New York Times continues to avoid TWA 800 connection


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© 2005

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that State Department analysts had warned the Clinton administration in July 1996 about the dangers of Osama bin Laden's impending move to Afghanistan.

Deep in the article, the Times reports that the State Department assessment was "written July 18, 1996." Nowhere in the article does the Times mentioned what happened the day before.

What happened on July 17, 1996, is that TWA Flight 800 exploded on a beautiful summer night only 12 minutes out of JFK along the affluent well-populated south shore of Long Island. By all accounts, this crash threw Washington into a virtual war footing. A State Department assessment produced on July 18, 1996, was as likely to have been routine as one produced on Sept. 12, 2001.

On July 18, the last day of official honesty, Times reporters were all over the place, and they were pressing for the truth. On that day, unnamed "government officials" – most likely the FBI – told the New York Times that air-traffic controllers had "picked up a mysterious radar blip that appeared to move rapidly toward the plane just before the explosion."

These officials and the Times unequivocally linked the radar to the multiple eyewitness sightings and the sightings to a missile attack. According to the Times' sources, "The eyewitnesses had described a bright light, like a flash, moving toward the plane just before the initial explosion, and that the flash had been followed by a huge blast – a chain of events consistent with a missile impact and the blast produced by an aircraft heavily laden with fuel." As one federal official told the Times that first morning, "It doesn't look good," with the clear implication of a missile strike.

This was the last day these officials were open with the media about the possibility of a missile. Once they changed the story, so did an oddly quiescent Times. The words "radar" and "eyewitness" would all but disappear from the Times' reporting after the first day. Nor, inexplicably, would the Times investigate the role of the military in the downing of TWA 800, not one paragraph, and not one word about satellites and what they might have captured.

As it happens, the Atlanta Olympics opened on July 19, the day the above stories were reported. Were the White House to acknowledge that an attack from outside the plane had caused its destruction, the Federal Aviation Administration might well have been compelled to shut down aviation on the East Coast. Accordingly, all missile talk ceased on that day. The investigation was forced into a false dialectic between bomb and mechanical. And the government, especially the FBI, would make the Times its unwitting messenger.

The day of the president's visit to Long Island eight days after the crash would prove to be something of a milestone. On that same day, for the first time, unnamed "law enforcement officials" – most assuredly the FBI – told the New York Times that they "supported the theory that the plane was destroyed by a bomb." At a separate briefing that day, FBI honcho James Kallstrom reinforced the theory. "We know there was a catastrophic explosion," he admitted, "It was caused by some kind of bomb, obviously, explosion." Yet, there was never any evidence of the same then, nor would there ever be, at least not a conventional bomb within the plane.

Besides, by this time the FBI had already interviewed hundreds of eyewitnesses – pilots, vacationers, fishermen, surfers – and they were all telling the same story. A typical sighting came from a Westhampton school parking lot, where school principal Joseph Delgado saw an object like "a firework" ascend almost vertically. The object had a "bright white light with a reddish pink aura surrounding it." The tail, gray in color, "moved in a squiggly pattern." From Delgado's perspective, the object "arced off to the right in a south-westerly direction."

Delgado saw a second object "glitter" in the sky and the first object move up toward it. He thought at first it was "going to slightly miss" the glittering object, TWA 800, but it appeared to make "a dramatic correction at the last second." Then Delgado saw a "white puff." Delgado and at least 750 other people – and probably thousands – watched as the plane's fuel tanks exploded, and Flight 800 morphed into what Delgado described as a "firebox" and others as a "fireball." Amazingly, the New York Times would only speak to one eyewitness, and not one of the 270 who saw the object's ascent.

To its credit, the FBI pushed to the terrorist side of the equation and pulled the Times with it. The Times' article on Aug. 14 – "Fuel Tank's Condition Makes Malfunction Seem Less Likely" – was the most provocative yet.

According to the Times, investigators "concluded that the center fuel tank caught fire as many as 24 seconds after the initial blast that split apart the plane, a finding that deals a serious blow to the already remote possibility that a mechanical accident caused the crash." One official was quoted as saying that parts of the tank were in ''pristine condition.'' Said another official who insisted on anonymity, ''It is clear that whatever set off the tank did not severely damage the tank. Something else, most likely later, blew up the tank.''

There was more. Investigators told the Times that the pattern of the debris "persuaded them that a mechanical malfunction is highly unlikely." From their analysis of the debris field, these investigators concluded the following, a summary that still has all the appearance of unvarnished truth:

The blast's force decapitated the plane, severing the cockpit and first-class cabin, which then fell into the Atlantic Ocean. The rest of the plane flew on, descending rapidly, and as it did thousands of gallons of jet fuel spilled out of the wings and the center fuel tank between them. At 8,000 feet, about 24 seconds after the initial blast, the fuel caught fire, engulfing the remainder of the jetliner into a giant fireball.

"Now that investigators say they think the center fuel tank did not explode," read the Times account, "they say the only good explanations remaining are that a bomb or a missile brought down the plane."

And then Richard Clarke got involved. About four weeks after the crash, based on his own rough timeline, Clarke visited the site of the investigation on Long Island. There he casually stopped to talk to a technician. Their presumed conversation, reported in Clarke's "Against All Enemies," is so utterly disingenuous it needs to be repeated in full:

"So this is where the bomb exploded?" I asked. "Where on the plane was it?"

"The explosion was just forward of the middle, below the floor of the passenger compartment, below row 23. But it wasn't a bomb," he added. "See the pitting pattern and the tear. It was a slow, gaseous eruption, from inside."

"What's below row 23?" I asked, slowly sensing that this was not what I thought it was.

"The center line fuel tank. It was only half full, might have heated up on the runway and caused a gas cloud inside. Then if a spark, a short circuit ..." He indicated an explosion with his hands.

The technician goes on to tell Clarke that these "old 747s" have an "electrical pump inside the center line fuel tank" and lays the blame on the pump. In fact, almost everything about the conversation is wrong. The tank was not half full, but virtually empty. The evening was a cool 71 degrees. The plane's pumps were all recovered and found blameless, and the fuel pump wiring is not even inside the tank. The National Transportation Safety Board admittedly never did find the alleged ignition source.

But pride goeth before a fall. In this one chance encounter, Clarke manages to sum up the essence of the "exit strategy" months if not years before the NTSB does, and he takes all credit for it. That same day, Clarke tells us that he returned to Washington and shared his exploding fuel-tank theory with chief of staff Leon Panetta and NSA Director Tony Lake, even sketching the 747 design.

"Does the NTSB agree with you," Lake reportedly asked Clarke? Clarke's purported response speaks to the priority politics would take over truth in this investigation – "Not yet."

Jamie Gorelick took the ball and ran. On Aug. 22, 1996, the deputy attorney general called the FBI's Jim Kallstrom to Washington and effectively put the TWA Flight 800 investigation to bed. Now, it was just a question of how best to explain away the explosive residue and the eyewitnesses.



Posted: August 18, 2005
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Special Note:

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.

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