The Downing of Flight 800—The Conspiracy Theory I Believed
June 24, 2013
In the fall of my junior year at college, the investigation into the crash of TWA 800 was still underway. I was spending the year in Toledo, Spain and living with a local family as an exchange student. It was an election year, 1996, the end of Clinton’s first term. I was not a Clinton fan. During one of my calls back home, I talked to a family member whose client was an executive at TWA, which was based in my hometown of St. Louis. And my family member told me that this client said that after the election it was going to come out that a training missile had taken down TWA Flight 800. But only after the election.
I mentioned this conversation in passing to fellow exchange student, who I will call Joe. In September, I voted in my first presidential election for Bob Dole by mail-in ballot at the US Embassy in Madrid. (I often wonder who that kid was. Surely not me!) In December, we were locked out of our dormitory, so I spent the winter backpacking through Europe. In January, the students reassembled in Toledo for the spring semester. We swapped stories of our travels and Joe took me aside and said, “When was back home, my dad told me that the day after the election, there were reports that TWA 800 was shot down by a training missile, and I immediately thought of what you told me.” I felt that I had peered into some secret vault; that I had inside knowledge of nefarious doings of a president I did not particularly like. And damn it, I was right; what I believed had been independently confirmed and verified. It was, as the phrase goes, a slam dunk.
After I became interested in conspiracy theory professionally, I revisited my old theory; that TWA had been taken down by a missile, the one that I KNEW was true. I contacted my buddy, Joe. He didn’t remember having that conversation with me. I contacted my relative who originally told me the story. He had no idea what I was talking about.
On the evening of July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747, took off from JFK airport en route to Paris. The flight, which was originally scheduled for an 8:00PM take off, was delayed a half hour. A few minutes into the flight, the aircraft exploded, snapping the plane into two large parts, roughly separating the cockpit from the fuselage. Two-hundred and thirty people died. As planes generally don’t simply explode, considering that the Atlanta Olympics were scheduled to start on the 19, and given reports of a vague threat of terrorism by a Saudi group (sent in, charmingly, by fax), terrorism was a distinct possibility. Add to this that within the first two days of the investigation, at least a hundred eyewitness reported seeing a “flare” or “streak” rising to hit the plane (later attributed to an optical illusion caused by the rear of the plane staying aloft slightly longer than the cockpit) and reports that an unidentified blip on radar appeared slightly before the plane lost contact, according to a LexisNexis Academic broadcast transcript search, a missile was one the several possibilities being discussed on television. The hypothesis appeared in print as early as July 19 in the Washington Times. On July 21, the Sunday Times reported that:
“For the first 48 hours of the investigation, the FBI focused on two main lines of inquiry: a missile or a bomb. Pentagon officials were sceptical that a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile could have brought down the 747, however. Both the American Stinger and the Russian SA-14 Gremlin require considerable training to use with any accuracy. Their maximum range is 15,000ft and to have any chance of hitting an aircraft, a terrorist would need a stable platform such as a large boat. None was seen in the vicinity.”
On July 24, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story entitled: “SCENARIO OF A MISSILE ATTACK: A DIFFICULT SHOT, BUT POSSIBLE.”
Over the next four months, the salvage operation dredged up 95% of the aircraft, a remarkable achievement, and the aircraft had been reassembled in a hanger on shore. The reconstructed craft showed that the explosion had begun in the fuel tank. The remnants of TWA 800 are used to this day in training new crash investigators. According to Newsweek:
Minute residues of explosives were found on some of the wreckage; they turned out to have been left on the plane before the crash, when the jet was used in a drill for explosive-sniffing dogs.
On November 5, 1996, Bill Clinton was reelected to a second term as President, much to the chagrin of my weird, twenty-year old self.
On November 7, 1996, according Reuters (and reprinted in the Globe and Mail), former Kennedy advisor and ABC 20-year ABC foreign correspondent Pierre Salinger, who was speaking to airline executives in Cannes, France, accused the US Navy of firing a training missile at the airliner. The paper reported:
Mr. Salinger told airline officials that an agent of the U.S. Secret Service gave him a document in Paris showing that TWA Flight 800 had entered an area where the U.S. Navy was carrying out missile tests.
On November 9, 1996, The Washington Times reported that had Salinger retracted his accusation:
One-time network TV correspondent Pierre Salinger, who commanded world attention as President Kennedy's spokesman, admitted yesterday he used old Internet files as "evidence" that a U.S. military missile shot down TWA Flight 800 by accident.
