Aviation Week

May 17, 1999

Heed the Lessons of the Flight 800 Mess

Federal squabbling over the investigations into the crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 
only serves to further undermine public confidence in the results of those probes. 
Mistakes were made, but the question is what to do in the future.

In the latest round of finger-pointing, officials of the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, 
Tobacco and Firearms-- long-time law-enforcement rivals--squared
off last week in a Senate hearing. Present and former National
Transportation Safety Board investigators joined in. The ATF and NTSB
officials put on the record long-known complaints. The FBI seized control of
the overall Flight 800 investigation. It hampered the NTSB's probe. It
ignored and ridiculed expert investigators from other agencies. It sustained
the theory that the 747 was downed by a bomb or missile long after
explosives and aviation-safety specialists were convinced there was no
evidence to support that theory.

The FBI's insistence on pursuing possible criminal causes of Flight 800's
downing is understandable. The crash followed by days a terrorist attack on
U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia and preceded by days the Atlanta
Olympics' bombing. A terrorist suspected of plotting to destroy 10 or more
commercial aircraft, Ramzi Youssef, was on trial in New York on charges of
bombing the World Trade Center. Flight 800's midair disintegration left most
specialists suspecting a bomb had brought down the 747. Senior NTSB
officials didn't challenge the FBI's dominance of the investigation early
on, largely because they, too, were convinced that the probe quickly would
become a criminal matter.

What is not understandable is the FBI's arrogance. Its leaders blocked the
participation of experts with decades of experience in explosives and
accident investigation. It brought in experts who knew little or nothing
about commercial aircraft. The FBI also blocked up the exchange of
information that normally occurs within an accident investigation and from
the investigation to the flying public. The NTSB for too long collaborated
in cutting off the flow of accurate, detailed information on the status of
the accident probe. This all fueled suspicions that the government was
withholding what it really knew about the cause of Flight 800's downing.
FBI officials stoked those suspicions with repeated leaks to the media of
bomb-damage evidence on Flight 800's debris when in fact no conclusive
evidence was in hand.

Others erred, too. The ATF jumped to the conclusion that a design flaw was
to blame for the 747's destruction before it had ruled out sabotage. Having
ceded leadership of the probe, NTSB officials opted against waging a
political fight to regain it. The legacy of this collective mismanagement
and the resultant finger-pointing is widespread doubt about the government's
conclusions on what really downed Flight 800. That doubt will linger for
decades and serve as fodder for conspiracy theorists and television
specials. The price? For one thing, the doubt allows the FAA and the airline
industry to discount the NTSB's findings and avoid taking more aggressive
action to eliminate the threat of future fuel tank explosions. For another,
the friends and relatives of Flight 800's 230 victims may never find peace.
Each new discussion of missile strikes and government cover-ups, groundless
or not, will reopen their wounds.

Little can be done to correct the errors of the Flight 800 investigations,
but much can be done to prevent their recurrence.

For one thing, the FBI should vigorously pursue the work it has started with
the Naval Air Warfare Center and other federal agencies to develop a
comprehensive database of the forensic evidence left by a missile strike on
commercial aircraft. One would like to believe that U.S. airliners are safe
from missile attacks, but that may not always be the case.

For another, the Clinton Administration should develop guidelines for
federal, local and state authorities spelling out when and why the NTSB is
in charge of an accident investigation and the proper role of law
enforcement in that probe. If clearer federal legislation is required,
Congress should enact it. The Flight 800 mess was an aberration in the long
history of FBI-NTSB collaboration. But such an aberration should never again
hobble an investigation.

Finally, the safety board should set clear guidelines for its staff and
political appointees on what information, and in what detail, must be
released to the media and the public on the early progress of a crash
investigation. The vague briefings conducted after Flight 800's crash
reinforced the impression that the NTSB was not in charge of the
investigation, and left board officials looking evasive and secretive. It
cannot do that and retain the public's confidence that it is an impartial,
diligent guardian of aviation safety.

© May 17, 1999 The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.