Friendly Ire

The story can get very complicated very quickly if you let it. Arcane military jargon can be deployed, windbag bureaucrats can be quoted ad nauseam, Tom-Clancy-wet-dream espionage lingo can be coded in and locked on.But it's really as simple as a photograph. On July 17, 1996, Linda Kabot attended a Republican fundraiser at a seaside restaurant on the south shore of Long Island. She took some pictures that evening. One in particular has gained attention as something more than just memorabilia.She took the photograph as she was standing out on the restaurant's dock sometime around 8:40. As local politicos mingle in the bottom half of the image, a flying object of unknown origins streaks across the sky overhead -- undetected by the crowd below. Within minutes of Kabot's photograph and within miles of where Kabot stood, TWA Flight 800 exploded in midair, killing all 230 people onboard. In the year since Kabot's venture into serendipitous photojournalism, her image has fueled speculation that the elusive object in the upper right corner of the frame was part of a military exercise gone awry -- a military exercise that accidentally downed the plane. More than a hundred eyewitnesses to the tragedy have testified to seeing a "flare-like" or "fireworks-like" object shooting up to intercept the doomed jetliner just before it erupted in flames. The FBI has strong-armed the investigation to the point that those who find evidence suggesting U.S. military involvement in the crash are met with subpoenas and grand juries. Air traffic control radar images from the evening of the crash have been leaked revealing an unidentified high-speed object merging with the 747 before it disappears from the screen. The Advocate has also learned that on the day after the first public announcement about the radar tapes, President Clinton signed an executive order that stands to muzzle a key U.S. Navy team close to the Flight 800 search and recovery operations.Perhaps most significant, despite a year of dismissal by government investigators, a June MSNBC poll found that some 40 percent of Americans still at least suspect the U.S. Navy accidentally downed Flight 800 and is now attempting to cover its tracks.One year plus after the accident that it purports to explain, the "friendly fire" theory is still alive. But there's scarcely a sympathetic ear to be found in the mainstream media, which tend to greet allegations of dirty deeds in the Flight 800 investigation with little more than contempt. Rather, the media industry's fringes -- television news magazines, smaller circulation dailies and periodicals, alternative papers such as the Advocate -- have become the voice of caution against accepting the government investigation's conclusions. And while much of the press reports the investigation party line, the Internet has become the watchdog's medium of choice.The archetypes have shifted. In an age of tabloid news, the front lines of independent inquiry are no longer populated by the flatfoot with a press pass in his fedora. Instead, some of the most important exposŽs and scoops in the Flight 800 friendly fire story have gone to investigators who have posted their findings on the worldwide web. If the FBI has compiled a Nixon-enemies-list in the Flight 800 case, more than half of the entries probably wouldn't fit the industry definition of "journalist."When the cause of the crash is finally found -- if one ever is found -- the Internet's journalists-by-necessity may have ended up providing a more valuable watchdog role than the entire fourth estate. Watch your tail, Lou Grant.Then again, newsroom archetypes are undergoing a lot of change these days too. When an increasing percentage of news is reduced to clips, fluff and soundbites, how much air time and how many column inches can be devoted to investigating the investigators? Is there a place for independent journalism when the Ted Baxters of the world have taken over the news division?Certainly not on television.But the print media have at least been willing to acknowledge the existence of outside voices in the Flight 800 investigation -- especially when there's a good story behind them.Take the case of Scott Holleran and his family. The crash of Flight 800 is a frighteningly familiar specter to them. Holleran, his mother and his father all were supposed to be on that airplane.Holleran, who lives and works as a freelance journalist in Southern California, was traveling to Europe with his parents -- who live in Chicago -- on July 17. They planned to meet at JFK and fly over the Atlantic together. However, at 2 a.m. on the morning of his trip, TWA called Holleran."They said my flight to New York had been canceled," he recalled. "I had a choice between getting up for a 6 a.m. flight or sleeping in and catching a later plane. For some reason, I was really excited to start my vacation -- so I opted for the 6 a.m. flight."It was the right decision. All 13 Southern California residents -- including Flight 800's captain, Ralph