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Jim Kallstrom

The Consequences of Secrecy and Interagency Conflict: Undermining the Official Investigation intoTWA Flight 800

The search for the cause of the explosion of TWA Flight 800 on July 17, 1996 resulted in the most extensive accident investigation in aviation history. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began two separate investigations into the tragic and unexplained accident.  The FBI conducted a criminal investigation that centered on suspicions that the explosion may have been caused by sabotage. The NTSB investigation was structured in accordance with guidelines specified in Chapter VIII, Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations that permit the active assistance of all parties involved in the design and operation of the aircraft. The NTSB outlines their investigation procedure as follows:


The NTSB designates other organizations or corporations as parties to the investigation. Other than the FAA, which by law is automatically designated a party, the NTSB has complete discretion over which organizations it designates parties to the investigation. Only those organizations or corporations that can provide expertise to the investigation are granted party status and only those persons who can provide the Board with needed technical or specialized expertise are permitted to serve on the team; persons in legal or litigation positions are not allowed to be assigned to the investigation. All party members report to the NTSB.


In a major investigation the Board establishes investigative groups. Each group, which is made up of specialists from the parties, is led by a Board investigator, called the group chairman. The groups which are formed vary depending on the nature of the accident, and may look into areas such as structures, systems, power plants, human performance, fire and explosion, meteorology, radar data, flight data recorder and witness statements, among others.


Eventually, each investigative group chairman prepares a factual report and each of the parties in the group are asked to verify the accuracy of the report. The factual reports are placed in the public docket.[1]



This successful system is built on a foundation of mandated public accountability, and prior to TWA 800 the NTSB had earned a reputation for thoroughness, impartiality and scientific rigor.  However, it is obvious that such a system could come into conflict with the exigencies of a criminal investigation.  The investigation into a criminal or terrorist act on the part of the FBI creates a legitimate need for a high degree of secrecy.  In contrast, an investigation conducted by the NTSB ultimately becomes an undertaking subject to public scrutiny.


In view of the number of people involved in a NTSB investigation, many of them private citizens, the FBI would obviously fear security risks and leaks that could jeopardize an ongoing criminal investigation. In the case of TWA 800, participants in the NTSB investigation included representatives from Boeing (airframe), Pratt and Whitney (power plant),TWA, aircraft systems subcontractors, the various unions of pilots, flight attendants and machinists, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).


Fortunately, there are explicit guidelines provided for managing the inevitable interagency conflict that arose with the parallel investigations into the cause of the explosion and crash of TWA 800.  Again, the rules governing this situation are found in Chapter VIII, Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations.  The pertinent section is reproduced below, with emphasis added:


Sec.831.5  Priority of Board Investigations.


Any investigation of an accident or incident conducted by the Safety Board directly or pursuant to the appendix to part 800 of this chapter (except major marine investigations conducted under49 U.S.C. 1131(a)(1)(E)) has priority over all other investigations of such accident or incident conducted by other Federal agencies.

The Safety Board shall provide for the appropriate participation by other Federal agencies in any such investigation, except that such agencies may not participate in the Safety Board's determination of the probable cause of the accident or incident. Nothing in this section impairs the authority of other Federal agencies to conduct investigations of an accident or incident under applicable provisions of law or to obtain information directly from parties involved in, and witnesses to, the transportation accident or incident, provided they do so without interfering with the Safety Board's investigation. The Safety Board and other Federal agencies shall assure that appropriate information obtained or developed in the course of their investigations is exchanged in a timely manner.[2]



The protocol that should have governed the conduct of the FBI in the case of TWA 800 is set forth here in clear and unambiguous language. Certainly an immediate FBI investigation was justified in a search for evidence that the explosion was caused a criminal act.  It is a misperception to assert that the FBI should not have been involved in the investigation unless the NTSB found such evidence.  The structure of NTSB investigations is not suited to criminal investigations.   Indeed, the FBI would have been unforgivably remiss had it not launched an immediate investigation that fully utilized all of its resources and expertise.


However, the regulation unequivocally mandates that any such FBI investigation be conducted in accordance with three principal guidelines summarized as follows:


·       The NTSB investigation takes precedence over all other Federal investigations.


·       Any such parallel investigations must not interfere with the NTSB investigation.


·       All “appropriate” information discovered in the course of such investigations must be fully shared.


No exception to these rules is made for the FBI or any other law enforcement agency.  Nevertheless, in the case of TWA 800 the FBI repeatedly displayed a cavalier disregard for these guidelines, moving quickly to assert control over the investigation. The extent to which the FBI supplanted the designated role of the NTSB completely contravenes the aforementioned rules of precedence.  While some confusion is understandable under the circumstances, news reports immediately following the disaster show the agencies at odds on the subject of authority:


…Less than 24 hours after the Paris-bound airliner crashed, a task force on terrorism run jointly by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York City Police Department announced it would "assume leadership of the investigation into the circumstances surrounding the possible explosion." The faxed statement was sent to news media shortly after 3 p.m. Thursday even as the safety board's lead investigator, Robert Francis, was telling reporters in East Moriches that there was no evidence of criminal involvement and that the NTSB was in charge.


The bureaucratic boundary remained confusing throughout the day. At a news conference Thursday afternoon, Gov. George Pataki declared that the FBI was treating the accident area as a potential crime scene-- prompting Francis to return before reporters and re-emphasize that his board was in charge of the investigation.[3]



The New York Times presented a detailed overview ofthe first 36 days of the investigation on August 23, 1996.  Concerning relations between the FBI and the NTSB, the Times reported that:


·       The most senior officials with the NTSB were “furious with their own personnel at the scene, convinced that the agency had ceded control of the inquiry to the FBI.”


·       One NTSB investigator complained that “overbearing” FBI agents “immediately took control, and hampered a lot of things we did.”


