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The Ongoing Dissent Over TWA 800

By From the August 1999 issue

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It was billed as an investigation of the investigators. On May 10,1999, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) held a one-day hearing with witnesses offering damaging testimony about the Federal Bureau of Investigation's role in the TWA 800 probe. Grassley's opening remarks were particularly critical of former FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom for failing to uncover the cause of the explosion that killed the jumbo jet's 230 passengers and crew on July 17, 1996.

Grassley's hearing focused on two star witnesses. One was Andrew Vita, assistant director of field operations for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF). The second was William A. Tobin, former chief metallurgist for the FBI. Both supported Grassley's claim that Kallstrom needlessly prolonged the probe.

Vita testified that several months into the investigation the BATF concluded there was no evidence that high explosives caused TWA 800's mid-air disintegration. In late January, 1997, Vita put the BATF's views in an unsolicited, written report to be submitted to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). But, Vita testified, he "met resistance" from the FBI. Grassley says Kallstrom suppressed the report and never forwarded it to the NTSB.

James Kallstrom, now retired from the FBI after an exemplary 28-year career, rebuts the charge as "a bald-faced lie."

In a series of interviews for this article, Kallstrom shed new light on the investigation. Normally tight-lipped and unaccustomed to airing investigative detail in public, Kallstrom has been forced to defend the FBI probe and his personal integrity.

He pointed to problems with the BATF report, which he rejected as "premature!' At the time it was written, tons of TWA 800 still lay underwater. Kallstrom also had problems with the BATF methodology.

"The report was sophomoric," he told me, "in its science and in its writing."

But his biggest beef with the BATF was that the flawed report would be poisonous in a courtroom. If the FBI eventually was able to identify suspects and bring them to trial, the report, because it had the weight of a government agency behind it, was precisely the kind of exhibit defense lawyers would parade before a jury to refute the prosecution.

"A defense attorney would have taken that report and jammed it twenty feet up my [expletive deleted]," Kallstrom said.

Nonetheless, Kallstrom informed the NTSB about the report soon after he reviewed it. To his surprise, the NTSB already had a copy. The BATF had apparently delivered the report through back channels.

Grassley did not explore one explanation for BATF's hasty conclusion and independent delivery of the report to the NTSB. The BATF opinion was written about three weeks before Vice President Gore's White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, formed just after TWA 800's explosion, submitted its February 12, 1997 final report.

By January 1997, Gore's staff knew the watered-down draft security measures in the White House Commission's final report would be heavily criticized by passenger safety advocates. That criticism would become an acute political embarrassment if the FBI later found solid proof that terrorists destroyed TWA 800.

The BATF report gave Gore political cover to back-track from tough security measures recommended in an interim Commission report of September 1996. With the FBI probe ongoing, Gore could fall back on the BATF report to explain why he didn't feel the need for stiffer security recommendations in the final report of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security.

"BATF played a very political role," Kallstrom says. He calls the incident just one example of unusual collusion between the NTSB and other players in the TWA 800 investigation.

Grassley's other star witness, former FBI metallurgist Bill Tobin, is even more problematic. Tobin testified that Kallstrom adamantly believed a bomb destroyed TWA 800. When traces of the high explosives PETN and RDX were found on the aircraft, Tobin says Kallstrom claimed it was proof of a bomb. Tobin thought otherwise. About six weeks into the probe, Tobin testified, he decided there was no evidence of terrorist act and told Kallstrom the crash was an accident.

Kallstrom had problems with Tobin's analysis. There were two possible ways terrorists might have destroyed TWA 800. One was a bomb, and the other was a missile. Tobin, says Kallstrom, had no experience in the forensic damage caused by missiles. Nor did he have the expertise to analyze aircraft wreckage after deterioration from prolonged salt-water immersion. Tobin's experience was limited to bomb damage on dry ground.