G. Kevorkian -- who chose the later departure, were then routed onto Flight 800.Holleran learned of the explosion upon landing, when an airport official told him his parents had died in the crash.But the official turned out to be wrong. Twelve hours after landing in Rome, Holleran found that his parents too had fortuitously missed Flight 800 -- thanks, in their case, to bad weather out of Chicago.The tale doesn't end with all three Hollerans reuniting in Rome, though. For the junior Holleran, the real story begins with his return flight.The family arrived at the TWA gate for their flight back to the U.S., and the son told the crew who they were. "When one flight attendant heard that we were originally supposed to be on Flight 800, he bought my parents a bottle of champagne," Holleran said. "He said to us, 'Look, this is what we think happened. Everyone at TWA thinks it was a missile.'"The attendant told them about the reports of a British Airways jet flying behind Flight 800 whose crew radioed to air traffic control, "My God! Somebody's shooting at that airplane!""This was fantastic to me," Holleran noted. (The FBI apparently thought so too; it investigated similar reports of the same event and now discredits the account.) "I thought this was just ridiculous. But then I started to read about the eyewitness accounts."The 150 separate accounts of a high-speed object rising from the ocean to strike Flight 800 (see sidebar) made Holleran wonder why the missile theory was still considered irrelevant. Then he saw the first rumblings of "friendly fire" coming from the British media."That's when I became interested in Flight 800 both as a journalist and as a personal odyssey," he said.As a journalist, Holleran has been disgusted by the unwillingness of the American media to cover anything but the officially sanctioned findings of the government investigation. "The coverage of the TWA investigation reflects the horrible state of the modern mainstream media," he observed.From his first discoveries a year ago to his own investigative work to his interviews with some of the key players in the story, he's come to believe that "friendly fire" makes a lot of sense. Yet his efforts to get the word out have run into one stonewall after another. "In looking for ways to tell my story, I've found only a handful of editors with any integrity who are really looking for legitimate scrutiny of this investigation," he said.Given his remarkable story, though, he has been able to squeeze a few critical pieces into the editorial pages. In April, he wrote a Wall Street Journal editorial, noting, "Speculation that an electrical spark ignited the central fuel tank is at least as fantastic as a freak military accident. Boeing 747-100 airplanes like that TWA aircraft do not typically explode in midair. Mechanical failure does not explain the mangled front landing gear, where the aircraft may have been ripped open, or flight recorder noises consistent with a bomb or a missile, or the absence of a distress signal. As aeronautic engineer Paul Czysz told the Los Angeles Times, 'This plane would not break up in flight. The 747 can still lose pieces and fly. It had to be something external.'"Actually, independent investigators are arriving at a consensus that the something Czysz refers to was more likely external -- then internal for about 0.01 seconds -- and then external again.The wreckage of the downed airplane has never yielded any conclusions that a large explosive device such as a bomb or missile warhead went off inside the jet. Rather, the lack of evidence of explosives is one persistent factor bringing investigators back to mechanical failure.Other than a catastrophic failure striking the plane without warning, as the July 21 Newsweek reports, there's also the possibility that the jetliner was nailed midair by "'space junk,' possibly small meteors or missile fragments."Anything, it appears, to avoid pointing fingers at the biggest line-item in American history.The Pentagon's budget is so vast, distended and compartmentalized that it's hard to imagine any single mortal ever grasping its entirety. But there's one program that investigators have homed in on as potentially relevant to the crash of Flight 800.The U.S. Navy's AEGIS Weapons System is one of the most complex armament systems in the history of warfare -- with radar, computer and weaponry technology so advanced that some AEGIS crew members have been known to brag that a single missile cruiser could fight a nuclear war with a small country and win.AEGIS is also a $25 billion program with contractors in 49 states and considerable political support across the board. One AEGIS program now coming online was in a crucial testing and development phase when TWA 800 exploded.The Cooperative Engagement Capability program has been described by the Secretary of Defense as the most important military technology since stealth. Among other features, CEC allows ships to shoot down incoming anti-ship cruise missiles hundreds of miles away -- even beyond