By Keegan Hamilton
By Albert Samaha
By Village Voice staff
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
The Flight 800 investigation, still at a loss to explain the tragedy, has the right stuff for a thrilling spy novel. Government flacks easily spin the lazy mainstream media to sedate the nervous public. Meanwhile, a band of military insiders heads for the Internet (http://twa800.com) and reaches out to a few sympathetic independent journalists to convince readers that the truth is being hidden. For some reasonat this point only a fiction writer could provide onemany observers believe that the government is covering up the disaster's most likely explanation: it was a missile that three years ago this week, 10 miles south of Long Island, brought down the Paris-bound 747, killing all 230 aboard.
As the investigation's third anniversary passes, the mystery is deepening. A few months ago, a retired army officer bearing impressive credentials approached the Voiceas an intermediary for a missile expert with a story to tell. This expert is extremely fearful of losing his jobfor more than 20 years he's been a military engineer who specializes in infrared missile technology. Assured of anonymity, he submitted to lengthy interviews by telephone and e-mail, detailing why he believes the investigation of TWA Flight 800 is a cover-up.
After spending more than $40 million on the investigation, the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board have not found a definitive answer for why the center fuel tank exploded. Yet they have ruled out a missile as the cause. The NTSB believes an undetermined system flaw produced an electrical spark that ignited jet fuel vapors in the tank.
Prior to the official embrace of this mechanical explanation, the missile expert was among several scientists invited by FBI agents to explore the missile theory. He was made privy to evidence suggesting that TWA 800 could have been shot down, consisting of eyewitness accounts of a "flare-like object" shooting skyward moments before the plane exploded. Later he examined the debris in the Calverton hangar.
The missile expert has also been in contact with military labs where, he says, the chemists have been unable to make jet fuel vapor explode as the NTSB says it did in TWA 800's center fuel tank. "The labs told the NTSB there's a big problemit can't happen." The NTSB wouldn't listen. He says, "They were adamant that [the labs] had to find something."
The evidence adds up, the missile expert believes, to a "70 percent chance" that TWA 800 was downed by a shoulder-launched missile. Like others who have spoken to the Voice, the expert is exasperated with what he sees as a corrupted investigation. Asked why he is speaking up now, he says, "I wanted someone to look at the truth, not whitewash it away."
The missile expert says his unit was summoned by the FBI quite early in the investigation and asked to review the eyewitness accounts and check out the potential for a successful missile hit. "We talked to Ted Otto and Steve Bongardt"two agents assigned by FBI assistant director James Kallstrom to examine the missile theory. "We picked missiles and ran computer simulations and shipped the data to Bongardt," the Voice source says. The data showed that virtually any postVietnam era shoulder-launched missile would have had the range and infrared seeker capability to reach the plane at 13,700 feet, he says.
But it was the eyewitness accounts that most impressed the expertthe investigation has compiled more than 100 eyewitness interviews reporting a streak of light ending in a flash or explosion, apparently contradicting the official scenario. "When we discussed this with the FBI, they said some of these people were very credible," he recalls.
"The most compelling account was from a female witness, as I remember, who reported something with a small flame rising from the ocean trailing a faint smoke trail. The flame was reported to have burned out after about six or seven seconds with a puff that was seen when it hit the aircraft at about 10 seconds. I can tell you that this testimony, if the recounting is accurate, is about as precise as you can get on what you would see from a shoulder-fired infrared SAM [surface-to-air missile]."
The accounts were so persuasive, he says, that Otto and Bongardt arranged a meeting in Washington, D.C., in late '96 to discuss them and other data. A high-powered group convened around the tablethe CIA and other military and intelligence agencies were represented but not the NTSB. "We took a vote, and almost everyone said the plane was shot down," the expert says. Only the CIA remained silent. "The CIA was very quiet." Someone asked if there was a warning prior to the disaster of a terrorist attack. "The CIA wouldn't say," he recalls.
Asked about this meeting, the FBI's Kallstrom says, "It never happened," though he allows, "There might have been a meeting where underlings were speculating, but I don't have any knowledge of it."
The CIA at the time was developing its theory that eyewitnesses to the crash saw not a missile but the burning plane itself as it reared up and climbed several thousand feet after the explosion. The Voice missile expert source has no patience with the CIA's point of view. He insists that the eyewitness accounts "are information that cannot be denied."