New Radar Data, New Questions

By Kelly Patricia O'Meara

August 27, 1999

         The National Transportation Safety Board has released radar data from the night TWA Flight 800 crashed that reveal radar-blip activity omitted from earlier reports.

        New radar data relating to the July 17, 1996, explosion of TWA Flight 800 that went down off the coast of Long Island, N.Y., inexplicably have just become available. The well-publicized previous data focused narrowly on a 20-nautical-mile circle centered on the crash site and was the basis of the FBI's conclusion that there was little air or naval traffic in the selected area at the time of the crash. But that restricted data pattern, it turns out, is only a subset of a larger radar field.

  . . . . The new data just obtained by Insight from sources at the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, show that between the perimeters of a 22-nautical-mile circle and a 35-nautical-mile circle, a concentration of a large number of radar blips appears to be moving into a well-known military warning area closed to civilian and commercial traffic.

  . . . . The anomaly presented by the additional data is as yet unexplained. The Clinton administration previously has stated that no concentration of military vessels was in the area that night. Indeed, the Department of the Navy specified that the closest naval vessel was the USS Normandy, 185 nautical miles to the south.

 . . . . The two radar charts accompanying this story are a representation of official data supplied by the NTSB, one of the federal agencies tasked with investigating the crash of TWA 800. The original data, plotted by the NTSB, is from Exhibit 13A, contained on a CD-ROM which included the entire Aircraft Performance Group Chairman's Factual Report released to the public at December 1997 hearings in Baltimore. But the additional data are found on a floppy disk obtained by Insight from the NTSB -- a disk which has the complete database of Exhibit 13A. Chart B was plotted for Insight by independent radar technical experts.

 . . . . Chart A focuses on the area within a circle of 20 nautical miles centered on the crash site. NTSB identified only a Navy P-3 Orion antisubmarine airplane, U.S. Airways Flight 217, TWA Flight 900 and four unidentified tracks moving at 30 knots, 15 knots, 12 knots and 20 knots as the only vehicles and/or objects noted within a 10-nautical-mile radius of the crash site. The NTSB has concluded that the unidentified tracks in Chart A all were consistent with the speed of surface vessels.

 . . . . The newly obtained data in Chart B include the same information available in Exhibit 13A, but present additional data showing that the level of surface vessels and aircraft activity increases significantly outside the 20-nautical-mile boundary set by the NTSB review.

 . . . . Chart B shows the identical tracks of the aircraft and unidentified surface vessels revealed in Chart A. But Chart B also shows in excess of two dozen surface vessels and aircraft detected by radar just beyond the 20-nautical-mile mark. Of interest to experts who have reviewed the data plot is that most of the surface vessels in Chart B appear to be heading in a parallel movement toward Whiskey 105, or W-105 -- a military warning area highly publicized to mariners and aviators, designed to keep commercial aircraft and surface vessels out of harm's way during military exercises. On the evening of the explosion, W-105 was activated for military exercises along with several other warning areas along the Atlantic Coast. 

. . . . Furthermore, Chart B reveals two aircraft just outside the NTSB's 20-nautical-mile boundary, one traveling at 475 knots in an east-southeast direction heading toward W-105 and a second aircraft that, in a span of approximately 30 minutes, appears to fly into and out of W-105 on two separate occasions. When the earlier data were released, both FBI and NTSB investigators said that they were unable to identify all surface vessels and aircraft within the area of the crash.

 . . . . Radar technical experts who reviewed the data on Chart B for Insight identify the tracks of approximately 30 surface vessels and at least two aircraft that were outside the narrow perimeter of the previously announced results and have not been made public until now. When questioned about the newly released radar data, Bernard Loeb, director of the Office of Aviation Safety at the NTSB, said, "There are lots and lots of things out there, lots and lots of surface vessels and airplanes. It's New York City." However, when specifically asked whether the NTSB was aware of any apparently synchronized parallel movement of vessels, Loeb replied, "We don't see some large number of vessels running in a parallel track in the same direction."

