Sunday, July 17th, marked the 15th anniversary of the explosion of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island, New York at approximately 8:30 p.m., 12 minutes after it left New York’s Kennedy Airport heading for Paris, killing all 230 people aboard. To commemorate this tragic event, AIM gathered a group of people who have looked into this event, each bringing his own insights and knowledge of the case to the table. Those participating on AIM’s show on BlogTalkRadio, “Take AIM,” on July 14th included John Clarke, an attorney who has worked on this case in several capacities since 1997; Jack Cashill, a journalist and producer who has co-written a book and produced a documentary on the subject; and Retired Captain Mike Larkin, a former Air Force pilot who later became a TWA pilot for more than 30 years, and who often piloted TWA 800 from New York to Paris. I hosted the show, and have produced and written a documentary on the subject called “TWA 800: The Search for the Truth.”
This story carries significance for me because when I first came to work at AIM in May of 1997, Reed Irvine, the now deceased AIM founder and then-chairman had just recently gotten involved in the case. What was so interesting was that in addition to the government’s theory of what happened, there were at least two other valid theories of what might have actually happened to the plane, once it became clear that the evidence indicated that TWA 800 had been shot down. One we’ll call the terrorist scenario, the other, a Navy exercise gone wrong. In either case, the government was going to great lengths to cover it up.
This was Reed Irvine practicing investigative journalism the way it is meant to be done. It involved testing evidence that was presented to him by applying logic and reason, as well as physically putting the evidence and theories to the test. It involved using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and dogged persistence to obtain government documents, such as the FBI 302s, which were the eyewitness testimony from 736 people who witnessed the explosion on a clear night at dusk. It normally took months and sometimes years to receive the FOIA requested documents, which often came redacted, meaning the names and findings they didn’t want us to see were blacked out.
In one instance, Reed was studying one of the eyewitness statements, and he noticed the word “wire” with a small “w,” but in context, it appeared to be a name of a person rather than actual wire. Throughout the rest of the document, the name of the eyewitness was blacked out, though it gave the name of the city he lived in. By calling up information (411), Reed discovered that there was a Mike Wire living there, and called him. This turned out to be one of the most important discoveries in the truth-seeking process in which AIM was engaged.
Wire, as it turned out, was a millwright, taking a break from working on a bridge near the beach on Long Island, NY. When a co-worker told the FBI what Wire had witnessed, they went to his home and interviewed him. It turned out that in a CIA created animation, Wire’s perspective and statement was used to explain that what the eyewitnesses actually saw was burning fuel coming down from the plane, after the initial explosion, rather than a missile headed toward the plane.
The problem, however, was that the narrated CIA animation, which was shown on national television when the government was about to make its final determination of what happened, falsely characterized what Wire said he saw, and how many times they had interviewed him. He had said that he saw “a white light that was traveling skyward from the ground at approximately a 40 degree angle,” and then an “orange light that appeared to be a fireball,” which was the explosion. He never realized that it was him they were talking about in the CIA video until he received the call from Irvine some three years later.
AIM then filed a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Through dogged detective work, interviewing experts and assembling the right people, including former high ranking military men, AIM and its investigators chipped away at the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) conclusion that the cause of the explosion was a spark in the center-wing fuel tank caused by an unknown source, that ignited fumes in the tank from the jet fuel that was left in the tank.
Those military men included former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Thomas Moorer, who openly stated, “There’s no question about the fact that that airplane was shot down.” Capt. Al Mundo, who flew the plane from Athens, Greece to New York’s Kennedy Airport, personally purged the center-wing fuel tank in preparation for its next trip, scheduled for Paris on that fateful day.
AIM Relentlessly Pursued the Story
Irvine was asked why this story was so important to AIM, and he responded that “it gets to the heart of the question, can we have a government that is so dishonest that it covers up the cause of a tragedy that kills 230 people.” Reed’s patriotism stemmed from his time as a Marine Intelligence officer in World War II, and his pragmatism and pursuit of the truth, supported by evidence, came from his 28 years as an economist with the Federal Reserve.
There were numerous people whose individual stories made up the components, and the sidebars, of the mystery of TWA Flight 800. Jim Sanders was the cop whose wife, Liz, worked for TWA. She was given some fabric from the wreckage that proved to contain explosive residue. Jim became the leading proponent of the theory that the plane was brought down by a Naval exercise gone wrong.
