The American Spectator
The Ongoing Dissent over
John B. Roberts II
The White House, with help from a Republican
Senator, is sitting on evidence that could point to terrorism in the
1996 jet explosion. an FBI official has become a scapegoat in the
cover-up. and the mystery remains unsolved.
It was billed as an investigation of the investigators.
On May 10, 1999, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) held a one-day hearing
with witnesses offering damaging testimony about the Federal Bureau of
Investigation's role in the TWA 800 probe. Grassley's opening remarks
were particularly critical of former FBI Assistant Director James
Kallstrom for failing to uncover the cause of the explosion that killed
the jumbo jet's 230 passengers and crew on July 17, 1996.
Grassley's hearing focused on two star witnesses. One
was Andrew Vita, assistant director of field operations for the Bureau
of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF). The second was William A.
Tobin, former chief metallurgist for the FBI. Both supported Grassley's
claim that Kallstrom needlessly prolonged the probe.
Vita testified that several months into the
investigation the BATF concluded there was no evidence that high
explosives caused TWA 800's mid-air disintegration. In late January,
1997, Vita put the BATF's views in an unsolicited, written report to be
submitted to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). But, Vita
testified, he "met resistance" from the FBI. Grassley says Kallstrom
suppressed the report and never forwarded it to the NTSB.
James Kallstrom, now retired from the FBI after an
exemplary 28-year career, rebuts the charge as "a bald-faced lie."
In a series of interviews for this article, Kallstrom
shed new light on the investigation. Normally tight-lipped and
unaccustomed to airing investigative detail in public, Kallstrom has
been forced to defend the FBI probe and his personal integrity.
He pointed to problems with the BATF report, which he
rejected as " premature." At the time it was written, tons of TWA 800
still lay underwater. Kallstrom also had problems with the BATF
"The report was sophomoric," he told me, "in its science
and in its writing. "
But his biggest beef with the BATF was that the flawed
report would be poisonous in a courtroom. If the FBI eventually was able
to identify suspects and bring them to trial, the report, because it had
the weight of a government agency behind it, was precisely the kind of
exhibit defense lawyers would parade before a jury to refute the
"A defense attorney would have taken that report and
jammed it twenty feet up my (expletive deleted)," Kallstrom said.
Nonetheless, Kallstrom informed
the NTSB about the report soon after he reviewed it. To his surprise,
the NTSB already had a copy. The BATF had apparently delivered the
report through back channels.
Grassley did not explore one
explanation for BATF's hasty conclusion and independent delivery of the
report to the NTSB. The BATF opinion was written about three weeks
before Vice President Gore's White House Commission on Aviation Safety
and Security, formed just after TWA 800's explosion, submitted its
February 12, 1997 final report.
By January 1997, Gore's staff
knew the watered-down draft security measures in the White House
Commission's final report would be heavily criticized by passenger
safety advocates. That criticism would become an acute political
embarrassment if the FBI later found solid proof that terrorists
destroyed TWA 800.
The BATF report gave Gore
political cover to back-track from tough security measures recommended
in an interim Commission report of September 1996. With the FBI probe
ongoing, Gore could fall back on the BATF report to explain why he
didn't feel the need for stiffer security recommendations in the final
report of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security.
"ATF played a very political role," Kallstrom says. He
calls the incident just one example of unusual collusion between the
NTSB and other players in the TWA 800 investigation.
Grassley's other star witness, former FBI metallurgist
Bill Tobin, is even more problematic.
Tobin testified that Kallstrom adamantly believed a bomb
destroyed TWA 800. When traces of the high explosives PETN and RDX were
found on the aircraft, Tobin says Kallstrom claimed it was proof of a
bomb. Tobin thought otherwise. About six weeks into the probe, Tobin
testified, he decided there was no evidence of terrorist act and told
Kallstrom the crash was an accident.
Kallstrom had problems with Tobin's analysis. There were
two possible ways terrorists might have destroyed TWA 800. One was a
bomb, and the other was a missile. Tobin, says Kallstrom, had no
experience in the forensic damage caused by missiles. Nor did he have
the expertise to analyze aircraft wreckage after deterioration from
prolonged salt-water immersion. Tobin's experience was limited to bomb
damage on dry ground.
