Coal Mine Canaries, by David E. Hendrix

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Coal Mine Canaries, by David E. Hendrix

Postby admin » Mon Nov 06, 2017 3:51 am

Part 1 of 2

Chapter 14: Coal Mine Canaries
by David E. Hendrix
From Revised and Expanded Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press
© 2004 by Kristina Borjesson

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DAVID E. HENDRIX

Hendrix has been a print journalist for thirty-eight years, divided almost evenly between reporting and editing. He retired from the full-time news profession in June 2002 at The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, California, where he served in various reporting and editing position for eighteen years. "While there, he earned national and international recognition for his investigative and deadline stories about the crash of TWA Flight 800, US anti- and counterterrorism training and programs, missing Vietnam War servicemen, the illegal transfer of surplus military aircraft to private aerial firefighting contractors, and natural disasters. He also has been an expert witness in court and before the US Senate, and has provided evidence to Congress members and staff. Today, he reports and writes part time for the rural southwest Oregon newspaper the South County News and is writing novels based on historical events.

It's impossible not to get angry. At least, it's impossible for me. Nothing can excuse the scam perpetrated on the relatives and loved ones of the 230 people killed when TWA Flight 800 exploded off New York's Long Island and rained bodies and debris into the Atlantic Ocean more than two miles below.

Nor can anything excuse the deception perpetrated on the American public and world by bogus elements of the so-called investigation into the July 17, 1996, disaster.

Nor can most members of the media be excused for becoming blind, unthinking guardians of untruth and deception dished out by some US officials and agents involved in the "investigation" of the Boeing 747 jumbo jet's breakup and its cause.


We journalists are not supposed to get angry. We get trained to not let our emotions get in the way of our alleged unquenchable search for the truth. But, despite our illusions about ourselves and Hollywood's major misrepresentations about us, we are human.

Maybe we need to be more conscious of our humanity.

But this essay isn't about my feelings. It's about a disaster that remains unsolved and continues to haunt people. The essay also is about good journalists and investigators who were fired or prosecuted because they did not submit to official pronouncements and editorial decisions based on bias rather than fact. This essay also is about what journalists can do when goaded by gutsy editors more interested in evidence than spin.

It's also a case study of what people can get away with when the guard dog becomes a lap dog. Everybody is victimized when that happens.

I'll start at the beginning. The trail is littered with heartache, lies, presidential politics, timidity, and heroics.

You judge the evidence.

Not all news organizations are created equal. I was fortunate to work for The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, California. East of Los Angeles and Orange counties, Riverside County is a long, narrow strip of Southern California that begins about fourteen miles from the Pacific Ocean and extends to the Colorado River. Most of the county is desert, but it is home for aerospace workers, thousands of active and retired military servicemen and women, and Hollywood's elite who enjoy life in Palm Springs.

At the time Flight 800's deadly fireball lit up the night sky in mid-1996, the P-E was an aggressively independent, family-owned newspaper with a daily circulation of about 160,000 homes and businesses.

When the news and pictures of Flight 800's dead passengers and debris filled TV screens, we, like others, assumed the explosion could well be terrorist based. After all, the 1996 Olympics were only a week away in Atlanta, Georgia, terrorists had a habit of blowing up and shooting down airliners, a radical Islamic group had used a huge truck bomb to try to topple one of the World Trade Center towers three years earlier, and Ramzi Yousef was standing trial in New York City for a plot to blow up about a dozen airliners at the same time over the Pacific. And a lot of people in the Mideast didn't like us because of America's support of Israel and because of the 1991 Gulf War.

No wonder the Joint Terrorism Task Force, a special mix of FBI and New York City police, immediately began investigating Flight 800's destruction.

Coincidentally, the morning after the aerial explosion I met with Jim Sanders in rural Riverside County. His wife, Liz, was a TWA training supervisor, and she and Jim knew many of the fifty-two TWA people killed in the crash. Liz had worked the Paris flight many times.

A friend, ex-cop, and freelance investigative journalist Jim Sanders and I were keeping a long-standing appointment with an intelligence source to discuss secret US-Vietnam negotiations in 1985 for live American servicemen still being held prisoner of war in Southeast Asia.


Sanders and I had worked the POW issue independently for more than a decade, and our pursuits frequently crossed paths. He and another journalist colleague, Mark Sauter, wrote two scholarly books about US POWs missing from all American wars in the twentieth century, and I had written dozens of stories about the same subject. The Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs subpoenaed each of us in 1993 to be expert witnesses about POW issues.

Jim and I did our interview, but the Flight 800 issue promptly took over Jim's and Liz's lives. TWA officials called Liz that morning and told her to return to St. Louis and New York to deal with the disaster's aftermath. We parted, believing it would be no time until investigators determined the cause of Flight 800's crash.

None of us had the slightest idea we would be involved in that investigation. In my case, the crash was three thousand miles away and didn't affect Riverside County. I was working on stories about the illegal transfer of US military aircraft to private aerial-firefighting contractors and wanted to get into the middle of the Gulf War Syndrome issue; Jim was working on an explosive POW-related book.

But this business is like the food chain: small fish lead to bigger ones, which lead to even bigger. Good cop reporters eventually run across corruption involving people bigger than the corner drug dealer. Maybe it's the dealer's law enforcement suppliers.

Years of chasing POW and other military-related stories had led me through many corridors and uncovered legal and illegal activity connected to US defense agencies, contractors, and intelligence organizations. Along the way, I picked up good inside sources who fought the illegal activities.

If you do a good job, they remember. They sometimes call when least expected.

One such source had helped me immeasurably in the series about the illegal transfer of the military cargo aircraft. I had never quoted him in a story. Until his call about three weeks after the Flight 800 crash, his role simply was as a trusted, proven guide.

"You need to look into the TWA Flight 800 crash," he told me. "You'll find that it was a case of friendly fire."

If I hadn't known him, I would have thought him delusional. There had been some speculation about such a thing, much of it unsubstantiated on the Internet, but most people still believed a terrorist bomb or missile brought down the jumbo jet. Actually, some of my other aviation sources and I thought Flight 800 might have been the victim of metal fatigue catching up with an aging Boeing 747-100. I had considered doing a story about that possibility.

I really didn't want this call. I was in the midst of a rare extra day off and halfway through mowing my lawn on a hot August afternoon. And after thirty years in the business, I knew these types of allegations never end in a nice, neat package. I didn't need another years-long story with no discernable ending.

I asked him how he knew Flight 800 was a friendly fire casualty. He said some navy colleagues, men who supervised and monitored military and civilian air communications along the East Coast, told him. They were on duty the night of July 17 and heard the military communications on the "FOX Trot line," as it was called. My source said it was a training exercise gone awry. The scenario included a drug plane being shot down, but somebody accidentally launched a missile and Flight 800 became an actual target. They heard somebody say, "Get the ships out of here."

"How trustworthy are these people?" I asked.

"Very," he said. He had worked with them when he used to supervise the scheduling of the military operating areas, or MOAs as the training zones are known. I hadn't known that much about his navy career and knew nothing about the MOAs. He gave me some more details, and we ended the phone conversation.

Damn! This wasn't my expertise, and I was almost sure we wouldn't get into TWA 800. The incident had happened on the other side of the continent, and the FBI had the case well in hand, or so it appeared from news accounts. Besides, it was my day off. I stood at my kitchen counter and pondered calling my boss or pretending the phone exchange hadn't happened.

