The Cunning Passageways of TWA Flight 800: An Unauthorized History
Six months ago, authorities seized a cargo plane in Bangkok that contained 35 tons of North Korean military weapons. These included versions of the Chinese HN-5 “man-portable air defense system,” or MANPADS. The MANPADS were being shipped to Iran. The HN-5 — a copy of the Soviet SA-7— is less capable than the MANPADS Iran produces on its own. Why, you ask, would Iran be importing more primitive missiles than the ones it already makes? The only conceivable answer is that Iran was planning to provide North Korean missiles to Iran’s proxy terrorist groups, to gain plausible deniability in case the missiles were ever used or grabbed. In other words, Iran is now in the business of fronting MANPADS from a variety of sources to Hezbollah, the Islamic Courts Union of Somalia, al Shabaab, the Taliban, and apparently al Qaeda.
The cache of North Korean MANPADS bound for Iran is surely an omninous sign for air travelers everywhere. We know that since 1973, 30 civilian aircraft have been downed and about 920 civilians killed by MANPADS. These weapons are cheap and comparatively small. For years, intelligence officials have described them as so easy to use that firing a Stinger is compared with operating a point-and-shoot camera. And the bang they provide is priceless. One particular story comes to mind and haunts my dreams.
July 17th is the 14-year anniversary of the tragic crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island, New York, which caused the deaths of 230 men, women and children. This essay is a cautionary tale-- a story of a brief period in American history when America was, as now, beset by a host of enemies from the Islamic world. In 1996 America was led by an Administration committed to not stirring the pot, apologizing to our enemies and sweeping foreign problems under the rug in the name of domestic politics. In 1996, as now, the Administration was committed to a law enforcement approach, as opposed to a military emphasis, to the reduction of our jihadist enemies.
1996, as now, also saw an American Intelligence Community (IC) beset by group-think on a host of issues: that North Korea could be trusted to comply with the 1994 Agreed Framework in giving up its nukes, that toughening sanctions on Iran would only cause it to dig in its heels on human rights, terrorism, and nuke development, and most of all, that Islamic extremists would never, ever work with Arab secular tyrants like Saddam Hussein or the Assad dynasty in Syria. Every piece of data that crossed the CIA’s analysts was looked at in the light of these assumptions. And all of these assumptions were wrong.
Today, the risk is very great that our Intelligence product itself, even to the extent of the anti-terrorist efforts of law enforcement, will be corrupted by the liberal zealotry and political thinking of the current Administration.
Trying 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM) in a New York civilian court, instead of under the Military Tribunals Act specifically signed into law for him and his cohorts, is a stark sign of the looming degradation of our Intelligence Community, which will inevitably succumb to a bleed-out of its sources and methods in this event. If this plan is carried out, it will also risk thousands of American lives at the hands of jihadists who will certainly view their chance to disrupt the trial in any way possible as the equivalent of Christmas in July. A show-trial might be good politics for Mr. Obama. But as it turns out, show trials are Christmas for the enemy, too.
The mass murder of Americans, however, always requires Willful Blindness on the part of our government, in the wise words of Andrew C. McCarthy’s outstanding “memoir of the jihad.” Chance after chance to stop the jihadists gets missed because of the awful groupthink of the IC and the Administration nominally overseeing it. This essay is the story of a one half-year slice of history: a slice of American presumption, political manipulation of intelligence and law enforcement, outrageous attempts to cover up that manipulation, craven media acceptance of the government’s lines, a risk-averse Congress, and as a result, a horrendous crime against Americans. And there are signs that the whole sordid sequence will soon repeat itself.
Chronology can be a force for clarity; let us look at the strange events of 1996 in their order, and see what sort of pattern emerges from the noise of events, and hopefully learn something for the present day.
By 1996, Assistant United States Attorney Andrew C. McCarthy had spent hundreds of hours of his own life putting Sheik Rahman away for the rest of his, but Saddam’s money was still flowing for all kinds of jihadis crawling in and out of the New York area’s al-Farooq Mosque.
For his victory, AUSA McCarthy had reason to be concerned for his own safety and that of his fellow New Yorkers. The New York Post reported in September of 1996 that shortly after the October 1st 1995 conviction of the blind terrorist Sheik, an anonymous threat letter was sent to various authorities, promising that “a New York airport or jetliner would be attacked in retaliation.” The prophecy would be fulfilled in due course.
Unfortunately even Andrew C. McCarthy’s strenuous efforts did not prevent the Blind Sheik from continuing his malignant conspiracies against America. Long after his conviction, while languishing in Club Fed in May 1998, the Sheik smuggled out his “Will” through his son. The Will commanded the faithful to
The Will would later be distributed in the training camps of Osama bin Laden, such as Khaldan, to whip the jihadis up to a violent frenzy, as Millenium Plot terrorist Ahmed Ressam would later testify. Naturally this little coda raises questions about the ability of civilian courts and prisons to even safely incapacitate people like Sheik Rahman, as Andrew McCarthy would no doubt agree. (i)
One man who had particularly profited from Saddam’s cashflow quadrant was Ramzi Yousef. Everyone in the al-Farooq Mosque called him “Rashid the Iraqi,” meaning they understood him to hail from that nation. In 1993 he had flown into the United States on an Iraqi passport, which seemed authentic to the customs agent who examined it on Yousef’s arrival. The stamps on the passport indicated a long series of travels that began in Iraq. (The entire Intelligence Community today nevertheless believes that the passport was a fake, and that Yousef really didn’t hail from Iraq, but rather Kuwait, and that his name wasn’t Yousef, but rather Abdul Basit Karim. More on this to come.)