There was another problem. At the time of Tobin's
conclusion, much of TWA 800 lay unrecovered. Larry Johnson, a former
State Department counter- terrorism official directly involved in the
Pan Am 103 case, says the volume of debris found by investigators in
that case proved the bomb used was so small it could be "spread out on a
kitchen table top." With tons of the plane still missing, Kallstrom
felt Tobin's conclusion was unprofessional.
Kallstrom says he dismissed Tobin from the probe. He
didn't trust the judgment of an investigator who reached conclusions
while so much aircraft wreckage still lay on the ocean floor.
Grassley may not have known that Tobin's criticism of
James Kallstrom could have been personally motivated. Nor did he seem
aware that the BATF report may have been politically motivated. If he
did know his witnesses' shortcomings, Senator Grassley didn't admit it.
In a hearing that appears designed solely to get newspaper headlines,
Grassley pronounced TWA 800 a closed case.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The NTSB hasn't finished its investigation. While
Grassley's hearing was underway, scientists commissioned two years ago
by the NTSB were still working at CalTech and the University of Nevada
to formulate a plausible explanation for the mysterious explosion of Jet
A fuel in TWA 800's center fuel tank. This research is critical to the
accidental explosion theory.
According to a Boeing spokesman, the record of all 747
takeoffs and landings shows only one accidental detonation of a center
fuel tank. If it was an accident, TWA 800's explosion was a one-in-12
In the three years since TWA 800's crash, NTSB Chairman
James Hall has not found the answer to the mystery of the center fuel
tank's ignition. But he has found powerful congressional allies. On May
6, a few days before Grassley's hearing, Chairman John Duncan (R-Tenn.)
and other members of the House Subcommittee on Aviation enthusiastically
supported dramatic budget and staffing increases for NTSB. Like
Grassley's Senate counterpart, the House hearing was used to silence
NTSB critics and marginalize competing explanations of the crash as
far-out conspiracy theories.
Neither Grassley nor Duncan pressed Hall to answer still
unresolved questions on Hall's and the vice president's roles in raising
more than $500, 000 in soft-money contributions from the airline
industry for the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection effort--at a time when the
White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security was considering
security measures which could have cost the industry $1 billion.
Grassley's headline-grabbing probe scapegoated Kallstrom
as though he had operated on his own authority, depicting him as a rogue
cop running out of control. At best, Grassley's portrayal of Kallstrom
is a caricature. At worst, it is character assassination.
Throughout the 17 months of the active FBI probe,
Kallstrom operated with the full support of the Justice Department and
the White House. On three separate occasions, Kallstrom personally
briefed President Clinton on the probe. At key junctures, the FBI and
the NTSB reached a deadlock. Each time, the impasse was broken by White
House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta acting in the name of the president.
The summer of 1996 was tense at the White House. In the
weeks leading up to the July 17 explosion of TWA 800, Ramzi Yousef,
mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing and architect of a plot to
blow up 12 U.S. jumbo jetliners on a single day, was on trial in New
"We were in an extremely high state of threat," recalls
James Kallstrom. " We had numerous generic threats."
As the Atlanta Summer Olympics neared, the government's
counter-terrorist apparatus went on high alert. Richard Clark, terrorism
coordinator for the National Security Council, had reviewed an
escalating number of terrorist threats. The NSC briefed the
Transportation Department's aviation security team about the threats.
Alarmed at the danger, the Federal Aviation Administration pressed for
extraordinary security measures on airplanes and at airports. The FBI
terrorism task force was placed on ready standby for immediate
"The White House was extremely, extremely edgy,"
Kallstrom recounts. "They were dusting off the contingency plans."
No single White House staffer was responsible for
aviation security. Kitty Higgins, then assistant to the president and
cabinet affairs secretary, stepped in to coordinate the numerous
agencies involved. She convened an aviation security working group to
meet at the White House, and the group's first meeting took place on
At 8:19 p.m. that very evening, TWA 800 mysteriously
exploded off the Long Island shore.