Evidence included records showing that there was an area that was “hot” at that time, Whiskey 105, where a Navy exercise was taking place. The area was within range for a missile to strike the plane. Radar data later released showed curious activity by the boats and ships engaged in the exercise, and the Navy was put in charge of finding the wreckage, even though it would take their ships much longer to get to the scene than a private salvage vessel that was already in the area. But that would have made it much more difficult to keep the information about the missile from becoming known. In March 1997, President Clinton issued executive order 13039, which withdrew the protection provided by the Whistleblower Protection Act to certain government employees. It seemed that the White House was trying to keep the public from learning of evidence that one or more missiles had hit TWA Flight 800.
The leading investigator into the theory that this was a terrorist attack was Cmdr. Bill Donaldson, a former Navy crash investigator, who AIM worked with and supported during the course of his investigation. ABC’s Good Morning America reported the morning after the flight went down that there had been a letter faxed to the London and Washington D.C. offices of an Arab language newspaper claiming to be from a group called The Islamic Change Movement. The letter said that the Movement would “give a decisive reply to the threats of the stupid American president and everyone will be surprised by the size of the response and mujahidin’s choice of the time and place.”
This was the same group that had claimed credit for blowing up the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia just a month earlier, killing 19 American service members, and wounding 372.
Another significant player in this story was Hank Hughes, a senior NTSB investigator who testified at a Senate hearing before Sen. Chuck Grassley’s committee about the strange activities of an FBI agent in the hangar in Calverton, Long Island where the pieces of the wreckage of the plane were being put back together for the purpose of attempting to figure out what happened. Hughes told Grassley’s committee that “I saw him in the middle of the hangar with a hammer in the process of trying to flatten a piece of wreckage. In investigative work you do not alter evidence.” Hughes also charged that evidence was being removed from the hangar. He said that they took a complete inventory, and “Not to our surprise, we found that seats were missing and other evidence had been disturbed.”
CBS Involved in the Cover-up?
Kristina Borjesson was an award-winning producer for CBS News, when she was assigned to look into the TWA 800 story. But eventually she lost her job when she challenged the official version of what happened. Evidence from her initial investigation led her to believe there was a missile involved, and she wanted CBS to report what she had found. CBS refused, Borjesson kept pressing, and it finally cost her her job. She wrote about it in a book she edited called Into the Buzzsaw.
There were a number of articles this year marking the 15th anniversary of this tragic event. Most of the articles focused on families and friends of the deceased, gathering for an ocean-side ceremony to remember the victims. While some of the stories brought up the fact that there were questions raised at the time as to whether the plane was blown up by a bomb or missile, they ultimately accepted the findings of the NTSB which “concluded the plane was destroyed by a center fuel tank explosion, likely caused by a spark from a wiring short-circuit that ignited vapors in the tank.”
The eyewitnesses were explained away, according to an AP article, as having actually seen “a piece of the plane itself that had broken off in an initial blast that preceded an even larger explosion.” In fact, the findings were that following that “center fuel tank explosion,” the nose fell off, the fuselage rose approximately 3,000 feet, and the eyewitnesses actually saw burning fuel and debris coming down, not a missile flying towards the doomed flight. Or, “a piece of the plane that had broken off.” Regarding the eyewitnesses, there were at least 260 who saw something streaking toward the plane, of whom 96 actually saw it rise from the surface.
After my documentary came out, I was contacted by no less than a half a dozen TWA pilots, each one who said to keep it up, we were on the right track. But none of them wanted to go on the record and make their name public until recently, when I heard from the aforementioned Michael Larkin.
I did a show and wrote about this last year as well, which focused on Ray Lahr and his lawsuit, litigated by John Clarke, challenging the findings of the NTSB. Lahr is a former Navy pilot, engineer and crash investigator, who spent more than 30 years with United Air Lines, including 20 years as a safety representative for the Air Line Pilots Association.
AIM will continue to follow this story until hopefully, as former TWA pilot Mike Larkin said during this show, the President or Congress gets the courage to demand the release of all the evidence, including satellite images from that evening that he believes exist that would reveal the truth of what happened. According to Larkin, who was a friend and former roommate in the Air Force of the pilot of the downed TWA 800 flight, “definitely, a missile brought the airplane down.” Larkin is also a poet, and he read a poem during the show that he wrote about TWA 800, which is included in the transcript.
