When the Government Lies: TWA Flight 800

Years ago, in another lifetime, I flew the mighty F-4S Phantom II in the jet route structure. Several times I flew high enough for the engine exhaust to condense in the minus 60°F atmosphere. At 30,000 feet, I’d look in the mirrors on the canopy bow and watch a pair of thick contrails swirl behind me, laying down a set of unmistakable tracks proving that I was no longer just turning jet fuel into jet noise but I was leaving a trail visible for all to see for miles and miles. Some people on the ground, primarily those on the political left, have suggested my contrails were actually “chemtrails,” that they were some wild Petri dish concoction consisting of chemical or biological agents that were being deliberately sprayed for some sinister purpose, like a Bond villain, on an ignorant general public. I was shocked to learn that somehow the enlisted guy who refueled my jet with JP-5 was in on the conspiracy and was dispensing some nefarious additional chemicals from his R-11 fuel truck. When I became aware of the “chemtrail controversy” years later, it proved there are some strange people in America. That when you don’t have enough facts or understanding of the basic science of condensation, I guess you make up something. Who doesn’t love a good conspiracy when the facts are just boring?

Jack Cashill has his second book coming out on Flight 800, TWA 800: The Crash, the Cover-Up, and the Conspiracy. Former FBI Special Agent John F. Picciano’s fine novel Liam's Promise, suggests there was an international terrorist conspiracy and massive government cover-up of Flight 800. In my book, Shoot Down, the president knew aircraft were threatened, that they were warned, and they did nothing about it until it was too late. Sort of like what happened on September 11th in Benghazi, Libya.  

For Misters Cashill and Picciano and myself, there has always been something wrong with the reported circumstances surrounding the loss of the TWA 747. When you look at all the evidence behind the tragedy of Flight 800, it was very difficult not to conclude that the government’s investigation was faulty and scripted, and that the probable cause of the incident was some fuel cell problem was completely unbelievable. It was July 17, 1996, and Flight 800 occurred right in the middle of the sweet spot of a string of terrorist attacks on America, on American interests, on President Clinton’s watch. The three authors came to the same conclusion, by different means, that someone used a man-portable, shoulder-launched, anti-aircraft missile. How was this not a terrorist attack? Terrorists, primarily al-Qaeda, were having a field day attacking Americans.

A truck bomb was detonated below the North Tower of the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993. On December 11, 1994, a bomb was planted on Flight 434, a Philippine Airlines Boeing 747, by the master terrorist Ramzi Yousef. The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. The failed Bojinka plot was a large-scale attack to assassinate Pope John Paul II and blow up 11 airliners from Asia to the United States during January 1995. It was planned by Islamists Ramzi Yousef and a current orange-jumpsuit-0wearing occupant of Guantanamo Bay, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. A pair of United States embassy bombings on August 7, 1998 killed over 200 people in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and in Nairobi, Kenya. And on 31 October 1999, there was EgyptAir Flight 990, where the aircraft plunged into the Atlantic Ocean about 60 miles south of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. The flight data and cockpit voice recorders were recovered and proved the relief first officer deliberately crashed the jet into the water while repeating some nine times in Egyptian Arabic, "Tawkalt ala Allah," which roughly translated to, "I rely on God." The United States Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Cole (DDG-67) was bombed on 12 October 2000 while it was harbored and being refueled in the Yemeni port of Aden. September 11, 2001.

President Clinton’s time in office saw the highest level of terrorism activity directed at American interests: buildings, embassies, a Navy warship, and over a dozen high-capacity aircraft were targeted or attacked. Other commercial aircraft had been shot down and that news was ignored. These were “spectacular operations.” And according to the National Transportation Safety Board Flight 800 was just a jet with a bad set of wires in a fuel tank. The only airplane in the history of flight to have exploded in flight because of a possible short circuit in a fuel tank. The NTSB must have been watching the “Magic Loogie” episode of “Seinfeld” when they submitted their Flight 800 report, for that was one incredible magic wire.

