TWA Flight 800: 16 Years and Still No Questions
I got involved in one of the two great media scandals of our time -- the Obama ascendancy being the other -- fully by happenstance.
In the year 2000, investigative reporter James Sanders came to Kansas City to talk about his research into the fate of TWA flight 800, the plane that crashed into the waters off Long Island on July 17, 1996, sixteen years ago today.
Sanders chose Kansas City because the town had historically been the headquarters for TWA. As a result, many pilots, mechanics, and flight attendants still lived there. The audience was filled with them. Almost to a person, they believed what he was saying -- the plane had been shot out of the sky.
Afterwards, I went out to dinner with James and his wife, Elizabeth, and a dozen other people. I sat next to Elizabeth, a sweet, unassuming former TWA flight attendant and trainer of Philippine descent. She told me in painful detail how at one of the many memorials she attended after the crash -- 53 TWA employees were among the 230 killed -- she ran into an old friend, Captain Terrell Stacey.
Stacey had flown the 747 that would become TWA Flight 800 from Paris to New York the night before it was destroyed. In fact, he was in charge of all TWA 747 pilot activity within the airline. So it was logical that he would be among the first TWA employees assigned to the crash investigation.
Elizabeth thought of Stacey as "a straight arrow, go-by-the-rules kind of guy" and respected him for it. After a phone introduction arranged by Elizabeth, James Sanders and Terrell Stacey agreed to meet. "What he told me over those first hours," Sanders would later tell me, "was one thing: 'I know there's a cover-up in progress.'"
As a result of that one introduction, the FBI arrested Elizabeth and oversaw her conviction on federal conspiracy charges. James and Stacey had been arrested, too. The crime? Stacey had sent Sanders a tiny piece of foam rubber to have tested. The Sanderses were still on probation when I met them. When I heard this story from Elizabeth, I thought maybe there was something there worth pursuing.
As a video producer, I talked to the Sanders about creating a documentary, but, as I explained, I had no interest unless they could prove to me beyond a doubt that the plane was shot down. They could, and they did. The result was a documentary called Silenced, which has been inexplicably removed from YouTube. It is still available, however, through my website. To explain how I know the plane was shot down would take a book, which James Sanders and I proceeded to write. The result, First Strike, is available through Amazon, including on the Kindle.
In the way of summary, on the night of July 17, 1996, and into the early morning hours of the 18th, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Deputy National Security Adviser Sandy Berger huddled fretfully in the family quarters of the White House.
The election they thought was in the bag no longer was.
The air-traffic controllers had already reported in. The radar data told a story of an unknown object striking the plane seconds before it exploded. And now, eyewitness reports were flooding in.
The explosion had taken place right at sunset, just 10 miles off the coast, on a perfect night, with thousands of people looking out over the sea from Long Island's popular south shore. FBI witness No. 73, an aviation buff, watched a "red streak" with a "light gray smoke trail" move up toward the airliner, and then go "past the right side and above the aircraft before arcking [sic] back down toward the aircrafts [sic] right wing." She even reported the actual breakup sequence before the authorities figured it out on their own.
High-school principal Joseph Delgado told the FBI that he had seen an object like "a firework" ascend "fairly quick," then "slow" and "wiggle," then "speed up" and get "lost." Then he saw a second object that "glimmered" in the sky, higher than the first, then a red dot move up to that object, then a puff of smoke, then another puff, then a "firebox." He drew a precise image of the same.
Mike Wire, a no-nonsense millwright and U.S. Army vet, watched events unfold from the Beach Lane Bridge in Westhampton on Long Island. Wire had seen a white light traveling skyward from the ground at approximately a 40-degree angle, sparkling and zigzagging before culminating in a massive fireball.
To control the information flow, the White House hit upon a strategy that dazzled in its simplicity and in its sheer nerve. The Clintons' trusted point person, Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, took the investigation away from the professionals in the National Transportation Safety Board and gave it to the amateurs of the FBI. There was one reason why. The FBI reported to Gorelick. The NTSB did not.
This was illegal, of course, but the media had a president to re-elect soon enough, and they were not about to scruple over details. The second part of the strategy was as simple as the first. The FBI would talk only to The New York Times. This essentially made the Times Gorelick's Ministry of Truth.
Of the 270 eyewitnesses who told the FBI they saw what looked like a missile strike on TWA Flight 800, the Times would interview exactly none. Fearing perhaps the loss of their privileged status and trusting the FBI more than they should have, the Times people followed the FBI lead. The other media, some grudgingly, followed the Times.
Four weeks after the disaster, the Times would report, "Now that investigators say they think the center fuel tank did not explode, they say the only good explanations remaining are that a bomb or a missile brought down the plane." Likely under White House pressure, and without any new evidence, the FBI immediately shifted its storyline away from a missile to a bomb, and a month later, from a bomb to a center fuel tank explosion.
As each week passed, the Clintons had to be stunned that so obvious a truth remained so thoroughly ignored. To sustain the lie, however, insiders had to tell more lies still.
The FBI would fabricate a second interview with Witness No. 73 that never took place. The CIA -- the CIA? -- would fabricate a second interview with Mike Wire that also never took place. NTSB insiders would lie outright about what Joseph Delgado saw, but the election came and went without anyone even knowing who these people were.
Gorelick could not have slept easily through all of this, but the lotto was around the corner, and she knew she had the winning ticket. In May 1997, the White House called her number. The Fannie Mae Board picked her, a lawyer with no relevant experience, to be its new vice chair. Gorelick would earn more than $4 million a year for the next six years, and no one in the media asked why.
They did not even ask why when she stepped down. Always the patriot, Gorelick resigned to take one of five Democratic seats on the Sept. 11 Commission. Who knew where talk of aviation terrorism might lead? Someone had to keep talk of TWA Flight 800 off the table, just as someone had kept it off from 1996 to 2001.
And lest some messy scraps of information find their way to the committee's Republicans, the Clintons dispatched their most trusted adviser to do a little cleanup work. Alas, Sandy Berger got caught stuffing evidence in his underwear, but this proved much easier to bury than TWA 800. Democrat staffers in the Bush Justice Department arranged for a wrist slap on a Friday, the day after Terry Schiavo died and the day before Pope John Paul II did.
The media did not want to know anyhow, and sixteen years later, they still do not want to know. Not one mainstream journalist has ever bothered to ask why the CIA was recruited to make the preposterous video that would seemingly discredit all of the eyewitness testimony. This is a shame, especially for the family members who have been left only with their grief and their unanswered questions.
Those questions, alas, will likely never be answered for the simple reason that they have never been asked.