Twelve minutes after the explosion, the FBI duty agent
dialed the number for Kallstrom's beeper. Kallstrom was at dinner at the
Friar's Club, celebrating the appointment of former New York City Police
Commissioner Ray Kelly as undersecretary of the treasury.
Kallstrom mobilized the terrorism task force, and within
24 hours fielded 1, 000 FBI agents and federal investigative personnel.
The possible crime scene encompassed some 2,000 square miles, with more
than 200 eyewitnesses and literally thousands of leads to examine.
So began a contentious, three-year, $35-million
government-wide probe carried out under White House oversight by the
NTSB, the FBI, the Defense Department, the Central Intelligence Agency,
the Transportation Department, the Coast Guard, the Defense Intelligence
Agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, the BATF, and numerous
state and local agencies and law enforcement organizations.
From the beginning, James Kallstrom thought that
terrorists were responsible. The sudden halt to voice transmissions from
the cockpit before the explosion was consistent with the pattern of Pan
Am 103. So was the mid- air disintegration of the aircraft.
Before he was arrested for the World Trade Center
bombing, Ramzi Yousef had experimented with various techniques for
destroying large passenger aircraft. These techniques involved placing a
small bomb over the center fuel tank to ignite the low-volatility Jet A
fuel and thus produce a catastrophic explosion. Yousef was experimenting
with new, liquid-explosive bombs so difficult to detect they could be
easily smuggled past airport magnetometers. Such bombs would leave
little or no trace.
Kallstrom knew time was the enemy. The longer aircraft
aluminum remains in salt water, the more likely that resulting corrosion
can mask evidence of an explosive.
"Examination of the debris initially recovered showed an
intense amount of salt water decay on the metal pieces," Kallstrom wrote
in September 1997, explaining why parts of TWA 800 were washed with
water as they came off the salvage ships. "The operation of the salt on
the metal causes pitting, and there was concern that such pitting caused
by the salt could obscure or be confused with the pitting normally
caused by high explosives."
From the beginning, Kallstrom recognized that getting
evidence that would stand up in court to prove a terrorist attack would
be an extraordinarily difficult task.
Then there were the eyewitness reports, eventually 244
in all, which seemed to the agents who collected them in the hours and
days following the explosion to confirm a missile hit. Not long
thereafter, former Kennedy press secretary and veteran ABC
correspondent Pierre Salinger came forward with claims
of inside information that TWA 800 was the victim of "friendly fire"
from a U.S. Navy vessel.
Kallstrom confirmed that Salinger had previously
supplied "bogus information" in a terrorist investigation. Salinger's
claims in the TWA 800 case proved equally unfounded, but because of the
enormous media attention, Kallstrom was forced to give him serious
Kallstrom divided his investigative effort into three
teams, each working a different scenario of the case. One probed the
missile theory. Another looked at the likelihood of a bomb. One team was
assigned to the accidental-explosion theory.
One of the parties to the investigation praises
Kallstrom as a "bulldog" who was "absolutely tireless." Despite the
challenges of recovering the salt- water-damaged aircraft from ocean
depths of more than 100 feet, in limited visibility and shifting sands,
Kallstrom spared no effort in search of conclusive evidence.
For the first eight weeks of the probe, Kallstrom and
the NTSB team, lead by Robert Francis, got along well. Kallstrom is at
pains to point out that he didn't take over the probe: The NTSB
conducted its investigation, while the FBI did its job.
Senator Grassley later criticized the FBI for dominating
the probe. NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, in Duncan's House reauthorization
hearings, said that the NTSB should have been exclusively responsible
for the investigation until evidence of sabotage was found. But in the
first days after July 17, 1996, only five NTSB crash investigators came
to the site--far too few even to have collected the hundreds of witness
Eight weeks into the NTSB's probe, Jim Hall arrived at
Calverton, scene of the TWA 800 salvage operation. This changed the
relationship between the NTSB and the FBI. Kallstrom recalled: "Then it
was clear who was really running the NTSB investigation."
Soon thereafter the FBI and the NTSB clashed. Contrary
to early press accounts, which attributed the friction to differences of
bureaucratic culture, the clashes were substantive. The first was over
whether TWA 800 would be reconstructed in the Calverton hangar.