an individual ship's radar range. In February 1996 the Navy announced that it had successfully completed its first CEC tests, firing Navy missiles at drone cruise missile targets at the Pacific Missile Range in Kauai.As military watchdog and Seattle-based Flight 800 investigator William Serrahn has found, the next instance a CEC missile testing program appears on the public record is July 15 at Lockheed Martin's Combat Systems Engineering Center in Moorestown, N.J. -- two days before the crash and only a few hundred miles from the crash site.On Sept. 30 -- the last day of the federal fiscal year -- the Navy announced CEC's approval for fleet tactical use after "the Navy's most recent successful live missile firings and testing of CEC" (emphasis added) at the AEGIS Combat Systems Center in Wallops Island, Va. Only a month before the approval, an American Airlines pilot reported a stray missile from Wallops Island streaking dangerously close to his jetliner. According to the NTSB's report on the near-miss, "the missile was a Black Brant V missile, with an inert payload and was launched ... in support of the Department of Defense."The inert payload -- i.e. a dummy warhead -- appears to be the point beyond which official investigators refuse to venture. As former auto accident investigator James Sanders has discovered, that's also the point where many facts begin to fit the friendly fire scenario.As the California Riverside Press-Enterprise reported in March, some important pieces of evidence uncovered by Sanders are consistent with Flight 800 being accidentally hit by a dummy missile fired at a cruise missile drone -- appearing in Linda Kabot's photograph -- in an AEGIS CEC test.Among Sanders' discoveries was that two holes punched through either side of the fuselage line up perfectly with the path of a reddish residue he claims is a remnant of missile exhaust. Earlier this year, a source inside the investigation provided Sanders with samples of the residue found on seats along a straight-line path connecting the supposed missile's "entry" hole on the plane with its "exit" hole. The FBI claims the residue -- found only along a narrow swath between the two holes -- is an "adhesive." The Bureau has never explained why the residue can be found only between the theorized entry and exit holes, nor why the residue contains elements common in missile fuel but unheard of in the adhesives in question.The same source who provided Sanders with the residue also leaked information that Sanders argues further buttresses friendly fire as the cause of the crash.He notes that when he obtained a log of the debris locations on the ocean floor, he was able to reconstruct the crash from initiating event to the final splash. For instance, the first eight pieces of key evidence come from an area between the two holes on either side of the airplane -- along the rows where the reddish residue is also found. It was only after these parts of the plane fell into the ocean that the center fuel tank exploded. This is an especially tricky fact for those hypothesizing mechanical failure as the accident's cause, since it's hard to explain how a strip of the cabin could have been ripped out before the explosion.Finally, earlier this month former airline safety investigator Richard Russell made public his copy of air traffic control radar from the night of the crash. The news magazine program Extra aired it on July 17. (Before that, Russell and former John Kennedy Press Secretary Pierre Salinger had made still photographs of the tapes public in a March issue of Paris Match.)The tape shows TWA 800, a US Air flight and two unidentified objects. The Navy has since owned up to one of them -- a Navy P-3 aircraft participating in military exercises nearby. The other remains unidentified. Russell argues it's a missile.The NTSB and FBI say it's an anomaly. Extra brought the tape to retired Navy Commander Jim Donaldson. He wasn't so sure about the NTSB's and FBI's conclusion: "I am not going to sit here and say for sure that that is evidence of a missile, but I am also going to say that it's very suspicious."The Flight 800 investigation has never suffered from a shortage of suspicious activities and statements.Reports abound of non-Navy divers being prohibited from even venturing near some sections of the debris field. Indeed, in the first days of the investigation AP photographers captured the image of unwanted divers from the New York Police Department being escorted away from the site by the Coast Guard.Last summer Newsday reported that for the first two and a half days after the crash, a U.S. Army Reserve lieutenant colonel named Williams helped to direct the operations at the civilian command center at the East Moriches, N.Y. Coast Guard station. However, after a group of local officials realized that the Army Reserve hadn't been activated for duty at the time, they approached the officer and told him they didn't know who he was or what he was doing there. (As the Newsday report noted, none of