By Jack Cashill
Recovered debris from TWA 800
More than six years after retired United Airline captain Ray Lahr launched his Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, petition into the fate of TWA Flight 800, the FBI has shown him –likely by accident – one seriously smoking gun.
The Boeing 747 blew up off the coast of Long Island on July 17, 1996. One of the FBI documents received recently by Lahr and his attorney, John Clarke of Washington, D.C., details a communication that took place six days after the crash:
"On Tuesday, July 23, 1996, a representative from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) advised [the FBI] that after a visual analysis of both the videotape as well as a number of still photographs taken from various portions of the tape, the phenomenon captured by [name redacted] appeared to be consistent with the exhaust plume from a MANPAD [Man-portable air-defense] missile."
"The FBI guy who looked at this must not have read it, or not have realized what it would reveal," says Lahr. "Otherwise he would have redacted most of it as before."
Adding a new level of intrigue to the investigation is the fact that the video in question appears to have been shot on July 12, 1996, five days before the crash.
The earlier, unedited FBI document reports that a fellow and his friend on Long Island were attempting to videotape the sunrise when they saw and recorded "a grey trail of smoke ascending from the horizon at an angle of approximately 75 [degrees]."
So compelling was the visual that the fellow made a comment to his friend, heard on the tape, "They must be testing a rocket." The fellow calculated that object was heading towards the Atlantic Ocean.
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 for further analysis. As mentioned above, the DIA found the video image to be "consistent with the exhaust plume from a MANPAD."
What is shocking is that the authorities not only removed all reference to this video from the official record, but they also removed just about all reference to the DIA.
For the record, the DIA is a Department of Defense combat support agency and a serious player in the United States intelligence community. The agency has more than 11,000 military and civilian employees worldwide and describes itself as "a major producer and manager of foreign military intelligence."
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An important component of the DIA is the Missile and Space Intelligence Center, or MSIC, which is located in Huntsville, Ala., and is charged with gathering intelligence on enemy surface-to-air missiles and short-range ballistic missiles.
During a Senate inquiry in May 1999, the FBI's number two man on the investigation, Lewis Schiliro, conceded that MSIC analysts had arrived on the scene in Long Island just two days after the July 17, 1996, crash of TWA Flight 800 and interviewed eyewitnesses.
TWA 800 reconstruction
"They reported to us," Schiliro told the senators of the MSIC analysts, "that many of the descriptions given by eyewitnesses were very consistent with the characteristics of the flight of [surface-to-air] missiles."
Despite Schiliro's testimony, by 1999 the MSIC information was effectively moot. When FBI officials shut down the criminal investigation in November 1997, they publicly discredited the eyewitnesses and fully ignored the work done by the MSIC analysts.
At the final press conference, the FBI's James Kallstrom discussed only two images of a possible missile captured in flight. Both were photographic stills, and he cavalierly dismissed these as well.
There was no reference at all to the video analyzed by the DIA. In fact, there was no public mention of the DIA. The MSIC analysis was relegated to a footnote.
Nor, of course, was there any mention of the video shot on the night of July 17. From the beginning, there has been ample evidence that an amateur video had been taken of TWA Flight 800's destruction.
Although I have not seen the July 17 video, I have heard from scores, if not hundreds, of credible people who swear they saw it on television in the first hours after the crash. Some have described it to me and other independent investigators in perfect detail.
MSNBC, launched just two days prior to the disaster, seemed to have won the bidding war for the rights to the July 17 video. I say "seemed" because my source will not speak on record, nor will MSNBC follow up on queries.
What I have been told, however, is that late on the night of the crash, editors at MSNBC had the tape on their monitors when "three men in suits" came to their editing suites, removed the tape, and threatened the editors with serious consequences if they ever revealed its contents.
The threats worked all too well. Despite my repeated requests, my source, who was one of the MSNBC editors in question, will not go public, and this video too has disappeared from the official record.
The evidence of a suppressed video, or videos, correlates well with information that my investigative partner James Sanders had received in response to an earlier FOIA petition.
As Sanders' documents reveal, on July 31, 1996, an FBI facility in Quantico, Va. sent back to the FBI office in New York "one original VHS-C Video Cassette Tape, 10 processed VHS video Cassette tape copies, 30 B & W video prints, 49 color video prints."
Based on the notations on Sanders' documents, these copies seem to be of the July 17th videotape. The newly un-redacted document in question does not confirm this video's existence, but it does show the willingness of the authorities to suppress highly relevant video evidence.
The question remains: Evidence of what? If there is full agreement among independent investigators that missiles were fired on the night of July 17, 1996, there is no consensus as to who fired them or why.
The apparent July 12 video can be interpreted in two ways. The MANPAD reference by the DIA would seem to strengthen the case for terrorist-fired missiles. But the earlier date argues more strongly for a missile test than for a terrorist misfire.
What adds further intrigue to the plot is an eyewitness account on the same document page as the videotape reference. This witness on an excursion boat reported seeing, an hour before the TWA 800's destruction, a small boat draped with a thick plastic cover.
Protruding through the cover was 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.
The mystery continues.
Jack Cashill is an Emmy-award winning independent writer and producer with a Ph.D. in American Studies from Purdue.