WHEN FORMER WHITE HOUSE press secretary and TV correspondent Pierre Salinger first said to the world that TWA Flight 800 was shot down by a missile in 1996, it sounded like generic loony conspiracy theory. Few authorities gave Salinger's allegation any weight, and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials, while unable to explain what exactly did happen the night of July 17 off Long Island, New York, were quick to say that terrorists did not shoot down the Paris-bound Boeing 747.
The official line has remained unchanged: The NTSB presumes an untraceable electrical surge ignited the fuel tank, and in Seattle, Boeing spokesman Russ Young notes that "what is known is that the airplane's center fuel tank exploded; what is not known at this point is the ignition source. To date there is no evidence of a bomb, a missile, or an airplane malfunction." Though Boeing is in the process of settling some lawsuits and is working to eliminate flammable fuel-tank vapors, the 29-month-long crash investigation continues without a final, absolute conclusion about what sent 230 passengers and crew to sudden death over the Atlantic.
Now, a group of credible military and civilian critics has raised thoughtful questions about the NTSB's actions, and a hard core of dissenters believes Salinger was right. Former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Thomas Moorer says he's convinced by the evidence that a missile was the cause, and retired Navy Capt. William Donaldson postulates a two-missile theory based on eyewitness claims of light streaks seen in the sky before the explosion. Critics, hardened by the NTSB's flat dismissal of the missile theory, worry that future flights are in danger. Among them is a former Special Forces trooper who tells Seattle Weekly that in the late 1980s he helped deliver to Afghan rebels US missiles that likely are now targeted at US jetliners.
Rather than dying down after the NTSB report, the missile theory has taken off. In July, New York's Village Voice quoted an Air National Guard major as saying he witnessed the TWA blast and saw "a high-velocity explosion [that] looked for all the world to me like ordnance, a warhead." Relying in part on an extensive review of the crash by Accuracy in Media (AIM)—a conservative media watchdog that has become a clearinghouse for the missile theory—the Voice reported that no fewer than 128 eyewitnesses saw a streak of light ending in a fireball, flash, or explosion that night; that follow-up tests on possible explosive residues were not done; and that in order to reconcile some evidence that didn't fit the NTSB scenario—such as passenger seats projected into an area they couldn't have been unless there'd been an outside-in explosion—board officials tampered with evidence to make it comply. (The NTSB recently reiterated its fuel-ignition theory.) A few weeks ago, Adm. Moorer and others claimed in a New York Times advertisement that the US was covering up the missile attack. The group's 15-month review of evidence claimed, among other things, that nose-wheel doors were blown inward by a blast that supposedly erupted within the plane.
A CONVINCING AND provable TWA crash cause may never emerge. But the incident and the uncertainty about its cause, when coupled with other recent events (particularly the crash of Swissair Flight 111 off Nova Scotia on September 2), raises—in the public mind, at least—the likelihood of a future terrorist missile attack. Investigators into the Swissair crash suspect there was an electrical fire aboard the MD-11, but the world held its breath as the media and aviation officials initially speculated that the jet had been targeted by terrorists.
Charley Wilson, a former Democratic congressman from Texas, is among those wondering about Swissair's true fate. He wonders, for example, if exiled Saudi multimillionaire Osama bin Laden, who masterminded the deadly August 7 US embassy bombings in East Africa, helped shoot the plane down. In part, he wonders this because he knows that bin Laden, now based in Afghanistan, has the weaponry; Wilson helped arrange shipment of CIA-supplied arms for Afghan freedom fighters in their 1980s war against the Russians. The US weapons included Stinger missiles for the Afghans, who were backed in part by bin Laden. In a recent 60 Minutes interview, Wilson and former CIA officer Milt Bearden, who ran the supply effort, speculated that some of those freedom fighters must now be Muslim terrorists financed by bin Laden. When asked where the Stingers and other weapons might be now, Bearden responded: "God knows."
Jim—sitting across from me now in a Seattle restaurant—thinks he knows. "I'd say bin Laden must have them," he says.
A former Army Special Forces trooper, Jim says he was among those who helped ship Stingers to Pakistan. He'd mentioned the missions when I'd run into him in the past, and now he agreed to talk in general about them.
"We used C-141 B's—C-141 Bravos—with nine-man crews," he says. "The planes flew out of Fort Bliss, Texas, plane after plane loaded with nothing but missiles—racks and racks of Stingers." The shoulder-fired 5-foot-long missiles have a standard ceiling range of about 10,000 feet but can climb higher (TWA 800, at 13,700 feet when it exploded, would have been at ultimate range) and are capable of seeking the infrared target of an aircraft's engine. Both General Dynamics and Hughes/Raytheon have made Stingers that can also be fired from newer mobile launchers. Their once-secret technology was long ago compromised, and Iran, among others, is thought to have Stinger-like missiles today.
"The missiles were flown to the border in Pakistan, which was supposed to be neutral," Jim says. From there, they were trucked to Afghanistan. "Man, I think back—we must have shipped them thousands of Stingers. I could probably figure out how many if I sat down and added it all up. But I'd guess . . . what, 6,000, 8,000 missiles? I can't imagine that all of them were used. No way. The remainder have to be stored somewhere."
In August, The News, a Pakistani newspaper, reported that embassy bombing suspect Muhammad Odeh belonged to a bin Laden guerrilla group. The guerrillas maintained an arsenal of Stinger missiles, mortars, rockets, and tanks in Afghanistan, said the paper, and Odeh "claimed to be an expert at handling shoulder-fired US Stinger missiles of the type used by Afghan forces fighting a Soviet invasion of their country in the 1980s. Bin Laden was among the foreigners who fought alongside Afghans."
"I'm not convinced that TWA was a missile [attack] or terrorist act," Jim says. "But I think it's almost a sure bet that a civilian passenger jet will be hit with a missile—most likely one made in America. I pray I'm wrong, but. . . . "