The Mystery of TWA 800

by , July 18, 2013

It is sometimes easy to forget that the principal function of government, like any other organism, is to protect itself. In a perfect world a regime that has erred egregiously would admit to its mistake, apologize to the public, and make corrections to prevent any recurrence. By that measure, the United States should have long since declared the Iraq War to be a disaster of the first magnitude and stated its intention to never again engage in intervention and nation building anywhere at any time unless a genuine vital interest is actually threatened. Alas, a number of distinguished Republican Senators continue to insist that Washington brought something called democracy to Baghdad and the current incumbent in the White House appears unable to resist the urge to meddle in places like Libya and Syria, where the United States national interest would appear to be somewhat elusive.

The unwillingness to admit to grave errors and the willingness to lie about what has occurred also corrupts the entire government accountability process, which, in the U.S., has been virtually non-existent since 9/11 if not before. The government is always explaining itself, loath to admit that it has done wrong and, as a corollary, no one is ever to blame, least of all those who sit in the White House. The internalized inability to confront unpleasant truths has been aided and abetted by a general failure of the Fourth Estate to expose government malfeasance in any serious way, largely a product of the symbiotic relationship that has developed between the media and the decision makers in Washington, rather like remora feeding on the leftovers provided by sharks.

Nevertheless, one might expect that there will be an occasional story that might capture the imagination of the public and lead to serious inquiry about whether the government has been engaging in what might be considered a cover-up. The recent account of the downing of Trans World Airways flight 800 near Long Island, killing 230 passengers and crew, appeared to fit the bill. TWA flight 800, a 747 jumbo jet bound for Paris, blew up on July 17th 1996 when it was at an altitude of a little over 13,000 feet ascending in a take-off from JFK International in New York City. The cause of the crash has always been somewhat of a mystery, inspiring numerous conspiracy theories, but an exhaustive investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that the explosion that brought down the plane occurred after an electrical short ignited a fuel tank.

That might well have been the end of the story but for the about to be aired documentary film which actually interviews three experienced investigators on the NTSB panel who disagreed with the conclusions and are, to this day, convinced that the crash was caused by an outside explosion such as might result from a missile detonating. They cite eyewitness accounts, radar images, forensic evidence, physical damage assessments, and traces of explosive residue to make their case. They note that from an engineering perspective no other plane has ever experienced an exploding fuel tank caused by an electrical short. They point out that not one of the scores of witnesses on the ground was allowed to testify and claim that their own viewpoints were suppressed in the final report while they kept quiet for fear of losing their jobs. Now that they are retired they have spoken out. One might reasonably consider their arguments to be credible.

The NTSB has responded to the documentary by defending its original findings and it is certainly possible to argue that the three men are wrong, that the evidence points another way, but that is not necessarily the case being made. The mainstream media quickly registered its own judgment on the matter, killing the story in roughly 48 hours, possibly because it might lead to some alternative conclusions that could be considered disturbing about how the U.S. government operates when it is in its self-protect mode. Or it might even require questioning the somewhat restrained role of the press in reporting on the crash and its aftermath.

I might add for what it’s worth that it has long been rumored inside government intelligence and law enforcement circles that the investigation into the crash of TWA 800 was a cover-up and that the airplane was actually shot down by accident by a U.S. fighter on a training mission. Will we ever know for sure? Not likely.

There have been other odd stories about civilian airliners possibly being shot down leading to some dubious media reporting and allegations of official cover-ups. Korean Airlines Flight 007, which was undeniably brought down by Soviet missiles in 1983, was way off course when it was intercepted and there have been plausible claims that it actually was on a spy mission. In 1980 Italian domestic carrier Aerolinee Itavia Flight 870 exploded while flying from Bologna to Palermo, killing 81 passengers and crew. An exhaustive official investigation concluded that the plane was accidentally hit during a "military interception" operation, though the perpetrators were unidentified and the inquiry was eventually closed since it could not name anyone to blame. In 2008 the Italian Prime Minister at the time of the crash said the plane had been shot down by French warplanes. In January 2013, the Italian Court of Cassation, the country’s highest appeals court, declared that it was "abundantly clear" that the plane had been downed by a missile. France has never responded to the allegations and there have been quite plausible suggestions that the "military interception" might have actually involved a joint U.S.-French-Italian operation to bring down a Libyan airliner that was, at the same time as the crash of Flight 870, carrying Colonel Muammar Gaddhafi. The Libyan plane and the Itavia Flight were both McDonnell Douglas DC-9s

I was in the Rome CIA station when the incident occurred and I can recall some hallway chatter about there being "international complications" relating to the crash, though the precise details were apparently only shared with the Ambassador, Chief of Station, and Defense Attache on an "eyes only" basis. The theory about a military operation gone wrong gains weight from the subsequent appearances in court of four former Italian Air Force generals who were charged with falsifying documents relating to the investigation and refusing to cooperate with the judicial authorities. Two of the men were even charged with "high treason." Though the four were in the end not convicted of anything, a Palermo court later exploited the case to impose a 100 million Euro civil damages judgment against the Italian government for concealing the truth and destroying evidence, a sum of money that was eventually paid to the families of those killed in the crash.

Unlike TWA 800 and the U.S. press, there has been a continuing lively interest in the European media regarding Itavia 870, possibly a tribute to the Italian public’s painfully acquired belief that its government is, of course, nearly always lying and covering up about nearly everything. Most Americans, in spite of the travails of the past twelve years, would apparently prefer to think otherwise in spite of the contrary evidence so the story of TWA 800 hardly resonates and is easily pushed to the back burners prior to once again disappearing completely down the memory hole. Should one ask if the United States military just might have accidentally shot down a civilian airliner and then initiated a cover-up? It could seem preposterous to think that that should have occurred, but most certainly the question ought to be asked, particularly when credible witnesses have surfaced who claim that to be a distinct possibility.

Read more by Philip Giraldi