 . . . . The FBI, which took the lead on the criminal investigation of the downing of the Boeing 747 aircraft, was unaware at first that the new radar data from NTSB had come to light. When the differences in scope between the earlier data and the new data were presented to Joe Valiquette, an FBI special agent in the New York City office, he responded, "This is ancient history. There is no one who is willing to make one of our agents available here to talk about the radar data. Everything we have to say about the TWA 800 investigation was said on Nov. 18, 1997" [the day the FBI put its criminal investigation on an inactive pending status].

The Anatomy of a Mystery

 By Paul M. Rodriguez

          Intimidating the press and carping about bold reporters are old tricks. But rarely do government officials seek out rival news organizations to malign a writer before a story even is written.

       Here, ruining people is considered sport." So wrote the late     Vincent Foster, the deputy White House counsel whose     body was found in Fort Marcy Park in Northern Virginia, dead by apparent suicide due to complicated reasons only he knew -- among them, perhaps, the relentless hounding of junkyard dogs in the Washington press corps.

  . . . . I know a little now about how he must have felt. Until recently, reporters avoided launching public smear attacks against one of their own. And certainly in my experience as a veteran newsman, journalists would never roll over and allow government bureaucrats to use them to slime their colleagues.

 . . . . Yet that precisely is what recently happened to an Insight reporter whom I asked to unravel a new mystery involving the doomed flight of TWA 800. Specifically, the reporter -- Kelly Patricia O'Meara -- was detailed to find out why recently unearthed radar tapes never seen before showed significant numbers of "hits" compared with previously released government radar tapes. And why were so many of the new blips passing beyond the crash site into a military no-fly/no-sail zone?

 . . . . Government investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, the FBI and the military previously had said such data didn't exist or stated bluntly there was no such traffic.

 . . . . The blind reporting of potentially new data refuting the government would have been an irresponsible thing for this magazine -- or for any bona fide newsmagazine -- to do. But just as certainly it probably would have fueled cries of cover-up from the so-called black-chopper crowd. One of the favorite theories still buzzing around Internet groups and skeptics is that a missile from friendly or hostile fire brought the plane down, although no evidence has been forthcoming proving that happened.

 . . . . Armed with documents -- interestingly, at one point supplied by an NTSB employee -- O'Meara's assignment was simple: Ask the NTSB why the "new" radar data had not been previously released and determine what the data actually showed.

 . . . . Notwithstanding the dog-eat-dog mores now prevailing in Washington, it still came as some surprise to me how NTSB officials managed to convince a legitimate writer at a competing news organization -- the Washington Post -- to try through innuendo to intimidate the Insight reporter for leveling aggressive questions about the data at testy and flippant bureaucrats.

 . . . . Maybe it was O'Meara's gender or her tailored pantsuit that provoked the attack. Or perhaps it was her background as having worked for a member of Congress who initially disbelieved government reports that TWA 800 blew up due to mechanical failure. Then again, perhaps it was a former stint working for an Oliver Stone production company hired by ABC to do a since-dropped documentary on the doomed flight that may have been the reason.

 . . . . But regardless of the excuse, NTSB Managing Director Peter Goelz decided not to complain to any of Insight's top editors -- including me -- about what he felt were "extraordinary antagonistic" questions from the magazine's reporter. Instead he went to Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz. And while Matt Drudge is known to report on stories about to be printed by competitors, Kurtz reported on a "story" that had not even been written nor was going to be written as slyly suggested by Goelz in the Post article. . . . . "Kelly O'Meara was questioning Goelz about secret government radar reports that she said show plenty of activity nearby on the day in 1996 that TWA Flight 800 crashed," Kurtz wrote in the Aug. 23 issue of his newspaper. "The government says it found no evidence to support theories that the plane was downed by a missile," Kurtz continued. And later he quoted Goelz as saying: "She really believes that the United States Navy shot this thing down and there was a fleet of warships."