There was another problem. At the time of Tobin's conclusion, much of TWA 800 lay unrecovered. Larry Johnson, a former State Depaitment counter-terrorism official directly involved in the Pan Am 103 case, says the volume of debris found by investigators in that case proved the bomb used was so small it could be "spread out on a kitchen table top." With tons of the plane still missing, Kallstrom felt Tobin's conclusion was unprofessional.

Kallstrom says he dismissed Tobin from the probe. He didn't trust the judgment of an investigator who reached conclusions while so much aircraft wreckage still lay on the ocean floor.

Grassley may not have known that Tobin's criticism of James Kallstrom could have been personally motivated. Nor did he seem aware that the BATF report may have been politically motivated. If he did know his witnesses' shortcomings, Senator Grassley didn't admit it. In a hearing that appears designed solely to get newspaper headlines, Grassley pronounced TWA 800 a closed case.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The NTSB hasn't finished its investigation. While Grassley's hearing was underway, scientists commissioned two years ago by the NTSB were still working at CalTech and the University of Nevada to formulate a plausible explanation for the mysterious explosion of Jet A fuel in TWA 800's center fuel tank. This research is critical to the accidental explosion theory.

According to a Boeing spokesman, the record of all 747 takeoffs and landings shows only one accidental detonation of a center fuel tank. If it was an accident, TWA 800's explosion was a one-in-12 million event.

In the three years since TWA 800's crash, NTSB Chairman James Hall has not found the answer to the mystery of the center fuel tank's ignition. But he has found powerful congressional allies. On May 6, a few days before Grassley's hearing, Chairman John Duncan (R-Tenn.) and other members of the House Subcommittee on Aviation enthusiastically supported dramatic budget and staffing increases for NTSB. Like Grassley's Senate counterpart, the House hearing was used to silence NTSB critics and marginalize competing explanations of the crash as far-out conspiracy theories.

Neither Grassley nor Duncan pressed Hall to answer still unresolved questions on Hall's and the vice president's roles in raising more than $500,000 in soft-money contributions from the airline industry for the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection effort—at a time when the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security was considering security measures which could have cost the industry $1 billion.

Grassley's headline-grabbing probe scapegoated Kallstrom as though he had operated on his own authority, depicting him as a rogue cop running out of control. At best, Grassley's portrayal of Kallstrom is a caricature. At worst, it is character assassination.

Throughout the 17 months of the active FBI probe, Kallstrom operated with the full support of the Justice Department and the White House. On three separate occasions, Kallstrom personally briefed President Clinton on the probe. At key junctures, the FBI and the NTSB reached a deadlock. Each time, the impasse was broken by White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta acting in the name of the president.

The summer of 1996 was tense at the White House. In the weeks leading up to the July 17 explosion of TWA 800, Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing and architect of a plot to blow up 12 U.S. jumbo jetliners on a single day, was on trial in New York.

"We were in an extremely high state of threat," recalls James Kallstrom. "We had numerous generic threats."

As the Atlanta Summer Olympics neared, the government's counter-terrorist apparatus went on high alert. Richard Clark, terrorism coordinator for the National Security Council, had reviewed an escalating number of terrorist threats. The NSC briefed the Transportation Department's aviation security team about the threats. Alarmed at the danger, the Federal Aviation Administration pressed for extraordinary security measures on airplanes and at airports. The FBI terrorism task force was placed on ready standby for immediate deployment.

"The White House was extremely, extremely edgy," Kallstrom recounts. "They were dusting off the contingency plans."

No single White House staffer was responsible for aviation security. Kitty Higgins, then assistant to the president and cabinet affairs secretary, stepped in to coordinate the numerous agencies involved. She convened an aviation security working group to meet at the White House, and the group's first meeting took place on July 17.

At 8:19 p.m. that very evening, TWA 800 mysteriously exploded off the Long Island shore.

Twelve minutes after the explosion, the FBI duty agent dialed the number for Kallstrom's beeper. Kallstrom was at dinner at the Friar's Club, celebrating the appointment of former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly as undersecretary of the treasury.

