As with the Russia scandal, not all the collaborators in the TWA 800 case were equally motivated or equally powerful. The White House drove the conspiracy through its Justice Department. The CIA executed it without conscience. The FBI grudgingly yielded to the CIA. And the New York Times dutifully reported what the FBI whispered in its reporters’ ears.
As to the National Safety Board, the only agency with statutory authority to investigate a domestic plane crash, the DOJ shoved it aside on day one. The U.S. Navy brass, whose “combatants” were responsible for the accidental shoot-down of the 747, kept their heads down and their lips impressively sealed. They had nothing to gain by rocking this boat.
In the TWA 800 case, as likely in the Russian case, the collaborators never conspired as a group, and very few among them knew the whole picture. The White House dealt with the Navy, but the Navy had as little as possible to do with the FBI or the CIA. The White House controlled the CIA, but the CIA did not deal with the NTSB and only rarely with the FBI. The New York Times never spoke to the CIA or the Navy.
The FBI talked almost exclusively to the Times. Reporters treasure such close connections with a source. The knowledge gleaned from these sources elevates the status of their newspapers and, more to the point, burnishes the star of the reporter within the newspaper.
If reporters have an inside source that talks only to them, they will often shape the news to avoid alienating that source. In fact, it is the rare reporter who can resist manipulation by a key source, especially if the source is telling a story that suits the politics of the newsroom.
This pattern of seduction and manipulation seems to have shaped the reporting in the Russia investigation as well. How else to explain a Times headline as implausible and borderline comic as “F.B.I. Used Informant to Investigate Russia Ties to Campaign, Not to Spy, as Trump Claims”?
In my own conversations with at least two of the Times reporters involved in the TWA 800 case, one in person, I was impressed by how little they knew about critical elements of the case, including the CIA participation.
As revealed in a recently unearthed cache of CIA documents, “[t]he DI [directorate of intelligence] became involved in the ‘missile theory’ the day after the crash occurred.” According to the CIA, within two weeks of the disaster, FBI agents had interviewed 144 “excellent” eyewitnesses to a likely missile strike and found the evidence for such a strike “overwhelming.” The CIA analyst boasted of discouraging the FBI from releasing its missile report. He seems to have succeeded.
Two weeks later, the FBI permitted the Times to interview one and only one eyewitness. That witness saw the event out of the corner of his eye and thought it was a bomb. He was the only eyewitness the Times would interview from that day forward.
At the FBI’s direction, the Times ran an above-the-fold, front-page headline on August 23, 1996, “Prime Evidence Found That Device Exploded in Cabin of TWA 800.” The conspirators had settled on a bomb as a sellable and less scary explanation than a missile. For weeks, at the FBI’s direction, the Times ran stories about explosive residue found throughout the plane.
On September 19, two months after the disaster, the Times signaled the government’s switch from a “bomb” to a “mechanical failure alone.” On September 20, to explain away the explosive residue throughout the aircraft, the FBI claimed that the TWA 800 aircraft had “previously been used in a law enforcement training exercise for bomb-detection dogs.”
As independent researchers easily proved, the exercise in question did not take place on the TWA 800 plane, and the training aids did not match in placement or in composition the explosive residue found after the crash. The Times never questioned the police officer who did the training, nor did its reporters ever question the FBI about the inconsistencies – even though they were obvious at the time to anyone paying attention.
Hovering above TWA 800 the moment it exploded was a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion with its transponder off. The P-3 plays a critical role in missile tests relaying information among the various “combatants,” in this instance a cruiser and three subs that were in the “immediate vicinity” of the crash site.
Times readers never knew that the P-3 was there. The Times never asked any Naval officer a single question. Indeed, by November 1996, its editors and reporters were openly mocking anyone who suggested Navy involvement.
The collaborators had one final challenge before they could close the investigation: how to explain the 250-plus eyewitnesses – including military people, pilots, fishermen, and at least one person with a video camera – who saw a missile or missiles strike the 747. Someone near the top of this conspiracy took the task away from an untrustworthy FBI and assigned it to the CIA, specifically two CIA analysts who had no relevant expertise.
The FBI turned over the witness statements grudgingly. By late 1996, after reviewing just a fraction of those statements, the CIA analysts concluded that a spontaneous fuel tank explosion blew off the cockpit of the 747. Then the flaming, nose-less fuselage streaked straight up more than three thousand feet, leading the eyewitnesses to think they had seen missiles – a preposterous scenario that went unchallenged by the media.
In November 1997, in closing the criminal case, the FBI showed an animation of this alleged zoom climb and attributed it to the CIA. The Times asked no questions about CIA involvement – ever – even after the world learned about the “wall” that prevented these two agencies from cooperating in the run-up to 9-11. Times readers still do not know that the author of the “wall” memo, Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, also oversaw the cooperation between the FBI and the CIA on the TWA 800 investigation after she wrote the memo.
As troubling as the TWA 800 investigation was, the Russia case appears to be more troubling still. TWA 800 was a conspiracy of concealment. These are commonplace in all governments everywhere.
The Russia case involves a conspiracy of concealment, the Hillary investigation, and a much less common conspiracy of execution, the Trump investigation. Neither conspiracy could ever have succeeded without the cooperation of the major media, the New York Times in particular.
There are, however, two major differences between 1996 and 2016, and they will affect the outcome of the Russia case. One is the internet. The other is Donald Trump. Here is hoping the collapse of the latter conspiracy will lead to the exposure of the former.
The idea is floated frequently that the still nameless Russian collusion scandal is “worse than Watergate.” It may well be, but that comparison overlooks a more useful parallel.
The gold standard of government conspiracy remains the investigation into the July 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 off the south coast of Long Island. The ensuing cover-up involved many of the same players as in the Russia conspiracy and for the same immediate goal: to secure a presidential election for a Clinton.