Also, Jack Cashill discussed new insights into President Clinton’s thinking on this matter just weeks after it occurred.
Below, in italics, are excerpts of the discussion from “Take AIM.” You can listen to a podcast of the show or read the complete transcript here:
Without Accuracy in Media, this case would have died years ago. You guys were the ones who sustained it. You know, this happened in ’96, just before the Internet matured, but had this happened ten years later, they could not have gotten away with what they did. They simply couldn’t have. But, at the time, The New York Times controlled the whole information flow, and the FBI was speaking exclusively with The New York Times, so they could control the information, and they did.
…on the question of who fired that missile, I still remain agnostic. I don’t feel like I have enough information conclusively to blame someone. I have suspicions, and I know what the evidence is, but I’m reluctant to go any further than that. In the book First Strike—by the way, in our documentary, Silenced, we’re fully silent on the question of who fired the missiles
Mike Larkin (former TWA pilot)
I think the FBI knows what happened—they had a satellite parked out over New York that night that would have filmed the entire event. Those films are locked up at Langley….So any time the Congress gets the courage to demand the FBI release the evidence they have locked up, we’ll know who’s responsible.
What convinced me that a cover-up was taking place was when Major Meyer, the helicopter pilot, and his co-pilot were out there, hovering, just waiting for darkness to put on their goggles and do a night training exercise. Meyer was a combat veteran. He knows what ordnance looks like. He and his first officer both saw the missiles. First of all, the FBI wasn’t interested in talking to him. They sent some flunky out to him with a pad, didn’t even copy down what Major Meyer had to say, and then never followed up with him at all. So it was obvious that there was a cover-up taking place. We don’t know who the Clinton administration was covering for, whether it was Iran or the Navy. But definitely, a missile brought the airplane down.
To my mind, the government’s explanation is the most damning piece of evidence. As you mentioned, the CIA put out a video that they released to the national news, played on all three networks and CNN, depicting the nose of the aircraft being blown off from the center fuel tank explosion—incidentally, that fuel tank was empty—then falling off, and two-thirds of the aircraft climbing 3,000 feet. It’s absolutely ludicrous! And it’s impossible—when we filed Ray Lahr’s Freedom of Information act suit, we had 29 witnesses, a dozen experts, and they all said that it was impossible. Number one, it’s impossible for the fuel tank to have exploded, but, more importantly, if the nose had actually been blown off, and the balance of the aircraft had remained intact, it’s absolutely impossible for the aircraft to have climbed. It would have stalled right away.
Well, I followed this along as a lay person, not as an investigator, but I think that this mystery could be cleared up very easily if the President—or perhaps our new President—orders the FBI to release the tapes of the satellite that evening. I think that would answer everyone’s questions real quickly… Someone knows the answer.
I hate to say it, but they’ve gotten away with it. They’ve won. I don’t know right now what could happen, except—you know, my serious greatest hope is that Jim Kallstrom [FBI]—who’s got to be a tortured soul after all these years, because he was not a bad guy, he’s a former Marine, he didn’t want to do what he did…this has got to be weighing on his conscience. It’ll take someone like that to come forward and say—probably on his death bed—“Enough.”
In 1996, if they could cover up, what I think pretty clearly are 230 homicides, even if it was an accident—it would be reckless disregard of the safety of others if it was a military exercise in the most heavily trafficked air spaces in the world, that would be homicide—if you could cover that up, resulting in 230 deaths seen by 600 people, when the news media was better off than it is now, I think that sort of drives the point home of why this is important now.•
Dear Fellow Media Watchdogs:
TWA 800 was the first big project I worked on at AIM, and it was just coming together when I arrived here in May of 1997. Watching Reed Irvine work on this was a Master Class in investigative journalism. It involved bringing experts together to discuss and analyze the evidence. There were Freedom of Information Act requests seeking original documents from the Clinton administration, which was acting like it had something to hide. There were tips coming in, some bogus, some genuine. We scoured the FBI 302s, the eyewitness statements, for any undiscovered threads to pull to help unravel the mystery. AIM held press conferences, and organized the Association of Retired Aviation Professionals to add weight and credibility to the challenge we were making to the government’s increasingly untenable position. AIM is still doing important investigative journalism through our new Center for Investigative Journalism, headed up by AIM veteran reporter Cliff Kincaid.