To gain a better understanding of what happened,
Kallstrom wanted to assemble a "mock-up" of the plane. Jim Hall
vehemently opposed him. The disagreement reached the White House, where
Leon Panetta conferred with the president before siding with the FBI. It
was not the last disagreement in the TWA 800 probe that had to be
adjudicated at the highest level. In the context of these pitched White
House battles the NTSB began colluding with other government agencies
such as the BATF to undermine the FBI probe.
NTSB Chairman Hall's high-level background briefings for
reporters also undermined the FBI. Hall and other NTSB senior staff
ridiculed competing theories of the case, misleading the press and
public to believe that only the accidental-explosion theory--for which
there still isn't any conclusive evidence--could explain TWA 800's
Despite the salt-water immersion, traces of military
high-explosives components PETN and RDX were found on the plane's
wreckage. Kallstrom thought he had the evidence he'd been searching for,
especially after his agents checked the aircraft logs for TWA 800 and
found no sign of recent use of the plane to transport explosives or
conduct canine bomb-detection tests.
The FAA subsequently claimed that logs of canine bomb
tests are not maintained by individual airplanes, but by local police
agencies. A check with the St. Louis Airport Police showed a test was
carried out on a wide- body jet on June 10, 1996, about a month before
the TWA 800 explosion. No records of the test were kept. The sole
policeman who carried it out was seen by no other aircraft crew or
witnesses. He did not note the tail number of the aircraft. Two months
later, when interviewed by the FBI on September 20, 1996, he recalled it
was a 747 jet. One of the explosives used in the test was a 1.4 pound
block of C-4, a military high explosive. The patrolman told the FBI that
the plastic wrapping for the explosive was partially disintegrated.
There were two wide-bodied jets parked nearby on June
10. Because the patrolman did not note the plane's tail number (TWA 800,
parked at Gate 50, was 17119) it is possible he confused the planes. It
is hard to reconcile the patrolman's timeline for the dog test with the
records of when the aircraft departed Gate 50. If the patrolman is
correct, it means after his test was complete the pilot and crew boarded
the aircraft, conducted all pre-flight procedures and checklists,
completed boarding and seating passengers, and pulled away from the gate
in less than half an hour.
Even assuming that the test was indeed carried out on
TWA 800, the mystery remains how such casual contamination could leave
traces of explosive after weeks of immersion in salt water. Both FBI
laboratory and independent scientific tests show that within 24 hours
salt water washes away all traces of high explosives.
After Kallstrom won his White House battle for
permission to re-create the airplane at Calverton, the FBI and the NTSB
sought outside experts to examine the damage patterns. All agreed that
the center fuel tank had exploded catastrophically. The question was,
Salinger's sensational theory about a missile strike had
unfortunately obscured and discredited the very real prospect that a
MANPAD (man-portable air defense system, better known as a
shoulder-fired rocket) hit TWA 800. In more than 100 cases around the
world, shoulder-fired rockets have been used to down large aircraft.
At first the probability that TWA 800 was struck by such
a missile seemed remote. The plane's altitude of 13,700 feet was at the
outer limit of a MANPAD "footprint," the necessary flight path the
missile would have taken to hit the plane. But it was a possibility that
Kallstrom took seriously--more seriously than has ever before been
FBI Special Agent Steve Bongart worked the missile team.
An FBI agent was assigned to accompany the salvage teams as parts of the
aircraft were identified and then removed from the ocean floor. Each
agent was issued a nine-page "Trawler Operations Manual" featuring
debris unique to a missile, including the ejector cans that would be
left after a Stinger launch, the expendable battery, and a picture of
the distorted shape a small rocket body might take after passing through
an aircraft the size of a 747. "Twisted like a corkscrew," one observer
put it. The manual instructed the agents to pick up every piece of
man-made debris found in the search field. But no "eureka" piece from a
missile was found.
As the wreckage at Calverton took shape, the FBI called
on military experts from the Defense Department to help analyze the
probability that a surface-to- air missile hit TWA 800. The military
teams had far more experience in air crashes involving rockets than
either the FBI or the NTSB had. In fact, as Kallstrom found early on, no
one in the world had a good forensic, courtroom-evidence-standard
database of the damage missiles do to large aircraft.