But this source had never been wrong before. He sometimes tipped me to government decisions two weeks before they were announced. And he knew the gigantic nature of what he had told me now. I could envision the story about the exercises breaking three or four weeks downstream and me telling my editors that I had known the story a month earlier but hadn't told them.

So I called my boss, Metro Editor Norm Bell, just to be on the record, and told him who called. To my surprise, Norm told me to come in and work the story for a couple of hours and see where it led. I reminded him I would be on overtime. He told me the company could afford it, especially if it turned out to be good.

I spent a couple of hours and then a couple of days. And then a couple of months and then several years. We found two major problems: outright deception within the investigation and a seeming predisposition by national media to accept whatever top officials "leaked" out. As a doctor friend of mine says, it sounds like journalism by urology: the biggest leaker wins.

I've had reporters tell me that they had no choice but to accept what they were handed: they could not educate themselves about the intricacies of fuel volatility, aerodynamics, military exercises, or the difference between rocket fuel and glue. That's not true. It just takes time and resources.

Actually, I had no idea where to begin. No other major stories or series we had done matched this. And the bodies, wreckage, and evidence were three thousand miles away.

The first thing I did was perform what I call the" Chicken Little" test. If somebody says the sky is falling, the first thing I must do is determine if a sky exists. No sky? Then it can't be falling. There is a sky? Has it the properties to fall, or has it ever fallen before? If so, where, when, and under what circumstances? And so on, step by step.

I had to find out first about those military operating areas. Where were they?

My source told me to go to the local airport to buy East Coast aviation maps, on which I would find the military operating areas outlined. Their number and proximity to shore amazed my editors and me. Flight 800, and all other aircraft headed up the East Coast or to and from Europe, had only about a twelve-mile corridor in which to operate. It certainly created a narrow target zone for potential terrorists. Flight 800's wreckage and the bodies inside rained down on the outskirts of Military Operating Area W-106.

The "W" stands for "Warning." The aviation maps admonish pilots: "Warning: National Defense Operating Area. Operations hazardous to the flight of aircraft conducted within this area."

OK, so there was a sky. But that still didn't prove a chunk of it had fallen.
No matter how good my source was previously, this was a new subject, and his information had to be proved or disproved. Other than him, I had no real contacts. His people didn't want to talk, afraid they might jeopardize their jobs. Ninety-one percent of the world's whistle-blowers face immediate job security problems.

So I read everything I could find about the crash and began calling official agencies. I anticipated ridicule and didn't expect anybody to say, "Oh, yeah, we shot the plane down." I wasn't disappointed.

I called more than a dozen official agencies, told them the story about the alleged exercise and accident, and asked them what they knew. Nada. Nothing. Zilch. Additionally, navy, FBI, coast guard, New York Air National Guard, and Federal Aviation Administration representatives said that no military or any other type of operations or training exercises were scheduled or unscheduled near where Flight 800 went down or in the area the night of July 17, 1996.

These are what I call "on-the-record" statements. The public information officers, the type I usually got passed to because I wasn't with the New York Times or Washington Post, usually know only what they're told. They take my questions, ask others who are authorized to speak, and then pass the responses back to me. I know this. But it's important to build this official record. Sometimes they're told the truth. Many times they're not.

"No friendly fire. No exercises, so how could there be?" everybody responded. My source was outnumbered 13-1. I was ready to tell my bosses "no story" when an unrelated call from Jim Sanders, my POW-hunting colleague, changed that. Jim was following up on a story each of us was pursuing about the secret postwar return of some of the American POWs.

Jim and I hadn't talked since the day after Flight 800's crash, when his wife was recalled to St. Louis, so I told him I was working the disaster story. That's odd, he said, because he was, too. Some TWA employees, aware that he was an investigative journalist and ex-cop, asked if he would look into the crash.

Several TWA employees were part of the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) investigative teams and were sharing some of their intimate information. Some of the TWA investigators had even worked on or flown the specific Boeing 747 that exploded. Jim told me that friendly fire was among the possibilities being discussed. I told him about the call from my source. Jim's source was totally different, so I called his, who told me about the friendly fire rumors.


My original source's information was better than rumor but hadn't been proved. The TWA rumors were connected to people inside the accident investigation but unsubstantiated. Rumors by definition are general talk not based on definite knowledge. Gossip. That doesn't mean the information is true, false, or unfounded; it means that the speaker is spreading someone else's information.

My boss told me to put everything into story form and see what it looked like. I did. It looked like a story that reported interesting rumors surrounding a major investigation. Nothing substantiated. No first-person account.

One of my cardinal rules is to try to keep my sources separated if they don't know each other. Source A's confirmation of source B's information is not confirmation if A got it from B. If A and B both got it from C, it certainly is not independent confirmation. I know of one intelligence agency in which a person at one desk would call a specific reporter, "leak" information to her, and a person at the next desk would "verify" or "confirm" the information when she called him. That's not confirmation -- that's manipulation of a naive reporter.

Anyway, my boss, Norm Bell, passed the completed story to our managing editor, Mel Opotowsky, a journalist of great integrity and national standing who has no fear of man, God, or beast. Mel looked at the piece, thought it interesting, but without a hook for us to use to run it. Bank it in the computer, he said. Something might come along for us to use the information.

A story did break that said faint traces of explosives found on Flight 800 cabin debris, thought initially to point to a bomb or missile, could be residue left on the plane from a June 10, 1996, exercise for a bomb-detection dog in St. Louis. That disclosure seemed to take a lot of punch out of national reporting that looked at a bomb or missile as a possible cause of the deaths of 230 people.

Nobody examined the bomb-sniffing exercise to see if it were true. That proved to be a grievous error for everybody -- victims' families, investigators, journalists, and the nation.
I'll discuss that later.

I continued poking for some authentication that military-style exercises near Long Island had occurred the night Flight 800 went down. My original source told me to push the FAA for its July 17, 1996, flight controller logs, which would tell the status of the northeastern MOAs.

On Sunday, August 25, 1996, Mel called me at home. He said that a New York Times story for Monday might be the piece in which to sandwich my reporting about the friendly fire rumor. The Times story was about Long Island photographer Linda Kabot, whose July 17 snapshot at a political fundraiser returned with a strange object in the background sky. The cigar-shaped object looked like it might have something fiery coming out of one end. Was it a missile? A drone? The FBI had taken the negatives and photos, except for one held by the photo lab, and hadn't returned them or disclosed test results.


Could an abbreviated version of my piece insert into the Times story? Sure. "Beyond Linda Kabot's photo, a related rumor about the TWA crash keeps making the rounds," our insert began. "It does not involve terrorists, but a supposed exercise that went awry involving units of the coast guard, Customs, Drug Enforcement Agency, and Air National Guard operating in the vast restricted military practice area off the Long Island shore."

The insert included additional information, and concluded:

"But according to federal officials, there are some major holes in the story:

• There was no exercise that night.

• The air space was available for civilian use.

• The nonmilitary agencies don't even have anti-aircraft guns, let alone missiles.

And there is no national plan to shoot down drug smugglers' planes."