Now, three years later, Yousef, the “Mozart of Terror,” was sitting in a New York City jail awaiting trial for his role in the outrageously ambitious 1995 plot, cooked up with his uncle KSM and called Bojinka (for Big Bang), to blow up 10 American airliners over the Pacific Ocean, kill the Pope, and cause President Clinton to choke to death in a cloud of chlorine gas. But to Yousef, as well as the Blind Sheik, being incarcerated and awaiting trial was no bar to committing acts of terror, as we will see.
This of course further confirms Andrew McCarthy’s jeremiads about the dubious efficacy of civilian courts and jails for foreign terrorists trying to kill us.
1996 was an election year for the American President, and he was coasting on good numbers, particularly after the Republicans nominated the tired old-timer Bob Dole, apparently because it was his “turn.” But Clinton wasn’t going to allow any pesky acts of terror and war screw up his coast to victory, as he told consigliere Dick Morris. The President thought that with enough of his personal charm deployed in the right places, there wouldn’t be any more Islamic freaks and messy military interventions to blow his re-election.
Bill Clinton’s personal charm offensive to the world of Islamic extremism actually began on November 9th, 1995, when he and Al Gore met with Abdulrahman Alamoudi, executive director of the American Muslim Council (AMC), as part of an overall suck-up session with 23 other Muslim leaders. December 8th saw his NSC chief, Anthony Lake, meet again with Mr. Alamoudi at the White House, this time with some AMC board members. By February 20th of 1996, Mrs. Clinton herself was allowing the AMC to literally draw up the Muslim guest list for the historic White House reception marking the end of Ramadan.
Mrs. Clinton even took it to the next level, as she has been wont to do. Mrs. Clinton's syndicated newspaper column of Feb. 8th, 1996, called "Islam in America," was actually based on literal "talking points" supplied by the AMC. But of course the AMC was not a group of hirsute apologists for the Religion of Peace. Not only was it the West’s foremost champion of Hamas while Hamas was busy machine-gunning Israeli civilians, AMC lobbied for and supported other terror groups.
The AMC had long co-sponsored conferences and fundraising events in the U.S. with the United Association for Studies and Research, which served as Hamas's official support arm in the U.S. Interestingly, “telephone records subpoenaed for the World Trade Center bombing trial show that the United Association's officials were in [frequent] contact with Mohammed Saleh, a Hamas official who was convicted for his role in the World Trade Center conspiracy,” in the words of journalist Steven Emerson. More on this later.
But despite the Clinton charm offensive and his winking at terrorist activity, things were still heating up between Iraq and the UN weapons inspectors, known as UNSCOM. The conflicts naturally arose from Iraq’s relentless efforts to conceal, cheat and deceive concerning its WMD programs and materiel.
In February 1996, UNSCOM started using CIA-supplied eavesdropping devices during UNSCOM’s hobbled excursions around the country. Saddam’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, and former head of all the WMD production in Iraq, had earlier defected to the West, and spilled his guts about Iraq’s secret bioweapons programs and production.
Frightened at what Kamel had revealed, Iraq’s top thugs fessed up and admitted to having a substantial biological weapons program, but claimed Dr. Rihab “Germ” Taha had shut everything down after the 1991 Gulf War without telling anybody. Saddam’s sadistic sons lured Kamel back to Iraq with promises of familial forgiveness. Of course Saddam immediately had his sons slaughter Kamel and Kamel’s entire family.
The next month, in March, UNSCOM inspectors under the overall direction of Rolf Ekeus and his deputy, Charles Duelfer, were refused access to five critical WMD sites by the Iraqi military for up to 17 hours per site. The UN Security Council issued a heated statement, demanding that Iraq allow UNSCOM teams immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access to all sites designated for inspection. On the 27th, it passed Resolution 1051, condemning this and other actions, in case Saddam missed the point.
In May, fortified by what it (wrongly) saw as the unified will of the entire world, UNSCOM supervised the destruction of Al-Hakam, Iraq's main production facility of biological warfare agents, enraging the Iraqis.
In this same month, in Sudan, American pressure on the Sudanese regime of Hassan al-Turabi finally yielded results, of a sort. Osama bin Laden was finally asked to leave. He climbed on board a C-130 with his wives and flew to Afghanistan, after a friendly stopover in one of the American allied Gulf states. No effort was made by the Clinton Administration to stop him or arrest him. Apparently, all the Administration wanted was the terror financier out of Sudan. Where he went after that was apparently his own business.
In New York City, master terrorist Ramzi Yousef was going to trial for his role in the Bojinka planes operation while sitting in a New York jail cell. He was allowed out of his cell for only one hour per day, for exercise. During this single daily hour, Yousef befriended his next-door cellmate, Gregory Scarpa Jr., who was looking at some serious time for his string of mafia crimes. Scarpa wanted to render AUSA McCarthy’s Justice Department colleague, Patrick Fitzgerald, some “substantial assistance,” so as to work off his time. Patrick Fitzgerald wasn’t about to let Scarpa out to do that on the street, so the assistance had to come in the form of ratting out his cellmates.
