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Up in the Air

Did terrorists destroy TWA Flight 800?

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Three years after 9/11, air terror seems to have reemerged in the explosion of two Tupolevs over Russia. And now former ABC correspondent Peter Lance is blaming terrorists for an old disaster—the 1996 downing of TWA Flight 800 over the Atlantic—in his book Cover Up: What the Government Is Still Hiding About the War on Terror. How do Lance’s explanations of what happened compare with others?

Accident
Theory: After dragging a reluctant National Transportation Safety Board into a sixteen-month probe, the FBI’s James Kallstrom finally acceded to the Board’s conclusion that a mechanical malfunction caused a spark in the center fuel tank.

Problem: No one has ever agreed on what ignited the fuel. Traces of explosives were found, though later pinned on a clumsy bomb-sniffing test that had taken place aboard the plane days before the crash.

Missile
Theory: Long Islanders reported seeing a streak of fire near the wing. The FBI looked at a possible missile strike, specifically a surface-to-air missile of the sort Al Qaeda later used in Kenya. Others—most visibly former JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger—thought it was naval friendly fire from a test exercise.

Problem: There was no forensic evidence of such an impact (the streak may have been fuel pouring out). After a key theorist apologized to the Navy, even Salinger backed away (his next public move: writing a flattering foreword to Qaddafi’s short-story collection).

Electromagnetic Interference
Theory: In April 1998, Harvard English professor Elaine Scarry delved into the hard sciences with her own thesis, published in the New York Review of Books. Interference from powerful military transmitters had caused the malfunction, in her best estimation. The NTSB was sufficiently impressed to commission a study.

Problem: The study found that even in worst-case scenarios, the interference wouldn’t be strong enough to bring down an aircraft. Also, Scarry went on to posit her theory for two other flights, including the EgyptAir crash off Nantucket that was almost definitely caused by co-pilot murder-suicide.

Bomb
Theory: Ramzi Yousef was on trial at the time of 800’s crash for plotting to blow up twelve jets with bombs in the center fuel tank. He’d already tested such a plan on a flight from the Philippines but missed the tank and killed only one passenger. Lance alleges that Yousef helped plan the 800 bombing from prison.

Problem: While the cumulative evidence is startling, a good deal of it is also circumstantial. As for the “cover-up” of the book’s title, Lance’s assertion that the FBI would want to preserve a few Mafia convictions by protecting a corrupt agent rather than solve a high-profile terrorist bombing verges on Oliver Stone territory.


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