The explosion of a Russian airliner over the Black Sea on October 4 has raised an interesting question relating to the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island five years ago. Both planes exploded and crashed into the sea. Flight 800 was still in its ascent, at 13,800 feet, and it was only 10 miles off the shore of Long Island. Its crash was witnessed by hundreds of people who have been questioned by the FBI about what they saw. Many of them said they had seen what must have been a missile either rising from the surface or high in the sky streaking toward the airliner just before it blew up.
The Russian airliner was over 30,000 feet above the Black Sea, and as far as we know, no eyewitnesses saw the crash. But U.S. satellites apparently did. It was reported the next day that Defense Department satellites equipped with infrared sensors detected a missile launched by Ukrainian troops on the Crimean peninsula which U.S. intelligence officials believed hit the airliner. The government of Ukraine acknowledged that a training exercise involving missiles was being conducted at the time, but they insisted that none of their missiles could have shot down the Russian plane. Russian investigators have found small metal balls from the missile’s warhead in the bodies of the victims. President Kuchma of Ukraine now says he will accept the findings of the investigation.
In 1996, the U.S. had two KH-11 satellites in polar orbit. Their infrared sensors have a resolution down to a few inches. Ray Lahr, a TWA Flight 800 afficionado, has pointed out that if one of those two satellites was over New York on July 17, 1996, there is a lot of information about TWA 800 that has not been released. Apparently one of them was able to record images of the TWA 800 crash. Request for that imagery or descriptions of it have been made under the Freedom of Information Act to both the Department of Defense and the CIA. Both have acknowledged that they have the images, but they have refused to release them or descriptions of them to the public.
In rejecting an FOIA request last January, the CIA claimed that information was exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. It cited exemptions (b)(1) and (b)(3), which cover material that must be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy and for the protection of intelligence sources and methods. The CIA has actively propagated the government’s claim that the TWA 800 crash was the result of a fuel-tank explosion. It is hard to see why releasing satellite images of an airliner fuel tank exploding would imperil national security, damage our foreign relations or reveal anything not already known about the use of satellites.
The CIA devoted a lot of time and money to the production of a video that was crafted to prove that the hundreds of eyewitnesses who thought they saw a missile streaking toward the airliner actually saw nothing but the airliner itself. The CIA claims that it rocketed upward after its entire front end was broken off and that the eyewitnesses mistook it for a missile. That claim and the video that presented it have been the subject of a lot of ridicule by people who are knowledgeable about aeronautics. It was not at all convincing.
If the CIA has satellite imagery of what transpired and the pictures show that there were no missiles anywhere near the airliner when it blew up, they could have used those pictures to make their case. It would have been far more convincing and would have cost them nothing. The speed with which the government released the information about the Ukrainian missile, which no doubt offended the Ukrainians and showed them our intelligence capabilities, exposes the absurdity of the CIA’s excuses for not releasing the pictures.
The press officer for the National Transportation Safety Board says that they examined the satellite images but they were of no help in determining the cause of the crash. He said they did not retain them or keep any records of what they showed. The member of the staff who gave him that information refuses to be interviewed, and Mrs. Marion Blakey, the new NTSB chairman, also seems to think that not returning calls is the safest policy.
Apparently the satellite imagery is not being released because it does for TWA Flight 800 what it did for the Russian airliner. It tells the truth that governments want to hide.