March 22, 2005
Can TWA 800 shoot down Hillary?By Richard Baehr
On July 17th, 1996, TWA flight 800, headed for Paris, exploded over the Atlantic Ocean at 8:30 PM, just minutes after takeoff from JFK Airport. Immediately, suspicion arose that the plane had been shot down by a missile fired from a boat offshore. Several dozen people on the southern shore of Long Island saw what appeared to be a rapidly rising object that seemed to change course up in the sky. Hundreds witnessed the explosion, or series of explosions that occurred soon after seeing the rising object.
The investigation into the destruction of the plane was led by the FBI. Normally, air disasters are investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, but their role was from the beginning a secondary one in this investigation. The FBI's involvement lent credence to the widely accepted belief that a criminal act (terrorism?) had occurred to bring down the plane.
Days after the TWA disaster, the Summer Olympics began in Atlanta. A week after that came the bombing in a downtown Atlanta park. The luckless Richard Jewell was fingered as the bomber, and became NBC's designated villain for spoiling their Olympic coverage. NBC and other networks and newspapers gave far more coverage to this bombing that had killed one person than to the TWA disaster which had killed 230 ten days earlier. Even after Jewell was cleared, and collected some money from NBC for his troubles, he remained the butt of jokes on Saturday Night Live (the man to blame for all unsolved crimes).
In New York, however, the TWA disaster did not slip from the front pages so quickly. Planes do not explode in mid air very often (unless blown up). In addition to the questions from grieving family members, and TWA employees (59 of the dead were company employees), there were those pesky witnesses who thought they saw what had happened, and were speaking to the press.
Weeks after the explosion, a new explanation was offered by the investigating team. No missile had hit the plane to bring it down. Rather an almost empty center wing fuel tank had exploded, ignited by faulty wiring, and this explosion led to the catastrophic series of events that caused the plane's destruction. Much skepticism accompanied the new story line, especially when traces of explosives were found in some of the recovered sections of the plane. The investigative team soon had an explanation for this too — the plane had been used for explosives testing with dogs in St. Louis weeks earlier and residue from that test remained.
Critics of the official explanation did not go quietly into the night. Some investigated the tragedy on their own, and others offered alternative explanations. If one googles TWA 800 today, almost 9 years after the explosion, one finds, to use the words of my brother—in—law, a veritable debris field on the internet.
In the first days and weeks after the TWA 800 explosion, like most Americans, I accepted the initial explanation that was suggested by the eyewitnesses — that a missile had brought the plane down. The TWA 800 event occurred just three weeks after a bombing had killed 19 Americans in Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia. Three years earlier, Islamic terrorists had tried to blow up the World Trade Center in what proved to be a practice run for the 9/11 attacks. A gang of Islamic extremists had been arrested with plans to blow up 11 international airliners (the Bojinka plot), and in a separate incident, other terrorists had been arrested plotting to blow up several bridges and tunnels in the New York area. The idea that a missile could have been obtained by an Islamic terrorist group, and then used to shoot down a jetliner, hardly strained credibility at the time. Today, many major international airlines are rapidly working on adding an anti—missile defense capability, led (for obvious reasons) by Israel's El Al.
I had not thought about TWA 800 the last few years. Then I picked up Nelson DeMille's Night Fall at an airport bookstore, to help pass the time on a several hour flight. Books about plane crashes or explosions are probably the wrong choice for a plane flight. But in any case, by the end of the next day, I had finished the 600 plus page book. Suffice to say, DeMille, who has written several engrossing mystery/police novels before, has outdone himself.
Night Fall is as seductive a page turner as I have read since the Day of the Jackal. And like the Day of the Jackal, this is the case despite the fact that you know the outcome from the beginning. The reader knows that De Gaulle was not assassinated from the outset of the Day of the Jackal, and as Night Fall makes clear in its first few pages, DeMille believes there was a missile that rose up from the water on that night of July 17th. In the Day of the Jackal, the excitement is the chase — a very skillful contract killer planning his attack, and an equally skillful detective trying to keep within a step and eventually catch up to him, and prevent the assassination. In Night Fall, the drama surrounds how a policeman gets interested in the TWA 800 case at a memorial event held five years after the plane was lost, and doggedly presses ahead to figure out what happened and challenge the official story and the cover up.
