First Strike: TWA Flight 800 and the Attack on Americaby James Sanders
September 11, 2001, did not represent the first aerial assault against the American mainland. The first came on July 17,1996, with the downing of TWA Flight 800. This book looks in detail at what people saw and heard on this fateful night.
First Strike explains how a determined corps of ordinary citizens worked to reveal the compromise and corruption that/i>… See more details below
September 11, 2001, did not represent the first aerial assault against the American mainland. The first came on July 17,1996, with the downing of TWA Flight 800. This book looks in detail at what people saw and heard on this fateful night.
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.
- Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt
Had the year been 1997 or had anyone but Bill Clinton been president, it is likely that the American people would have known the truth about TWA 800 within twenty-four hours of the crash. But the year was 1996, a presidential election year. Bill Clinton was the incumbent running for a second term. And the White House, indeed the nation, was moved by his one, almost primal urge.
"All that mattered was his survival," Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos writes of his former boss. "Everyone else had to fall in line: his staff, his cabinet, the country, even his wife." Stephanopoulos speaks here of another circumstance. In fact, in his memoirs, All Too Human, Stephanopoulos devotes not a word to TWA 800, an event too large to be slighted by chance, given his deep involvement. But to understand this event and all its ramifications, one must first accept the logic that guided the investigation, and that is, as Stephanopoulos suggests, the logic of survival.
In another time, survival might have dictated a retaliatory response, the contingency plan now "dusted off." A president's star, after all, is rarely dimmed by decisive action. But as the president mulled his options during the early morning hours of July 18, he understood something few others ever would: The events off the coast of Long Island were not neat, not at all. They would take a good deal of explaining. And these explanations might very well expose his own Achilles' heel: his uncertain grip on the role of commander in chief. This was a chance he did not want to take.
Only a John Le Carr would put the refined, ineffable Robert Francis in the living quarters of the White House with Clinton that anxious early morning of July 18. In real life, his presence there does not seem likely. And yet it seems altogether likely that the White House communicated with Francis almost immediately, made sure he was the NTSB representative on the scene, made sure perhaps that he got to East Moriches before anyone else. The White House would tell him no more than he had to know, but the marching orders he received, unlike Anthony Lake's, had no hint of fife and drum about them. While Lake was being led to believe that terrorist missiles had taken down Flight 800, Francis was being told something different, something less.
There is only one message from the White House that makes sense of all the actions that follow, and it goes something like this: "Terrorists are ultimately responsible for the downing of TWA 800. We cannot respond for sure until we know exactly who they are. Until then, we cannot even let them or the American people know that we are aware it was a terrorist act. To accomplish this, we have to remove all talk of 'missiles' and all evidence of the same, at least for now." Francis was a good soldier. In the next months, the word missile would not freely pass his lips.
The president's public message on July 18 reinforced his private one. "We do not know what caused this tragedy," he protested, perhaps too much. "I want to say that again: We do not know as of this moment what caused this tragedy." He then cautioned the American people against "jumping to any conclusions."
The White House likely gave Francis one other assignment-to keep his eyes on the FBI, to shadow Kallstrom, and to report back. All that we have to confirm this order is Francis's behavior from the moment he arrived in Long Island, but there is almost no other way to explain it.
The White House did not much trust the ineffectual Louis Freeh and had no reason to trust James Kallstrom either. At the same time, however, the White House had little to fear from the FBI. The agency had no experience with airline crashes and had been badly compromised by several scandals of its own making. For its part, the Department of Justice (DOJ) had been politicized as never before in its history. From the top down, it was now Hillary Clinton's show. She had hard-core loyalists placed throughout the department. If need be, the White House could always reel Kallstrom in through the DOJ. Besides, the FBI's penchant for secrecy might just serve the White House well.
If the plan sounds well-conceived, it wasn't. Like much of White House strategizing, it was improvised, chaotic, even desperate. About twelve hours after TWA Flight 800 went down, a military officer, off the record, attested to this chaos. He told a very tired Fox News senior reporter on Long Island that "a major screw-up" had occurred and that the "White House" had ordered the military to "stand down" for forty-eight hours until policy decisions were reached. This did not surprise the Fox journalist. For hours the previous evening, Fox News had been involved in a bidding war for a videotape of the 747 being destroyed by what appeared to be missile fire. When the electronic bidding war reached $50,000, Fox was eliminated from the process.