In addition to Navy teams from China Lake, whose active
presence in the probe has been acknowledged publicly, the FBI drew on
other centers of military expertise including Missile & Space
Intelligence Center at Huntsville, Alabama, and Air Force teams from
Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Using computerized DOD
databases, the military experts concluded that a Stinger could have hit
the aircraft even at its 13,700-foot elevation.
In the late fall of 1996, the military teams analyzed
the wreckage at Calverton. Immediately, suspicions arose about damage to
the left wing. The area around the left forward wing root, a potential
impact point, is missing. The left side of the center fuel tank displays
"Attempting to find forensic evidence on this kind of a
missile hit is very hard," says one expert with first-hand knowledge.
"The result of a missile impact from a shoulder-fired SAM
(surface-to-air missile) is not always clearly discernible, especially
when critical pieces just don't seem to be available for inspection."
Agent Bongart reviewed the eyewitness statements with
the military teams. A subset of approximately 25 to 30 eyewitness
accounts, says a source familiar with the statements, were "very, very
consistent if someone fired a surface- to-air missile at the aircraft."
Using this subset of eyewitness accounts, the missile
team plotted a grid which pinpointed a location where the firing would
have to have taken place if the eyewitness accounts were correct.
According to the expert, the location placed TWA 800 within the "launch
footprint" of a shoulder-fired rocket.
Kallstrom wanted a thorough dredging operation to
recover as much of TWA 800 as was humanly possible, as well as to search
for missile parts. Again, NTSB Chairman Hall opposed him. After the
principal Navy salvage operation to bring up the main debris from the
aircraft ended, Hall wanted further underwater recovery efforts called
off. Again, the dispute rose to the White House for resolution
Leon Panetta sided with Kallstrom. FBI-supervised
dredging continued for months, but was ultimately hampered by nature.
During the early weeks of the probe, Long Island's shoreline was
battered by two different hurricane-force storms. After dredging some
areas as many as 20 times, the FBI suspended the operation. They
concluded that underwater currents from the storms either buried debris
too deeply, or simply dispersed the debris so widely across the ocean
floor that full recovery was impossible. Today, Boeing says five to
seven percent of the aircraft remains unrecovered. That leaves about
eight tons of debris, approximately equivalent to a medium-sized truck,
lost at sea.
On November 18, 1997, the CIA produced an animated video
simulating TWA 800's final flight. The video explains the 244 eyewitness
accounts, many of which suggested that a missile was fired into the
aircraft, as mistaken. Because light travels faster than sound, the CIA
concluded that witnesses actually saw a flame trail from burning jet
fuel before they heard the sound of the plane's explosion, and naturally
were convinced that the streak of light leading to the plane occurred
before the explosion.
What the CIA did not explain in November was that its
video was altered after consultation with the NTSB. In a letter from CIA
Director George Tenet to Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) dated January 13,
1998, Tenet acknowledges that more than forty changes were made to the
video animation at the NTSB's suggestion. After the changes were made,
Tenet says the CIA showed the video to "NTSB managers" who approved its
release to the general public.
The official status of the FBI probe into TWA 800
remains "pending- inactive."
Kallstrom says there is still a small chance unrecovered debris
might point to a bomb or a missile. "We left it open," Kallstrom says.
"If anything comes up, we'll jump right back in."
A recent federal appeals court ruling may shed light on
some of the political mysteries surrounding TWA 800. On June 18, 1999, a
three-judge panel affirmed Victoria Cummock's lawsuit against Al Gore
and the Department of Transportation (see "Dissent of Flight 800," TAS,
Two years ago Victoria Cummock filed suit, claiming Gore
pressured her to abandon a call for counter-terrorism measures, and
refused to publish her 42- page dissent from the final report of the
White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security. She demanded
access to confidential files kept from her and to a secret annex to the
commission's final report.
In early discovery, Cummock was given limited access to
commission records. One document she found was a memo from a CIAstaffer
assigned to CIADirector John Deutch, who sat next to Cummock at most
commission meetings. The CIA memo, written by an officer who
intelligence sources say is normally assigned to clandestine services,
drew on psychological profiling of Cummock. It said Cummock could be
"kept in line if she believes progress could be made" but warned Deutch
that she "could become a major problem" if she thought otherwise.