Kallstrom mobilized the terrorism task force, and within 24 hours fielded 1,000 FBI agents and federal investigative personnel. The possible crime scene encompassed some 2,000 square miles, with more than 200 eyewitnesses and literally thousands of leads to examine.

So began a contentious, three-year, $35-million government-wide probe carried out under White House oversight by the NTSB, the FBI, the Defense Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Transportation Department, the Coast Guard, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, the BATF, and numerous state and local agencies and law enforcement organizations.

From the beginning, James Kallstrom thought that terrorists were responsible. The sudden halt to voice transmissions from the cockpit before the explosion was consistent with the pattern of Pan Am 103. So was the mid-air disintegration of the aircraft.

Before he was arrested for the World Trade Center bombing, Ramzi Yousef had experimented with various techniques for destroying large passenger aircraft. These techniques involved placing a small bomb over the center fuel tank to ignite the low-volatility Jet A fuel and thus produce a catastrophic explosion. Yousef was experimenting with new, liquid-explosive bombs so difficult to detect they could be easily smuggled past airport magnetometers. Such bombs would leave little or no trace.

Kallstrom knew time was the enemy. The longer aircraft aluminum remains in salt water, the more likely that resulting corrosion can mask evidence of an explosive.

"Examination of the debris initially recovered showed an intense amount of salt water decay on the metal pieces," Kallstrom wrote in September 1997, explaining why parts of TWA 800 were washed with water as they came off the salvage ships. "The operation of the salt on the metal causes pitting, and there was concern that such pitting caused by the salt could obscure or be confused with the pitting normally caused by high explosives."

From the beginning, Kallstrom recognized that getting evidence that would stand up in court to prove a terrorist attack would be an extraordinarily difficult task.

Then there were the eyewitness reports, eventually 244 in all, which seemed to the agents who collected them in the hours and days following the explosion to confirm a missile hit. Not long thereafter, former Kennedy press secretary and veteran ABC correspondent Pierre Salinger came forward with claims of inside information that TWA 800 was the victim of "friendly fire" from a U.S. Navy vessel.

Kallstrom confirmed that Salinger had previously supplied "bogus information" in a terrorist investigation. Salinger's claims in the TWA 800 case proved equally unfounded, but because of the enormous media attention, Kallstrom was forced to give him serious attention.

Kallstrom divided his investigative effort into three teams, each working a different scenario of the case. One probed the missile theory. Another looked at the likelihood of a bomb. One team was assigned to the accidental-explosion theory.

One of the parties to the investigation praises Kallstrom as a "bulldog" who was "absolutely tireless." Despite the challenges of recovering the salt-water-damaged aircraft from ocean depths of more than loo feet, in limited visibility and shifting sands, Kallstrom spared no effort in search of conclusive evidence.

For the first eight weeks of the probe, Kallstrom and the NTSB team, lead by Robert Francis, got along well. Kallstrom is at pains to point out that he didn't take over the probe: The NTSB conducted its investigation, while the FBI did its job.

Senator Grassley later criticized the FBI for dominating the probe. NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, in Duncan's House reauthorization hearings, said that the NTSB should have been exclusively responsible for the investigation until evidence of sabotage was found. But in the first days after July 17, 1996, only five NTSB crash investigators came to the site —far too few even to have collected the hundreds of witness statements.

Eight weeks into the NTSB's probe, Jim Hall arrived at Calverton, scene of the TWA 800 salvage operation. This changed the relationship between the NTSB and the FBI. Kallstrom recalled: "Then it was clear who was really running the NTSB investigation."

Soon thereafter the FBI and the NTSB clashed. Contrary to early press accounts, which attributed the friction to differences of bureaucratic culture, the clashes were substantive. The first was over whether TWA 800 would be reconstructed in the Calverton hangar.