The high bidder seems to have been NBC. Reportedly, late on the night of the crash, editors at MSNBC had the tape on their monitors when "three men in suits" came to their editing suites, removed the tape, and threatened the editors to within an inch of their lives if they ever revealed its contents. The threats worked all too well. The editors will not speak on record to this day.
What exact "policy decisions" the White House reached in those first twenty-four hours may never be known. The administration evoked "national security" considerations to protect critical information. Over the years, however, the outline and intent of the administration's strategy have become clearer.
In the beginning, with all their talk of this "painstaking process," Clinton and his innermost circle were stalling for time, probably just hoping to push everything back until after November 4, Election Day. They might have gotten away with this stall and still revealed the truth. In those first few months, most believed that the government was merely being prudent by refusing a rush to judgment.
Clinton must have sensed that the major media would allow him to buy time. For the last eighteen months they had been the rock on which he had built his comeback, even dubbed by them to be "The Comeback Kid." To be sure, they had favored his 1992 election-a now-famous Roper poll of 139 bureau chiefs and Washington correspondents revealed a stunning 89 to 7 percent preference for Clinton over the incumbent Bush-but for all of that, they rode him hard those first two years.
What solidified the media's support was the shocking sweep of the Gingrich-led Republicans in the 1994 congressional election. "Imagine a nation full of uncontrolled two-year-old rage," lamented ABC news anchor Peter Jennings a week after the election. "The voters had a temper tantrum last week."
This stepped-up partisanship became evident at Oklahoma City. As soon as Timothy McVeigh was apprehended-just three months after Gingrich assumed power-the major media seized on this homegrown terrorist as the inevitable consequence of the "Republican revolution" and its primary organ, "hate radio."
As to President Clinton, he never looked back. He proved masterly at manipulating the victims' families and massaging his own ratings. With the media's help he climbed above 50 percent public approval at Oklahoma City for the first time in ages and never fell below again. The Republican revolution was buried in the rubble, and a politically revived Bill Clinton understood how and why. To be sure, the TWA 800 controversy would not have the partisan tinge of an Oklahoma City, a Travelgate, a Whitewater, let alone the impeachment. It is just that in the months leading up to this desperately critical election, with the nation's future at stake, no newsroom more influential than the Riverside, California, Press-Enterprise would dare to look beneath the surface, dare to challenge even the most transparent deceptions.
At their first meeting in East Moriches, on the morning of July 18, it is unlikely that Robert Francis discussed White House strategy with James Kallstrom. If anything, he might have shared concern that the investigation be tightly controlled for reasons of national security, that all information suggesting a missile attack be kept at least temporarily under wraps. In return, as Kallstrom would soon discover, Francis would keep the NTSB out of the FBI's way.
The law favored the NTSB, empowered as it is by Congress to direct an investigation after a civilian transportation disaster. Typically, the Safety Board takes control of the wreckage. In crashes at sea, the NTSB summons the United States Navy for assistance. In this case, the NTSB failed to honor its legal obligations. At that first meeting, Francis yielded the NTSB's lead agency status and agreed instead to a partnership with the FBI in which the NTSB would be subordinate in every meaningful way. If the evidence were to suggest a criminal act, the FBI could take full control at any time. And in those early hours an FBI takeover seemed imminent. As one federal official told the Times that first morning, "It doesn't look good," with the clear implication of terrorism.
But a criminal act would demand explanation and retaliation, neither of which much interested Clinton. A formal takeover could not happen and would not. So the FBI just took over informally, an arguably illegal maneuver that had the full blessing of the Justice Department.
As the plan was conceived, the FBI would interview the eyewitnesses, triage the wreckage, and monitor the autopsies, a rich source of likely criminal evidence. As to the NTSB, Patricia Milton notes ingenuously, it "would set up its own system to scrutinize plane parts after the FBI had done its job of checking for explosive residue or signs of a bomb or missile." Indeed, were some evil genius devising a mechanism for a cover-up, he could not have imagined something quite this neat and easy. The independent agents of the NTSB-the pilots, mechanics, and engineers who join NTSB teams only at the time of a crash-would be denied any meaningful role in ascertaining the cause of the crash, despite their superior knowledge. They would see only what the FBI wanted them to see.