The existence of this memo is puzzling. Why did the CIA
analyze its ability to control Commissioner Cummock? Is there any
relationship between the CIA and the NTSB collaboration on the TWA 800
video animation, and the profiling memo on Cummock? Who ordered the
Cummock became an aviation security advocate after her
husband, John, died in the Pan Am 103 bombing. Clinton personally asked
her to serve on the commission while he was flying to New York to meet
with the grieving TWA 800 family members.
The commission was no ordinary citizen-advisory
committee. It was a high- powered group, resembling a mini-Cabinet.
Transportation Secretary Federico Pe, CIA Director John Deutch, NTSB
Chairman Jim Hall, Vi ce President Al Gore, FBI Director Louis Freeh,
and Council of Economic Advisors Chairman Laura D'Andrea Tyson were
among government officials serving on the commission appointed after the
TWA 800 catastrophe.
After a lower-court judge sided with Transportation
Department attorneys and dismissed her case, Cummock appealed. On April
24, 1999, her appeal was heard by a three-judge panel.
"They were stunned at the government's position,"
Cummock says, noting that administration lawyers didn't deny her
fundamental charge that information was improperly withheld or that
Clinton appointees to the commission met often in secret. The government
attorneys simply said such conduct was permissible under the Federal
Advisory Committee Act.
"The judges were pretty outraged," Cummock told me
shortly before the appeals court ruled. "They couldn't believe how the
government interpreted the federal commission act."
As Cummock's lawsuit goes forward, she may gain access
to documents which would clarify the relationship between the
commission's secret meetings and Clinton-Gore campaign fundraising.
Cummock says the Clinton appointees "had a ton of secret meetings" with
airline industry representatives. At the same time, the Clinton-Gore
campaign and Democratic Party received more than $500, 000 in political
contributions from the airlines. The disturbing prospect of a quid pro
quo whereby the Gore Commission withdrew its preliminary security
policies in exchange for 1996 campaign contributions remains open.
John Cummock's widow is nothing if not persistent. "What
I want now is to see the classified report," she said, "and write a
dissent, classified or not. I know it sounds old-fashioned, but it's a
matter of morals, and values, and ethics."
About the time Grassley's hearing was taking place, the
Kosovo war prompted concern at the Defense Department about the
vulnerability of cargo aircraft to shoulder-fired surface-to-air
missiles. At the Pentagon, corridor talk has it that the TWA 800
scenario has come up in recent high-level meetings. For Pentagon
planners, the case serves as a source of "lessons-learned" to reduce
vulnerability of large aircraft to rocket attack.
Kallstrom is disappointed that FBI Director Freeh didn't
speak out against Grassley's hearing, which Kallstrom calls a "Kangaroo
Court." He is not alone. Two weeks after Grassley's hearing, on their
own initiative, some 400 FBI agents and professional support staff from
the New York office sent Grassley a letter protesting the hearing as
"one-sided, incomplete and distorted."
"Your portrayal of the FBI's performance with a broad
negative brush is not only contrary to fact," the letter said, "but a
great disservice to the many men and women of the FBI who contributed so
much of their energy, time and emotion to this investigation."
Grassley's hearing to discredit the FBI probe was a
prelude to final " sunshine hearings" the NTSB plans in a few months.
Although the NTSB says the case will be reviewed publicly, the public
isn't likely to see the Defense Department video simulation of a
successful shoulder-fired rocket attack on TWA 800 or learn the nature
of the terrorist threats received by the White House in 1996. At the end
of the sunshine hearings, NTSB Chairman Hall, a longtime Gore ally, will
bring the gavel down on TWA 800. Jim Kallstrom's replacement has already
signaled Congress that he will close the FBI's " pending-inactive" file
when the NTSB announces a "probable cause" of TWA 800's destruction.
Hall wants the case sewn up before the campaign season
gets underway with the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses. But
there is too much debris from TWA 800--lingering questions, elusive
answers--for the mystery to disappear quietly.
Robert E. Donaldson. All