June 4, 1999   -   Dan's Papers - Long  Island

        The Grassley Hearing 

  Senate Hearing Confirms Longtime
  Misgivings on Flight 800 Investigation 

  "The purpose of this hearing is to continue the
  Subcommittee's efforts to help restore public
  confidence in federal law enforcement." 

  Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Chairman
  of the Judiciary Subcommittee on
  Administrative Oversight and the Courts, was
  addressing a Senate hearing concerning the
  TWA Flight 800 investigation on May 10.
  Grassley had initiated the hearing to challenge
  what he had felt was FBI mismanagement in
  the investigation. 

  The hearing was notable for two reasons.
  First, what was often considered hearsay or
  the ranting of conspiracy buffs and which
  officials constantly denied, has been nothing
  less than officially confirmed: that the agencies
  involved in the Flight 800 investigation,
  specifically the FBI and NTSB (National
  Transportation Safety Board), along with the
  ATF, worked at cross purposes and took
  definite, often heated disagreement with the
  procedures and conclusions of each other. 

  The second notable fact was the apparent
  reversal of the FBI's public image and
  position in regards to the theory that a missile
  brought down Flight 800. Just about everyone
  who claimed the missile theory seemed the
  most likely scenario also felt the FBI was
  intentionally suppressing or disregarding
  evidence, including eyewitness reports that
  would lean the investigation in that direction.
  But, in the hearing, Senator Grassley accused
  the FBI of the opposite tact: of focusing the
  investigation on the supposition that the plane
  had been brought down by a missile or bomb
  and that the Bureau even went so far as to
  suppress an ATF report from January, 1997
  which concluded Flight 800 had been brought
  down by mechanical failure. 

  In other words, according to Grassley, the
  FBI was "pro-missile/bomb" all along. 

  In Grassley's opening statement he said, in
  part, "This testimony we will hear today will
  describe... how the FBI lacked the proper
  training to handle an investigation of this type,
  and violated the most basic standards of
  forensic science, in terms of collecting
  evidence, handling it and preserving it. 

  "Second, we will try to understand the culture
  within the FBI that allows this sort of thing to
  happen.... and third, why is that the FBI
  would try to prevent critical public safety
  information from getting to the proper

  "Before we begin, let me clarify one critical
  issue. The FBI's suppression of the AFT
  report is a serious matter." 

  The ATF report to which the FBI objected
  appeared the linchpin of Grassley's hearing.
  And yet the report's conclusion, that Flight
  800 was brought down by a mechanical
  accident, is not in fact supported by other
  documents that were presented at the very
  same hearing. The story of the Flight 800
  investigation, an investigation which will be
  three years old this July, is continually fraught
  as much with politics as disagreements over
  what the evidence shows. 

  On January 20, 1997, an ATF report out of
  the agency's Arson and Explosives Division
  pinned the cause of the destruction of Flight
  800 on an explosion in the center wing fuel
  tank ignited by a "low energy spark." The
  severe unlikelihood of this happening (in fact,
  no center fuel wing explosion initiated by
  mechanical failure had ever occurred on a
  747), did not deter the ATF from feeling it
  had, a half year after the incident, reached the
  appropriate conclusion. 

  The FBI, in particular the chief agent in charge
  of the investigation, James Kallstrom, was not
  pleased with the conclusion and release of the
  report. The handwritten notes of Andrew
  Vita, Assistant Director for Field Operations
  for the AFT read: "KALLSTROM -- UPSET

  The date on these handwritten notes is
  interesting: March 11, 1997. That is the day
  that President Clinton signed an executive
  order removing whistleblower protection from
  the Naval Warfare Group, a number of
  whose people worked on the recovery of
  Flight 800. It is the day the FBI came to the
  Florida home of retired United Airlines pilot
  Richard Russell and demanded the copy of
  the Islip radar tape he had been sent which
  showed an object in the vicinity of Flight 800
  that many interpret to be a missile. And it is
  also around the time the FBI was very busy
  debunking former JFK press secretary Pierre
  Salinger's assertion that the plane had been
  brought down by a naval missile. 

  Kallstrom, of course, did read the AFT
  report. On March 17, 1997, Kallstrom sent
  the report to the NTSB. In a cover letter to
  NTSB Chairman James Hall, Kallstrom
  wrote, "The publication of this unsolicited and
  premature report by the AFT violates the
  agreement made by them regarding their
  participation in this investigation. I believe it is
  unfortunate that the ATF, for reasons that are
  unknown to me, chose to prepare a report
  expressing an opinion regarding the cause of
  this tragedy before the investigation has been
  completed. It is an extraordinary violation of
  investigative protocol." 