To gain a better understanding of what happened, Kallstrom wanted to assemble a "mock-up" of the plane. Jim Hall vehemently opposed him. The disagreement reached the White House, where Leon Panetta conferred with the president before siding with the FBI. It was not the last disagreement in the TWA 800 probe that had to be adjudicated at the highest level. In the context of these pitched White House battles the NTSB began colluding with other government agencies such as the BATF to undermine the FBI probe.

NTSB Chairman Hall's high-level background briefings for reporters also undermined the FBI. Hall and other NTSB senior staff ridiculed competing theories of the case, misleading the press and public to believe that only the accidental-explosion theory—for which there still isn't any conclusive evidence—could explain TWA 800's destruction.

Despite the salt-water immersion, traces of military high-explosives components PETN and RDX were found on the plane's wreckage. Kallstrom thought he had the evidence he'd been searching for, especially after his agents checked the aircraft logs for TWA 800 and found no sign of recent use of the plane to transport explosives or conduct canine bomb-detection tests.

The FAA subsequently claimed that logs of canine bomb tests are not maintained by individual airplanes, but by local police agencies. A check with the St. Louis Airport Police showed a test was carried out on a wide-body jet on June 10, 1996, about a month before the TWA 800 explosion. No records of the test were kept. The sole policeman who carried it out was seen by no other aircraft crew or witnesses. He did not note the tail number of the aircraft. Two months later, when interviewed by the FBI on September 20, 1996, he recalled it was a 747 jet. One of the explosives used in the test was a 1.4 pound block of C-4, a military high explosive. The patrolman told the FBI that the plastic wrapping for the explosive was partially disintegrated.

There were two wide-bodied jets parked nearby on June 10. Because the patrolman did not note the plane's tail number (TWA 800, parked at Gate 50, was 1711 9) it is possible he confused the planes. It is hard to reconcile the patrolman's timeline for the dog test with the records of when the aircraft departed Gate 50. If the patrolman is correct, it means after his test was complete the pilot and crew boarded the aircraft, conducted all pre-flight procedures and checklists, completed boarding and seating passengers, and pulled away from the gate in less than half an hour. Even assuming that the test was indeed carried out on TWA 800, the mystery remains how such casual contamination could leave traces of explosive after weeks of immersion in salt water. Both FBI laboratory and independent scientific tests show that within 24 hours salt water washes away all traces of high explosives.

After Kallstrom won his White House battle for permission to re-create the airplane at Calverton, the FBI and the NTSB sought outside experts to examine the damage patterns. All agreed that the center fuel tank had exploded catastrophically. The question was, how?

Salinger's sensational theory about a missile strike had unfortunately obscured and discredited the very real prospect that a MANPAD (man-portable air defense system, better known as a shoulder-fired rocket) hit TWA 800. In more than 100 cases around the world, shoulder-fired rockets have been used to down large aircraft.

At first the probability that TWA 800 was struck by such a missile seemed remote. The plane's altitude of 13,700 feet was at the outer limit of a MANPAD "footprint," the necessary flight path the missile would have taken to hit the plane. But it was a possibility that Kallstrom took seriously—more seriously than has ever before been disclosed.

FBI Special Agent Steve Bongart worked the missile team. An FBI agent was assigned to accompany the salvage teams as parts of the aircraft were identified and then removed from the ocean floor. Each agent was issued a nine-page "Trawler Operations Manual" featuring debris unique to a missile, including the ejector cans that would be left after a Stinger launch, the expendable battery, and a picture of the distorted shape a small rocket body might take after passing through an aircraft the size of a 747. "Twisted like a corkscrew," one observer put it. The manual instructed the agents to pick up every piece of manmade debris found in the search field. But no "eureka" piece from a missile was found.

As the wreckage at Calverton took shape, the FBI called on military experts from the Defense Department to help analyze the probability that a surface-to-air missile hit TWA 800. The military teams had far more experience in air crashes involving rockets than either the FBI or the NTSB had. In fact, as Kallstrom found early on, no one in the world had a good forensic, courtroom-evidence standard database of the damage missiles do to large aircraft.