The deal was sealed while the Coast Guard and officers from the large and sophisticated Suffolk County Police Department as well as scores of recreational boaters were braving the seas to search for survivors. Ultimately, the deal would undercut their gallant efforts and accommodate the corruption of the entire investigation.
The mood of that first twenty-four hours was well captured by Kallstrom's number two man, Lewis Schiliro, who arrived on-scene the night of the crash:
"Upon arrival, additional reports came in that changed the nature of our mission, including that there had been a large explosion and fireball, that all communications from the plane had been normal, that no distress calls had been issued, and that numerous eyewitnesses reported seeing flarelike objects and other events in the sky. It is against this background . . . at the same time that one of the world's foremost terrorists was on trial in Federal court charged with an audacious conspiracy to attack American airliners-that the FBI launched its criminal investigation of the TWA Flight 800 tragedy."
The surest sign of Kallstrom's sincerity early in the investigation and of his inflated self-esteem throughout was his vain attempt to question the military. On July 18, as Kallstrom related to Patricia Milton, he became aware that a Navy P-3 Orion had been flying almost directly above the disaster when it occurred.
The P-3 is a long-range, antisubmarine warfare patrol aircraft with advanced submarine detection and avionics equipment. It is a good-sized plane, 110 feet long with a 95-foot wingspan and four 4,300-horsepower turbo prop engines. In the Balkans, P-3s proved their ability to spot ships carrying contraband both at coastal sites and in transit, downlink these images to the battle group, and give the group commander an unprecedented real-time or delayed view of the situation.
Despite assurances from Gen. John Shalikashvili that friendly fire had not downed the plane, Kallstrom determined that the P-3 crew should be interviewed. At first, crew members told the FBI that they were flying a routine mission that night from Brunswick, Maine, to the coast off Lakehurst, New Jersey. There they were to rendezvous with a submarine for a training exercise. Despite their proximity to the explosion and their sophisticated electronic gear, crew members told the FBI that they saw nothing unusual and learned of the crash only when other pilots reported it.
Throughout the eighteenth, however, Kallstrom became more aware of the sightings of streaks in the sky and ordered his agents to reinterview the crew. On the morning of the nineteenth, they did just that, but this time the crew proved uncooperative. "Are you saying I'm lying?" Capt. Ray Ott responded brusquely to the agents. "Are you questioning my patriotism here?" Ott then informed the FBI agents that his mission had been classified and that he could not and would not discuss it until he had been ordered to do so.
Furious, Kallstrom contacted Adm. William "Bud" Flanagan. The admiral told Kallstrom, "They've given you all the information relevant to your search, sir. Anything else is outside what you need to know." Not one to be deterred, Kallstrom kicked up a fuss until his agents were allowed access to the crew and their mission.
What the agents were told on their third interview with the P-3 crew was that the plane was capable of carrying air-to-air missiles but was unarmed on the night in question. Its mission that night was to drop listening devices into the water off the coast of New Jersey in order to find the submarine USS Trepang.
According to the crew, the plane was flying at twenty-two thousand feet about one mile away and heading south when the first explosion occurred. When the crew members learned of the blast, they promptly circled back over the area for half an hour and offered to help. When the Coast Guard finally waved them off, Milton casually reports that the crew then "flew on to complete their mission," dropping the listening devices in an area eighty miles south of the crash site, there locating the Trepang, before returning to Brunswick at 2 a.m.
There is no reason to doubt the accuracy of Milton's report. The FBI was told that this sophisticated surveillance plane failed to capture the midair explosion of a huge commercial airliner one mile away. The agents were also asked to believe that the plane would run a routine exercise off the New Jersey coast against the "background" Schiliro described to the Senate-that is, of a likely terrorist missile attack. That the agents were satisfied with the story, however, is a testament to either their complicity or their incompetence. The military was involved in the CSG meetings at the White House during the whole time of the exercise. It would surely have commissioned every available asset to search for the terrorists, and no asset was more available or more valuable than the P-3. The story rings false in every detail.
Before the third interview, the FBI had learned something else about the P-3. Its transponder, the homing device that enables radar to track the plane, was off during the flight. Captain Ott reassured the FBI that it had been erratic for months and that it had simply failed. NTSB witness group chairman Norm Wiemeyer later interviewed the crew and would report that the transponder broke "en rout [sic] prior to the TWA event."