Sometime after 2003, I was teaching the aircraft accident investigation course for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas. My graduate students were seasoned USAF instructor pilots from across the Air Force -- they flew fighters, cargo aircraft, and helicopters. I'm an old USMC F-4 pilot, and intuitively we knew what had happened to the TWA 747 was an obvious act terrorism, that the declaration that it was probably just bad wiring was an expedient political deflection to a White House intern problem while jets and buildings were being blown up all across the globe, and that it didn't explode during departure because of some defective fuel cell wiring or “overheated fuel vapors.” Military and commercial pilots know fuel systems don’t work that way.

It was a good exercise for my students to look into what other reasons there could be to explain the government's handling of the case and determine a better or more rational probable cause. One of my students found an interesting newspaper article, where a couple of congressmen were stopped as they were leaving a closed-door session on the proliferation of MANPADS, Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems. Those are shoulder-launched, anti-aircraft missiles. French Mistrals, Russian SA-18s, British Blowpipes, and the U.S. Stingers. I will always remember my reaction to what was reported, when my student said, “One of the congressmen said, they were looking into the problem of the proliferation of MANPADS to prevent another Flight 800.” It was a curious statement at best. An inadvertent admission? Someone who had wandered off script and forgot to maintain the government’s message? Sometime after the Flight 800 incident, some 14 pieces of legislation were introduced related to MANPADS were introduced to the U.S. Congress. The timing of the proposed legislation was a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream.

As an adjunct, also immediately following the downing of Flight 800, there were hearings on Capitol Hill to force DOD to install heat-seeking missile countermeasures on commercial aircraft. It wasn’t until 2005 that Fred Smith, FedEx CEO/Chairman, volunteered some of his aircraft to be fitted with directed infrared countermeasures equipment (DIRCM) to thwart shoulder-launched heat-seeking missiles. Were these MANPADS really a threat? Were they responsible for Flight 800? Consider this: between “500 to 750 thousand MANPADS are believed to have been produced,” thus far. Reportedly, at the date of that report up to 27 militia and terrorist groups possess shoulder-fired SAMs. Yet it was one magic wire that brought down that jet.

The EgyptAir Flight 990 case demonstrated that a government can manipulate the outcome of an investigation. Egyptian government officials rejected the interpretation of the actions of the first officer, they asserted that it was “culturally impossible for [the relief pilot] Batouti to have done what the NTSB believed; second, that the NTSB lacked the cultural sensitivity to understand what was on the cockpit voice recorder.” Despite the data from the recovered black boxes, the Egyptians blamed Boeing for an inoperative elevator system. They blamed everyone else except their guy.

What happens when you -- an accomplished investigative reporter, an FBI Special Agent, and an old accident investigator -- know you’re not being told the truth? The investigators of Flight 990 capitulated on reason, genuflected and tested the myriad ridiculous Egyptian theses that the Boeing 767 suffered a hidden mechanical malfunction. There is a psychological impact on subordinates when high ranking government officials reject the obvious evidence for their own narrative. The normal first inclination is not to be confrontational even as the available evidence, like a finding compass, continually points in the same direction.

President Lincoln ran through a half-dozen generals before he found one who could do the job. When the government wants to maintain or foster a certain message, they are in the power position to reject those that do not “get it,” that there is a message and that message is to be maintained. Those investigators and witnesses that do not play well with others are cast off to the Island of Misfit Toys. Flight 800 went through a crazy number of investigators. Many dynamic witnesses were ignored. The CIA was even brought in. The government went overboard to prove what it wasn’t, not what it was. The message was, “It wasn’t terrorism. It definitely wasn’t a missile -- ignore all those witnesses who say they saw a missile launch. We’re pretty sure it was only a broken wire.”

What do you do when you know you are not being told the truth on Flight 800? Some of us write a story that is tangential to the cover-up and the government lies. I know I can’t wait to read Jack Cashill’s new book.

Mark Hewitt is the author of the espionage thrillers Special Access and Shoot Down

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