(Actually, I didn't find out until much later that a quick-response multination NATO naval flotilla had just returned to the East Coast in July 1996 after spending time off South America helping track suspected drug-smuggling aircraft with the ships' radar. And on April 20, 2001, a Peruvian air force pilot shot down a civilian airplane being tracked by a CIA-sponsored surveillance aircraft. The downed plane, suspected of being a drug flight, turned out to be a US missionary and his family. The incidents do not prove Flight 800 was a victim of friendly fire; they do, however, prove that US assets help track suspected drug aircraft and include the use of deadly force.)


I read the rumor story in Monday morning's paper with everybody else and figured that was the end of The Press-Enterprise's involvement in the Flight 800 case.

I was so wrong.

The next day, an FAA source faxed me the flight controllers' logs I had sought for weeks. They proved to the world that I had been lied to, often and frequently.

A large area within twelve miles of where Flight 800 exploded not only was active, off-limits to nonmilitary aircraft, and considered dangerous to civilian air traffic, but another large area normally off-limits to the military had been reserved for navy operations. The navy P-3 Orion antisubmarine aircraft that was almost over Flight 800 at the time the jetliner exploded was headed for the special zone for a hide-and-seek game with the nuclear submarine USS Trepang.


I showed the logs and map to my editors. I can still see us, checking the FAA documents against the aviation maps. We kept asking the same question, over and over: Why were we lied to?

The three FAA pages did not, and still don't, prove a missile shot down Flight 800 or that US equipment was involved in the disaster. But it answered one of my Chicken Little questions: Were military operating areas near TWA 800 "hot" at the time it exploded, and were there exercises scheduled in them? Yes.

The flow of information accelerated for several weeks. We learned that at least one US sub, and maybe two, was relatively close to the disaster site. I say "relatively" because the FBI and navy said the two navy assets closest to Flight 800 were the nonlethal P-3 and the guided missile cruiser USS Normandy 185 miles south.

Well, that was patently false. It took almost two years, but we proved through the navy's own information that, minimally, three or more subs, a patrol plane, and aircraft carrier exercises were between Flight 800 and the Normandy.

And the Normandy, according to official navy records and statements, was in four different places at the time of the crash, ranging from 185 miles to 290 miles south. The southernmost site adds more subs, a guided missile frigate, aircraft carrier, and carrier jets to the pool of military units operating in the area that US investigators proclaimed to be in the "vicinity of the crash" and void of exercises.


(Many people argue that if a US military asset launched a missile that struck Flight 800, men and women serving aboard the plane or ship would blow the whistle. As a reminder, thousands of American servicemen fought in or bombed Laos without disclosing the secret war in that nation between 1965 and 1975. As for Flight 800, no news organization was permitted to interview crewmembers of the P-3, Normandy, the submarines operating in the area, or other ships the navy and FBI refused to identify. Navy officials continually rebuffed attempts to interview crewmembers, even to have them say they were not involved. Many navy officials told me the FBI would not permit any such interviews. One ship's weapons crewmember recently contacted said he reported detecting a radar "lock-on," such as that created by a missile launcher, from an unidentified source about the time Flight 800 went down. He said he was told by his superior not to tell crash investigators.)

Radar data the NTSB released for its December 1997 hearings, almost eighteen months after the Flight 800 incident and our story, revealed four other mystery tracks "consistent with the speed of a boat" within three to six miles of the jumbo jet's course at the time of its midair breakup. None returned to offer any assistance.

The names of the four vessels remain undisclosed to this day.
The FBI says it has no idea what the closest vessel was. A memo released under our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request quotes a navy captain at the Pentagon as telling an Atlantic Fleet officer to keep the names of three merchant ships that could have been close to Flight 800 "in-house Navy for the time being." The ships were never publicly identified, nor were many others that were ultimately disclosed as being near the crash. The question is whether they could have been a platform off which a missile was fired.

But we didn't know in September 1996 to what extent the official record had been falsified, only that it had.

If there were nothing to cover up, why was there a cover-up?

I called the FBI's New York office, which was handling the investigation, and asked if the bureau wanted a copy of the FAA documents that contradicted agency and navy statements about no nearby military exercises. "No," I was told. "We have all the information we need." I called the navy and then the Department of Defense to ask about the discrepancies. Their representatives said the FBI had forbidden them to say anything about Flight 800-related issues.

I beg your pardon? The FBI had forbidden the navy and Department of Defense?


In thirty years of covering military issues, some even more significant than this, I had never heard such a thing. Defense agencies always bristled at the suggestion that they couldn't handle their own issues. In this case, they appeared eager to hide behind the FBI.

One navy spokesman finally told me he was forbidden to answer questions on the phone about anything related to Flight 800 issues. But, he said, if the same questions were submitted as part of a FOIA request, I could get the answers. I recognized the officer's response for the gift it was and immediately submitted a request with thirty-seven questions. It took months to get the invaluable documents in response.

Because we had no sources inside the Pentagon, Mel turned to one of his former reporters, Knut Royce of Newsday. We fed Knut the FAA documents, and he got some responses, which he fed us. They were very different from what was being printed elsewhere, and one navy official confirmed a P-3 versus sub operation.

"This had to be a command-and-control exercise or exercise to qualify somebody to do something or whatever," a retired senior Pentagon officer said. The "whatever" could range from missions with the army's Special Forces to exercises with a foreign navy's submarine.

Said one Navy official:

Keep this on background. Submariners get freaked out when you talk about what they're doing. We have no subs with surface-to-air missiles. But there's nothing to say that if you're on a littoral [shoreline] operation with Special Forces you couldn't put Stingers [shoulder-launched missiles] on them. The Russians had worked with a rocket system on their subs because one of the things that scared them to death was our anti-submarine helos [helicopters]. They always wanted a way of last resort to fire back.


We ran our story Friday, October 4, complete with a map-graphic and the responses Knut got for us. Our lead:

On the night TWA Flight 800 exploded in midair, nearby military training areas covering thousands of square miles were assigned to exercises deemed potentially dangerous to civilian aircraft, Navy and federal aviation records reveal.

Solid clues as to what caused the July 17 disaster continue to elude investigators. Officials say a missile, bomb, or mechanical failure probably caused the crash. And unsubstantiated rumors persist that the plane was brought down by "friendly fire."

Details of what was happening in the active military training areas remain an official secret more than two months after the nation's second worst air crash killed 230 people. But government records contradict weeks of official denials that any significant amount of military activity was scheduled the night of July 17.


A sidebar described the narrow corridor Flight 800's crew had to use because of the scheduled exercises.

The stories were to be transmitted to the Associated Press for worldwide distribution Thursday night, but our computer link didn't work. Therefore, the stories didn't get the attention they deserved.

Some of our readers, however, contacted other publications, and our information began circulating. The chief US correspondent for the French magazine Paris Match called, and I sent him the FAA documents and a copy of our map-graphic. Paris Match printed their version and credited The Press-Enterprise.

Almost simultaneously, I was invited to fly to Washington, DC. Remember, it was a presidential election year.

An ex-CIA agent, a World Health Organization official, and others told my editor and me that important congressmen "from both sides of the aisle" felt that US officials were covering up something about the crash but didn't know what and didn't know which questions to ask.

Could I quickly come to Washington, at their expense, and tell the congressmen or their staff members the questions they needed to ask crash investigators? They, then, would make the inquiries and give the answers to us first.