As it turned out, Scarpa didn’t have to do much of anything. Yousef approached him, along with Yousef’s terrorist pal A. Hakim Murad, and hoped to interest Scarpa in some nice airplane-terrorism on the outside. And to impress Scarpa with his terrorist credentials, Yousef bragged about being state-sponsored. He bragged to Scarpa, in the dry words of an FBI 302 memo reporting the conversation, dated March 5, 1996:
Would this country be Iraq, by any chance, where Yousef (Rashid the Iraqi) came from? Let’s think about the alternatives. Yousef could be lying to Scarpa, in the sense that there was in reality no other country assisting him. Alternatively, Yousef could be talking about some other terrorist friendly country, like Iran. But each of these alternatives has problems, as we will see. It seems that the balance of the evidence actually militates in favor of Yousef telling Scarpa the truth, and that his support-country really was Saddam’s Iraq. But let us set this hypothesis aside for a moment and place it in the context of the steamy summer of 1996.
In May, literally from the prison pay phone, Yousef was chatting with his “uncle,” Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the future mastermind of 9/11. The New York FBI office was excited about listening in, even arranging for Yousef to send faxes abroad to his fellow terrorists. The FBI Assistant Director was going to have a field day with all this eavesdropping. Who knew what fish he might catch as a result of the scheme?
But Yousef needn’t have concerned himself about any useful information getting to the feds in that conversation. Thinking that Yousef was really a man named Abdul Basit Karim, from Kuwait, the New York Special Agent in Charge, James Kallstrom, had Arabic translators hooked up to headphones. But the translators were quickly baffled. For Yousef and the 9/11 mastermind were speaking in true privacy—in Baluch, their native language. Why a former Kuwaiti student would know Baluch was never asked.
Comprising parts of Pakistan and Iran, Baluchistan contains a remote, Sunni Muslim people with virtually no ties to the West or history of grievance with America. But Saddam Hussein, according to his former director of military intelligence, Gen. Wafiq Samarrai, used the Baluch as spies during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) out of the Gulf sheikdom of Dubai. The Baluch were the Iraqi equivalent of the Soviet Union’s Bulgarians: a wild, tough people, good for wet work that didn’t get traced to the host country.
Indeed, the terrorist Mozart had some serious wet work in mind for his own trial. In an amazing admission to his fellow inmate, Gregory Scarpa Jr., on March 5, 1996, Yousef boasted that he had “four terrorists already here in the United States.”
Anyway, Yousef used the supposed phone-sting operation for his own ends. He also communicated with KSM and others on the outside in a code language, without giving away the outsiders’ identities. He attempted to find passports to get some more terrorists into the US, and there was some avid discussion about imminent attacks on US passenger jets. Realizing the scheme had backfired, the FBI terminated the telephone sting in late 1996, but Yousef still managed to keep communicating with the outside world for several more months. (ii.)
Abdul Hakin Murad, told Gregory Scarpa that KSM’s people were going to blow up a U.S. airliner, but that “Ramzi’s waiting to hear if Bojinka (Yousef’s new code name for Osama bin Laden, apparently) got the message.” Thirty-four days before the destruction of TWA Flight 800, Osama still needed to approve the attack first.
Eleven days later, Yousef had presumably been told by KSM that Osama had blessed the murder operation. But Yousef was also feeling better about how his trial was going, and so he wanted to hold the bombing in reserve. The latest FBI 302 memo had Scarpa reporting that Yousef “was not going to perform the operation for now because the trial is going well.”
But, as Peter Lance in his important book, Cover-Up: What the Government is Still Hiding About the War on Terror wrote, “three days after that, the mercurial Yousef told Scarpa that he thought the government want[ed] to sabotage his case.” Yousef told the court that he was going to have Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Garcia killed because he thought that Garcia had smirked at him, and Judge Kevin Duffy wasn’t amused. To make matters worse, Judge Duffy was looking as if he was going to let in the written confession of Abdul Hakim Murad, which talked about Yousef’s involvement in Operation Bojinka, as the hearsay statement of a co-conspirator. By this means, AUSA Garcia could tell the jury what Yousef said, without Murad actually being there. Yousef sat in his cell and fumed with rage.
By June 12th, the UN Security Council had passed Resolution 1060, which called Iraq's actions a clear violation of the council's earlier resolutions. The resolution also demanded that Iraq grant "immediate and unrestricted access" to all sites designated for inspection by UNSCOM. In retaliation, the very next day, Iraq once again refused the UN inspection teams any access to its sites under investigation.
Back in Washington, as Bill Clinton glanced over his daily intelligence briefings, he was actually nervously obsessing about his re-election. “I’m not going to be Greg Normanized,” the President told his advisers over and over. Clinton’s golf buddy Greg Norman had just blown an amazing six-stroke lead at the Masters’ tournament and lost, shocking everyone present. The lesson was not lost on the politico in chief. He could still lose, even to oldster Bob Dole, if the world went haywire before election day. After all, national security crises were not exactly the President’s forte.
Over the course of June 19-22nd, UNSCOM chief Rolf Ekéus personally negotiated with Tariq Aziz, gaining access for his UNSCOM to inspect "sensitive" sites. But the truth was that UNSCOM had caved. Only four UN inspectors were allowed in to each of the sites at once. Mr. Ekeus’s most aggressive site inspector, Scott Ritter, was not happy about this deal and resolved to press beyond it at his earliest opportunity.
Three days later, on June 25, 1996, without warning, a gigantic car bomb exploded and killed 19 US soldiers at the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia. Over the next two days, June 26th and 27th, Saddam praised the attacks. Various Iraqi defectors, and not the media-hated CURVEBALL, pointed the CIA to some sort of Iraqi government involvement. For his part, Osama bin Laden approved of the murders but denied any involvement of his al-Qaeda organization. Despite the obstructionism of the Saudis, substantial evidence also emerged that the government of Iran, acting through its Hezbollah proxies, had a controlling role in the murder-plot.