The P-3 crew did, in fact, alert FAA Air Traffic Control in Boston that the transponder was off. Milton cites this communication as proof that the transponder was silent by accident. But if the P-3 were trying to avoid detection during this high state of military alert, it was not the FAA it was trying to avoid but rather, as will be explained later, a potential terrorist. Given the mission of the P-3 and its sophistication, one has to wonder whether its transponder was not purposefully "erratic." In time, this transponder "failure" would prove convenient for a number of reasons.
Norm Wiemeyer of the NTSB learned something else in his interview with the P-3 crew. The crew told him that on the night of July 17, the P-3 and the Trepang performed their training exercise "a minimum of 200 miles south of the site of the loss." That the site of this exercise was moved a good one hundred miles south for this later interview does not seem accidental or even unique. Indeed, from the beginning, there had been conspicuous misdirection and misinformation on the Navy's part.
Kallstrom, on day one, had asked the Navy for a list of all its assets within two hundred miles of the crash site. The Navy responded with a list that included only the P-3, a salvage ship, a cargo plane on routine maneuvers, and various helicopters that had assisted in the rescue operation, including the National Guard helicopter piloted by Maj. Fritz Meyer and Capt. Chris Baur.
While waiting for the list, however, Kallstrom had learned of a "gray warship" off the coast of Long Island, spotted by two flight attendants an hour before the crash. This was likely the same ship seen by Lisa Perry an hour earlier and Dean Steward a few hours before that. Not finding this ship on the list, Kallstrom called Admiral Flanagan's office back and only then learned of the USS Normandy's presence in the area.
"Why didn't you tell us about the Normandy?" Kallstrom reportedly bellowed. The answer he got back was that he had "not asked."
A Ticonderoga-class cruiser, the Normandy had launched Tomahawk missiles both in the Gulf War and against hostile air-defense sites in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina. Milton reports that FBI agents, once made aware of the ship, "verified the precise location of the Normandy by military logs, radar maps and satellite data." They confirmed that at 8:31 p.m. the Normandy was positioned, as the Navy claimed, "181 miles southwest of the crash site, at latitude 37 degrees, 32.8 minutes north, longitude 74 degrees, 0.92 minutes west, off the Manasquan inlet in New Jersey."
Milton obviously failed to check the coordinates the FBI had given her; if she had, she'd have noticed being given two separate locations for the vessel. The coordinates place the ship not off the coast of New Jersey but one hundred miles or so farther south off the southern tip of the Maryland-Virginia peninsula, about 181 miles from the crash site. The Manasquan inlet is less than one hundred miles from the site of the crash, and any place east of the inlet into the Atlantic is closer still. The only question here is, who was trying to deceive whom?
Although capable of going faster, the normal cruising speed for a ship of this class is about 30 knots, or 34.5 miles per hour. The ship the flight attendants had seen at about 7:30 p.m. or that Lisa Perry had seen an hour earlier might have made it to Manasquan, but the ship could not have made it 181 miles south to Virginia by 8:31 p.m. Indeed, had the ship turned south just when Dean Steward had seen it at 3 p.m., it would have just about made it to that point.
In a private meeting with the victims' family members soon after the crash, Adm. Edward Kristensen confirmed to Don Nibert that "the closest naval asset was 185 miles away off the coast of Virginia."21 As late as November 1996, Admiral Kristensen would be quoted as saying publicly that the P-3 and the Normandy, 185 miles south, were "the only two assets that the Navy had operating off of the East Coast . . . in the vicinity or close to the TWA 800 crash site." This 185-miles figure became the accepted distance for the Trepang and the Normandy. In its third interview with the NTSB, the P-3 crew likely attempted to honor this 185-mile zone in pushing its exercise with the Trepang one hundred miles to the south. Based on this information, Admiral Flanagan satisfied himself that "no American warship or submarine could have downed the plane."
From day one, at the highest levels of information sharing, the investigation had been corrupted. The Navy either lied about the location of the Normandy or tried to pass off a second and even a third ship as the Normandy. That the FBI failed to catch these systematic discrepancies when they became obvious is a sign that it, too, had been compromised, either by deception or incompetence.
This misdirection, however, was not the military's idea. The consistent nature of its early resistance, from General Shalikashvili to Admirals Busick to Flanagan to Kristensen to the P-3 crew, strongly suggests that the command came from the top. Again, all the White House had to give as justification is "national security"-more specifically, "It is imperative that the American people not be put on war footing until a perpetrator can be positively identified."