It wouldn't be my first trip to DC as an expert witness or to respond to a request to discuss with congressional investigators what wasn't being asked in major inquiries. Our stories about American servicemen still missing from the Vietnam War, alleged drug trafficking by US officials, and illegal use of surplus military aircraft had resulted in trips to the capital or investigators making trips to my Riverside home.

As in the other issues, our stories in The Press-Enterprise turned up information that other media had missed or appeared to be uninterested in pursuing. Our editors had proved themselves before by printing stories other newspapers sometimes ran from and then sniped at.

I sometimes felt like a coal mine canary, the bird that miners use to detect poisonous gas. If the bird suddenly quits chirping and drops dead, the miners know they have to get out fast. Singing solo in such conditions can be lonely and frightening, but singing is preferable to silence. Miners learn to listen for the canary -- or its silence.

My editors and I decided to accept the invitation to DC. What could we lose? The upside was better than the downside. On October 24, 1996, I flew to Washington.

As soon as I met my escort at Ronald Reagan National Airport, I knew we had been used. The young man meeting me at the gate introduced himself as a driver for the Bob Dole for President organization. It was just past midnight, eleven days before the 1996 presidential election. The polls showed Dole faring badly.

I was not there to be somebody's eleventh-hour bid to win a presidential election, and I doubted the driver was taking me to Clinton Reelection Committee headquarters for a joint conference.

It was about 1:00 AM when I was checked into the Hyatt Regency Washington, room 716. I didn't care about the hour. Somebody was going to be awakened. I called the go-betweens and told them that if the meeting were taking place at Dole campaign headquarters I wouldn't attend and I would write a story about the one-sided rendezvous. The meeting was switched to a law firm's conference room, where, at about 10:00 AM, I met the ex-CIA Mideast station agent and Bob Dole's chief of policy, Richard Fore. My chauffeur was the wife of an aide to Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire.

So much for "both sides of the aisle." I decided to give them a copy of our October 4 story, the list of questions I asked the navy to respond to, and left.

Fore said it was too late to affect the election anyway.

The trip to Washington produced nothing tangible.

In November 1996, days after Clinton defeated Dole for the presidency, ex-Kennedy White House press chief Pierre Salinger entered the Flight 800 mix. He cited the Paris Match story about the military activity and said a document that intelligence agents gave him stated Flight 800 was the victim of friendly fire. The "document" turned out to be a copy of an Internet-distributed assertion that a US ship accidentally downed Flight 800. I had seen the Internet printout weeks earlier and determined it to be unreliable.

In response, navy spokesman Rear Adm. Edward Kristensen, who was directing salvage operations, said in a national press conference that the P-3 and the Normandy 185 miles south were "the only two assets that the Navy had operating off the East Coast ... in the vicinity of the TWA 800 crash site."

How many times would that response go unchallenged?

I persuaded my editors that we should not get involved in Salinger's allegations but should stick with our own investigating. I have nothing against Mr. Salinger; I just felt he might not be receiving the best advice.

Within the investigation, officials were shifting toward pinning the explosion on some type of undiscovered mechanical failure. Only 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of the approximately 370,000-pound airplane remained on the Atlantic Ocean's floor. No other major media seemed to have picked up on or to have been investigating the misstatements about military activity. And quite honestly, just because the government was prevaricating about that issue did not prove "friendly fire."

But it did keep us searching. If I find my dog dead of gunshot wounds at my neighbor's fence, that doesn't prove he killed it. However, if my neighbor said he was gone that weekend but really was home with his gun club, it makes me wonder.

At times, I felt our voice to be the only one challenging the official chorus. The only canary in the coal mine. Thankfully, I found others. Several paid a dear price for their independence. Kristina Borjesson, then an independent producer with CBS Reports, also was developing stories for 60 Minutes. She called me from New York. She got my number from Paris Match. She had won an Emmy for investigative reporting that she'd done for Legacy of Shame, a CBS documentary about migrant farm workers. Borjesson said she was concerned about the general media's seemingly blind acceptance of the government's take on Flight 800. Her law enforcement sources were providing different views from inside the investigation, talking about missile and explosives evidence that wasn't getting proper consideration and about the FBI's inordinate grip on other agencies.

She said her executive producer had assigned her to look into the crash and share anything she uncovered with CBS Nightly News first and then any other CBS show that might be interested. Borjesson said she was concerned that her reporting was not going to go anywhere at CBS Nightly News because it contradicted the information a Washington correspondent was getting from Pentagon sources, who were saying the crash was caused by a mechanical failure.

I was alternately pleased and concerned: pleased that a journalist at the national level was critically reviewing the investigative process but concerned that people in a major news outlet seemed worried about upsetting the establishment.

Whom were we trying to keep honest?

I also connected with reporters or publishers of newsmagazines and aviation industry publications who were concerned about government misstatements or pieces that didn't fit mechanical failure as a cause.

In early 1997, I got another call from Jim Sanders. A major source within the investigation had supplied him with documents showing how Flight 800 debris landed in the ocean. Officials had said for months that the debris pattern would point to the cause of the crash.

Jim used a computer spreadsheet program to collate the information and found the plane had unraveled right to left just behind the wing front. An NTSB metallurgy study suggested that the plane was falling apart before the center fuel tank exploded. Critical pieces inside the tank seemed to be burned after the plane began disintegrating, not before.

I sent a copy of the metallurgy study, with its graphics, to a longtime source who is an aviation expert and crash investigator. I asked him to read the report and tell me what he thought, without my influencing him. He said that the information told him that the plane was falling apart before the fuel tank exploded. He especially was interested in drawings that showed unexplained gouges on the plane's exterior, at just about the right wing front. The gouges were covered with soot deposited after the gouges were made. The aluminum skin, which began peeling when the aircraft was breached, also stressed inward at this point. All this led the expert to conclude that something bumped into the aircraft before it began falling apart. (The gouges also were in the area where traces of explosive chemicals were found on the aircraft's exterior, but the metallurgy report did not deal with such issues.) The FAA had told the White House hours after the explosion that radar seemed to indicate a high-speed object was closing in on Flight 800 seconds before the disaster; NTSB officials wanted the FAA to recant, but FAA officials refused.


And then there was the red residue.

After the computer work revealed a clear, narrow path of initial destruction through the plane, with three consecutive rows of seats among the first debris streaming out of the crippled airplane, Jim's source looked at the debris and said the recovered seatbacks for all those rows had a red substance on them. The source removed two small pieces of the substance-laden fabric and mailed them to Jim, who had one tested for contents. Meanwhile, alerted by Jim that he had this material, I scouted for people who could tell me what solid fuel for rockets might contain. Clanging inside my brain was what my original retired navy source had told me just before my trip to Washington: Have somebody check debris for evidence of solid fuel for rockets; if an inert missile passed through the fuselage, it would leave a chemical trail of fuel exhaust. I learned from experts that solid fuel for missiles is a rather basic recipe of explosive ingredients mixed in differing proportions, depending on the speed and distance you want the object propelled, as well as its size and weight. A rubber-based bonding agent keeps the fuel components from separating. Solid fuel for rockets, when ignited, generates a continuing, controlled explosion. Cars are moved by the energy from controlled explosions inside the engine block.

