by Richard Baehr
On July 17, 1996, two days before the start of the Olympic Games in Atlanta, TWA Flight 800, bound for Paris, exploded in the air at 8:30 p.m., just 12 minutes after takeoff from Kennedy Airport in New York. All 230 people on board died. The explosion was witnessed by many residents and visitors that summer evening on Long Island, New York. Many of the eyewitnesses described seeing what looked like a rising column of light just before the explosion, suggesting the plane may have been hit before it exploded.
The explosion occurred slightly less than six weeks before the Democratic Party's convention, at which President Bill Clinton was certain to be re-nominated to run for a second term. At the time of the TWA explosion, Clinton held a substantial lead over his Republican opponent, Kansas Senator Bob Dole. Clinton expected to coast to victory on a platform of peace and prosperity.
Clearly, if a terror attack had brought down a commercial airliner in the skies over New York, the president would have had been under enormous pressure to respond forcefully against the nation or group deemed responsible for the attack. Such a military response, with the risk of American casualties, might have endangered the president's smooth sailing to the November election. If, on the other hand, the commercial jetliner was brought down by U.S. military forces, in some kind of awful accidental misfiring, the embarrassment would have also taken a political toll.
On the night of the TWA explosion, the president, his wife Hillary Clinton and Deputy National Security Adviser Sandy Berger huddled in the White House, after hearing the news. Exactly what they discussed, or decided, is of course, not known. The National Transportation Safety Board eventually determined that the plane was not hit by a missile and there was no bomb on board that detonated in flight.
Rather, the plane exploded because of sparks that ignited in an empty center fuel tank, a first of its kind as a cause for a major commercial airline disaster. That explanation had been considered and ruled out in the first weeks of the investigation, but investigators later came back to it after ruling out other more politically freighted explanations.
When explosive residue was found among the ruins of the plane that were brought to shore from the Atlantic Ocean, in an attempt to reconstruct the plane in a hangar, the explanation offered for their appearance was that a test had occurred a week before the doomed flight with dogs trained to spot explosives at a TWA base in Saint Louis. Oddly, the investigation of the TWA disaster received a large and immediate assist from the FBI, usually brought in for criminal investigations but not for accidents. The FBI chose to provide reports during the investigation to only one news organization, The New York Times. Neither the FBI, nor the Times, ever chose to interview any of the 270 eyewitnesses who came forward.
The TWA story largely faded from view and public consciousness. Until now, 17 years later, when a significant new development occurred last week. Six of the individuals involved in the original investigation broke their silence and agreed to talk to two film producers about the investigation, alleging that there was a cover-up of the real cause of the explosion and that the final results of the investigation were falsified.
The announcement of the new documentary received attention from some mainstream media and was ignored by others. Next month, the documentary containing the new allegations, including a demand for the National Transportation Safety Board to reopen the investigation, will air on a TV network that is available on very few satellite or cable systems, EPIX. One writer, Jack Cashill, who has been covering the TWA story for its entirety, has seen the documentary, and argues that it is very credible.
The new charges of a cover-up over what happened to TWA 800 come amid a growing sense of national unease relating to scandals and actions of the current administration of President Barack Obama. The web of current scandals involve everything from the Internal Revenue Service targeting applications for tax-exempt status by Tea Party groups, pro-Israel organizations and pro-life groups; snooping and harassing journalists at Fox News Channel, The Associated Press, and perhaps CBS (Sharyl Atkinson); and finally whistle-blower Edward Snowden, revealing to Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald the details of a vast program of domestic surveillance of Americans conducted by the NSA. The official defense of the surveillance was that it was necessary for national security and had helped government officials pre-empt a few dozen terror attacks in the United States and against U.S. targets abroad. While Snowden may be an unappealing figure, the story itself, combined with the other recent news, put the administration in a bad light.
Then there are the parallels between the new story alleging a cover-up of the cause TWA 800's destruction, and the situation Obama faced on the day of the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Sept. 11, 2012. The Benghazi story has faded from view a bit, after the IRS and NSA stories overwhelmed it. The Benghazi attacks occurred only a week after the Democratic Convention had re-nominated Obama to run for a second term against Republican Mitt Romney.
On Sept. 11, the president held a small but solid lead in most polls of three to five points. Obama and his team at the White House created an explanation for the Benghazi attacks that would be least damaging to the president's re-election narrative. That re-election narrative included several themes -- that al-Qaida was on the run, especially after Osama Bin Laden's execution by U.S. special forces in Pakistan, and that Libya had been a successful intervention by the U.S., as opposed, say, to President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq.
The explanation that was offered up after the attack in Benghazi was false, and the administration knew it was false. But they repeated it for weeks in forums around the world. The official line was that a spontaneous demonstration by locals, angered by an anti-Muslim video created by a Coptic Christian in the U.S., ignited the demonstration in Benghazi, which eventually turned violent.
In truth, there was advance planning for the attack (was Sept. 11 the only day available, and do spontaneous demonstrations often involve the types of weapons used in the assault on the consulate?). The assault involved al-Qaida affiliates, the U.S. military chose not to attempt an operation to defend the consulate in Benghazi that night (were they instructed not to by the White House?), and Ambassador Christopher Stevens may have been involved in a gun-running operation. And the president left town for a fundraiser.
The U.S. government went so far as to repeatedly apologize to Muslims in specific countries and around the world for the terrible ("disgusting") video, which of course had zero to do with what happened in Benghazi. Hillary Clinton told the family members of the four Americans killed in Benghazi that the administration would make sure the filmmaker would go to jail for his actions, which he soon did.
For two months running up to Election Day, the national media attacked Mitt Romney for his unhappiness with the administration's apologies to Muslim nations for Americans practicing First Amendment free speech rights (which includes making political videos critical of Islam), or for bringing up Benghazi. The national media accepted the president's fake story about what transpired in Benghazi in the crucial first weeks after the attacks as gospel. It did so again when the White House changed its story and admitted the video had nothing to do with what happened. CNN's Candy Crowley went so far as to intervene in the second presidential debate to announce that the president had in fact labeled the Benghazi attack as a terrorist operation from the start, when in fact the exact opposite was true.
If the new TWA 800 documentary gets a wide audience at some point, the person most at risk may be Hillary Clinton. Famous now for participating in the Benghazi false narrative, and then arguing before a congressional committee that at this point it makes no difference what actually happened in Benghazi, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2016 may have also have played a part in the earlier cover-up of TWA 800. If she did, it really does make a difference, I think.
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