How the Clintons dealt with this catastrophe would open the eyes of the FBI to the Administration’s real agendas, and in particular how the re-elect imperative would cause them to directly interfere with terrorist investigations of the first magnitude. This was described best, years later, by one of the principals himself: On June 25th, 2007, the Wall Street Journal published a column by former FBI Director Louis Freeh. Freeh described the immediate reaction by Clinton’s National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger, upon being told by himself and Janet Reno that Iran had incontestably blown up the Khobar Towers:
Sandy Berger became purple with rage at the thought of having to go to war with Iran.
Shocked, because Berger was supposed to be a lawyer, Freeh patiently explained that statements of a co-conspirator are indeed admissible evidence. Berger’s interest suddenly peaked, but not for the reason you would expect:
As June turned to July, 1996, UN Inspector Scott Ritter attempted to conduct surprise inspections on the Republican Guard facility at Saddam International Airport, but he was blocked by Iraqi officials. By the time UNSCOM inspectors were let into the facility a few days later, everything had been vacuumed up.
This same month, according to that conservative bastion The New York Times, Iraq was busy holding high level meetings, involving discussions of car bombs and explosives training, with al-Qaeda officials. The recovered documents outline Iraq’s efforts to coordinate with bin Laden after his move from Sudan. (iii.)
In support of this, there is now translated a secret July 1996 original DOCEX document, taken from Iraq’s archives after the War, that discusses bin Laden’s departure from Khartoum in the Sudan, and how to invigorate his relationship with Iraq. Sudan, it must be said, agreed to aid in contacting bin Laden in Afghanistan, knowing he was a full-time terrorist financier.
The efforts paid off. Now safely ensconced in Afghanistan and allied with Mullah Omar of the Taliban, Osama bin Laden was ready to receive visitors bearing gifts. This came in the form of Deputy Iraqi Intelligence Service Director Faruq Hijazi, who personally travelled to meet with bin Laden shortly after bin Laden’s return from Qatar (iv.) Hijazi was presumably carrying money and letters of credit for Bin Laden’s use—what else would he have to “invigorate” the relationship?
Meanwhile, as Ramzi Yousef was seething in his jail cell against AUSA Mike Garcia and Judge Kevin Duffy for disrespecting him, and letting into his trial all that pesky hearsay from Abdul Hakim Murad, he was itching to bring that American plane down. His Baluch uncle KSM was working the problem and imagined he could get Yousef that mistrial with a Bojinka-style bang. Though KSM was now working for Osama, KSM had not yet sworn the oath of loyalty which would have made him a full-blown member of al-Qaeda.
And things were looking up with that: Yousef’s “four terrorists” finally had their MANPADS missile and boat in New York and were ready to try out the combo. On July 12, 1996, five days before the destruction of TWA Flight 800, an event was described by an FBI 302 memo (later released only after a ferocious court battle over the Freedom of Information Act request by concerned citizen Raymond Lahr). This memo reported that a certain man and his friend on Long Island were attempting to videotape the pretty sunrise, and wasn’t it funny? They saw and recorded “a grey trail of smoke ascending from the horizon at an angle of approximately 75 [degrees].”
So clear was the sight in the videotape that the man made a comment to his friend, heard on the tape, “They must be testing a rocket.” This amateur videographer calculated that object was heading towards the Atlantic Ocean.
As author Jack Cashill wrote, “On the document Lahr first received, the story of the video ends right there. The next two paragraphs had been fully redacted. This current unedited version shows that the FBI took the video seriously enough to bring in the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) for further spectrographic and image enhancement analysis. As mentioned above, the DIA found the video image to be “consistent with the exhaust plume from a MANPAD” and nothing else.
Now, maybe the US Navy was just shooting shoulder-fired missiles off Long Island Sound in broad daylight, just for target practice, into the most heavily trafficked air corridor in the nation. Maybe this is all just a big misunderstanding. But I doubt it: it’s not like you could get an FAA or DOD “permit” for that little enterprise. And what risk-averse government bureaucrat would sign off on such a hare-brained idea?
So I think it far more plausible that Ramzi Yousef was ready to bring down a plane, and not just any old plane: a 747 jumbo jet. His men had to make sure KSM’s stuff worked, or there would be no mistrial. And the date, all other things being equal, was also important to “Rashid the Iraqi.” This little test was what the two Americans videotaped on the beach as the sun rose.
The date was important to Yousef/ “Rashid the Iraqi:” July 17th, 1996, after all, was the equivalent of the Fourth of July in Iraq: the National Holiday, the day the Baath Party had seized power many years before. Everything in the country closed down. On this day, Saddam addressed the nation by belting out a vicious tirade against the United States of America—the most hateful, vengeful speech of his entire life, according to Dr. Laurie Mylroie. This accomplishment was no mean feat for the grandfather of terror.
About the time Saddam was delivering his hate-speech on the evil USA over all the television stations of the Republic of Fear, someone in the Middle East was sending a fax to an Arabic language newspaper in Beruit. The fax said “tomorrow morning we shall strike the Americans in a way they do not expect and it will be very surprising to them," according to one CIA official, who noted that it was sent at 11 a.m. New York time Wednesday, more than nine hours before the downing of TWA Flight 800.
The CIA wasn’t very concerned and FAA was not put on any kind of alert. U.S. News and World Report, in the July 29, 1996 issue, identified the group who sent the fax as "The Movement of Islamic Jihad/The Jihad Wing of the Arabian Peninsula." The New York Times, however, quoting another anonymous CIA “analyst,” said the fax originated from the “Islamic Change Movement,” whatever that was. Apparently the CIA was confused about who really sent it, and anyway the fax was too vague to merit concern to the intelligence community. What did “tomorrow morning” mean, after all? Apparently it couldn’t actually mean what it said.