Until Jim got the pieces of red-encrusted fabric, four media outlets, all bigger than The Press-Enterprise, were interested in presenting his information. Two bailed after he got the material. They expressed concern about the legality of his having the fabric. I was afraid that Kristina Borjesson and CBS would present vital information before I could, but the ball bounced into my court; Jim contacted me, asked if we could present his evidence, and I talked to my editors.
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Re: Coal Mine Canaries, by David E. Hendrix

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Jim flew from Virginia, where he lived, to California and presented his information, including results of an independent lab test of the red substance's contents. A genuine rocket scientist told me the ingredients and proportions were consistent with solid fuel for missiles. I had the other expert's opinion that the metallurgy report showed the plane began unraveling before fuel-air vapors ignited in the center tank. A separate set of color graphics showed that only two seats and passengers' bodies in the forward part of the aircraft had burn marks. If the fuel tank explosion and fire ignited the disaster, where were the burn marks on the bodies and cabin interior closest to the first flames?

My editors decided the public had a right to the information Jim had acquired. They assigned another reporter to help me, and we began writing, while our graphics department turned information into understandable visual explanations. I had two long phone interviews with Jim's inside source who had provided the documents and material.

On March 7, 1997, I called the New York office of James Kallstrom, the assistant FBI director who was leading the bureau's investigation into Flight 800. It was the first time I got through to him, personally. I told him the evidence we had, including the lab report about the red residue.

"There is a red residue trail, but it has no connection to a missile," he told me. ''I'm not going to get into it. There's a logical explanation, but I'm not going to get into it."


Had he told us what he thought it was, we could have postponed publication, handled that question in about two days, and provided information that could have helped the FBI and NTSB. But he didn't tell us, so we couldn't tell him. The FBI had refused our offer of information before and now they refused again.

We had wanted to publish our stories on Saturday, March 8, 1997, but several problems prevented us from doing so. I was still writing, and my bosses wanted to edit the copy calmly, not in a rush. Additionally, Pierre Salinger's colleague Mike Sommer wanted us to review and print excerpts of their fifty-eight-page essay that contended the navy accidentally shot down Flight 800. Sommer offered us exclusive US publication rights of purported radar images that showed some unidentified high-speed object intersecting Flight 800's path if we printed some of the essay. The earliest he could get the package to us from Paris was Saturday morning our time. We waited, read the material, and decided to print our own information and not hitch ourselves to Salinger's wagon.

We published our package for the morning of Monday, March 10. I faxed copies to the NTSB and Kallstrom's office, as soon as the first papers came off the press late Sunday night, and we sent electronic copies to the Associated Press, which we had alerted beforehand.

The story exploded around the world.

"New evidence, much of it distilled from FBI and National Transportation Safety Board documents, points to a missile as the cause of last July's crash of TWA Flight 800," the lead story began. I wish I could take credit for such a succinct lead, but my metro editor, Norm Bell, bailed me out of my legalistic drafts and distilled it into readable English.

The stories, graphics, color photo of Jim's mottled-red fabric, and large bold-faced headlines made an incredible package. We even shoved the index off the front page for the first time in anybody's memory. I went home a tired but satisfied reporter.

At 3:00 AM I bolted upright in bed, gripped by a terrible panic. Dreadful questions reverberated inside my head: What makes you think you're right? What makes you think you have what it takes to do this story? What makes you think you know more than other reporters? What makes you think you haven't dragged your newspaper over a cliff, a fall from which it and you will never recover?

The fact that I had prayed a lot wouldn't sway a jury. Sweat seeped from each pore. In my mind, I went over each story and fact, line by line. We not only had double-checked, we had triple, if not quadruple-checked. We had not taken Jim at his word. We checked the information independently and ensured the documents were genuine. I had checked the debris recovery chart against latitude-longitude maps to ensure the aircraft parts were recovered where Jim said they were. I had found independent analysts who had no connection to Jim.

Finally settled in my mind, I went back to sleep, thankful for the extra hour my bosses had given me because of the late nights.

Nothing in my previous thirty years of journalism prepared me for that Monday morning I walked into work. Phones rang incessantly, and news assistants could hardly keep up with the messages.

Our stories were being reported worldwide. Radio and TV newscasts led with our reports. Call slips from at least four dozen news outlets, including talk shows and some European media organizations, were on my desk. Mel Opotowsky, my managing editor, had taken some of the more important ones and responded to them, especially ones that required an official Press-Enterprise spokesman. It was heady stuff, just like out of a movie, but scary. This was real. We were smack in the middle of one of the biggest stories around.

We decided I would continue with the story, and Mel would handle the media inquiries. We wanted the focus to remain on the information, not the newspaper and/or me. We weren't the story; the story was the story. That may sound simplistic, but it was an important decision and invaluable lesson. I can't imagine what would have happened had I dissipated myself by responding to the media frenzy or trying to justify the stories we did.

Other media organizations wanted our information, but none of the majors I know of began their own really independent inquiry to determine if what the government was telling them was true, except for Borjesson. The Village Voice began carrying challenging stories by freelance writer Robert Davey, but almost all others threw the information overboard when the FBI said the red residue was adhesive, aka glue. The other media took the FBI's pronouncement as gospel, and thereafter many viewed Sanders as a fraud. Even columnists at my own newspaper ridiculed Jim and me and began sniping at our stories. One eventually told me he was embarrassed to work at the same newspaper as I. Et tu, Brutus?

Glue?

Kallstrom told me where to go Monday morning. He said Jim had used a good lab but that "the boys" used to handling such stories back East would have asked what else the red stuff might have been and made that inquiry before printing such a story. Well, I had asked him that question three days earlier, but he said he wouldn't tell me, so that took care of asking him. But Monday he was conciliatory, telling me that he knew I was a sincere, honest reporter who had been led astray. I avoided the argument. Knowing when to accept an offer, I asked what I ought to look for, and he told me I might consider whether the red residue was adhesive from 3M Corporation.

I thanked him, called 3M, and talked to their lead expert. I read him the ingredients and proportions of the red stuff, and he said most of the same elements were in adhesive but in much smaller proportions. Also, with rubber bonding agents being part of solid fuel for rockets, some adhesive would show up anyway.

Jim had one piece of red-encrusted fabric left, which he wanted a media organization to have tested independently. NBC's Dateline turned down the opportunity, but Borjesson was interested. He shipped the evidence to her, but the FBI discovered 60 Minutes had the fabric, and CBS turned it over to officials at the FBI's request. CBS let Borjesson go a few weeks later.

Nine months later, at its December 1997 Baltimore hearings on the Flight 800 crash, the NTSB released a report that said the "red residue" was 3M's "Scotch Grip 1357 High Performance Contact Adhesive." For some reason, the report didn't point out that Scotch Grip 1357 is green, not red.


I pressed the NTSB and finally got to interview Henry Hughes, who supervised the agency's analysis of cabin debris, including seats. He told me that tests the FBI did were of glue used to form the plastic inset into which lap trays are stored when not in use. That glue was not red residue; it was glue. The red residue was something else.

The day after our March 10, 1997, story, a House of Representatives committee happened to be having a hearing about the NTSB's budget. Congressmen asked about the residue. NTSB representatives said they had ordered their own tests of the reddish substance. Because the NTSB didn't have its own laboratory to conduct the test, the agency asked the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to analyze the material.

Who better than NASA to see if the material was glue or exhaust from solid fuel for rockets? At least, that's the logical assumption. But the assumption became a smoke screen.