Soon enough Don Nibert would learn that the Navy's claimed nonpresence "proved not to be true." This and other deceptions would turn him from a grieving parent into an angry one. He would become one of many citizens in and out of the government to lose faith in the formal investigation and to seek the truth where he could find it.
Nibert and the others would not get much help from the major media. The New York Times, clearly the lead news source on the case, did not investigate the role of the military in the downing of TWA 800. Not one paragraph. When the story changed, the Times failed to notice it. By March 12, 1997, the Times was reporting matter-of-factly that "a Navy P-3 plane and a submarine were near the flight path on a practice mission." But the Times made no allusion to any discrepancies in earlier reports from the military.
By the time of the FBI's November 1997 conference, announcing its "disengagement" from the case, Kallstrom was identifying the USS Normandy and now three submarines-the USS Trepang, the USS Albuquerque, and the USS Wyoming-as being in the "immediate vicinity" of the crash site.
How immediate? When asked about three vessels within six miles of that site by Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media in September of 1998, Kallstrom answered, "We all know what those were. In fact, I spoke about those publicly. They were Navy vessels that were on classified maneuvers."
FAA radar had captured four unidentified tracks "consistent with the speed of a boat" within three to six miles of Flight 800's course at the time of its midair breakup. The fact that three of the radar tracks disappeared right after TWA 800 crashed argues strongly that these were the submarines Kallstrom had identified and that they submerged almost immediately.
One "surface vessel" less than three miles from the crash scene headed away from the area at thirty knots. In response to questions from a congressional subcommittee, the FBI's number two man on the investigation, Lewis Schiliro, claimed that "the FBI first noted the presence" of this ship in January 1997, an astonishing five months after the disaster. Although the FBI was allegedly unable to identify this ship, Schiliro added the meaningless disclaimer that "based on our investigative efforts, we are confident it was not a military vessel."
According to the FBI, this surface vessel had a "speed between 25 and 35 knots, is believed to be at least 25-30 feet in length, approximately 2.9 nautical miles from the position of Flight 800 at the time of the initial explosion." Radar, however, is unable to judge the length of the ship. That detail was added to suggest a pleasure craft and not a Navy ship, whose length might be measured in the hundreds of feet. In any case, the ship was fleeing the scene. When questioned by Irvine, Kallstrom, still being elusive, identified this vessel as "a helicopter."
By the time of its final press conference, the FBI knew that all the stories the Navy had previously offered about the Normandy being the closest asset of consequence at 181 miles away were patently false. At this juncture, all information about any aspect of the case from any source should have been considered suspect.
"We left no stone unturned," Kallstrom famously claimed when the FBI withdrew from the case. "In fact, we looked under every rock multiple times." But Kallstrom never bothered to explain these numerous discrepancies or shifting stories. What stuns the casual observer, in retrospect, is that no member of the major media even caught them.
The P-3's transponder was not the only thing to break or go missing in those first few weeks. More troubling still is the fate of the FAA radar tape that alarmed Washington on the night of July 17. Indeed, when Ron Schleede of the NTSB first saw the data, he exclaimed, "Holy Christ, this looks bad." He added later, "It showed this track that suggested something fast made the turn and took the airplane."
The tape passed through so many hands that its existence quickly became known to the media. On July 18, 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." The officials did admit that "they could not definitively evaluate what caused the radar signal," but they did not imply that something was amiss with the data.
These officials and the Times unequivocally linked the radar to the 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." This was the last day these officials were open with the media about the possibility of a missile strike. The story was reported on July 19. The words radar and eyewitness would all but disappear from the Times' reporting after that.
By July 19, the government had gotten its story straight. Christine Negroni reports that throughout the eighteenth the FAA "conducted more sophisticated analysis of the initial radar data." They also evaluated tapes from other radar centers in the New York area. Negroni adds that eventually the FAA and the NTSB "tossed off the anomalies in the radar as insignificant."
Despite Negroni's reassurance, this data was not being "tossed off" at the FAA. As would happen throughout the investigation, certain stalwart individuals would resist the enormous pressure to toe the official line. Retired United Airlines pilot Dick Russell received a copy of the tape from one of them. "When the tape appeared, I looked at it and said, 'My gosh, what am I seeing here?'" says Russell. Troubled by what he observed, Russell took the copies to at least a few experts, and they confirmed his suspicions. "This was not an anomaly," Russell insists to this day. "It moved in a direct path, and that is a good indication there was something there."
