Top FBI lawyer helped destroy
TWA Flight 800


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TWA Flight 800






By Jack Cashill and James Sanders

© 2004

In August 2003, a former U.S. attorney in the Clinton administration, Valerie Caproni, was appointed to the top legal job within the Federal Bureau of Investigation – that of general counsel. As such, she provides legal advice to the director and other FBI officials and, among other duties, coordinates the defense of civil actions filed against the United States for the official acts of FBI employees.

"This is the coolest job in the world," the 5-foot-tall Caproni recently told Robert Vosper, author of a 4,000-word profile on Caproni in the Corporate Legal Times titled, "The Chosen One." "I can be doing national security stuff in the morning, a Patriot Act issue after lunch and an employment problem in the afternoon."

Caproni, however, has a clouded legal past that provides an unfortunate study in how the national security apparatus can function if placed in the wrong hands. Working in the Clinton Justice Department, Caproni did not need the Patriot Act to go awry.

The co-author of this article, James Sanders, learned about Caproni early in his investigation into the crash of TWA Flight 800. Within days of the crash, it was she who illegally took the investigation away from the National Transportation Safety Board and gave it to the FBI.

The relevant law [Title 49, section 1131(a)(2)] reads as follows: "An investigation by the Board ... has priority over any investigation by another department, agency or instrumentality of the United States Government." The "Board" in question is the National Transportation Safety Board. In other words, a "parallel" FBI investigation is by law inferior to the NTSB investigation.

Caproni, as head of the Justice Department Criminal District, Eastern District of New York, knew the law. She knew that the FBI was the subordinate agency. She knew that the NTSB could not legally be restricted in its pursuit of information. Still, in spite of the law, she used the full weight of the Justice Department, and the intimidating presence of the FBI, to order the NTSB witness group to cease and desist all of the critical eyewitness interviews.

"As for the charges that she and the FBI took over investigation," writes Vosper casually, "Caproni says she is guilty." The FBI never did declare TWA Flight 800 a crime scene, the only possible justification for Caproni's intrusion. An NTSB document reveals that Caproni and the Justice Department took over the investigation to ensure that only one story emerged from the witness interviews, the official story, their story. In this, she fully succeeded.

Caproni, alas, was just warming up. Her second major transgression was to place herself in charge of a grand jury investigating Sanders and his wife, Elizabeth. Sanders had received a residue sample from a source in the TWA Flight 800 investigation in his attempt to expose potential criminal misconduct by the same FBI that Caproni herself had illicitly imposed on site.

In the course of her investigation into the Sanders, Caproni crossed over the line into criminal territory [USC Title 18, section 1001]. She did so by declaring in writing that she did not know Sanders was a journalist, thus making it possible to seize his phone records and ultimately his computer and the information contained within its hard drive.

Caproni's purported ignorance of Sanders' profession defies belief. She, in fact, first learned about James Sanders from an account of his investigation in the Riverside Press Enterprise, March 10, 1997. Sanders' name was easy to find. It was on page one, above the fold, second paragraph of the lead story. To the immediate left of "James Sanders" were two words that challenge Caproni's innocence . The two words were "Investigative Reporter." Indeed, even the Corporate Legal Times' profile on Caproni describes Sanders as a "freelance journalist."

It was Sanders' reporting that first alerted Caproni to the problem at hand, namely that a journalist was probing into potential criminal acts within the TWA 800 investigation – acts likely committed by federal officials. These officials, she knew, included herself and the FBI head of the investigation, James Kallstrom, who had been coerced into cooperating. The conflict of interest here should have caused Caproni to recuse herself. If not Caproni, her supervisors in the White House, Jamie Gorelick and Janet Reno, should never have allowed Caproni to pursue a case against her own potential accuser. But then again, it was the future 9-11 commissioner Gorelick who had leaned on Kallstrom.

When Sanders first met with Caproni in April 1997, he had no idea of the hornet's nest he was walking in to. Escorted by Jeff Schlanger, a former New York prosecutor, Sanders sat across from Caproni and a senior FBI agent. A large video taping system recorded the entire meeting. As part of the federal system used for video meetings during times of crisis, it was hooked up to other systems in Washington, D.C. as well as at the FBI's New York City headquarters. The Clinton Justice department had its first look at the retired cop turned journalist who threatened its grip on power.

At this meeting, Caproni told Sanders he would become the "target" of a Justice Department/FBI investigation if he did not immediately turn over the names of those inside the investigation who were assisting him. Sanders refused. His attorney argued for Sanders' First Amendment rights as a reporter. Caproni was not impressed.