It was that NASA report that was released in Baltimore. But the NASA chemist did not say that the red residue he tested was the same material tested by Jim Sanders. The chemist said it was impossible for him to determine if the product he tested was the same that was used on the 747 seats of Flight 800. He told me in August 1998 that the test he was instructed to conduct determined that 1357 was present in the samples he was given but that "there was other material in there."

"At no time was I asked to analyze for or determine the presence of materials which may also be found in solid rocket fuel," the analyst said for our August 10, 1998, story, more than two years after the plane exploded off Long Island. He told me that there were tests that could have conclusively proved whether the red residue was missile fuel or not, but that the NTSB had prohibited any such tests.

We faxed the story, before we printed it, to the NASA chemist to ensure we had quoted him accurately and in context, because of the story's significance: given the opportunity to determine if the red residue was consistent with solid fuel for rockets, the NTSB said no. It was like testing a dead man's blood for caffeine and refusing to test for strychnine.

To ensure that we weren't missing something, we ordered a gallon of 3M's Scotch Grip 1357 High Performance Contact Adhesive. The green liquid is highly volatile. We asked a private laboratory in Phoenix to do a comparison test of Jim Sander's report, the NASA report, and 1357. We asked a professor at California State University, San Bernardino, to do the same. Each said that the red residue had something more than 1357 in it, if indeed the adhesive were present.


The university professor went an extra step. She burned the green glue to see if it turned red. It turned brown, not red. Besides, the seats off which the red residue was taken were not burned. Green glue is green.

The red residue is only indicative of how uninvestigative critical elements of the "investigation" became. It also demonstrates how wedded most reporters and editors are to official pronouncements. Because the FBI said the red residue was glue (without mentioning the glue was green), most reporters and editors took the edict as gospel and did no independent investigating. Why would FBI and NTSB officials lie? I don't know. They didn't tell me. But any news organization could have, and should have, done the testing we did.

We did more stories than just the red residue piece, of course. Because of our attention to detail, our growing reputation for investigating the investigators, and our looking for evidence instead of just quotes, many people who saw flaws in the official inquiries came looking for us or were sent our way.

For instance, ex-Air National Guard helicopter pilot Maj. Frederick Meyer decided to break his silence because he heard the NTSB talking about pinning the explosion on some unknown spark igniting heated fuel in the center fuel tank -- never mind that physical evidence said the plane was breaking up before the fuel tank blew up.

Meyer was one of two pilots in an Air National Guard helicopter who saw streaks headed toward the jumbo jet before it exploded. Meyer is a Vietnam veteran and experienced at watching missiles explode in midair. He said what he saw was military ordnance exploding near Flight 800 before the plane burst into a fireball. He took his story to congressional investigator Kelly O'Meara, who directed him to me. O'Meara later was pressured to resign after she angered FBI officials by challenging the official investigation. She worked for Rep. Michael Forbes (R-NY), off whose district Flight 800's victims and debris fell into the ocean. O'Meara, Borjesson, and I spent the 1997 Fourth of July congressional break in Forbes's office looking at documents that proved the FBI and navy were being untruthful.

''I'm not a professor with a PhD in explosion watching, I'm an eyewitness," Meyer told me two weeks after my DC visit. "I know what I saw. I saw an ordnance explosion. And whatever I saw, the explosion of the fuel was not the initiator of the event. It was one of the results. Something happened before that which was the initiator of the disaster."

The NTSB, at the FBI's request, refused to let eyewitnesses testify at its Flight 800 hearings. How could they? They would have rebutted FBI and NTSB conclusions that there was no evidence a missile or bomb brought down the plane. Those hundreds of people, including Meyer, who saw streaks headed toward the plane were deluded, officials decided.

Our August 10, 1998, story about the NASA scientist's report and comments turned out to be my last for the newspaper about TWA Flight 800, although I later did a chapter for Jim Sanders's book, Altered Evidence. He wrote it, the second of his three books about the TWA 800 crash, after a Brooklyn federal grand jury indicted him and his wife on charges of conspiring to steal pieces of debris (two small pieces of residue-coated seat fabric) from an airplane crash. A jury convicted them in federal court after the judge ruled Jim and Liz could not argue that they had received the evidence as part of a First Amendment-protected journalistic investigation.

Jim's attorney wanted to subpoena me to testify that Sanders's inside source, whom we dubbed Hangarman, provided information freely and of his own volition. I had interviewed Hangarman, who was TWA's lead 747 pilot, after he agreed. The night before Flight 800's explosion he had flown that plane to New York from Europe, and he shared information with me openly, although he did not want to be identified in our story. We did not publish his name. Because of his unique position, he had access to much of the investigation's information and documents. The US Attorney's office had wanted Hangarman's identity and pressured Jim and Liz to provide it. They refused, citing First Amendment rights and laws protecting journalists. When federal officials determined Hangarman's identity was Terrel Stacey, they pressured Stacey to provide information they could use to prosecute the Sanderses. Jim and Liz had angered federal officials by refusing to turn over a confidential source, so the federal officials decided to punish them using an obscure law intended to protect sensitive material critical to crash investigations, not investigators who were hiding evidence.

I did not want to get on the witness stand because I had many other confidential sources whose futures would be jeopardized for telling the truth if their identities were known. We could not be sure that I wouldn't be asked about other sources once I began talking about Hangarman. Under a compromise, I wound up providing Jim's attorney notes of my interview with Hangarman, and they were used to counter the government's contention that the Sanderses coerced Stacey into providing them material from the investigation.

The Press-Enterprise wound up paying $20,000 in attorney fees to keep me off the stand and thereby protect other confidential sources. Protecting freedom of the press is not free.

Jim and Liz were not permitted to argue that Jim was a journalist and that the First Amendment or other laws that protect journalists protected his actions. Liz was prosecuted because she knew Hangarman and talked to him twice about her husband's efforts. They were convicted, but the federal judge sentenced them to probation and public service, refusing the prosecution's desire to have them imprisoned. Their appeals were denied, and the Supreme Court refused to review their case. No major media organization came to their defense, although they did more to turn the spotlight on deceptive investigative practices than anybody. Jim and Liz have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending themselves and their right to investigate investigators.

They since have filed a federal suit against the US government and specific federal investigators and agents, including the FBI's lead investigator, James Kallstrom. The Sanderses assert the government illegally stole Jim's journalistic work product without a warrant, as required by law, and that Kallstrom and others conspired to violate their civil rights. Liz was forced to retire without benefits from TWA and now works for a small airline. Jim is still writing investigative books. Their civil suit, as of this writing, is pending in front of the same federal judge who heard their criminal case.

I've recently been told by my ex-executive editor that the reason Press-Enterprise editors pulled the plug on my Flight 800 stories was because the newspaper was short-handed and I was too valuable to continue pursuing a story whose end was nowhere in sight and whose resolution was in doubt.

I suppose I should be thrilled I was considered that valuable. I have another theory. The two editors who licensed me to do the scores of Flight 800 stories we did were no longer at the Press-Enterprise. Norm Bell was reassigned as projects editor and then left for another newspaper; Mel Opotowsky retired. My new editors did not have the background or investment in the Flight 800 stories I had done. They were new coaches, and I was operating under an old game plan. They had a new vision and wanted to use my talents for more regional issues.

I'm proud of my publisher and editors for having the guts to print stories no other outlet seemed interested in pursuing. We had, with the government's own words, proved many untruths or misstatements government investigators and officials made about the nation's second deadliest accident.

