The Anti-Conspiracy Conspiracy: Could an American Missile Have Downed TWA Flight 800?

Call it conspiratorial. Call it, as the FBI's James Kallstrom did at a recent press conference, "absolute, pure, utter nonsense." Tar it with whatever brush you will.Here's the problem: The "friendly fire" scenario for the downing of TWA Flight 800 just south of Long Island last summer makes a good deal of sense. And that's tough to spin any other way. For starters, dozens of credible eyewitnesses claim to have seen a missile or its contrail just before to the crash; a photograph taken minutes beforehand shows what appears to be a missile in the air over Long Island Sound; and on the night of the crash the Navy reserved the airspace adjacent to the crash site for unspecified maneuvers.If a missile did bring down Flight 800, these facts by themselves don't explain where it came from. And as far as Kallstrom is concerned, although a missile may in fact be responsible for the crash, "The military of this country has had nothing to do with this tragedy." In other words, we don't know the cause, but if it was a missile, it wasn't one of ours.Friendly fire theories have been circulating since the week after the crash, especially on the Internet. The idea gained a recent publicity boost when Pierre Salinger, press secretary to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, told an aviation conference in Cannes, France on Nov. 8, that he had "very important details that show the plane was brought down by a U.S. Navy missile." Since then, the FBI, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Navy have stated that they've already considered and discounted the theory. In the process, they've painted Salinger as a loose cannon, a few baguettes short of a dinner party.And so far as the mainstream press is concerned, the friendly fire scenario has been "refuted" -- relegated to parenthetical remarks or page A20 news briefs. But the scenario is far from "highly, highly, highly, highly, highly unlikely." (Kallstrom again.) In fact, it fits many available facts that otherwise can only be explained, as they have been, as anomalies.The crash happened around 8:45 p.m. on July 17 about 10 miles south of Long Island Sound. TWA Flight 800 had taken off from Kennedy International Airport and was on its way to Paris. The Boeing 747-100 had been in the air for 11 minutes when it exploded, killing all 230 people onboard. According to the in-flight data recorders, the explosion was exceptionally powerful and apparently without any warning.Early reports note that air-traffic control data from just before the crash shows a blip on the screen, first rising, then tracking TWA 800, then circling to the front and finally intersecting with the plane's flight path. The party line response? As one senior law enforcement official put it, "It is an anomaly."It's especially anomalous considering that both Aerospace Daily and New American magazine have reported that TWA Flight 800 was on a flight path skirting a Navy "hot area" that was reserved for the evening. While the Navy has never come clean with its reasons for roping off the "hot area" that night, such warning zones are typically activated to keep civilian traffic clear of military activities.But even if the radar, eyewitnesses and FAA records are anomalies, there are still two photos -- one showing what appears to be a missile, the other a missile's exhaust trail -- that have yet to be adequately explained. (Unfortunately, Newsday reports that the FBI confiscated the latter, negatives and all, and it hasn't seen daylight since.)On the night of the crash, Southampton, N.Y. Town Supervisor Vincent Cannuscio held a fund-raiser at a seaside restaurant in East Quogue. His assistant, Linda Kabot, captured the evening on film, including some outdoor shots taken minutes before the crash.In one photo, her husband later discovered a long, cylindrical object in the sky, pointing down and to the left with one end aglow. A missile by any other name. (Paris Match magazine has reproduced both the photo and an unretouched enlargement. Both are available on the world-wide web -- with commentary in English -- at and twaa.html.)Kabot later determined that she was facing north, and thus with her back to the eventual crash site, when she took the picture.Investigators have discounted her photo for that very reason. Since she wasn't facing the crash site, they say, the photo tells us nothing about the crash. Within the context of a complicated and yet unresolved investigation, this offhanded response is truly surreal. The photo has been "discounted," but no one will say what the object was doing there. Just another stray missile darting through the skies of that besieged war zone, suburban Long Island? It just happened to appear minutes before witnesses say they saw a missile cause the crash of TWA Flight 800?The FBI's explanation: "This could have been a cigar thrown away by a guest." Perhaps -- so long as the FBI concedes that it could have been the deadliest, rocket-propelled cigar in tobacco history.Just what kind of rocket-propelled cigar was it?For starters, if the apparent missile in the Kabot photo brought