In addition to Navy teams from China Lake, whose active presence in the probe has been acknowledged publicly, the FBI drew on other centers of military expertise including Missile & Space Intelligence Center at Huntsville, Alabama, and Air Force teams from Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Using computerized DOD databases, the military experts concluded that a Stinger could have hit the aircraft even at its 13,700-foot elevation.

In the late fall of 1996, the military teams analyzed the wreckage at Calverton. Immediately, suspicions arose about damage to the left wing. The area around the left forward wing root, a potential impact point, is missing. The left side of the center fuel tank displays unexplained damage.

"Attempting to find forensic evidence on this kind of a missile hit is very hard," says one expert with first-hand knowledge. "The result of a missile impact from a shoulder-fired SAM [surface-to-air missile] is not always clearly discernible, especially when critical pieces just don't seem to be available for inspection."

Agent Bongart reviewed the eyewitness statements with the military teams. A subset of approximately 25 to 30 eyewitness accounts, says a source familiar with the statements, were "very, very consistent if someone fired a surface-to-air missile at the aircraft."

Using this subset of eyewitness accounts, the missile team plotted a grid which pinpointed a location where the firing would have to have taken place if the eyewitness accounts were correct. According to the expert, the location placed TWA 800 within the "launch footprint" of a shoulder-fired rocket.

Kallstrom wanted a thorough dredging operation to recover as much of TWA 800 as was humanly possible, as well as to search for missile parts. Again, NTSB Chairman Hall opposed him. After the principal Navy salvage operation to bring up the main debris from the aircraft ended, Hall wanted further underwater recovery efforts called off. Again, the dispute rose to the White House for resolution.

Leon Panetta sided with Kallstrom. FBI-supervised dredging continued for months, but was ultimately hampered by nature. During the early weeks of the probe, Long Island's shoreline was battered by two different hurricane-force storms. After dredging some areas as many as 20 times, the FBI suspended the operation. They concluded that underwater currents from the storms either buried debris too deeply, or simply dispersed the debris so widely across the ocean floor that full recovery was impossible. Today, Boeing says five to seven percent of the aircraft remains unrecovered. That leaves about eight tons of debris, approximately equivalent to a medium-sized truck, lost at sea.

On November 18, 1997, the CIA produced an animated video simulating TWA 800's final flight. The video explains the 244 eyewitness accounts, many of which suggested that a missile was fired into the aircraft, as mistaken. Because light travels faster than sound, the CIA concluded that witnesses actually saw a flame trail from burning jet fuel before they heard the sound of the plane's explosion, and naturally were convinced that the streak of light leading to the plane occurred before the explosion.

What the CIA did not explain in November was that its video was altered after consultation with the NTSB. In a letter from CIA Director George Tenet to Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) dated January 13, 1998, Tenet acknowledges that more than forty changes were made to the video animation at the NTSB's suggestion. After the changes were made, Tenet says the CIA showed the video to "NTSB managers" who approved its release to the general public.

The official status of the FBI probe into TWA 800 remains "pending-inactive."

Kallstrom says there is still a small chance unrecovered debris might point to a bomb or a missile.

"We left it open," Kallstrom says. "If anything comes up, we'll jump right back in."

A recent federal appeals court ruling may shed light on some of the political mysteries surrounding TWA 800. On June 18, 1999, a three-judge panel affirmed Victoria Cummock's lawsuit against Al Gore and the Department of Transportation (see "Dissent of Flight 800," TAS, July 1997).

Two years ago Victoria Cummock filed suit, claiming Gore pressured her to abandon a call for counter-terrorism measures, and refused to publish her 42-page dissent from the final report of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security. She demanded access to confidential files kept from her and to a secret annex to the commission's final report.

