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 reason—at this point only a fiction writer could provide one—many 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 Voice as an intermediary for a missile expert with a story to tell. This expert is extremely fearful of losing his job—for 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 problem—it 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 post–Vietnam 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 expert—the 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 table—the 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.”
And there was more—the expert mentioned a videotape shot by a man on Long Island one night during the weeks preceding the crash, which appeared to show a rocket trail rising skyward. “The FBI showed it to us as interesting evidence,” the expert says. It looked like the trail of a missile, he adds. FBI assistant director Kallstrom, now retired from the agency, says he doesn’t recall any such video.
Later in the investigation, only a month or so before Kallstrom shut down the criminal investigation in late ’97 for lack of evidence, Bongardt called the missile expert and invited him to Calverton to view the wreckage. What he saw there hardened his suspicions.
“The left wing root near the center fuel tank was clearly a potential impact point, since much of it was missing or badly damaged,” he wrote in an e-mail. In an interview he added that together with the left-side wall of the center fuel tank and the left wing, these areas exhibited “a lot of damage which was not well explained, as far as we were concerned….The metal there looked like something very violent happened.”
The NTSB’s reports confirm the view that the damage on the left side of the plane was of a different order from the damage on the right side. While the left wing upper skin, for example, was shattered into many small fragments, most of the right wing was recovered in one large chunk that had to be cut up into several pieces before it would fit onto a flatbed truck for the journey from East Moriches to Calverton. In its Sequencing Report the NTSB says that the left wing damage is consistent with “extremely high-strain energy release associated with water impact,” but does not suggest why the right wing should have escaped similar damage.
The missile expert interviewed by the Voice says that part of the problem was a lack of time to thoroughly examine the debris for clues. In fact, he says his group proposed that the FBI extend its investigation to evaluate the left-side damage. “The recommendation was verbal and in a letter that we sent the FBI looking to do some additional work on the case with funding from the FBI,” he says. “They never replied.” Bongardt asked him for a formal report, he says, but before he could write it, Kallstrom ended the criminal probe.
Kallstrom told the Voice he doesn’t recall any military experts recommending an extension of the investigation. Kallstrom insists, “It was unanimous among all the experts” that nothing was seen in the damaged metal to warrant further scrutiny.
Kallstrom’s “unanimous” claim is open to dispute. Richard Bott, of the China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center, testified at a Baltimore hearing during the investigation that he had seen no evidence of a missile on any of the debris. But just a few days earlier he had signed off on a report, called “TWA Flight 800 Missile Impact Analysis,” in which he drew attention to what he called “unexplained damage characteristics” that “puzzled” investigators. He recommended further tests before conclusively ruling out a missile as the cause of this damage to the left wing upper skin, the left wing front spar, and the left side of the center fuel tank. Bott did not return repeated phone messages left by the Voice.
The missile expert the Voice interviewed says of the Bott report, “Much of what he states was brought up in discussions of our people.” The expert insists that those discussions took place over a year before he first heard of Bott and read his report.
Kallstrom is apparently indifferent to Bott’s concerns. He says, “I wouldn’t put much credence in that—I’ve got a huge pile of expert opinion to the contrary.”
The missile expert the Voice interviewed still insists that a forensic team should “take a real hard look” at the left side, and rule in or rule out a missile. But he also admits that the region of damage that would bear clues of the explosion of a shoulder-launched missile—which has a small warhead—would be quite small, and could easily be among the large areas of the left wing front spar and left side of the center fuel tank that are among the 5 percent of the plane that was never recovered.
Voice interviews with a number of metallurgists and experts in explosives confirmed that unless investigators are able to identify the area—perhaps only a few inches across—where the explosion first impinged on the metal, it’s impossible to tell what caused the structure to fail. One author of a book on explosives who has worked on government projects told the Voice, “You’re looking at something bent and fractured, but to tie it to a pressure source is very difficult.”
Several metallurgists suggested that explosive residue on the debris would point unambiguously to a high explosion. In August ’96, traces of PETN and RDX, both ingredients of the plastic explosive also found in some missile warheads, were indeed detected in recovered debris from Flight 800’s passenger cabin.
It seemed as if at last evidence had been found proving that a terrorist bomb or a missile had downed the aircraft. But shortly afterward it was claimed that a month before the crash the same 747 was used for a bomb-sniffing-dog exercise. Some of the explosives used, according to this account from the FBI, were apparently in poor condition and could easily have spilled.
This explanation was itself recently thrown into doubt by Victoria Cummock, a member of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, established by President Clinton in the wake of the ValuJet and TWA 800 disasters and chaired by Vice President Al Gore. Cummock, an advocate for victims’ families since her husband was killed on PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, told the Voice that when she asked at an FBI briefing to see the FAA log for the training exercise, “they said, ‘It’s not conclusive this particular plane was involved.’ They couldn’t produce the log.”
Nevertheless, Kallstrom says, “It’s absolutely confirmed that it was that plane.”
And there, with the dog-sniffing dispute between Cummock and the FBI, we have another juicy subplot within the larger enigma of the TWA Flight 800 story, which like any good spy novel should continue to tantalize until the final chapter.