Mr. Salinger would not show reporters in Cannes, France, the two-page document he said he received five weeks ago, but the facts he cited matched exactly a report found by The Washington Times posted Sept. 18 on an Internet site called "cloaks-and-daggers."
In that scenario, the Boeing 747, flying unexpectedly low, was hit by an errant missile guided by the Navy's Aegis system - the type that downed an Iranian airliner in 1988 - fired from a Navy ship out of Norfolk in "Warning Area W-105" off the Long Island, N.Y., coast.
A few days later, on November 17, the Washington Times traced Salinger’s rumor back of a missile back to its earliest incarnation:
Although he maintains he is right, Mr. Salinger concedes his source was an unnamed Frenchman. He also allows that he himself was photographed holding up the message on the letterhead of a Landover software firm called L-Soft. The firm has sold thousands of Listserv devices that it claims deliver 11 million electronic messages a day from Web sites.
What Mr. Salinger had was a download from L-Soft's discussion forum (http://www.lsoft.com), a site with something over 200 participants speculating on various theories about the plane crash.
The large L-Soft logo is automatically added to messages downloaded from its free forum, where a visitor finds the information by searching for "flight-800."
"I think this list is where he got it from," L-Soft marketing executive John Karpovich told The Washington Times.
The story went back even further, as the Times reported. The day after Salinger made his accusations, a writer at EmergencyNet-News.com traced the story cited by Salinger to its point of entry onto the Net, a writer named “Parveez Syad" or "Parveez Hussein,” who they accused of being an Iranian disinfo propagandist, though he denied that claim. The original report, dated July 24, 1996, and with unnamed French intelligence sources and all, can be read in its entirety at the twf.org website.
How should we, then, evaluate the new testimony by former NTSB employees that there was a cover-up, allegations that appear in a new film (which will premiere on July 17, classily on the anniversary of the crash)? It will have to account for all of the data in the 50,000 page crash report.
The more important question, of course, is how should we evaluate my brain? Well, it seems that all of the elements of the conspiracy theory that I believed were out on the Internet well before the election. To be fair, that year in Spain I had limited access to the Internet; the only way we could check our email that was to buy time on a PC at a private computer retailer’s. Nonetheless, the elements were all there even before I left the country. As vividly as I remember hearing the story before the election, and as much as it seemed to come true with Salinger’s statements, and as strange as it still sounds and feels to me, I have to dismiss my memories. Because, really, what’s more likely, that I heard the story repeated by Salinger which jibed with the theories I would have heard before I went to Spain, and fabricated a memory that confirmed my distrust of the president, and being in Spain that I never heard the sound debunking of the conspiracy theory? Or that the final report, which concluded that an electrical fire in the fuel tank initiated the blast, is a fiction, the wreckage that is used as a teaching tool for investigators is tainted, and that all of the other experts, including 500 FBI agents, police, Coast Guard, and the military personal who would have fired or seen the fateful missile fired were all lying, with never a single leak? It seems clear. All the evidence suggests that at twenty-years old, I was a moron, and without evidence to the contrary I have no excuse to doubt that.
Next they’ll tell me I never met Bugs Bunny at Disney World.
Adams, James and Nick Rufford. “Sea gives up clues to the fate of flight 800.” The Sunday Times. 21 July 1996.
Gertz, Bill. “Possible terrorism probed in jet crash; President discourages speculation.” The Washington Times. 19 July 1996: A1.
Grunwald, Michael. “FBI Role in TWA Case Draws Senate Scrutiny.” The Washington Post. 26 Nov 1998: A01.
McKenna, James T. "NTSB Re-interviews Flight 800 Witnesses.” Aviation Week and Space Technology 150.20 (May 1999): 58.
“Missile Hit Flight 800, TWA Told.” The Globe and Mail. 8 Nov 1996: A2.
Murray, Frank J. “How Salinger Got Tangled in TWA-crash Web; Iranian May Be Source of Navy Missile Rumors.” The Washington Times. 17 Nov 1996: A3.
Ruane, Michael E. “Scenario of a Missile Attack: A Difficult Shot, but Possible.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. 24 July 1996: A01.
Underwood, Anne. “What Brought down TWA Flight 800?” Newsweek. Nov 1996 (Winter 1997): 42.