Well, “tomorrow morning” in Iraq and Saudi Arabia really did mean sunset over New York City—literally. Apparently the same fax had been sent to the London offices of Al Hayat, the prestigious Arabic daily, and gotten noticed as well--only to be dismissed by the Administration. “[It’s] a general political tract. We don’t see it as a specific threat,” said State Department Spokesman Nicholas Burns to reporters, a day or so later.
(Yosef Bodansky, terrorism expert and author of "Bin Laden: the man who declared war on America," reported that yet a new fax, sent to the same Arabic daily in Beruit, had proclaimed the day after the downing of the jetliner that “we carried out our promise of yesterday with the attack on TWA 800.”)
But who was behind these faxes, which accurately predicted nine hours in advance a spectacular terrorist act on America? Nobody in the Clinton White House wanted to think about an attack on an American jumbo jet, and what that attack would mean for the President’s re-election chances. The election was his to lose, barring some crazy event. When President Clinton thought about war, Vietnam and “quagmire” were his only templates. So nobody, apparently, in the entire American Intel Community bothered to ask or was pressured to ask about the faxes’ authors. Independent scholar Laurie Mylroie has argued that the “Islamic Change Movement” was a typical name used by the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) to claim credit for terrorist acts it perpetrated. I haven’t seen her claim refuted or confirmed, but it is our intelligence community’s basic disinterest in the question that is so inexplicable.
As we’ve said, 1996 was an anxious summer for President Clinton who believed he was coasting to re-election in the fall. His house Machiavellian, Dick Morris, took flash poll after poll. A few weeks earlier, when the nation of Iran caused its Hezbollah proxies to blow up the U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia at the Khobar Towers, killing scores of young American soldiers, Clinton’s people suppressed the Iran connection, according to FBI Director Louis Freeh, because releasing the truth might have made America go to war against Iran. Clinton’s job approval had been in the low forties, but his moist eyes at a masterful consoler-in-chief performance with the victim’s families caused his numbers to rise at least 10 points in the polls. The same approach would surely work in TWA Flight 800. We don’t need a war with Iraq or Iran going into November, he and Morris must have mused, late into the night, before the Party’s National Convention.
At about 7:30 PM on July 17th, 1996, the night of screams and death, a certain witness, later interviewed and found credible by the FBI, was on an excursion boat off Long Island. He couldn’t help but notice a small boat zipping past, draped oddly with a thick plastic cover. Something was sticking out through the cover. It just happened to be a “cylindrical tube which appeared to be as big as the boat itself.” At the helm of the boat was a man with dark hair and a mustache.
As Baathist Iraq began to celebrate its evil Fourth of July, TWA Flight 800, carrying 212 passengers and 18 crew, took off from JFK and cleared Long Island, bound for Paris. At 8:31 PM, Naval Electronic Warfare specialist Dwight Brumley put down his book and looked out the window of US Air Flight 217, which was flying on an intersecting course above TWA 800. He noticed “what appeared to be some kind of flare,” a bright, burning object ascending off the ocean and then moving parallel to his US Air flight, racing north.
At the same moment, Mike Wire, working on a Westhampton bridge, saw a “streak of light” rise up from behind a nearby house and zigzag away from the shoreline, leaving a white smoke trail in its wake.
Someone else, at the local yacht club, saw the streak and exclaimed, “Hey, look at the fireworks.” It was “bright, very bright,” he recalled later, with an “orange glow around it and it traveled up.”
Lisa Perry, enjoying her vacation on her deck on Fire Island, saw the object shoot over the dunes:
Baur’s co-pilot, Major Fritz Meyer, a decorated combat veteran of countless missions over North Vietnam, where he had been literally shot at by scores of Soviet surface to air missiles that almost killed him, saw the object the most clearly of any witness. “It was definitely a rocket motor,” he said, adding, “What I saw explode was a high velocity explosion, not fuel. It was ordnance.”
I must attribute these quotes above to those collected in Dr. James Cashill and James Sanders’ outstanding book, First Strike: TWA Flight 800 and the Attack on America. They are merely representative of more than 183 separate accounts of other eyewitnesses interviewed by the FBI. Nearly all of them reported a streak or streaks of light shooting up and attacking the airliner, blowing it out of the sky. It is not known whether the helpless Americans on board, including a high school French class bound for Paris, were actually conscious as the doomed remains of the plane hurtled to the dark waters, but it is probable that they were. Everyone on board died.
TWA Flight 800 turned out to be the most expensive air disaster investigation in history. About 80% of the plane was dredged up from the floor of Long Island Sound and re-constructed in an old hanger nearby. The history of this investigation, and the outrageous political pressures placed upon the participants such as James Kallstrom, make grim reading in Cashill’s and Sanders’ book. I need not recount them in this space. But is it so very large a leap to surmise that there was election year pressure, from this most political of Administrations, to make a literal Act of War disappear? And that this politicization caused the government to ultimately declare that the jetliner’s Center Wing Tank just ignited by itself at 13,000 feet and killed everyone?