 . . . . Kurtz wrote these words without interviewing O'Meara. And he wrote it after being told by me that the reporter hadn't yet returned from the Goelz interview, so there was no basis to judge the accuracy of the bureaucrat's rendition of events. Moreover, I recall telling Kurtz, missiles and such were not the issue for the magazine, but the issue was what may be on never-before-seen radar data. "If anyone has questions about [the reporter's] bias, wait 'til they see a printed product," I was quoted by Kurtz as saying. Otherwise, "it's just carping about an aggressive reporter." Kurtz seemed to be assuaged sufficiently, at least to the point of waiting to find out what actually did happen at the allegedly aggressive interview -- especially since neither one of us knew fully. That was about 5 p.m. on a Friday. Then, in Monday's Aug. 23 Post, Kurtz, without hearing back from this editor, went ahead and printed a one-sided story that had been cleverly placed with him by the bureaucrats three days earlier.

 . . . . An examination of the transcript of the reporter's interview, however, paints a different picture from the one Goelz portrays and Kurtz displays. It also puts into context the so-called rude reporter's tactics. It demonstrates, perhaps, how nervous, worried and reactive bureaucrats become when faced with tough questions and persistence. Challenged with straightforward questions, they evade or turn flippant.

 . . . . Curiously, O'Meara never brought up in her Aug. 20 interview the theory that the plane had been shot down. It was the NTSB officials themselves who raised it, as they did in subsequent interviews with me on Aug. 23 and Aug. 25. They were the ones who also brought up errant-missile theories -- only, admittedly, to mock them.

 . . . . Some exchanges from the O'Meara interview with the NTSB officials perhaps show best what transpired. For example, when asked where the latest data showing significantly larger numbers of previously unknown radar hits have been -- at least since the NTSB issued an interim report 18 months ago, along with CD-ROMs -- NTSB's Bernie Loeb said: "It's not on the CD, but it's on the floppy disk. All you had to do was ask for it. It's been available since last April." Floppy disk? What floppy disk?

 . . . . According to NTSB sources and officials who spoke privately to Insight, no one knew about the floppy disk -- a point even Loeb suggests could have happened because "the public-inquiries office shifted locations at some point and it may have been a period of time simply because they had misplaced it." When asked whether the newly obtained disk from the NTSB showing the expanded data could have been the wrong "tape," Goelz replied: "You know it's hard to believe but, who knows?"

 . . . . As can be seen by the charts accompanying O'Meara's story in this issue (p. 24), there are significant differences from the previous publicly released NTSB reports and the newly acquired radar data.

 . . . . And the differences beg questions, such as why are there are two versions of what supposedly are the same set of data? What does the new information show? Do the blips represent military, civilian or commercial boats and planes on the new radar tapes? Why are so many targets moving beyond the crash site into a military no-fly/no-sail zone? And, certainly not least, why were these additional targets scrubbed or otherwise not reported in previous published NTSB reports? 

. . . . In response to such commonsense questions posed by O'Meara -- they were not loaded ones nor did they presuppose anything -- NTSB officials speaking to a tape recorder in plain sight were evasive, mocking and circular in their answers. And, again, contrary to what Kurtz quoted Goelz as saying, it was the NTSB officials who first raised the issue of missile conspiracies in the Post story. In the actual interview they limited the scope of such off-the-wall chatter to Internet conspiracy theorists.

 . . . . Loeb and Goelz subsequently confirmed to me that the NTSB had, in fact, left out much of the additional and "new" radar data obtained by Insight and that, indeed, it will lead to further questions. But that said, they also maintained that in the final analysis it doesn't matter what additional information comes out because in their judgment nothing will change: A mechanical fault brought the plane down.

 . . . . Fine. Insight was not questioning that or any other conclusion, but it was -- and still is -- questioning the handling and release of the radar data.

 . . . . If conspiracy theories are fueled, it will be partly because the NTSB saw fit to play fast and loose -- for whatever reason, innocent or not -- with material that should have been released to the public promptly, clearly and professionally.

 . . . . Too bad Kurtz didn't wait to get the full facts himself before taking a dud-filled potshot. No wonder the public has grown weary -- and wary -- of a media that rushes into print before it has the whole story