"It was a radar ghost," writes Negroni, "a ghost that came back to haunt the investigation again and again." On this latter point, she could not be more right.
And here is where the P-3's broken transponder comes in handy. On March 21, 1997, Newsday reported that "a streak on a radar track that was purported to be a missile heading toward TWA Flight 800 was actually a Navy plane flying with a defective transponder." This revelation came a day after officials of the FBI, Navy, and National Transportation Safety Board briefed the House Subcommittee on Aviation behind closed doors on the investigation. Newsday cites a congressional source and senior government officials for the news "that an unidentified blip on a radar tape was a Navy plane." Newsday also cited Kallstrom's appearance the day before at the International Airport Chamber of Commerce in which he, too, implicated the P-3, stating that a malfunctioning transponder shows an airplane's track as a solid line: "If you're a school kid, you could say it looks like a missile, or a cigar, or a pencil."
At the FBI's press conference in November 1997, Kallstrom would change the story once again. Now, the unidentified streak was no longer the P-3. "Analysis by experts," said Kallstrom, "determined that the object was not a missile, since it was positively identified. Object was a Ghost of Jet Express 18 which was at a different location." At the time, according to NTSB reports, that "different location" was sixteen miles to the north.
By 1999, Patricia Milton was referring to the radar mystery as a "computer glitch" or, more specifically, "a failure of the computers' software." At the NTSB's final hearing in August 2000, Charles Pereira identified these blips as aircraft "being reflected off some building structure," but adds the revealing qualifier: "if these were false primary radar returns."
In fact, the authorities never could agree on a credible explanation of what the radar showed. The damage, however, had been done three years earlier when it was decided what the radar could not show.
On the night of July 18 the State Department also got in line. Its officials dismissed a report on ABC News that a specific warning about the flight had been sent by the Islamic Change Movement, the organization that had claimed responsibility for the attacks on American servicemen in Saudi Arabia. This warning, cited earlier-"Their time is at the morning-dawn. Is not the morning-dawn near?"-was dismissed by State Department spokesman Glyn Davies. "While it's up to those leading the investigation to make a judgment on what this means," said Davies unconvincingly, "we think that this is a common type of political tract circulated commonly in the Middle East, and that the only connection is a vague chronological one-that this thing surfaced at this dreadful time."
By the end of day two, July 18, 1996, all relevant arms of government-the FBI, the NTSB, the FAA, the State Department, and the military among them-had gotten the message: A missile strike was not to be talked about. To make the message work, all visual indications of a missile had to be suppressed. Were the radar the only such indicator to be declared irrelevant, the story of the "computer glitch" or "ghost" would be more credible. But it was only one "glitch" out of many.
The data to be gleaned from America's satellites have proved even more elusive than from the radar. In 1996, the United States had two KH-11 satellites in polar orbit with extraordinary powers of resolution. The precision of such imagery cannot be doubted. On October 4, 2001, Defense Department satellites equipped with infrared sensors captured a Ukrainian missile striking a Russian airliner thirty thousand feet above the Black Sea. Our government informed Russia immediately. After initial denials, the Ukrainians admitted the tragic error.
The evidence is overwhelming that U.S. satellites did record the events of July 17, 1996. What remains in dispute, however, is what exactly the satellites recorded. On July 22, 1996, the London Times reported that "the satellite pictures show an object racing up to the TWA jet, passing it, then changing course and smashing into it." This may be true, but the sourcing is indirect and unverifiable.
For no good reason, the major American media chose not to pursue this obvious line of inquiry. In the twenty-five most relevant New York Times articles of the investigation's first two months, amid the twenty-thousand-plus words dedicated to the story, there is not one single reference to a satellite. Patricia Milton and Christine Negroni, both of whom had excellent access to the leadership of the investigation, shed almost no light on the issue. Negroni avoids the topic altogether. Milton makes a few references but refuses to go where the story leads.
As Milton relates, the FBI gathered experts from all relevant branches of government on Saturday, July 20, at the FAA headquarters in Washington to review what was known about the crash. It was not a meeting at the highest levels and thus seems to have been held in good faith by those attending.