While the bodies and wreckage were enflamed in the cold waters, James Kallstrom’s pager went off. He called Louis Freeh and his own deputy agent, Thomas Pickard. Pickard called Neal Herman, head of the FBI-NYPD Joint Terrorist Task Force. Herman immediately said: “I’m thinking Yousef.” Pickard then called the legendary tough-guy agent John O’Neill in Washington, who himself called Clinton terror czar Richard Clarke. Clarke convened a secure meeting of the principals in the White House at ten o’clock that night. Everyone present automatically assumed the flight was destroyed by a terrorist act. Jetliners don’t simply blow themselves up in mid-air. This had never happened before. You could drop a match into “Jet-A” kerosene fuel and the match would extinguish itself, not ignite the fuel. A sparking electrical wire would have the same non-effect.
Indeed, at that hour, the White House’s infamous political machine was not yet on-line. And it ultimately had a tough problem to overcome: the evidence. This evidence eventually included, but was not limited to:
Kallstrom no doubt originally wanted to solve the case. He too must have been “thinking Yousef.” As his men, with the help of the US Navy, continued dredging up the 747 from the inlet, he decided that he would exclusively leak to the New York Times, which dutifully and uncritically carried every story his G-men fed them through the summer. The biggest story of all, which would have changed the entire investigation from a nominal civil matter under the jurisdiction of the NTSB to an Act of Terrorism and war, was leaked on August 22nd. The Times carried the story the next day, quoting his agents’ reporting that an act of terrorism had almost certainly destroyed the airplane on account of the positive testing for all the explosive chemicals still present on the wreckage weeks after it had been dredged up from the ocean bottom.
August 22nd, the day before the blockbuster story was to run, Kallstrom was peremptorily summoned to Washington for a “Come to Jesus” meeting. His boss, Louis Freeh, was reportedly present. Also present were Janet Reno and Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick.
We don’t know exactly what was said in that meeting, but everything changed immediately thereafter. Literally as soon as his plane landed back in NYC, Kallstrom was on his cell phone with the Times’ editors, trying to get them to spike the story.
Kallstrom was as forceful as he could be, which was pretty forceful. To talk about PETN on the seat cushions would be a “rush to judgment.” Perhaps some Gulf War soldiers might have spilled it onto the plane. (The plane was completely refitted before 1996, making this theory impossible.) But the Times’ editors sensed something was wrong. They ignored him and ran the story anyway the next day.
Kallstrom next had to deal with the problem of his G-men’s interviews with hundreds of eyewitnesses reporting that a missile-like object had attacked the plane in mid-air. So someone in the FBI or NTSB asked the CIA to produce a video of the plane blowing up by itself, losing its nosecone, and going into a “zoom-climb” of 4,000-7,000 feet. What the eyewitnesses really saw, the government claimed, was the doomed plane itself, climbing at full speed without its nose and trailing fire. That was the “missile.” Almost every aviation expert who looked at this video laughed at it. A plane that crippled would not go into a “zoom climb.” It would immediately stall, and then fall.
Plus, the Islip station radar, passing every 4.3 seconds, recorded four separate hits right after the explosion. A plane in four pieces does not zip up into the blue yonder, let alone all four pieces at once. But the New York Times again asked no questions about this, simply reporting dutifully what the FBI officials told them. By today, even the NTSB has backed away from the “zoom-climb” fantasy and it is not considered credible by anyone. But the damage was done and the mainstream media no longer ask any questions.
The government then had to explain away the high explosive residue found all over the airplane, which remained even after the plane’s pieces were lying on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean for days and weeks.
So the FBI eventually claimed this: weeks earlier, a dog-handler was training his K-9 pooch to sniff explosives on-board a jumbo jet. The handler, Officer Herman Burnett, with 26 years of experience, must have let slip some of the explosive residue from its container and scattered it all over the seats. Burnett must have screwed up, they guessed.
The problem with this idea is that the dog handler himself soon claimed that he was certain that a) he had never, ever in his entire career let explosive residue slip out of its container and onto seats, and b) the plane where he conducted his test was not the one that became TWA Flight 800. That plane left the tarmac less than 40 minutes after he started his test, and when he did his K-9 test, the cabin was of course empty. It was not boarding when the handler left. TWA regulations mandate that the crew of a 747 must be on-board at least 90 minutes before the flight. If the dog-test plane was TWA 800, where was the crew? The other problem, actually insoluble for the government, is that the handler never used RDX, and he did not even test in the cargo hold, where the RDX was found. But facts were not allowed to get in the way of a good lie.
As author Peter Lance reported in his important book, Cover-Up: What the Government is Still Hiding About the War on Terror, it wasn’t long before Kallstrom got on the phone with his Supervisory Special Agent Maxwell and gave him a “very direct order,” as Maxwell recalled. “Shut it down. Shut [the investigation] down.” There would not be any more dredging the sea floor for a portable shoulder fired missile like a Stinger or an SA-7. There would not be any scouring the New York mosques for Yousef’s four terrorists. There would be no tracking of money transfers from Iraqi-controlled accounts to Yousef and his so-called uncle, KSM. Shut it all down. Back in the White House, Clinton must have breathed a sigh of relief. The problem was contained before the fall election.
The Association of Retired Aviation Professionals, founded by Commander William Donaldson, didn’t want to shut it down. Over the years, their painstaking work and analysis has yielded an avalanche of statistical and physical evidence pointing to a missile, probably shoulder-fired from a small, fast boat, downing the plane. Someone at Donaldson’s Association (ARAP) conceived of a way to use the tool of Google Earth to discredit the government’s theory of self-ignition, once and for all. As the ARAP website announces:
But when I visited the Google Earth TWA 800 group online, I saw something else. A nearly straight line was plotted from the mystery 30-knot boat to the impact point on the doomed jet. Why? What are the odds of this occurring by chance?
