Recovered History: TWA 800 revisited

Sam Smith

I recently was discussing the TWA 800 disaster with someone formerly in the airline industry who had direct knowledge of situation and the plane. The conversation brought to mind something that has troubled me ever since: if the crash was due only to a design failure, why did it so quickly escalate the massive airport security with which we are all so familiar? And why did everyone from the president on down act as though it might have been a terrorist attack?

The plane went down in July 1996 off Long Island with 230 people aboard. There was enough official concern over the possibility of a terrorist attack that both the FBI and CIA conducted investigations. Neither found anything to challenge the conclusion of the National Transportation Safety Board that the incident was due to something, probably a short circuit, causing the explosion of flammable fuel in a fuel tank. The terrorist attack theory and another, that it was caused by misguided missiles from a US Naval vessel, would eventually be forcibly dismissed by official sources and mainstream media.

But a week after the crash, CNN reported:

|||| After consoling relatives of those who died last week in the crash of TWA Flight 800, President Clinton announced new steps Thursday to improve airline safety. Clinton said he does not know whether the July 17 crash that killed 230 people was the result of a security breach. Instead the measures were described as a response to increased anxiety over air travel prompted by the TWA crash and the ValuJet crash that killed 110 people May 11.

Clinton said authorities will hand search more luggage and screen more bags and that all airliners to and from the United States will be searched before takeoff. Every plane, every cabin, every cargo hold, every time.

To improve airline safety and security, Clinton said he would order Vice President Al Gore will head a commission, and will report to Clinton within 45 days on additional security measures, including plans to use high tech machines to detect sophisticated explosives.

Clinton acknowledged the steps would increase inconvenience and cost for passengers, but he said, the safety and security of the American people must be our top priority.||||

Less than two months later, the presidential commission under Al Gore went into session and made recommendations just four days later, probably a record for presidential commissions that will never be broken.

Jack Cashill and James Sanders would write later:

||| The full commission held its first executive session on Sept. 5, 1996, and on Sept. 9 submitted its tough preliminary report to the president. The report advanced 20 serious recommendations to strengthen aviation security. The proposals called for a 60-day test for matching bags with passengers on domestic flights and a computer-based system of ”profiling” passengers that, of course, immediately riled the ACLU.

Also proposed were ”vulnerability assessments” at every commercial airport in the country, increased numbers of bomb-sniffing dogs, better screening and training of the workers who examined bags, and more frequent tests of their work. At a press conference on Sept. 9, Vice President Gore declared his strong support for these proposals. .

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, saying they are convinced that none of the physical evidence recovered from TWA Flight 800 proves that a bomb brought down the plane, plan tests intended to show that the explosion could have been caused by a mechanical failure alone.

Weeks before the Times had reported that “the only good explanations remaining are that a bomb or a missile brought down the plane off Long Island. . . .

In the weeks following Sept. 11, 2001, several political insiders referred to the destruction of Flight 800 as a terrorist incident. But only one did it twice. That person is Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Appearing on Larry King Live on Sept. 11 itself, Kerry suggested that TWA Flight 800 was brought down by a terrorist act. On Sept. 24, on Hardball with Chris Matthews, the authors watched as Kerry casually recited a number of terrorist attacks against the United States, among them TWA “Flight 800.” Like Larry King before him, Chris Matthews either did not catch the remark or chose to let it pass.

As security slows the process, travelers may find themselves spending more time in airports than on airplanes. In addition, some conveniences will be removed. Curbside baggage check in for international flights will be discontinued, and hotels will longer be allowed to deliver guests bags to the airport. ||||

Given everything that has happened since, including 9/11, it’s hard to get back to the spirit of that time. I don’t know what brought down TWA 800 but because of things like the foregoing I’m less inclined that many to dismiss the possibility that it was either a misguided Navy missile or an enemy attack. And I find myself wondering if, in fact, it was an terrorist attack and if this had been admitted by the government, how different the resulting American history might have been. We might not even have had 9/11. One will never know.