down Flight 800, it had to travel at least 10 miles and climb 13,000 feet to do the job. A shoulder-launched rocket such as the American Stinger or the Russian SA-7 -- a likely terrorist weapon -- couldn't go that far. The Kabot photo, in fact, puts severe restrictions on a terrorist or paramilitary missile launch scenario. It requires either that the missile was launched northeast of East Quogue (in the middle of Long Island) or was launched elsewhere and was in the middle of a more complicated trajectory when Kabot took her picture.In either case, because of the range involved, the rocket would almost certainly have required a large launching system on a truck, trailer or large boat. All of this, remember, needs to have happened without a single eyewitness seeing the launch or the launching vehicle. And with much of the action taking place in an activated Navy hot zone, the "terrorists" seem also to have evaded the world's most advanced missile tracking and surveillance systems. If the scenario were any more implausible, you'd expect Jean-Claude Van Damme to be involved.Instead, the Kabot photo can be explained much more simply, albeit disturbingly, as friendly fire.The Navy admits a P-3 radar tracking plane was only 15 miles from the crash. What if the P-3 was part of the reason the warning zone was "hot" on July 17?That is, say the Navy was conducting test firings south of Long Island. (To date, the Navy has denied such allegations.) Could a Navy missile have overshot its allowed airspace only to lock on to a nearby civilian target -- turning around over Long Island, when Kabot took the picture, to zero in for the kill?The blast damage certainly rings some familiar bells. The explosion originated not at a heat source, such as one of the four engines, but instead at the central fuel tank. If a missile was the culprit, it wasn't a heat-seeker. Instead, it looks more like a radar guidance system like the kind accidentally fired from the USS Vincennes in 1988 that downed Iranian Air Flight 655.Unlike the Vincennes incident, in which the Navy mistook a commercial airliner for a military plane, the TWA friendly fire scenario posits that the fatal missile was fired as part of a military exercise. That is, if it was indeed friendly fire that brought down Flight 800, the culprit may not have had a warhead at all. Just an unarmed war game missile with a fancy guidance system. (Still, if it hit the central fuel tank at 5,000 feet per second, a dummy missile would have had all the "warhead" it needed.)As if investigators were following the script without knowing the plot, USA Today reported in early November that the evident absence of an explosive inside the fuselage has led officials to speculate that "a missile could have passed through the belly of the plane without exploding." And still the FBI's missile scenario -- endless variations on Abdul in a dinghy with a Stinger -- remains the only missile scenario, common sense be damned.However rare, war games and practice missile firings are nothing new to commercial airline pilots.For instance, Salinger recently told CNN that he met a passenger on an Air France flight that took off within minutes of TWA 800. Early in the flight, the Air France jet swerved wildly, and when the passenger later asked the pilot why he took such drastic action, the pilot reportedly replied, "We can't go into that region. They're sending missiles up there. It's very dangerous!" (The FBI has since discounted this report.)Not surprisingly, airline professionals rank among the friendly fire theory's most adamant supporters. In addition to the pilot who began circulating one of the infamous "friendly fire documents" now available on the Internet, Newsday quotes one TWA flight attendant as admitting, "Most of the flight attendants think it was a missile. A lot of [TWA] employees feel it was a missile."And as some airline professionals know, a stray Navy missile venturing into civilian airspace is not unprecedented. On Aug. 29, an American Airlines pilot heading from San Juan to Boston reported a missile passing dangerously close to his plane as he flew east of Wallops Island, Va. -- home of the U.S. Navy's Aegis Wallops Island Combat Systems Center.None of this phases the investigators, though. White House spokesman Mike McCurry was widely quoted in his early and decisive condemnation of the friendly fire theory. "There's no American official with half a brain who ought to be speculating on anything of that nature," he told a press conference in the first few weeks of the investigation. "There's no concrete information that would lead any of us in the United States government to draw that kind of conclusion."Yet his, Kallstrom's and the Navy's apparent unwillingness even to consider the friendly fire scenario sounds less like the dispassionate words of truth-seekers than those of political operatives who are highly, highly, highly, highly, highly touchy about [it>something.Suggested art: screenshot of cutline: Despite its "refutation" by American investigators, Paris Match magazine and Paris Match online stand by their photo of the "TWA missile."

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