The consensus among them was that a missile had downed the plane. Participants learned from unnamed "intelligence officers" that "classified satellite imagery had disclosed a probable fishing boat traveling up and down the Long Island coast from July 16 to July 19." This boat would prove to be something of a red herring, at least in Milton's retelling, one of many to follow. But even if it were a fishing boat, its identification as such confirms that there was satellite coverage in that area. Such a satellite could not have missed the U.S. Navy warship traveling up and down the same coast for at least four hours on the afternoon and evening of July 17. This information, however, was obviously not shared with those who did not "need to know."
These same intelligence officers proved coyer about the possibility of a missile strike on TWA 800. When the FBI agent in charge of this same meeting, George Andrew, asked whether U.S. weather or spy satellites had picked up any missilelike streaks that same night, the officers told him that they did not know "but promised to find out."
Early in the investigation, the FBI's James Kallstrom sought out information on every satellite, American or otherwise, that might have recorded the events of that evening. More than once in pep talks at the Calverton hangar, he called them "our friends in the sky" and suggested that they held the answers to the investigation's seeming problems. Milton assures us that "the FBI soon had access to all U.S. satellites," but the very word soon suggests the emptiness of the assurance.
If the Department of Defense knew immediately about the Ukrainian missile, they must have known immediately about the fate of TWA 800, especially on a clear evening in a period of such high alert. This information would have been shared with President Clinton on the night of July 17. The White House would have allowed Kallstrom to see only what it chose to show. Indeed, there is something more than a little sad about Kallstrom's blind doggedness at this stage of the investigation. For whatever promise the satellites once held for the FBI, the word satellite was not mentioned once at its comprehensive, final press conference in November 1997.
Keenly sensitive to public relations, the Clinton administration gave family members like Don Nibert a good deal of attention and access. A professor at a Pennsylvania University, Nibert asked a lot of questions. "I learned that they had three satellites that would have coverage of the site near the 8:30 time period," Nibert observes wryly. "All failed." Nibert asked John Clark of the NTSB what were the odds that one satellite should fail and how astronomical must the odds be for all three to fail at the same time. Clark responded that this information was considered classified.
Despite what Nibert was told, all the satellites did not fail. If neither the FBI nor the NTSB had much of a line on satellite imagery, the CIA surely did. In November of 1997, at the climax of the FBI's final press conference, the spy agency unveiled a fifteen-minute video designed to assure the public that the eyewitnesses saw nothing of consequence. In the course of this video, the narrator casually acknowledges that the plane's final, consuming fireball was "corroborated by infrared sensors aboard a U.S. satellite which detected a large heat source." In fact, the video shows an animated image of the presumed satellite at least twice.
Beyond the CIA's notorious video, the government has not been eager to share any information from the satellites. At the NTSB's final two-day hearings in August 2000, the word satellite was not mentioned. Despite repeated requests through the Freedom of Information Act, the data remain classified to this day.
There were at least two other highly credible visual images as well. On that fateful evening of July 17, Linda Kabot attended a fund-raising event on behalf of Vincent Cannuscio, the Republican Town Supervisor of Southampton. As Cannuscio's secretary, she was assigned to take photos of the guests assembled on the deck at Docker's, an East Quogue restaurant. One of the photos captured above the head of the guests was what the New York Times accurately described as a "cylindrical object with one end aglow." The object, continued the Times, "is in a roughly horizontal position, although its left end is tilted downward. Its right end seems to be brightly lighted." When the Kabots alerted the FBI, its agents quickly took custody of the photos and the negatives.
No one doubts the authenticity of the photo or the motives of the Kabots, Linda and her husband, Lance, a schoolteacher. On the day that the New York Times covered the Kabot story, August 26, the missile theory was still alive. In fact, according to the Times, chemical residue that had been recently discovered "bolsters the theories of a missile or bomb, and deflates the third theory of mechanical failure." After this brief flurry of attention, the major media lost interest in the Kabots and their photo. As Milton relates, the photo "turned out to be a bust." "After two weeks," she continues, "analysis by the FBI and the CIA concluded that Kabot's camera was facing north-northeast." What Milton overlooks is that the Kabots knew the camera was pointing in the opposite direction of the explosion fifteen miles away and told the media and the FBI as much when they first handed over the photos.
