Accuracy in Media

James Traficant, a maverick Democratic congressman from Ohio, has been peppering the FBI and National Transportation Safety Board with questions relating to the crash of TWA Flight 800 for the past year. Many of his questions were supplied by Bill Donaldson, the retired Navy pilot, who has been highly critical of the way in which the official investigation of the TWA Flt. 800 crash was handled and the conclusions it reached.

For months, Donaldson worked on a detailed report on the causes of the crash for Traficant, who was supposed to submit it to the House Aviation Subcommittee. Donaldson released his 109-page report on July 20. In it, he argued that the evidence showed that TWA Flt. 800 had been destroyed by two powerful surface to air missiles. But without warning, Traficant rushed out a skinny 20-page report five days ahead of Donaldson. In it, he made a complete flip-flop.

This severe critic of the official investigation suddenly came out praising the FBI and expressing his agreement with the conclusion that the plane was not brought down by a missile. His report brushed aside the testimony of 115 credible eyewitnesses who said they had seen a rocket-like object streaking upward just before explosions blew TWA Flight 800 out of the sky.

Traficant, normally a hard-headed, commonsense kind of guy, bought the theory that these eyewitnesses had actually seen the jumbo jet, trailing burning fuel, climbing 3,000 feet after its center wing fuel tank exploded and blew off the plane’s nose. Paul Marcone, Traficant’s chief of staff who wrote the report, told me that he believed this theory because the eyewitnesses were 10 miles or more from the crash site and visibility was poor. He said that at that distance, the aircraft would have appeared to be so low on the horizon that when the noseless plane rocketed upward, it appeared to those many miles away that it was rising from the surface of the ocean.

But Marcone overlooked the fact that most of the eyewitnesses reported seeing the object ascending just off the southern shore of Long Island, not far from where they were. They tracked it as it streaked up, up and away. At an altitude of nearly 14,000 feet, where it exploded and blew TWA Flight 800 out of the sky, it appeared to be low on the horizon to eyewitnesses 10 miles away, but they knew that was miles from where they had first spotted it.

It’s amazing that anyone with as much commonsense as Traficant would buy the idea that 115 people would mistake a severely damaged and burning 747, ten miles off shore, for a rocket ascending from a launch point close to the shore. If all 115 observers were accurate in their observations only 25 percent of the time, the chances of them all being wrong in claiming that they saw a missile going up would be one out of 233 trillion. The FBI, the NTSB, the CIA and Jim Traficant ignore those odds and claim those people were all mistaken.

We’ll have more on this in our next commentary.

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