Counting my salary, my editors' salaries when they were working Flight 800 issues, staff support, $20,000 in attorneys' fees to keep me off the witness stand in the criminal court case, trips to the East Coast, and other expenses, The Press-Enterprise probably spent at least $250,000 to $300,000 covering the story. Maybe more. It's a rough estimate and is no small sum. But I think they quit one story too soon.

The story I had when I was called off had to do with the bomb-detection exercise the FAA said was conducted in St. Louis on June 10, 1996, aboard Boeing 747 No. 17119. A few weeks later that jetliner became the ill-fated TWA Flight 800 aircraft.

A month after the jetliner's destruction, the FBI used that alleged June 10 exercise to explain away the traces of PETN and RDX that crash field tests found on exterior and interior parts of 17119's fuselage. PETN and RDX are compounds found within explosives. PETN is more common, while RDX, at the time of the crash, was manufactured only for the US military.

The FBI, in a letter to then representative James Traficant (D-OH), gave its account of the police officer's bomb-detection exercise, with his dog, aboard 17119. The officer hid several types of explosives in the airplane's passenger sections and asked his dog to find the samples, which it did. The exercise aboard the empty plane ended at noon, the FBI said. The police officer did not follow usual protocol by having a training officer observe and didn't log the tail number of the airplane because he wasn't required to, the FBI said.

That story had more holes than traditional Swiss cheese.

Company records reveal that 17119 backed away from the terminal at 12:35 PM, late on its trip to Hawaii with more than four hundred passengers.
With the help of Kay Pennington, an invaluable researcher for many of my stories, I traced the pilot and copilot of that June 10 flight. I talked to them. They said there's no way the plane could have been empty and available at the time the FBI report says the bomb-detection exercise took place. The cockpit crew for a 747 board the aircraft at least an hour before takeoff, if not earlier. Flight attendants arrive in the cabin even earlier because passengers begin boarding at least forty-five minutes before scheduled take-off, which was 11:45 AM. Galley and other support staff are on the plane even earlier. Never, said the pilot and copilot, in their twenty-plus-year careers, did a bomb-detection exercise ever delay one of their flights, and they never interrupted an exercise in progress.

So, based on a report about an impossible inspection, the FBI explained away evidence of explosive residue found inside and outside Flight 800.

Records show that a second Boeing 747 was empty and parked exactly opposite plane 17119 in St. Louis the morning of the alleged bomb-sniffing exercise. It was plane 17117, Flight 800's sister, and didn't depart for New York until more than an hour after 17119 left for Hawaii. That other plane had plenty of time for a bomb exercise. But it was never tested.

No other journalist had the story. We got it because I had to rely on rank-and-file sources and evidence, not high-placed "leaks" and "press releases," thank goodness.

Officials still haven't found the cause of Flight 800's demise. Or if they know, they're not saying. The official explanation is that some unknown spark probably entered the center fuel tank some unknown way and ignited a volatile fuel-air mixture that exploded and began a cataclysmic disintegration of the 747.

The case is not over. Physicists and engineers who say evidence does not support government conclusions, or who want access to evidence the CIA, the FBI, and the NTSB refuse to share, have filed suits to get information kept out of public reach. Except for the Albuquerque Journal, a few small newspapers, and Internet publications, no media are reporting these important events.

For instance, retired engineer and pilot Ray Lahr filed suit in federal court in Los Angeles to force the CIA, the FBI, and the NTSB to provide information and calculations the agencies used to assert that Flight 800 climbed more than three thousand feet after the explosion decapitated the plane's nose, about eighty thousand pounds of aircraft. The issue is important because the FBI, using the CIA's analysis, and the NTSB concluded that hundreds of witnesses, including military veterans, did not see a missile streaking toward Flight 800 before the midair explosion. The agencies' officials said that what the witnesses saw was flaming fuel from the crippled airliner as it soared upward after the hypothetical mechanical initiating event.

"I don't believe the zoom climb ever happened," Lahr said. "Boeing provided before-and-after data to the NTSB, and it was published in the accident report. Eighty thousand pounds of nose and cockpit were blown off. This shifted the center of gravity far aft and generated about six million foot-pounds of nose-up torque. The aircraft immediately pitched up and stalled.


"The wing probably failed right then since its center box structure had been blown apart," Lahr continued. "But using Boeing's data, I calculated that even if the wing had held together, the most the plane could have climbed is a few hundred feet, not the 3,200 feet claimed by the CIA. That is why I want the data and calculations that were used to produce the CIA and NTSB videos."

The CIA and the NTSB do not want the information released. They said it contains information proprietary to Boeing. What is proprietary about whether an airplane that loses eighty thousand pounds in front can soar upward more than three thousand feet? Isn't it more important to determine whether eyewitnesses really saw burning fuel or a missile trail? What's to fight?

On the East Coast, engineer Graeme Sephton is suing the FBI to get the forensic evidence about hundreds of foreign objects the FBI seized from the bodies of the crash victims during their autopsies. It's not a macabre foray into highly personal and private domains. The evidence never was shared with the coroner nor requested by the NTSB.

Sephton, who works at the University of Massachusetts, said he realized that "unlike other evidence collected from the bottom of the Atlantic, the foreign body evidence is definitive because there is no chain-of-custody ambiguity. It cannot readily be explained away."

Sephton filed his FOIA request in 1998 and is still fighting the FBI for the results.

It's important to review the government's pronouncements in the TWA Flight 800 case. They said:

• No nearby military exercises were being conducted when Flight 800 went down. Not true.

• No military assets were in the area other than a P-3 and the USS Normandy. Not true.

• There was no evidence of missiles or explosives. Not true.

• The debris had no evidence of explosives. Not true.

• The explosive residue found on the plane's interior (and exterior, evidently) is explained by an earlier search-dog exercise. Not true.

• Tests say red residue is adhesive and not consistent with solid fuel for missiles. Not true. (The adhesive is green, and the NASA scientist conducting NTSB tests said he was not permitted to test for the red residue's origin).

• The FBI and the military identified all ships and planes in the area. Not true.

• The decapitated 747 "zoom climbed" more than three thousand feet after the forward eighty thousand pounds of fuselage fell off. Impossible.

• The NTSB does not know what caused the center fuel tank to explode. True.

• The NTSB has no idea what all the FBI knows. True.


Okay. And the reason we should believe everything these investigators tell us is . . . ?

Other than Robert Davey for the Village Voice and Kelly Patricia O'Meara for Insight magazine, few regular newspapers continued to challenge the government's official reports about Flight 800's death. Kelly, a respected congressional aide and researcher for eighteen years on the Hill before she turned journalist, provided invaluable assistance to me while she was working for Representative Forbes.

One last observation before I close with some insights about journalism today. It troubles me how government agencies meddled with news outlets in this story and how some of the nation's biggest media organizations let it happen.

Case no. 1:

A navy official called my then-publisher, Marcia McQuern, in November 1997 and told her the Flight 800 story was over because Pierre Salinger was quitting the active hunt for a cause. Therefore, the officer said, there was no reason to respond to my inquiries about certain navy equipment. Marcia, a respected reporter and editor before being appointed my newspaper's chief executive, told the officer that we were not directed by Salinger's actions, we would determine whether we had a story or not, and that the navy's function was to provide us the information to which we legally were entitled. None of us had ever experienced such a call before. We ultimately got the information and used it for stories.