  Kallstrom goes on to say he has contacted the
  ATF "to obtain all information they relied
  upon to produce this document." One would
  suppose that any evidence the ATF had used,
  the FBI would also have access to. 

  In a letter three days earlier, on March 14,
  1997, Kallstrom wrote to FBI director Louis
  Freeh. It reads in part, "...at the outset of the
  investigation, ATF agreed that, since the FBI
  is the lead criminal investigative agency for the
  TWA Flight 800, they would not produce any
  independent reports regarding the

  One of the major criticisms regarding the FBI
  in its relation to the Flight 800 investigation is
  that, legally, the NTSB would be the head
  investigatory agency, until the point when and
  if the NTSB could prove the plane had been
  brought down by other than mechanical

  In the Grassley hearing, the senator
  introduced a copy of the U.S. Code, which
  plainly stated, in his words, "the authority of
  the NTSB as the lead agency in investigating
  transportation accidents." And in fact, in his
  March 14 letter, Kallstrom himself says,
  "...the ATF might find itself in conflict with the
  analysis of the NTSB, the agency charged by
  law with responsibility for aircraft

  And yet, all along it has seemed that the FBI
  was running the show. 

  Another item of interest in Kallstrom's March
  14 letter to Director Freeh: "In addition, if in
  the end the evidence indicates that the crash
  resulted from a criminal act, the ATF
  report...will no doubt be discoverable as
  Brady material." In other words, conflict with
  evidence brought against any parties accused.

  In the letter Kallstrom also mentions further
  work that needs to be done to prove or
  disprove the missile hypothesis, among them
  testing at the Navy's China Lake facility in
  California, which had begun in October,
  1996. When those tests were completed in
  October, 1997, and the investigators there
  drew up their report, they recommended
  further and very specific tests to determine if a
  missile had hit Flight 800. Those
  recommended tests were never carried out.
  The very next month, November, 1997, the
  FBI put the Flight 800 investigation in
  "inactive, pending status," saying that they had
  not been able to prove the plane had been
  brought down by a criminal act (or military
  accident) and there was no further evidence
  to consider. 

  Another interesting document presented at the
  Grassley hearing was a December, 1996
  inter-Bureau letter from FBI agent Dennis R.
  Rich to another agent in the Bureau Ken
  Maxwell, regarding the just released safety
  recommendations by the NTSB. The
  recommendations were design modifications
  and the additions of such items as
  "nitrogen-inerting systems and the addition of
  insulation between heat generating equipment
  and fuel tanks" in Boeing 747s. 

  Agent Smith wrote, "The overall feeling of all
  the parties working at the Calverton facility
  [where the wreckage of Flight 800 was being
  reconstructed] on determining the cause of the
  crash of TWA 800 is that they have been
  blindsided by the NTSB... The Safety
  Recommendation is based on speculative
  theory as unsupported by evidence..." 

  Agent Smith added that when a meeting was
  called by Bob Swaim of the NTSB Systems
  Group and he said that the NTSB was
  announcing recommendations that very day,
  "all of this was a complete surprise to all of
  the parties at Calverton." 

  Smith then goes on to challenge the assertions
  on which the NTSB made their
  recommendations, saying there was no
  evidence at what height the explosion of Flight
  800 occurred, that the debris fields "are more
  extensive and very much more complex" than
  described by the NTSB; that the center wing
  fuel tank "failed in compression" (in other
  words, from pressure from an outside source)
  rather than, as the NTSB said, "an explosion
  originating within the tank"; and added there is
  "no evidence of ignition source of the CWT
  [center wing fuel tank]. He adds, "To date a
  CWT explosion has not been documented by
  static electricity." 

  It is curious that if Sen. Grassley were
  presenting this document as evidence that the
  FBI was taking the investigation in a single
  minded direction, it puts more of an onus on
  the NTSB. 

  The senator did present a list of very specific
  procedural mistakes by the FBI. Among them
  were: taking seat covers off without
  documenting where in the plane they came
  from; a west coast FBI agent attempted to
  flatten a piece of wreckage; declining to allow
  representation to other authorized parties
  within the investigation; lack of coordination
  between FBI bomb tech, lab and agents
  assigned to investigation; failing to use Global
  Positioning Devices in victim recovery; and an
  FBI agent bringing an "unauthorized physic"
  into the hangar. And, in verification of what
  many individuals working in the hangar had
  said -- off the record, anonymously --
  Grassley said that parts of the wreckage were
  taken from the Calverton hangar by the FBI
  "without on-scene FBI or NTSB staff being
  consulted or advised as to what was taken." 