The only words that count in a criminal case are those in the trial transcript, spoken under oath. Sanders' attorney at the April 1997 meeting, Jeff Schlanger, was placed under oath at the Sanders' criminal trial two years later. These are the relevant words from the trial transcript:

Q: Did the government indicate at that meeting what, if any, actions they were prepared to take with respect to Liz Sanders?

A: At the very end of that meeting there was a change in the status of Mrs. Sanders from being just a subject in the investigation, to a possible target in the investigation. And that was communicated directly to myself and Mr. Sanders.

Q: And when you say [it] was communicated directly to you, what was your understanding if she did not cooperate?

A: That the government would at least attempt to seek an indictment against her as well.

Q: Now ...

A: It wasn't if she did not cooperate. It was if Mr. Sanders did not cooperate."

The feds had a complete audio-video tape of the meeting. An FBI agent at that meeting was in the courtroom, available to rebut this sworn testimony. The Justice Department declined to engage further in the issue. Why? The testimony accurately reflected what the Justice Department video contained.

At that point the trial should have been over. The judge was certainly aware that Caproni had crossed the line once again into unlawful territory. Her threat against Elizabeth, now revealed in open court, constituted "vindictive prosecution." Worse, it violated the civil rights of the Sanders as no evidence was ever produced to validate Caproni's rationale for targeting Elizabeth. Caproni had simply exploited Elizabeth, holding her hostage to Justice Department chicanery, in a last-minute gambit to get her husband to identify his source.

But the trial did not end with this revelation. Caproni had stacked the federal deck against the Sanders. Both were convicted of conspiracy to steal airplane parts – a law designed to protect crash sites from scavengers. The mainstream media, so seemingly keen on constitutional rights in the Ashcroft era, mocked the Sanders as "conspiracy theorists" and generally applauded their conviction.

In the years that followed, as Sanders served out his three-year probation, he often wondered why Caproni and her allies had hammered him so. A summation of her arguably illicit acts defies easy explanation. These include:

  • Illegally turning the TWA 800 investigation over to the FBI.

  • Leading a grand jury investigation of a reporter who was investigating her own misconduct.

  • Denying in writing any knowledge that he was a reporter so she could seize his computer and phone records.

  • Threatening the vindictive prosecution of Sanders' wife to force Sanders to cooperate.

  • Making this threat knowing there was no evidence against Elizabeth Sanders.

  • Overseeing the Sanders' conviction on irrelevant and gratuitous charges, thereby silencing her most dangerous journalist critic.

Only recently, upon discovering another reason beyond the obvious, did Sanders begin to understand Caproni's behavior. This reason, recently revealed, is a jaw dropper. In that ill-fated summer of 1996, Caproni, Kallstrom and other senior FBI agents may well have unwittingly assisted Islamic terrorist Ramzi Yousef in his effort to destroy an American commercial airliner.

At the time, Caproni was involved in an ongoing sting operation against Yousef. While being tried in federal court for his role in Operation Bojinka, Yousef's diabolical plot to destroy American targets through the air, Yousef operated under the illusion of having a safe telephone within his New York City jail

Yousef thought he was routing messages to the outside world through a phone controlled by the New York Cosa Nostra. Five-time Emmy-winner Peter Lance documents this thoroughly in his new book, "Cover Up." In fact, mob informant Gregory Scarpa Jr. was cooperating with the Justice Department. It was Caproni, by the way, who had put Scarpa behind bars, one of her "proudest accomplishments."

Yousef was on a mission. According to Lance, he needed to arrange for the destruction of an American commercial airliner during the course of his trial in order to demand a mistrial. A mistrial was a much more viable legal option if the aircraft were flying into or out of a New York City area airport.

Yousef made many calls that summer. All were recorded by the FBI. Among his correspondents was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, his uncle and the 9-11 mastermind. Unfortunately for the United States, Yousef often used two obscure languages that apparently the FBI could not translate in a timely fashion. At the precise time in the trial when Yousef needed a mistrial declared – July 17, National Liberation Day in Saddam's Iraq – TWA Flight 800 blew up off the coast of Long Island, compelling circumstantial evidence that Yousef succeeded in plotting the downing of a commercial plane using a telephone provided by the Justice Department and FBI.

The judge wisely denied him his mistrial. The Clinton Justice Department, with Caproni on point, unwisely buried the whole mess. And for about five more years, they likely thought they had pulled a fast one – that is, until Sept. 11 made them rethink their wisdom.

"We need to stop the hypocrisy," the FBI's James Kallstrom told Dan Rather on that fateful day.

We couldn't agree more.



Posted: December 3, 2004
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Jack Cashill's "Mega Fix" DVD is now available

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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