Strzok Farce Shows Obstacles to Opening TWA 800 Case
On July 17, 1996, 22 years ago today, a missile or missiles blew TWA Flight 800 out of the sky off the south coast of Long Island. The plane out of JFK was on its way to Paris. All 230 souls on board, 53 of them TWA employees, died in the crash.
This is not conjecture. This is fact. As I told the audience of TWA veterans with whom I spoke during my 2016 Book-TV presentation at the TWA Museum in Kansas City, "If I were coming here to spread some conspiracy theory, I would be dishonoring their memory [the 53] and insulting you."
The audience members, several of whom worked on the investigation, had no doubt I was telling them the truth, at least as well as we know it. I would invite those who do have doubts to watch the Book-TV presentation.
A question I was asked that evening, a question I have been asked more frequently since President Trump's election, is whether either the president or Congress will reopen the investigation. After watching the Peter Strzok hearing last Thursday, I am more inclined than ever to answer that question in the negative. Although I remain hopeful the truth about TWA 800 will one day surface, the hearing reminded me of the many obstacles the truth faces.
The most formidable obstacle is the media, particularly the New York Times. The saying goes that a scandal becomes a scandal only when the Times calls it a "scandal" on the front page. Given this definition, Barack Obama and his media acolytes can pass a lie-detector test when they speak of Obama's "scandal-free" presidency.
From the moment Strzok entered the committee hearing room, one could sense his confidence that the Times and other media, as well as the Democrats on the committee, would represent his interests. He was right.
From the Times' perspective, if there was a scandal, it was the cruel "grilling of the FBI agent." One Times headline – under the wishful rubric "Trump's Russian Connection" – read simply, "Shouting and Personal Attacks at Strzok Hearing." This is the same Peter Strzok whom Trump accurately called "a disgrace to our country."
In the case of Peter Strzok, the Times was primarily defending the Democratic Party and the larger progressive agenda. Only indirectly was the Times protecting its own reputation. In the case of TWA 800, the Times has much more at stake.
TWA 800 crashed in the Times' backyard. Given the paper's power and proximity, the FBI talked almost exclusively to Times reporters. In the first two months of the investigation, the Times reported the facts as the FBI provided them. In that those facts did nothing to harm the re-election chances of Bill Clinton in November, the Times saw no reason to challenge them.
The Times' myopia became obvious one month into the investigation, when reporter Andrew Revkin introduced readers to Witness 136, Michael Russell. Russell told the FBI he was working on a survey vessel a mile offshore when "a white flash in the sky caught his eye." Of the of the 258 FBI witnesses to a likely missile strike, Russell was the only one the Times ever interviewed.
The FBI judged Russell's story credible because it fit with the bureau's already skewed plot line. This was not Russell's fault. His observations were honest and accurate. He caught the "white flash" out of the corner of his eye.
Russell's account, Revkin reported, "bolstered the idea that a bomb, and not an exploding fuel tank, triggered the disintegration of the airplane." More to the point, his account "substantially weakened support for the idea that a missile downed the plane." That was the article's money quote and the reason readers were allowed to hear from Michael Russell.
A week later, the Times ran a front-page, above-the-fold article with the screaming headline "Prime Evidence Found That Device Exploded in Cabin of Flight 800." According to the Times, only the FBI's uncertainty about whether the device was a bomb or a missile kept the bureau from declaring TWA 800's destruction a crime.
By mid-September 1996, feeling confident they had the Times eating out of their hands, Clinton officials in Washington shifted from a bomb explanation to mechanical failure, and the Times shifted right along with them, with shockingly few questions asked.
The explosive residue throughout the aircraft – the "prime evidence" of a month ago – disappeared without a credible explanation. Michael Russell's assertion that he did not see a fuel tank explosion was simply forgotten.
By November 1996, with Clinton successfully re-elected, the Times was blaming the "throbbing, fevered brain" of the internet for the willingness of interested citizens, now dismissed as "conspiracy theorists," to challenge the wisdom of the Times.
"Electrified by the Internet," the Times wrote mockingly on November 24, 1996, "suspicions about the crash of T.W.A. Flight 800 were almost instantly transmuted into convictions that it was the result of friendly fire." It would be another year before the FBI and CIA challenged that conviction, however falsely, but for the Times, the die was already cast.
As the Strzok hearing made clear, the Democrats in Congress have no interest in the truth. Should the TWA 800 case ever make it to a congressional committee, the Democrats will feverishly obstruct any progress.
For the Times, the battle will be existential, life and death. Its execs are the proud owners of the single greatest scandal in American media history. To admit ownership is to close their doors.