  Then there is the March 28, 1997 letter and
  analysis (March, 1997 seemed to have been a
  very busy month in the Flight 800
  investigation) from the CIA's Deputy Director
  for Intelligence, John C. Gannon to Mr.
  Kallstrom. The analysis concluded that
  eyewitnesses who seemed to have seen a
  missile were actually seeing "the crippled
  aircraft after the first explosion had already
  taken place." 

  Grassley was no doubt presenting this as
  indicating that by eight or nine months after
  the investigation, all the other parties privy to
  it save the FBI were sure no missile had been
  involved in bringing down the plane. 

  The CIA analysis also goes on to say that
  whatever "booms" a number of the
  eyewitnesses heard had to have come after
  the fuel tank of Flight 800 exploded. Sound,
  of course, travels much slower than the speed
  of light, about one fifth of a mile per second,
  as opposed to the virtually instantaneous (at
  least in earthly terms) 186,000 miles per
  second for light. The CIA concluded the
  distances of the eywitnesses from Flight 800
  indicated an explosion was heard after it had
  occured in the plane.. 

  Though the analysis ignores the possibility that
  some of the eyewitnesses heard a missile
  being launched before it hit Flight 800. 

  The report goes on: "...several eyewitnesses,
  confident that they had seen a missile destroy
  an aircraft, were puzzled they actually hadn't
  seen the aircraft before the missile hit it." The
  report adds that the craft would have been
  illumined by the setting sun and "should have
  been readily visible." 

  Yet, for instance, Lisa Perry, who claims to
  have not only seen the streak of a missile but
  the body of a missile itself, witnessed the
  explosion and breakup of the plane from the
  easternmost part of Fire Island -- and says
  she saw both the missile and the plane, in the
  instant before Flight 800 exploded that
  evening of July 17, 1996. 

  Mrs. Perry gave her testimony to the FBI
  within a week of the incident. Her testimony
  was particularly noteworthy in that she
  described the breakup of the plane before
  much of it was pulled out of the water. The
  way in which certain large portions of the
  plane came apart matched her eyewitness
  account -- in particular the nose being
  separated from the plane, and the left wing
  being seared off, floating down to the water
  while the right wing remained attached to the

  The CIA letter also brings up a chronology
  that conflicts with a statement FBI agent in
  charge, James Kallstrom, made at the press
  conference in November, 1997, when the
  FBI stated it had found no evidence of a
  criminal act and was, for all intents and
  purposes, closing the investigation. 

  At the press conference a reporter asked
  Kallstrom: "When did the CIA first start
  working with you and when did they first
  present the results to the FBI?" 

  Kallstrom responded: "I don't know the exact
  date they started, I don't know how many
  months ago, five or six months ago at least."
  He added that the CIA had given the FBI
  "periodic updates on the information, but the
  full version of this video tape [a CIA
  animation showing the breakup of the plane]
  was received just a few days ago." 

  The March 18, 1997 CIA letter to Kallstrom
  begins, "As you are aware, missile analysts at
  the Central Intelligence Agency have been
  working closely with special agents at the
  Federal Bureau of Investigation during the
  past eight months..." In other words, since
  Flight 800 went down. Surely Kallstrom
  knew this; his being vague about the "exact
  date" leads one to think he, for whatever
  reason, did not want to be precise on this
  point. The "six months ago" could be applied,
  roughly to when the CIA gave the FBI a
  detailed analysis of its findings, not the
  beginnings of its involvement in the

  Indeed, last autumn a CIA spokesman told
  this reporter plainly that the CIA had been
  involved in the Flight 800 case in the first 24
  hours after the plane went down. 

  The Grassley hearings have been labelled by
  those most suspicious of the government as an
  official attempt at further deception in the
  Flight 800 investigation, with the FBI
  suddenly being painted as a friend rather than
  enemy of the missile theory. The more prosaic
  explanation is probably closer to the truth.
  Grassley has been long disappointed with the
  FBI; he had been involved with investigations
  into Waco and Ruby Ridge. But then, the
  ATF, who is now pointing the finger at the
  FBI,was as much at fault in those incidents.
  There is the argument that there has been a
  move to do away with the ATF and have its
  work done by the FBI and these hearings
  gave the ATF a needed opportunity to stand
  proud and separate from such a takeover. 

  At any rate, politics labyrinthine and emotional
  continue to color the facts and texture of the
  tragedy of TWA Flight 800. As the July 17,
  third year anniversary nears, we have more
  facts, but not the definitive answer. The only
  thing that is becoming more clear is that a
  pattern of official misconduct and
  disagreement has existed in this unusual
  investigation since its very beginning. 

  --Jerry Cimisi