the U.S. Army Reserve units in the region has a Lt. Col. Williams on its roster.) The impostor was then escorted to the perimeter of the base and allowed to disappear as quickly as he had appeared a few days earlier. The Coast Guard has refused to comment on why he was not detained or arrested.Whatever Lt. Col. Williams' affiliation or purpose, some leaks coming from inside the investigation have enough air of cover-up to them without invoking any phantom Army officers or overzealous Navy diving teams. In his book The Downing of TWA Flight 800, Sanders quotes an anonymous source at the Calverton, N.Y. hangars where the wreckage has been reconstructed and analyzed. "What's going on here -- it's just not right," he told Sanders. "We're supposed to be conducting an investigation, but we're not. It's just busy work and theories with nothing to back it up."Sanders continues, "The source went on to say that he had decided to talk to me because the evidence of a deliberate cover-up was so overwhelming inside the investigation that he wasn't willing to continue to ignore its implications. Nor, he said, was he willing to put his job or career on the line. But he was willing to talk."Sanders' source was lucky. Other potential whistleblowers have virtually no option but silence. Thanks to documents uncovered by Serrahn, the Advocate has learned that one executive order from earlier this year could be used to stop similar leaks within the Navy.On March 11, 1997 -- the day after Salinger's and Russell's announcement of the radar tapes -- President Clinton signed Executive Order 13039. The Order calls for the exemption from potential whistleblower protections for a key U.S. Navy team -- the Naval Special Warfare Development Group -- close to the TWA 800 search and rescue operations.According to Tom Devine of the Washington-based Government Accountability Project, such measures could effectively stifle any civilian member of the team with grievances to make public. (Uniformed personnel already have limited free speech protections due to national security restrictions.) The executive order, he said, blocks access to independent arbitration, which is "the most effective forum there is to enforce Whistleblower Protection Act rights."The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 is the cornerstone of Federal law protecting government employees who expose wrongdoing in the workplace. E.O. 13039 has a chilling influence on the potential for self-policing within the military, Devine noted."Erasing arbitration rights is a great back door to eliminating free speech rights in this case," he added.Whether evidence of a cover-up or just bad timing on the president's part, the executive order is one more in a yearlong series of actions that invite speculation by attempting to squelch it.Although Kabot's photograph has been ruled "irrelevant" to the FBI's investigation, it now joins the other photograph claiming to show a missile -- taken by Heidi Krieger from a boat just off the coast of Long Island -- in being confiscated as "evidence." Although officials have supposedly been scouring the wreckage for any sign of a missile, Popular Science discovered that sections of the fuselage were hosed down before being examined. Although the magazine quotes a munitions expert who says much or all of any residue could be swept away with such techniques, the FBI insists the sections were "gently washed." Although one can only wonder about the potential evidentiary value of their contents, several independent U.S. weather satellite image archives around the country have gaps in their records at or around the time of the crash on July 17, 1996. Although the FBI is supposedly sharing investigative duties with the NTSB, one of Sanders' sources inside Calverton noted that he had seen many significant pieces of wreckage disappear from the investigation -- forever lost to FBI agents whom he feared were purging the wreckage of all incriminating evidence.So long as such censorious activities continue to be widespread, and so long as Sanders', Russell's and Serrahn's evidence -- to name only a few -- remains unrefuted, the friendly fire theory will remain on the table for anyone without an ax to grind. In its 13th month, the official investigation now seems destined to conclude that all other avenues have been exhausted, and that mechanical failure must have downed the 747.But 40 percent of America still waits to remind FBI chief investigator James Kallstrom of his words three days after the accident: "A reasonable man knows the chances of this being mechanical are slim, whether it's 1 percent or 5 percent."Related web sites:* Ian Goddard's TWA 800: THE FACTS page: * Tom Shoemaker's TWA 800 Case Files page: * The TWA 800 email discussion group archives: * New York State's TWA 800 discussion board: * Michael Rivero's TWA 800 page: * Two pages with the TWA 800 "Friendly Fire" document: * Two Friendly Fire stories: * The Navy's TWA 800 page:


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