In early discovery, Cummock was given limited access to commission records. One document she found was a memo from a CIA staffer assigned to CIA Director John Deutch, who sat next to Cummock at most commission meetings. The CIA memo, written by an officer who intelligence sources say is normally assigned to clandestine services, drew on psychological profiling of Cummock. It said Cummock could be "kept in line if she believes progress could be made" but warned Deutch that she "could become a major problem" if she thought otherwise.

The existence of this memo is puzzling. Why did the CIA analyze its ability to control Commissioner Cummock? Is there any relationship between the CIA and the NTSB collaboration on the TWA 800 video animation, and the profiling memo on Cummock? Who ordered the assessment?

Cummock became an aviation security advocate after her husband, John, died in the Pan Am 103 bombing. Clinton personally asked her to serve on the commission while he was flying to New York to meet with the grieving TWA 800 family members.

The commission was no ordinary citizen-advisory committee. It was a high-powered group, resembling a mini-Cabinet. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, CIA Director John Deutch, NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, Vice President Al Gore, FBI Director Louis Freeh, and Council of Economic Advisors Chairman Laura D'Andrea Tyson were among government officials serving on the commission appointed after the TWA 800 catastrophe.

After a lower-court judge sided with Transportation Department attorneys and dismissed her case, Cummock appealed. On April 24, 1999, her appeal was heard by a three-judge panel.

"They were stunned at the government's position," Cummock says, noting that administration lawyers didn't deny her fundamental charge that information was improperly withheld or that Clinton appointees to the commission met often in secret. The government attorneys simply said such conduct was permissible under the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

"The judges were pretty outraged," Cummock told me shortly before the appeals court ruled. "They couldn't believe how the government interpreted the federal commission act."

As Cummock's lawsuit goes forward, she may gain access to documents which would clarify the relationship between the commission's secret meetings and Clinton-Gore campaign fundraising. Cummock says the Clinton appointees "had a ton of secret meetings" with airline industry representatives. At the same time, the Clinton-Gore campaign and Democratic Party received more than $500,000 in political contributions from the airlines. The disturbing prospect of a quid pro quo whereby the Gore Commission withdrew its preliminary security policies in exchange for 1996 campaign contributions remains open.

John Cummock's widow is nothing if not persistent. "What I want now is to see the classified report," she said, "and write a dissent, classified or not. I know it sounds old-fashioned, but it's a matter of morals, and values, and ethics."

About the time Grassley's hearing was taking place, the Kosovo war prompted concern at the Defense Department about the vulnerability of cargo aircraft to shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. At the Pentagon, corridor talk has it that the TWA 800 scenario has come up in recent high-level meetings. For Pentagon planners, the case serves as a source of "lessons learned" to reduce vulnerability of large aircraft to rocket attack.

Kallstrom is disappointed that FBI Director Freeh didn't speak out against Grassley's hearing, which Kallstrom calls a "Kangaroo Court." He is not alone. Two weeks after Grassley's hearing, on their own initiative, some 400 FBI agents and professional support staff from the New York office sent Grassley a letter protesting the hearing as "one-sided, incomplete and distorted."

"Your portrayal of the FBI's performance with a broad negative brush is not only contrary to fact," the letter said, "but a great disservice to the many men and women of the FBI who contributed so much of their energy, time and emotion to this investigation."

Grassley's hearing to discredit the FBI probe was a prelude to final "sunshine hearings" the NTSB plans in a few months. Although the NTSB says the case will be reviewed publicly, the public isn't likely to see the Defense Department video simulation of a successful shoulder-fired rocket attack on TWA 800 or learn the nature of the terrorist threats received by the White House in 1996. At the end of the sunshine hearings, NTSB Chairman Hall, a longtime Gore ally, will bring the gavel down on TWA 800. Jim Kallstrom's replacement has already signaled Congress that he will close the FBI's "pending-inactive" file when the NTSB announces a "probable cause" of TWA 800's destruction.

Hall wants the case sewn up before the campaign season gets underway with the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses. But there is too much debris from TWA 800—lingering questions, elusive answers—for the mystery to disappear quietly.

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