Against All Enemies, it is he who first discovers the exploding fuel tank theory, even before the NTSB.

As to the creation of the notorious CIA zoom climb animation, used successfully to discredit the eyewitnesses, Clarke is more evasive. About four weeks after the crash, Clarke reports that he met with O'Neill, who told him that the eyewitness interviews "were pointing to a missile attack, a Stinger." Given what the FBI knew at the time, this much seems credible.

"[TWA 800] was at 15,000 feet," Clarke allegedly responds. "No Stinger or any other missile like it can go that high." One would think that on so sensitive and contentious a point, Clarke would have made an effort to get the altitude of TWA 800 right or even consistently wrong--he previously had claimed that TWA 800 “had climbed to 17,000 feet”—but he does neither. The plane, in fact, maxed at about 13, 700 feet. In his scarily sloppy book, the boastful Clarke treats the word “altitude” the way Clinton did “sex.”

Then too, Clarke, a Clinton sycophant, has just as hard a time keeping his story straight as his boss did. In an earlier New Yorker article on O'Neill soon after September 11, Clarke tells reporter Lawrence Wright that it was O'Neill who insisted that TWA Flight 800 was out of the range of the Stinger, and O'Neill who believed that the "ascending flare" that the witnesses saw must have been something else, like "the ignition of leaking fuel from the aircraft."

Murray Weiss's book on O’Neill, "The Man Who Warned America," likewise gives his subject all credit for the zoom-climb scenario, thinking that it is indeed "credit" O'Neill deserves.

Weiss, who knows little about TWA Flight 800, contends that O'Neill not only conceived the zoom-climb scenario, but that he also "persuaded the CIA to do a video simulation of his scenario." He never tells the reader, however, how an FBI middle manager like O'Neill could have breached the historic wall between the two agencies and enlisted the CIA in a project that would take at least 11 months from conception to execution.

There is one thing he does get right. Under an eight-panel recreation of the zoom-climb in the photo section of his book, Weiss writes that O'Neill used the CIA video simulation "to quash any fears that the disaster was a terrorist event." Although the NTSB has now abandoned the zoom climb altogether, at the time it proved highly effective in doing just what Weiss suggests.

The fact is, however, that the plane was shot out of the sky, and it is altogether likely that Clarke and O’Neill had a good idea who did it. This fact makes the nature of O’Neill’s exit from the FBI all the more intriguing.

In The Path to 9-11, the O’Neill character answers a page while attending an FBI conference in Tampa. When he returns, the room has emptied, and his briefcase is gone. This much fits the public record. In Path, O’Neill blows the incident off, given that the briefcase was retrieved 90 minutes later with nothing missing, and is hounded out of the Bureau by a rule-conscious bureaucracy tired of his maverick ways.

In real life, among the documents in the briefcase was a tightly held report, the Annual Field Office Report for national security operations, that described every counterespionage and counterterrorism program up and running in New York. Given that Bush was president at the time, and this was a month before 9-11, conspiracy theorists see the briefcase snatch as some kind of inside job to silence O’Neill lest he continue to warn America.

To come to this conclusion, however, they have had to ignore Murray Weiss’s book. As Weiss well documents, O'Neill maintained a wife and two children in New Jersey and simultaneously cajoled at least three women in three different cities into thinking that he was going to marry them. What is more, despite maintaining two households, O'Neill somehow managed to live extravagantly—the best suits, the best shoes, the best liquor, the best restaurants--on a five-figure government salary in New York City no less. In an otherwise flattering profile, Weiss concedes of O'Neill, "He always seemed to be lying about some aspect of his life."

It is altogether possible that O’Neill took a page and, while he absented himself, a thief snuck into an FBI conference and stole his briefcase. Finding nothing of apparent value, he left it behind. It is altogether plausible that O’Neill allowed his bag to be snatched and its content copied to help pay for his improbable lifestyle.

This is not a problem I can solve, but now that O’Neill is a TV hero, perhaps some enterprising newsroom might want to take the case on.




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copyright 2005 Jack Cashill