I saw that the descriptions of most of the eyewitnesses described here and elsewhere matched exactly what their perspectives would have been had they actually seen what they claimed to see. No one was exaggerating or making something up. And there is more: the debris field map, superimposed on the radar map and the Google Earth witness sightings plotted, matches exactly what the debris spread would look like if a missile had smashed into the jetliner from the left and exited out the right without detonating, and that the final, catastrophic, petrochemical low-speed explosion that occurred several seconds later resulted from the detonation of the Center Wing Tank by the missile’s earlier impact.
But the obvious man to carry out this misunderstanding was indeed Ramzi Yousef, called “Rashid the Iraqi” by his friend and mentor, the Blind Sheik, and by the sinister Imam’s fanatical acolytes. And Yousef somehow knew how to blow things up very well. Back in 1993, he had hoped to kill 250,000 New Yorkers with his massive truck bomb. It detonated in the parking garage of World Trade Center One, which was supposed to topple one tower onto the other. The Towers held, and Yousef had only killed a few Americans. But he was learning how to get it right.
At least one of Yousef’s bombing-buddies made it back to Iraq. Abdul Hakim, the chemical mixer for the bomb, got out of Gotham and went to live in Baghdad, where Saddam took care of him and gave him a house and a government pension, according to ABC News’ Sheila MacVickar, who visited him there and reported on July 27, 1994:
Another bomb-conspirator was constantly calling Iraq on his cell phone before the bombing, and after the blast he tried to get back there. He was caught while insisting on the rental bomb-truck’s security deposit refund.
But Ramzi Yousef eventually made it to Manila and lived the high life there with his Baluch “uncle,” Khalid Sheik Mohammed. The two rented boats and helicopters for fun. The good Muslims drank a lot of booze and dated a lot of strippers. No U.S. Intelligence official, apparently, has ever expressed the slightest interest in where Yousef and KSM got their treasure-chest of cash from, or why “Islamic Extremists” would instead behave like rich fraternity brothers in Fort Lauderdale on Spring Break. For a whole year.
Yousef and KSM had a gigantic plan to work on together, in between their nocturnal nightclub visits. This plan, called Operation Bojinka, was that insanely ambitious plan that called for 10 simultaneous explosions of jetliners over the Pacific Ocean, the murder of the Pope in Rome, and the choking death of President Clinton. Yousef and his other comrades were nearly ready to execute Bojinka when he accidentally started a kitchen fire with some of the bomb-chemicals. The Manila police arrived and searched the place, wading through all the bomb-making manuals and materials. Yousef sent a friend back to the smoking apartment to retrieve the all-important laptop. The police grabbed the friend when he showed up. Yousef skipped town again, ending up in Pakistan. But the laptop was read and it was Yousef’s undoing: information it contained led to his capture by the Pakistani agents a few weeks later. He was quickly sent on to New York City, which had plans for him. But as it turned out, Yousef and whoever was backing him had yet another plan for New York.
But who, really, was Rashid the Iraqi? Who trained him to blow things up, and who was paying his way? Our government’s belief, totally unquestioned by the mainstream media, is that Yousef’s real name was Abdul Basit Karim. Karim was Kuwaiti, attended high school in Kuwait, went to study engineering at a college in Wales, was a gentle and pleasant student with no radical ties or interests, graduated, and immediately got a Planning Ministry job back in Kuwait in 1990. He was a modest man with much to be modest about.
After Iraq invaded Kuwait that same year, our intelligence services believe, Karim suddenly became an international Islamic terrorist mastermind, expert at manufacturing gigantic bombs. He adopted the nom de guerre Ramzi Yousef and somehow coughed up, ex nihilo, an Iraqi passport identifying him as such. Karim, now “Yousef,” jetted to New York City and immediately gravitated to the circle of violent fanatics around the Blind Sheik Omar Abdul al-Rahman. The rest was history.
But Yousef was not Karim. Dr. Laurie Mylroie has to be given the sole credit for publicizing and drawing the logical conclusions from certain un-contested facts that emerged in Yousef’s 1996 trial. Self-styled world-savior Richard Clarke has vilified her, the British Osama Bin Laden biographer Peter Bergen has vilified her, and even a female university witness before the 9/11 Commission repeatedly interrupted Mylroie’s testimony, screeching out “No evidence! No evidence!” in a rewarding display of academic professionalism.
Are Myrloie’s critics well grounded? For his part, former Clinton terrorism czar Richard Clarke has long believed that the very idea of Saddam being involved in al-Qaeda operations assistance was literally insane. No discussion or weighing of testimony and captured documents were for him necessary. Peter Bergen’s hit-piece on Mylroie in the Washington Monthly essentially argues that because “intelligence analysts” in the Agency don’t believe Yousef was an Iraqi agent, her arguments must be contemptible. You might call his line of attack “the argument from being out-voted by desk-bound government card-punchers.” Bergen’s piece had a nasty, class-conscious ring to it; if you follow Mylroie’s ideas, went his thrust, you’re not really in the right kind of crowd, and you are vaguely déclassé.
But these avatars of geopolitical wisdom also seem brain-locked into a weird template: terrorists now act mostly alone and unencumbered by government sponsorship. Richard Clarke described his own reaction to President Bush’s question about whether Iraq might have had something to do with 9/11 as “incredulous.” As in, “I can’t believe anyone would be so stupid as to believe such insanity.” Al-Qaeda was supposed to be a purely stateless entity. Saddam was supposed to be “secular.” How idiotic of the President to think that Saddam might want to use proxies to exact revenge on the USA, mused Clarke. How dare he question Clarke’s scholarly, magisterial world view!
