JFK Is Easy, Now Do TWA Flight 800

On Saturday, the New York Times surprised many people, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. among them, with a lengthy article questioning the “single bullet theory” in the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The man who got the Times’ attention is Paul Landis, a long-retired Secret Service agent who stood on the running board of Kennedy’s car that fateful day. What is odd about that attention is how little new information Landis adds to the conversation.

As Landis claims in the forthcoming book, The Final Witness, he originally misremembered where he first saw the pristine “magic bullet,” the cornerstone of the Warren Commission’s lone gunmen theory. Even if his revived memory is more accurate -- it may well be -- Landis’s reflections cloud the issue more than they clarify. For a journal that prides itself on swatting down conspiracy theories, the Times seems inexplicably eager to bite on this one.

Speaking of Kennedy, no single American has felt the sting of the Times’ historic disdain for so-called conspiracy theorists more than JFK’s legendary press secretary, Pierre Salinger. Unlike Landis, Salinger made the mistake of exposing a conspiracy that was very much in play when he exposed it. 

I speak here of the case of TWA Flight 800. The 747 was en route from New York to Paris when it crashed off the coast of Long Island in July 1996, killing all 230 people on board. At the time, Salinger was working in Paris where the interest in TWA 800 was understandably high, 36 French citizens having died in the crash.

With a likely assist from French intelligence, Salinger was put in touch with retired United Airline pilot and accident investigator Dick Russell. Russell had been suspicious about the cause of the crash since Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon first announced it. Russell had been around long enough to know that civilian plane crashes were not the natural bailiwick of the Defense Department.

Having gathered information through his own network of aviation insiders, Russell sent a summary e-mail to his associates with the message, “TWA Flight 800 was shot down by a U.S. Navy guided missile ship which was in area W-105. It has been a cover-up from the word go.” Although recipients had vowed to keep the information among themselves, one of them posted the information on the internet, and it somehow found its way to Salinger.

Salinger called Russell about the intel and visited him in Florida soon afterwards. In addition to the information Russell and his colleagues had been sharing, Salinger had with him several government dispatches that reinforced the theory that the U.S. Navy accidentally shot down the 747.

As to Salinger’s motives, Russell believes that he seriously disliked the Clintons. He remained a loyal enough Democrat, however, to sit on his information until it lost its political punch. He broke his silence at an aviation conference in the French resort city of Cannes two days after the November 4 presidential 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.”

Conscious of that effect, the New York Times had been doing the FBI’s bidding from day two. In the first six weeks after the crash, the Times echoed the FBI’s claim that a bomb had likely destroyed the aircraft. When the FBI shifted to a likely mechanical failure as explanation, the Times uncritically shifted with it.

When Salinger went public, the FBI was still a year away from closing the case, however deceptively. That uncertainty did not stop the Times from savaging Salinger and anyone else who challenged the shifting party line.

Reporters directed much of their mockery at Internet users. Still in its embryonic state in July 1996 -- the Times went online that same year -- the Internet challenged the traditional arbiters of information in ways as unwelcome at the Times as they were unprecedented. Most critically, the Internet reduced the information imbalance between the newsrooms and the streets.

The media, with the New York Times in the lead, pushed back hard. In the month of November 1996 alone, the Times ran four articles with headlines that mocked Salinger. On November 24, 1996, for instance, just four months after the crash, the Times ran an all-too-typical article headlined “Pierre, Is That a Masonic Flag on the Moon?”

In the first sentence reporter George Johnson singled out the ostensible target, the internet with its “throbbing, fevered brain.” Johnson directed his contempt at those ordinary Americans whose Internet use threatened the Times’ hegemony on the news.

“Electrified by the Internet,” Johnson complained, “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 was all linked to Whitewater,” Johnson scoffed, “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.

If the Times ever expects to be taken seriously again, its honchos need to address an ongoing cover-up that is altogether capable of being exposed. An apology to Salinger’s family might be in order as well.

Jack Cashill’s new book, Untenable: The True Story of White Ethnic Flight from America's Cities, is now available in all formats. Jack Cashill’s 2016 book, TWA 800: Behind the Cover-Up and Conspiracy, is now available in paperback.

Image: National Archives

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