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FBI Sought to Suppress Report on TWA Crash

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FBI Sought to Suppress Report on TWA Crash

TWA Flight 800,AP
A re-enactment shows the disintigration of the Paris-bound TWA Flight 800. (AP)

By Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 1999; Page A1

NEW YORK, May 8—In January 1997, six months after TWA Flight 800 crashed off the coast of Long Island, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms concluded that mechanical failure had caused the tragedy. But FBI officials, still convinced terrorists had downed the plane with a bomb or a missile, dismissed the 24-page report as “unprofessional and reprehensible,” and even persuaded a Treasury Department undersecretary to help them suppress it.

It wasn’t until November 1997 that the FBI acknowledged publicly that a mechanical flaw had indeed ignited the Boeing 747’s central fuel tank, a concession that finally put pressure on airlines to begin correcting the problem. For months, documents suggest, the bureau had stuck to its sabotage theory — despite private protests by the ATF, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Central Intelligence Agency and even some of its own scientists.

On Monday, a Senate subcommittee will hold a hearing on bureaucratic infighting during the Flight 800 probe, a hearing that is likely to bring about vigorous questioning of the FBI’s role in the investigation. Part of the hearing will focus on the never-released ATF report, which furious FBI officials initially wanted to withhold from the safety board, although they apparently changed their minds. The hearing also will focus on complaints from safety board officials as well as the FBI’s former chief metallurgist, William Tobin, that bureau officials repeatedly and angrily dismissed scientific evidence that pointed to a mechanical malfunction.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a longtime FBI critic who is holding the hearing, said it will show that the FBI unnecessarily prolonged its criminal investigation, stoking widespread fears about terrorism that have been used to increase its budgets, fueling the discredited conspiracy theories about missile attacks, and giving airlines an excuse to delay action on safety board recommendations to protect fuel tanks.

“The FBI didn’t want to hear about anything but a missile or a bomb, because otherwise there was no FBI case,” said Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on administrative oversight. “Their conduct was disturbing from the very beginning.”

The FBI declined to comment on the ATF report, but the bureau remains proud of its Flight 800 investigation. FBI officials say that while they did suspect sabotage at the outset — arguably a reasonable law enforcement reaction after the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings — they reached the correct conclusion in the end, thanks to an exhaustive and fair-minded $20 million probe that pieced together almost the entire plane.

“It was an extremely thorough investigation,” one FBI official said. “We didn’t want to close it until we felt we had done everything humanly possible to rule out sabotage.”

But some of the witnesses who will testify Monday believe the bureau cared more about keeping its investigation alive than about finding the truth. They will complain that FBI investigators mishandled evidence, kept safety board investigators away from witnesses and even enlisted a psychic who attributed the explosion to a bomb near the left wing. Grassley will also produce a March 1997 report that the deputy director of the CIA sent to the FBI, concluding there was “absolutely no evidence” of a missile attack.

The most controversial aspect of the hearing, many suspect, will be the murky circumstances surrounding the ATF report, which was completed on Jan. 20, 1997. The report clearly infuriated James K. Kallstrom, then head of the FBI’s New York office, who denounced it as “unprofessional and reprehensible” in a memo on March 14, 1997. According to notes scribbled at the time by ATF Assistant Director Andrew Vita, Kallstrom at first demanded that the report be withheld from the safety board, which by law was supposed to be leading the probe into the accident. Kallstrom apparently feared that releasing it to the board would “lock him into eliminating” the missile theory, Vita noted.

When ATF Director John Magaw balked, citing public safety concerns, Kallstrom appealed to Raymond Kelly, who at the time was Treasury undersecretary for enforcement. To the dismay of the ATF brass, Kelly ordered Magaw not to forward the report. In his notes, Vita fretted that the decision “could result in another similar air disaster.”

“We have what we believe, whether right or wrong, [is] evidence of possible design flaws in Boeing [747] airplanes which again we believe to be responsible for the downing of TWA Flt 800,” Vita wrote. “And we are being ordered not to release that information to the appropriate authorities for no compelling good reason, to risk hundreds of human lives.”

But it appears that Kallstrom may have had a change of heart and decided to forward the report after all. Safety board officials said they do not recall receiving the report, and found no trace of it in their mail records. But FBI officials insisted that Kallstrom did send it to the board’s chairman, James Hall, and produced a March 17 cover letter, in which Kallstrom described the “unsolicited and premature” report as “an extraordinary violation of protocol.”

Kallstrom did not return calls, but he characterized the TWA inquiry as a “model” during an interview last fall. He also said that he was “looking forward to this hearing,” although FBI officials said he will not be available to testify because of a scheduling conflict. ATF and safety board spokesmen declined to comment, except to say that their agencies are cooperating with the committee.

A spokesman for Kelly, who is now U.S. Customs commissioner, said he deferred to Kallstrom because he thought the FBI was in charge of the investigation. “Ray felt very strongly that the FBI was the appropriate agency to determine whether the report should be shared with other agencies,” said the spokesman, Dennis Murphy.

In a way, that is the question lingering behind the culture clashes that led to this hearing: Who’s supposed to be in charge? Under current laws, the safety board is supposed to be the lead investigative agency after an aviation accident until there is an official determination that a crime has been committed. But from the frenzied opening hours at the crash site, the law enforcement-oriented FBI was clearly the only agency with the resources to handle much of the work, and the science-minded safety board reluctantly took a back seat.

Under Director Louis J. Freeh, the FBI has been trying to change its image as the playground bully of law enforcement, but the TWA probe is unlikely to enhance its reputation for getting along with other agencies. In fact, the safety board, which hopes to determine the exact cause of the mechanical failure by the end of this year, asked Congress last week to clarify its relationships with law enforcement agencies. And sources said the board is negotiating with the ATF on a bilateral “memorandum of understanding” to work together in the future.

FBI officials suspect that the two agencies are trying to freeze them out. “I guess they don’t think we work well with other agencies,” an FBI official said. “Well, we’re just going to keep doing our job.”

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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