President Bush was never much for academic templates, but he was right to worry about Iraq’s involvement in funding and training terrorists. It is doubtful that even the President, however, was or is aware of the following facts:
- Ramzi Yousef looks nothing like Abdul Basit Karim did, according to Karim’s teachers at the Swansea Institute. Karim was “short, maybe 5’6”, and Yousef is six feet tall, according to the FBI.
- Yousef’s Iraqi passport is different from the bogus Abdul Basit Karim passport Yousef used to flee the USA after the 1993 WTC blast.
- Abdul Basit Karim’s state file in Kuwait was tampered with: key items are missing and unusual items added. The tampering dates from the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. (Iraqi agents controlled all the borders, checkpoints, and the airport security of Kuwait.)
- The terrorist Ramzi Yousef’s fingerprints are on the fingerprint card for Abdul Basit Karim in Karim’s Kuwaiti state file. But wait: they don’t match Karim’s actual, known fingerprints, lifted by Scotland Yard off Karim’s second-year thesis paper at the Swansea Institute!
There is only one plausible answer. The nice Kuwaiti student Abdul Basit Karim is surely dead, killed during the occupation by Iraq. Saddam sent in the Baluchi Iraqi agent Ramzi Yousef to assume Karim’s identity. No one could trace Yousef back to Iraq—after all, he was “Kuwaiti” now. Saddam could freely indulge in his desire for revenge against the USA for his defeat in the Gulf War, and for the Great Satan’s support of UNSCOM, which was roving his country and being such a pestilence.
Later events seem to have muddied the waters about Yousef’s identity further. After September 11, former Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey was provided a government jet and FBI staff to investigate Mylroie's claim that Basit and Yousef were different people. Newsweek reported:
FBI officials leaked to a British newspaper the opposite finding, however. "Indeed, according to Britain's Guardian newspaper, latent fingerprints lifted from material Mr. [Basit] Karim left at Swansea bear 'no resemblance' to Yousef's prints. They are two different people." (vi)
The Guardian author, not understanding the point of the investigation at all, cited this finding as evidence against Mylroie's theory:
But Dr. Mylroie correctly noted: "that conclusion actually supports my argument: Yousef’s inked prints (from JFK immigration) did not match the latent prints on Karim’s project. They are two different people." And if they were different people, one of them was a phony. And if one was a phony, only Iraq, at the time in occupation of Kuwait, was in the position to create the phony identity and put Yousef’s fingerprints in Karim’s Kuwaiti passport file.
So which FBI leak was the correct one? The one saying the prints matched, meaning Mylroie is wrong, or the one to the Guardian, saying they were completely different, meaning Yousef is an Iraqi agent? James Woolsey has never spoken publicly, to my knowledge, about the results of his investigation; likely the entire thing was classified some grade of Secret, preventing him by law from doing so. But we do know one thing. Woolsey endorsed the recent Mylroie book, Bush vs. the Beltway, which spends a great deal of time discussing the real Yousef and his Iraqi identity. You can read Woolsey’s glowing comments on the back of the 2006 paperback edition. His endorsement to such a vilified figure as Mylroie and her thesis is really the entire story above in a nutshell. If he had really returned from Wales “empty-handed,” as Newsweek claimed, why on earth would he then put his professional reputation at risk, five years later, to endorse a book arguing strenuously for the opposite conclusion?
MANPADS are a security problem not going away. Witness the following little anecdotes, from last year alone.
In May 2009, four men were arrested for plotting to shoot down a U.S. military plane with a fake Stinger that undercover agents had given them. The next month, Homeland Security canceled Delta’s inaugural flight from Atlanta to Nairobi over “concerns” of a MANPADS attack. The month after that, in July, authorities revealed that a (Colombian) FARC commander was negotiating with Venezuelans to obtain Russian SA-24s that El Presidente Hugo Chavez had recently acquired from Moscow. The next month, in August, a Syrian arms trafficker was extradited to the United States for selling SA-7s to undercover agents pretending to be FARC representatives. The missiles were being housed in a Hezbollah warehouse in Mexico, of all places.
It wasn’t just last summer that was hot with MANPADS. So was the autumn. In September, during Germany’s national elections, German airports were on high alert after intelligence raised concerns of an al Qaeda-connected MANPADS attack against civilian aircraft. In November, the feds indicted several Muslims with conspiring to send Stingers from Philadelphia to Syria and Hezbollah. By last December, intel sources were leaking to the press that Hezbollah was buying MANPADS from Albania.
The al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, Al Shabaab, can claim rights to having drawn the most recent blood through a MANPADS. In this case a Belarusian cargo plane was shot out of the sky over Mogadishu in 2007, killing 11 people. The SA-18 missile was made in Russia in 1995, and was eventually one of a number of SA-18s sent from Russia to Eritrea, some of which were “turned over” to al Shabaab jihadis in Somalia.
For the fiscal year 2009, our Congress appropriated only $47 million for use in the destruction of “at-risk” weapons (those that are in excess, are not adequately guarded or are obsolete), including MANPADS. The 2010 Obama budget proposal called for almost twice that amount, but only Sen. Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Committee for Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, seems interested in seriously funding the destruction program. No one else believes it to be very important: no doubt because they all believe what their government told them—that TWA Flight 800 wasn’t shot down by an Islamic terrorist, but only self-ignited its center wing tank by unknown causes in mid-air.
We would do well to remember the dead of TWA Flight 800. But our remembrance will be in spite of, and not because of, the efforts of the Obama Administration and its compliant media.
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