Unlike Michael Crichton's recent book on global warming, State of Fear, DeMille does not posture or hit you over the head with any argument over what happened to TWA 800. He allows a skeptic of the official explanation to tell the policeman what he thinks happened (the missile theory), and an equally convinced defender of the official story, to present his case. DeMille then allows for the possibility of some convergent theory that would explain both the missile that so many saw, and the purported lack of physical evidence of an explosive device hitting the plane.
First Strike: TWA 800 and the Attack on America by Jack Cashill and James Sanders is not so evenhanded. I read this as part of my own digging through the TWA 800 internet debris field, inspired by Night Fall to find out more. This book presents a tough detailed attack on the official explanation — the center fuel tank theory, and the conduct of the investigation of the explosion. The authors believe the real story of what happened to TWA 800 was known by President Clinton and his closest advisors almost immediately. In fact the county was on heightened alert that night due to credible intelligence of coming attacks. There were several Navy ships and submarines prowling around near the Long Island shore that night, and there were military planes in the air over Long Island.
The authors believe the White House allowed (instructed?) the FBI and NTSB to create an alternative explanation for public consumption. While to some this may sound like readings from the black helicopter crowd, I assure you this book is not an Oliver Stone or Michael Moore type 'research' effort. The authors provide a credible explanation of why the real events of that night were hidden from public view (motive).
In the summer of 1996, President Clinton held a large double—digit lead in the polls over his Republican opponent Bob Dole. The country's economy was improving, the deficit was falling, the nation was at peace. If things continued on an even keel, Clinton was a certain winner in the November election. If, on the other hand, Arab terrorists had shot down an American jetliner from waters off our shore, there would have been strong public pressure for a tough response. Targeting whoever was responsible would involve military action, and a risk of casualties, and things going wrong overseas. Consider the precedent Clinton surely remembered: the badly botched rescue attempt of the Iranian hostages in the 4th year of the Carter administration, the last prior Democratic Party President, who was then beaten in his re—election race.
The Clinton administration was, in all respects other than the personal, a very cautious Presidency. Dick Morris did polling to select the President's vacation destination in 1996. Jackson Hole, Wyoming won out over Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Being seen hiking though the mountains and roughing it, was a safer way to win over white male votes than launching attacks on Afghanistan.
There are people who know about the discussions in the White House late into the evening of July 17, 1996 (one of them is George Stephanopolous). Dick Morris has let slip that TWA 800 was shot down. He was not fired due to his foot fetish until late the next month, in August 1996. He was still part of the team on July 17th. For all the talk about how President Bush demands loyalty from members of his administration, there are lots more books by first term George W. Bush administration employees attacking the President than has been the case with the Clinton administration. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that the Clintonistas and their partisans see the Bush years as a pause before the throne is restored once again to a rightful resident, Hillary Clinton, in 2008. Don't expect any of these people to volunteer information on TWA 800. Out of sight, out of mind, means this sleeping dog is not an issue that can hurt her.
One other thing is certain: whatever discussions took place in the White House concerning TWA 800, they were not kept from Hillary Clinton. If a false story was released, and a cover up occurred, in this case a cover up of a deliberate murder of hundreds of Americans, it is a big story. As Donald Trump would say, 'huge.' It is in fact a lot bigger story than Monica Lewinsky or Paula Jones. It is the kind of story that could derail Hillary's candidacy, and destroy many reputations.
Nelson DeMille has done a great service by using a gripping novel as a vehicle to bring this story back into the public eye. Sometimes a page—turner of a novel can do more than any number of non—fiction books to raise public interest in a subject. So far, the mainstream media has not picked up on it, other than perfunctory book reviews. The New York Times has not had any front page story about the unanswered questions of TWA 800, though their reporting was pretty decent after the event occurred. No Cold Case investigators are on the prowl, so far as anyone knows.
But there are three and a half years until November 2008, a very long time in politics. Wherever Senator Clinton takes her summer vacations the next few years, I do not expect that she will be carrying around Night Fall as part of her vacation reading. But maybe somebody should ask her about it.