Case no. 2:

Kristina Borjesson and Kelly O'Meara contracted with a California production company to produce a program hosted by Oliver Stone for ABC Entertainment that would include interviews with Flight 800 witnesses, whose testimony the FBI asked the NTSB to exclude from its December 1997 public hearings. Stone is famous -- or infamous -- for his movie that portrays a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy. After officials objected to ABC, the ABC News Division asked that the program be scuttled, arguing that viewers would get mixed up seeing a news-style program produced by the entertainment side. The truth is, every network's news department should have interviewed the witnesses years ago and presented a program with their information. The networks all dutifully carried the government's opinion that the witnesses didn't see what they saw. The American public is smart enough to separate fact from fiction. That's why the US Constitution still requires jurors to be drawn from the general population.

Case no. 3:

After O'Meara resigned from Representative Forbes's staff, she became an investigative reporter for the Washington Times' Insight magazine. She took along her insider's knowledge of the mistruth the government presented in the Flight 800 investigation. Eventually, she asked for and obtained a copy of hours of radar tracks before and after the crash and extending beyond the limited scope officials provided the public. A careful, independent analysis showed more ships and aircraft in the area at the time of the event than even I was aware of. I was envious of her findings but glad they landed in the hands of someone with her knowledge and tenacity. Of course, she took her findings to the NTSB before she did a story and asked officials there to explain. Basically, they said the information wasn't saying what it said. When she left, they called the rival Washington Post and said a conspiracy theorist reporter, once connected with Oliver Stone, was going to publish a misguided story about ships and aircraft near TWA Flight 800. Well, Kelly wasn't a conspiracy theorist, but she did uncover government cover-ups, and the information about which she was reporting was information federal agencies compiled. The Post published the hit piece, generated by a government agency that's commissioned to get all the information to the public, not cover it up.

What does all this mean? What has it taught me, and what should it teach you, as a reader, and maybe as a journalist? What have I learned after almost forty years in this profession?

In the American system, when judges like the NTSB or the FBI are granted the authority to also serve as jurors, they decide whether some type of evidence is insufficient or not. It therefore becomes officially insufficient, no matter how much information is generated to the contrary. An official pronouncement of insufficiency does not make it actually so, but the edict remains official and is repeated as gospel for decades -- maybe forever. Because an official says it is so doesn't make it so. Think about it.

Journalists, with insufficient time or desire to pursue a story for years on end, take the quickest way out: They recite the official record and depend on pronouncements or "leaks" from bureaucrats who helped draft the official record or have a stake in the official edict. Reporting only what they or the official records say is not journalism in its best form. It simply is reporting -- reporting what officials want you to repeat.

I think journalism in its best form is striving to find the truth, not just what somebody says is the truth. Sometimes you begin with the latter to find the former. You must be inquisitive, not just nosey.

When the government source or institution is the accused, it all too often has the authority to determine what constitutes evidence against itself. It's fortunate most criminals don't have that same right.

Whatever editors are convinced of is what the readers will read or the public will hear or see. A reporter can know everything in the world, but without some editor's authorization somewhere, the story remains in the reporter's brain. The reporter can be brilliant and the editor superior, but in a disagreement, editors have the last word.

I have over- and underreacted as a reporter and editor. The public loses when that happens. An editor must ensure that he or she makes the reporter prove the story. But editors also must ensure they do not bend or kill stories to meet their own prejudices or hold the bar so high that no amount of proof will meet the test.

Editors have the power of life and death. Reporters have the power of truth and deceit. Together they are incredible, quarrelsome rescuers or uncomprehending assassins of reality.


In a story with no apparent end in sight, make hay while the sun shines. Do the stories while you can. Editors, don't let reporters loaf when they should be getting that next chapter completed. Reporters, don't mistakenly believe you will be on the story forever. Readers, demand the next installment. Tell the media outlet what interests you. The economy will change or editors will change, and the story may become nothing but history.

Reporters must approach each story as an explorer entering uncharted territory. More inviting, maybe, they should approach each story as if it were a lover whose body is being explored for the first time. Such a sense will leave the reporter interested and attentive to each detail, eager to learn more.

Each story, no matter how small, affects somebody, somewhere. A reporter had better be ready to back up what he prints or speaks or shows. In Turlock, California, when high school athletes didn't like stories I wrote, they found out where I lived and egged my car.

I believe that journalism, a profession I consider one step below being a minister for God, is corrupted in America. I didn't say corrupt; I said corrupted, and we are the most probable perpetrators. That's tragic. Because once an investigator is seduced by and depends on the group he or she sets off to expose, the investigator, intentionally or not, becomes part of a cover-up. Anybody waiting for an honest report is deceived.

The rush for a figurative romantic success has too many journalists -- reporters and editors -- sleeping with anybody at an official level who will talk. The differences between a prostitute and call girl are location and price, but a john is still a john. Too many journalists have turned into johns.

Just because you read it in a big paper or see it on network TV doesn't make it so. The same holds true for small outlets and the Internet. But, conversely, it doesn't necessarily mean the information isn't so. Ask yourself, "What evidence (not opinion) are they providing?"

Be skeptical of people -- including reporters. They -- we -- all have our axes to grind and other people's oxen to gore.

Reporters, as with most people and energy forces, usually follow the path of least resistance. That means that you can lead many reporters where you want them to go by opening the door through which you want them to go.

A leak from a source is not a leak: it is information the source wants to give you to lead you up a certain path. It's up to you to be wary of the path and determine if integrity or duplicity is waiting as a reward. If it's the latter, what are you going to do when you find out that you've been used to hoodwink the audience? Reporting a spokesman's comments is not reporting; it's becoming the spokesman's spokesman. Don't believe everything you're handed, especially by a friend. Triple-check it before you use it, and remain skeptical to the end.

Don't expect to be loved at the end of a story, especially if it takes a long time to develop or goes against the grain. Editors will begrudge the extended time you're taking to prove or disprove something, and colleagues will think you're trying to create some type of privileged job.

Government owes us a truthful explanation of events. In reality, we are the government, but people by and large have abdicated power and responsibility in return for safety, security, and convenience. Let leaders lie to us and cheat as long as we have food, money, and pleasure. Let somebody else take care of our children and parents so we don't have to be burdened with the responsibilities.

When the watchdog is asleep, it becomes the burglar's tool.

Who owns your loyalty: the public or your sources?

Newsday, which did yeoman's work early on about Flight 800's demise, won the Pulitzer Prize for its reporting about the disaster. One of the team's reporters told me at the NTSB's crash hearings in Baltimore that journalists really prefer at least one other media representative to echo a reporter's findings.

"No reporter likes to be out on a limb alone," the reporter said. "Well, nobody except maybe you."

I laughed because it's true. I would have preferred some other "mainstream" media outlet to be reporting separately what I was finding. It's lonely being alone, and I have awakened more than once with panic attacks like the one I described. But I consider the reporter's observation as one of the greatest compliments I've received.

A commentator once said about Winston Churchill, "When he found he was alone on an issue, he didn't mind the company." I wish I always had that sense of purpose.

The songs coal mine canaries sing may become irritating at times, but smart people learn to appreciate their presence and listen for the tunes. The silence of the canaries is a signal that the environment has turned deadly.
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