The voting is in from the House and Senate, but opinions are sharply divided among both conservatives and liberals as to whether or not the debt ceiling deal was a good one for either party or country. Wall Street’s first response was quite negative, with the Dow down 265 points on the day the Senate sent the bill to the White House.
What I found most appalling was the inaccurate and misleading reporting by many in the media. They continuously talked about a countdown to “default,” when that was never an option, and President Obama knew it. He reportedly conveyed that to Wall Street bankers. Talk of reducing the “deficit” by trillions of dollars continued as well. The deficit refers to a single year, beyond that it is called “debt.”
The left-wing media and blogosphere cracked over this issue, constantly saying that Tea Party activists and Republicans who stood firm against this deal were terrorists, or muggers or hijackers. And they claimed to be quite distressed that President Obama, as they saw it, had caved. Others believe Obama shrewdly accomplished his goal, namely forcing the Republicans to share in the responsibility for the lousy economy, and not having to face another debt ceiling act before the 2012 election.
No one seems too happy with this deal, other than the fact that a deal was finally reached. The question for all sides is whether this battle was pivotal and will dictate the direction the country is headed, or whether it was just one fairly minor battle in a much larger ideological war that will be decided in the House, the Senate and the White House in 2012.
For Accuracy in Media Roger Aronoff
Debt Crisis Politics
By James F. Davis
Mark Twain once wrote, “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.” Many have seen this quote but few know that Twain was a Congressional reporter for three years. He knew of what he wrote.
President Obama presented his only written budget proposal earlier this year. It was so “over the top” in wasteful government spending that not even one Democrat in the Senate voted for it, nor did any Republican. The vote was 97-0 against his budget proposal!
The President has also yet to put in writing anything he is willing to cut even though tax revenues are only about 60% of what the government is spending. Government spending increased 24% during his first two years as President with the Democrats controlling both houses of Congress. There has been a staggering $8.5 trillion in new spending since he took office! Where did it all go?
His media buddies have been very good about not asking him for any specific cuts. They love his vague sound bites that give no specifics. It is much easier to criticize Republican proposals.
Neither political party’s leaders are addressing the federal government’s huge deficit spending in any meaningful way. At this time it appears that both party’s congressional leaders are willing to give the President another $1 trillion in exchange for a promise to pay back one tenth of that each year for the next 10 years, starting in 2013.
Simply put, take the new money and we hope you pay it back, even though you have no history of ever paying anything back. There is no deal to cut any federal spending. And next year Congress can change its mind about reducing the budget by the $100 billion-a-year as promised. And even if it does reduce spending by $100 billion-a-year (less that 1% of the national debt), the net effect is still an increase in our national debt!
Most people do not realize that when Democrats talk about draconian cuts they are referring to cutting the rate of increase, e.g., from 6% to 5% a year. Senator Rand Paul has suggested that we freeze all government spending now and cut it 1% a year until expenditures match revenues and we have a balanced budget.
Rand’s simple, logical, effective way of keeping our government solvent has been demonized by party leaders as extreme. Are there any responsible elected representatives besides Senators Paul and DeMint and Conservative Tea Party legislators?
President Obama said the U.S. would default on its debt if he did not get a massive increase in the debt limit by August 2nd. Why? Because he wanted to pretend the problem was solved so he could have a big 50th birthday bash on August 4th. He did not want to have to deal with unimportant things like the collapsing U.S. economy.
The President is well aware that he was lying about the default. He knew there would be no debt default if he just followed the law according to the Constitution.
The massive $1 trillion stimulus package was used largely to pay government workers salaries and benefits. There has been a net loss of 7 million jobs since the Democrats took over both houses of Congress in 2007.
The U.S. economy shrank by 5.1%. The national debt increased from $8.7 trillion to $14.6 trillion since 2007, a 32% increase!
