TWA 800: How the CIA Hijacked the FBI Investigation

Within hours of the crash of TWA Flight 800 off the Long Island coast on July 17, 1996, the FBI seized control of the investigation from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Although illegal, this was done in full view of an indifferent media.

What the media did not see was the CIA’s illegal seizure of the investigation from both the NTSB and FBI. We know about this quiet coup now thanks to a treasure trove of CIA documents recently unearthed through the Freedom of Information Act separately by attorney John Clarke and physicist Tom Stalcup.

In a July 30, 1996, internal CIA memo, headlined “Hold the Press,” a CIA analyst warned his unnamed superior of an impending FBI report on a likely missile strike. This was less than two weeks after the July 17 crash.

After interviewing 144 witnesses, the FBI missile team insisted there was a “high probability” that a surface-to-air missile destroyed the airplane. According to the FBI report, the evidence was “overwhelming.” The witnesses were “excellent” and their testimony “too consistent” for the cause to be anything other than a missile.

From the beginning, the CIA’s job was to make all talk of missiles go away. Less than two weeks after the crash, the CIA analyst boasted to his superior of how he discouraged the FBI from pursuing the missile angle. In fact, the FBI did not go public with this report at the time even though it had “only minor corrections left to make,” and the CIA made sure it never would.

This, of course, raises the question of why the CIA was involved in the first place. A year earlier Deputy Attorney Jamie Gorelick had issued the notorious “wall” memorandum preventing the criminal investigators of the FBI and the intelligence gatherers of the CIA from collaborating. The CIA ignored the memo. So too did FBI agent in charge, Jim Kallstrom. The fact that Kallstrom reported to Gorelick hints at why he was allowed to.

As to the motive for this uneasy collaboration, Kallstrom claimed to have “looked throughout the government” to find the experts best able to answer the question, “What did the eyewitnesses see?” He allegedly found those experts at the CIA.

This was false on many levels. The real experts arrived in Long Island within a day or two of the crash and, for a short while, helped the FBI interview eyewitnesses. They had the instruments and the know-how to do so. These were the agents from the Missile and Space Intelligence Center (MSIC) in Alabama, a subset of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The shift from MSIC to the CIA took place fully off camera. Although the CIA analysts never left their office and had no relevant expertise, they covertly seized control of witness assessment from the FBI and MSIC.  

Once empowered, the CIA analysts bullied the MSIC reps and the FBI into accepting the CIA’s counterfeit thesis, namely that after a spontaneous fuel tank explosion, the now noseless 747 tilted back and rocketed upright more than three thousand feet, confusing the witnesses into thinking they saw a missile.

The NTSB, which should have been in control, did not even get to see the FBI witness statements until two years after the CIA had established its thesis. The MSIC reps protested weakly and to no avail. As the CIA documents make clear, only one lone FBI agent took a strong stand against the agency’s corrupt intervention.

In my book, TWA 800: The Crash, The Cover-Up, The Conspiracy (Regnery: July 5), I call this otherwise anonymous missile team member “Lewis Erskine” after the character Efrem Zimbalist Jr. played on the hit TV show, "The F.B.I.".

According to a CIA memo from April 29, 1997, Erskine had sent the CIA a blistering critique of the “zoom climb” and demanded answers to more than a dozen salient questions. He wanted to know why the analysts failed to account for the eight witnesses who saw an object “hit the aircraft” or the numerous witnesses who saw the object move from east to west, the opposite direction of TWA 800.

In all, Erskine cited some thirty “problem witnesses” whose accounts did not begin to square with the “agency scenario.” With some precision, he also challenged the aerodynamics of the CIA’s zoom climb.

The CIA analyst responded with his usual obfuscations, but he made one surprising concession, namely that he had no physical proof of a zoom climb. As both he and Erskine knew, not a single witness saw the 747 ascend after the initial convulsion.

The CIA analyst did not contest this point. “Whatever happens after these first few seconds,” he responded to Erskine, “is not understood by the CIA and would require extensive modeling of the aircraft beyond the CIA capabilities.”

In his conclusion, Erskine hit the CIA hard. He recommended that the CIA “withdraw its conclusions” until it could meet several conditions, any one of which would have unraveled the CIA scenario. These included the integration of radar data, the validation of key witnesses, and the reconciliation of the thirty “problem witnesses” with the zoom climb scenario.

The CIA analyst did not seem overly worried. His boss, the newly-minted CIA director George Tenet, had already signed off on his theory, and Tenet was a political guy with White House backing. A month earlier, he sent FBI director Louis Freeh a letter assuring him that “what these eyewitnesses saw was the crippled aircraft after the first explosion had already taken place.”

“CIA will continue to look at problematic witnesses,” the analyst responded to Erskine, “but we believe we have adequately explained all of them within the agency scenario.” The CIA analyst got to work quickly. The very day he sent this memo, April 29, 1997, someone manufactured a new FBI statement for Witness #73, the most observant of all the eyewitnesses, and placed it in her FBI file to discredit her earlier testimony.

Seven months later, in November 1997, the CIA’s quiet work behind the scenes culminated in the public premiere of a CIA-produced animation of the zoom climb. “What the witnesses saw,” the narrator reassured the media, “was a Boeing 747 in various stages of crippled flight.”

The FBI showed the video once during a news conference announcing the suspension of its criminal probe and never showed it again. That was enough for the media. As to the 258 eyewitnesses to an apparent missile strike, they obviously could not tell right from left or up from down. So why bother talking to them?

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