At the November 1997 press conference, the FBI raised the subject of the Kabot photo merely to dismiss it. According to the FBI, analysis by the CIA National Imagery and Mapping Administration revealed only that there was an object in the photo, that the object was "not a missile," and that the object "appears to be an aircraft" but cannot be identified because of problems gauging distance, time, and detail.
Milton adds that the object showed only "two of the necessary three signatures of a missile." These are the "white dot" that suggests a burning propellant and a "dark streak" that would be the missile itself. The missing signature in the photo is the exhaust trail.
Of note, those who saw the original photo almost inevitably described the object in question as "cylindrical." The FBI, however, would not even share the original with the NTSB. As the image was copied and recopied, the "cylindrical object" of three years earlier became a "dark streak" and its "one end aglow" a "white dot."
What did Linda Kabot actually photograph? Milton offers the official explanation: Radar captured eight or nine planes flying through the area at the time, and "almost certainly the streak in Kabot's snapshot was from one of them." Left unsaid is just how many "signatures" a cylindrical object with one end aglow shares with an airplane.
Interestingly, Milton does not raise the issue of a "drone" as the FBI did at its press conference. The FBI of course dismissed the possibility, citing as reason for its dismissal only the following: "No drone exercises conducted near Long Island July 17, 1996." Yet a drone-or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)-would seem to be a good first guess, not a last. On a night of the highest military alert like July 17, it would make perfect sense to deploy a UAV like the now well-known Predator. The Predator, which was in service over Bosnia as early as 1995, can linger for over twenty-four hours at altitudes up to twenty-six thousand feet with a range in excess of two thousand miles. It can also communicate with other members of a command group.
The FBI ruled out a drone not because it lacked the appropriate "signatures," but because the military said there were no drone exercises in the area on the night of July 17. The military, however, had previously told the FBI that there were no warships or submarines in the area, and by this date, the FBI would have long since known that claim to be false.
The second visual reference that merits discussion is a photo taken by Heidi Krieger. Krieger was out in the Atlantic that evening photographing her father's boat as his boat ran parallel to hers. She was shooting out towards the sea, towards the horizon. Just moments after taking her last photo, she saw a flash and then a fireball in the sky. She watched dumbfounded as the pieces of wreckage wafted toward the water and disappeared. It was only when she returned to her car that she learned that a Boeing 747 had gone down over the Atlantic near the Moriches inlet.
When she viewed the photos, she discovered a squiggly white line in the sky that could easily be interpreted as an exhaust trail of a missile seeking its target. She called the FBI hot line over the objections of her husband who, like countless others, did not want to get involved.
As with the Kabot photo, the FBI promptly flew Krieger's photo to the FBI lab in Washington where it was "microscopically analyzed." There, Milton assures us, "Investigators literally wiped away the 'missile' during a conventional cleaning of the film. It was just a speck of dirt." At its final press conference, however, the FBI was a bit more careful with its language. It described the image as a "streak in the sky" and commented only that the FBI lab had "determined there was debris on the film surface," not that the streak was caused by the debris.
Milton's account matters because she is telling the FBI's story for public consumption. She has apparently not seen the Krieger photo, as she describes the image in question as "a slim, long object flying along the horizon just above land," a description that is wrong in every detail. To the uninitiated, however, such an object could be more easily confused with a "speck of dirt" than could a white squiggly line. And so the Krieger photo quietly disappeared into history.
A quick review of the potential visual references at this stage in the investigation:
- The video of a missile striking the plane for which FOX News allegedly bid $50,000 and which an MSNBC team reportedly was in the process of editing is never again seen.
- The P-3 crew sees or hears nothing, and its sophisticated surveillance equipment captures no images despite its location about one mile from the explosion.
- The FAA radar data rushed to Washington reveals only an "anomaly," the result of a "computer glitch." >
- The P-3's transponder "breaks" so that its position cannot be fixed.
- The satellites are said to be either malfunctioning or irrelevant; their images remain classified to this day.
- The Kabot photo proves to be a "bust," the image in question probably just a plane.
- The Krieger photo reveals not a missile-exhaust trail but "a speck of dirt."
Of interest, the government can produce no image of a 747 coming apart in flight due to a fuel-air explosion. Neither the satellites, nor the radar, nor the P-3, nor a casual photographer captures this phenomenon. All that those involved can do is make real evidence go away.
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