I do know that at the time, flying a plane was a lot simpler. I know that in part because of a story I wrote just two years after the TWA 800 crash. It sounds, by today’s standards, quaint and satirical but clearly I had been surprised and seriously troubled because of the novelty of the experience. I was the first person I knew who had gone through this and it was rare enough that I would eventually get an apology from an aide to the president of U.S. Airways. The instigation was clearly TWA 800. The story won’t go away and with its memory, the question keeps creeping in: what really happened to TWA 800?

Progressive Review, November 5, 1998 – The Progressive Review’s editor, Sam Smith, was detained at Washington National Airport for a half hour on Wednesday Nov. 4 as five US Airways security officials, 3 police officers, and one bomb-sniffing dog attempted to determine if he was, as they suspected, a terrorist.

Total evidence for the suspicion came from a defective high tech security machine convinced that the Quaker-educated Smith’s computer and power supply box contained nitroglycerine. Despite admitting that certain brands of computers had been falsely interpreted by the machine, the security officials required former Coast Guard officer Smith to empty everything from his backpack. They also called two passenger service shift managers to the scene who ordered the 60-year-old Smith’s checked bags removed from the aircraft and inspected for traces of explosives.

One of the bags carried clothes, the other contained copies of “Sam Smith’s Great American Political Repair Manual” (WW Norton, 1997, $14.95) for sale during appearances by Smith. The backpack contained considerable Carefree gum, various paperwork, as well as Richard Sennett’s “The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism.” In his book, Sennett notes that in all forms of work, people identify with tasks that are difficult, tasks that challenge them. In the new workplace, however, the machine has become “the only real standard of order. . . By a terrible paradox, when we diminish difficulty and resistance, we create the very conditions for uncritical and indifferent activity on the part of the users.”

By the time the computer had been tested by a second machine, which also thought the Fujitsu laptop might be a bomb, Smith, who has never received even a speeding ticket before, began having intimations of imminent mortality as well as feeling deep humiliation and shock as hundreds of his fellow US Airways passengers walked by observing his plight. Efforts to engage the security personnel in normal human discourse produced but a stream of bureaucratic bromides such as “I’m just doing my job,” “There is nothing I can do,” and “I don”t make the rules.” Efforts to stave off physical collapse by sitting on the table, however, brought a rebuke from one of the guards. At no time was any concern expressed for the needs or physical comfort of US Airways frequent flyer Smith.

Said longtime Washington journalist Smith, who was on his way to Kansas City to give several talks and interviews and take part in a conference of Green activists: “I was trapped in that post-Orwellian synergy of defective technology and incompetent bureaucracy. At a time when our highest public officials ignore the law with impunity, it appears that a citizen a few years shy of Medicare can no longer go about his business without being considered a terrorist. I was told that it was all being done for my own good, but I fail to see how being publicly terrified and humiliated by US Airways because it has bought some crummy techno-toy helps the war against terrorism. Any terrorist watching the incident would have been emboldened rather than chastened.”

In the end, the bomb-sniffing dog happily nosed about the computer, licked the hard drive and quickly returned without complaint to K-9 officer Jim Cox. Smith, who covered his first Washington story in 1957, was permitted to restuff his backpack and board the plane. Said Vietnam era veteran Smith, “A half dozen living human beings surrendered their will to a dubious creation of the late 20th century marketplace of fear, but the dog was smart enough to trust his own judgment. Officer Cox, to his credit, trusted the dog as well. As Harry Truman said, if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

Cox was the only one of those involved in the search who expressed more than perfunctory concern to Smith, visiting the plane before takeoff to do so. Flight attendant Brian M. Lindsay, who had observed the bizarre incident as he checked through security, also expressed dismay and checked on Smith’s well-being several times during the flight. Smith says any legal action will be held in abeyance pending a colloquy he hopes to have with US Airways officials.

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