What TWA 800 Had in Common with Hunter B’s Laptop

On July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 left JFK airport in New York City heading east to Paris. Twelve minutes after its 8:19 departure the doomed 747 blew up off the south coast of Long Island, killing all 230 souls aboard.

On August 23, 1996, the New York Times reported on its front page, above the fold right, “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 it from declaring TWA 800’s destruction a crime.

On that same day, above the fold left, was the headline, “Clinton Signs Bill Cutting Welfare; States in New Role.”

The Clintons had an election to win. One of those storylines would have to go. A month later, the administration started floating the possibility of a mechanical failure, and the bomb and missile story lines, despite the “prime evidence,” were allowed to die.

Legendary JFK press secretary and former U.S. senator Pierre Salinger knew better. A loyal enough Democrat, he sat on what he knew until it had lost its political punch. He broke his silence at an aviation conference in the French resort city of Cannes just two days after the November election.

There, Salinger told the assembled executives that he had “very important details that show the plane was brought down by a U.S. Navy missile.” He added the obvious: “If the news came out that an American naval ship shot down that plane it would be something that would make the public very, very unhappy and could have an effect on the election.”

Imagine that -- the intelligence community conspiring with a Democrat party administration and the Department of Justice to suppress information that might well have altered the outcome of a presidential election.

The media joined the conspiracy to make sure no one would ever dare to do in the future what Salinger had just done. The conspirators did not care what role Salinger had played in Camelot.

They were quick to swat him out of the Kennedy pantheon. The FBI, the White House, the Navy, all took a shot. Salinger was unready for the assault. The media found the subject irresistible. In the month of November 1996 alone, the New York Times ran four articles with headlines that mocked Salinger.

George Johnson was particularly merciless. “It was all linked to Whitewater,” Johnson wrote, “unless the missile was meant for a visiting U.F.O.?”

Johnson’s reference to “Whitewater” was not uncommon. He made slighting illusions as well to Waco, Ruby Ridge, Arkansas state troopers, Vincent Foster, and other sources of amusement in Clinton-era newsrooms.

What Johnson was attempting to do, and he was hardly unique in so doing, was to paint TWA 800 as one wacky anti-Clinton conspiracy out of many. What he did not do -- no one at the Times did after the first two days -- was speak to any of the 258 FBI witnesses to a likely missile strike.

Nor did any CIA analyst talk to an eyewitness. That did not stop the agency from taking the lead role in determining what the eyewitnesses saw. The CIA’s true commission was to find some semi-plausible explanation to explain away what the eyewitnesses actually did see.

On November 18, 1997, the FBI shared the CIA analysis in its closing summary of the case. The CIA animation, presented just once, showed the nose of the 747 blowing off as a result of a spontaneous explosion.

The noseless plane then allegedly rocketed upwards more than 3,000 feet fooling the eyewitnesses into thinking they saw a missile. The animation did not fool the aviation community. To a person, they thought the scenario impossible, laughable even.

The CIA’s intended audience was the media. Mark Hosenball, among others, fell hard for the CIA video. Under his byline, Newsweek ran a fully affirmative, nine-frame, full-color recreation captioned with the unlikely boast, “CIA Photos.”

For Hosenball, the video provided a necessary rebuttal to “speculation about a mystery missile.” As he told the story, “some” of the “244” FBI witnesses claimed to have seen a streak of light arcing across the sky. In reality, that “some” was 258, and the “244” was 736. But who was counting?

Not Hosenball. He had information enough to assure his readers that what the witnesses really saw was the fuselage of the burning, climbing plane rocketing upwards some three-thousand-plus feet. Indeed, had Hosenball been on the CIA payroll he could not have done more to legitimize the agency’s crude rewrite of history.

Robert Hager of NBC rivaled Hosenball in the uncritical affirmation of government talking points. In fact, the CIA cited Hager in an in-house newsletter as an example of how well the media received the zoom climb animation.

“The work was riveting,” the newsletter quoted Hager as saying. Hager congratulated the CIA on its “fascinating, highly informed” presentation. In the years to come, authorities could rely on Hager to pass off TWA 800 agitprop as news.

Fast forward 23 years. The CIA and the FBI brass once again had an election to win and a major chunk of evidence to hide. For a year, the FBI had suppressed all information about Hunter Biden’s laptop.

Once the story leaked out, the intelligence community came to the FBI’s rescue. Some 51 of its “retired” operatives rallied to assure the public that the Biden laptop story was Russian disinformation. The media fell eagerly in line, and once again their man prevailed.

What was more disquieting this time around is that the conspirators scarcely bothered to conceal their actions. They didn’t much care if everyone knew what they were doing -- just as long as the big guy won.

Jack Cashill’s TWA 800: Behind the Cover-Up and Conspiracy is now available in paperback.

Image: National Archives

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