Despite the debt ceiling outcome, the U.S.’s credit rating will probably be downgraded by the non-political credit agencies for the simple reason that it is obvious that the majority of our elected officials are not willing to make substantial cuts, because they are more interested in getting reelected than they are in the future of our country. We do not have the cash flow to pay back our debts and the financial analysts know it. They also know that a national policy based on envy, i.e., “tax the rich” will keep the real creators of prosperity from risking their savings to create new jobs.•
James F. Davis is a Director of Accuracy in Media. He was an international banker for 20 years. Positions held include head of the International, Latin America and Real Estate Divisions.
Despite Glowing Profile of NY Times Publisher, Paper Still has Problems
By Don Irvine and Michael Watson
In an article published on July 24th on New York magazine’s website, writer Seth Mnookin said that The New York Times is no longer on the verge of extinction, thanks to recent efforts of longtime publisher and Chairman Arthur Ochs “Pinch” Sulzberger, Jr., claiming that the “digital subscription plan—the famous ‘paywall’—was working better than anyone had dared to hope.”
Mnookin focused on the latest quarterly earnings report from the paper to back up his assertion that the worst is over for the Times, despite what critics thought would sink the paper. Unfortunately for Sulzberger, the markets are not nearly as convinced as New York magazine is of the success of the Times’ new business model. Although the Times’ parent company, The New York Times Company, saw the value of its stock rise slightly when its losses were lower than Wall Street projected, the company’s stock has still lost 13% of its value over the past six months. For comparison, the S&P 500 index has gained 4% over that interval.
According to the website, News&Tech, The New York Times Co. said it lost more than $119 million in the second quarter of 2011, largely because of a write-down of $161 million, reflecting the declining value of its Regional Media Group, which runs its regional papers. It said that excluding the write-down, the Times posted a profit of $82.9 million on revenues of $576 million.
Mnookin also mentioned the early repayment of a $250 million loan that the Times received from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helu in 2009 as another sign of improving health. But as Times CFO Jim Folio noted on a recent earnings conference call, this was largely due to the fact that the company raised an additional $225 million last year through the sale of bonds, combined with the net proceeds of $117 million from the recent sale of a portion of their ownership in the Fenway Sports Group, which owns the Boston Red Sox. The repayment of the loan will cost the company $279 million in total and will reduce the cash on hand to approximately $240 million, or about $160 million less than they had at the end of last year.
While prepaying the loan will save the Times a significant amount of money over the next three years it was done at the risk of lowering the paper’s cash cushion at a time when advertising revenue is still declining. Add to that the unfunded pension liability of $270 million and you have a company that is still struggling.
If Mnookin is correct that Sulzberger has saved the paper from extinction and put it back on the right path, then why didn’t Sulzberger lobby for the return of a dividend since the company reported profits of $234 million last year? Even a small payout by the company would back up their public pronouncements of the company’s return to health and instill confidence on Wall Street that management actually has a strategy in place to keep the newspaper operating for the foreseeable future.
The one bright spot for the Times appears to be their digital subscription model. According to the Times they now have 224,000 digital subscribers plus another 57,000 on the Kindle and Nook (their stated goal was 300,000 subscribers in the first year). While that seems like a success since the paper only started charging for online access in March, it isn’t clear how much revenue these basic digital subscribers are generating, thanks to a dizzying array of subscription choices offered by the Times. And since overall revenue numbers have barely budged it is apparent that the revenues are negligible at this time.
Meanwhile, Sulzberger managed to bungle another paper of record, after overseeing the purchase of The Boston Globe in 1993 for $1.1 billion. The Globe is now worth a fraction of that and has seen losses in recent years of as much as $85 million in a single year. To make matters worse, the company cannot even decide if the Globe is for sale.
Mnookin also touched on troubles News Corporation is experiencing, perhaps to favorably contrast the Times’ state of affairs. Mnookin even delights in arguing that the Times was “critical” in breaking open the scandal. But although News Corp has seen its stock price fall since the phone hacking scandal gained traction this month, their Wall Street Journal is the highest-circulation daily newspaper in the United States. In the latest numbers released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations in May, the Journal more than doubled the Times’ average daily circulation.
New York magazine might prefer the Ochs-Sulzberger monarchy and might think The Wall Street Journal, no longer owned by the Bancroft family, “has gone to seed,” but consumers do not think so. It is not likely that the UK-based phone hacking scandal will cause the Journal’s circulation to fall significantly, and News Corp’s share price has already stabilized after losing value during the height of the scandal.•