·       NTSB officials portrayed the FBI as “aggressive beyond propriety” and described an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust, believing that the FBI routinely withheld crucial information.


·       This failure to share information was particularly focused on the FBI laboratory in Washington, which was characterized as a “black hole.”[4]


Moreover, the massive FBI presence overwhelmed and even obstructed NTSB investigators. Accounts printed in Aviation Week and Space Technology describe interagency relations that were nearly adversarial:


NTSB efforts to elicit potentially vital information from witnesses to the flight and crash of TWA Flight 800 were stymied for months by FBI agents who blocked any attempts to interview the witnesses, according to a copy of a safety board report obtained by Aviation Week &Space Technology…


On July 21, 1996, the report states, Assistant U.S. Attorney Valerie Caproni informed Norm Weimeyer, head of the Flight 800 probe’s operations group, "that no interviews were to be conducted by the NTSB." Safety board investigators could review FBI-supplied documents onthe witnesses, "provided no notes were taken and no copies were made."


The FBI gathered and controlled those statements as part of its criminal investigation of the crash. Although it has designated the investigation as inactive, the FBI has yet to give the accident investigation team full access to the witness reports. Analyses of those reports played a role in the FBI's determination that Flight 800 was not brought down by a missile.


As part of their criminal probe, FBI agents restricted access to some debris and seized other pieces for unspecified reasons for months at a time.[5]


As events unfolded, the FBI usurpation of NTSB authority eventually may have compromised the integrity of the overall investigation, preventing any definitive explanation for the disaster. A careful examination of the FBI investigation into TWA 800 raises a number of questions that are troubling and inexplicable.


On November 18, 1997, FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom announced the results of the FBI investigation into the explosion of TWA Flight 800.  More than sixteen months after the tragedy, Kallstrom labeled the case as “inactive”, reporting that:


We must now report that no evidence has been found which would indicate that a criminal act was the cause…we turned over every stone, not once but 10 times.[6]  


The official FBI press release issued in conjunction with the news conference stated that the FBI “disengagement” from the investigation was based on the:


…overwhelming absence of evidence indicating a crime, and the lack of any leads that could bear on the issue.[7]


The press release also stated that the now inactive investigation would be reopened should any information come to light suggesting the possibility of criminal involvement.  This seemingly innocuous declaration of the obvious would soon be cited in an unprecedented suppression of information that by law should have been made public.


It should be noted that the FBI press conference was held just before the NTSB was to conduct a weeklong public hearing into the investigation of TWA 800 in Baltimore, beginning December 8,1997. In his opening statement at that hearing, NTSB Chairman James Hall outlined the purpose of such hearings:


Public hearings such as this are exercises in accountability: accountability on the part of the Safety Board that it is conducting a thorough and fair investigation…[8]


The NTSB held a weeklong public hearing into the investigation of TWA 800 in Baltimore, beginning on December8, 1997.  The hearings showcased the unprecedented scope of the investigation and a host of extensive "Exhibits" outlining NTSB research was released to the public.  The NTSB used the hearings to present a de facto conclusion that the Center Fuel Tank exploded as a result of an unknown but internal ignition source.


Discussion of eyewitness testimony and other unresolved anomalies that suggested an external source such as a missile was declared off-limits at the behest of the FBI.  In a letter dated December 3, 1997, FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom wrote a letter to Chairman Hall that demanded that no discussion of these issues be allowed at the upcoming hearings.  Did Chairman Hall's noble commitment to "accountability" force him to disregard this rather blustering and arrogant letter?  Was his resolve to convince the public that a "thorough and fair investigation" was being conducted enough to stand up to FBI demands for secrecy and suppression of these relevant issues?


To their discredit, the NTSB meekly complied with every FBI demand. The spectacle of a public hearing where essential topics are declared off limits for discussion underscored the extent to which the investigation had been undermined.  Kallstrom's letter remains one of the most troubling artifacts of the investigation.  It warrants careful scrutiny.


Citizens concerned about the debacles plaguing the FBI in recent years will not take solace in the presumptuous tone of this letter, which seeks to suppress the legally mandated public discussion of matters essential to the duties of the NTSB. This document is reproduced in its entirety as follows:



26 Federal Plaza

New York, New York 10278


December 3, 1997


Honorable James E. Hall


National Transportation Safety Board

490 L'Enfant Plaza East, SW

Washington, DC 20594



Dear Chairman Hall,


I write to express again my views, concerns and objections to those portions of the public hearing, scheduled to begin December8, 1997 in Baltimore, that address the criminal investigation into the TWA Flight 800 tragedy. As we have discussed previously, the FBI, exercising its jurisdiction and responsibility under the law, conducted an exhaustive and thorough investigation to determine if the Flight 800 tragedy was caused by a criminal act, particularly a bomb or a missile. After sixteen months, having exhausted all avenues of investigation, we found no evidence that this tragedy was the result of a criminal act and we placed the investigation in a pending inactive status. As we have discussed, the FBI has not closed the criminal investigation because of the possibility that new evidence could be discovered in the course of the continuing National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)accident inquiry, from intelligence sources or wreckage that heretofore has not been found. The possibility of this occurring is, admittedly remote.  Nevertheless, until the NTSB has definitely determined an accidental cause for the crash, I believe it is prudent to withhold from public disclosure or discussion the identities of witnesses and the raw investigative details of the criminal investigation.


Simultaneous with the FBI's criminal investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), exercising its authority and responsibility under the law to investigate civil aviation accident investigations, conducted and continues to carry out a massive, thorough and exhaustive examination to identify a non-criminal cause for the flight 800tragedy. It is our understanding that the results of the NTSB's accident investigation, to date, will be presented at the public hearing in Baltimore. The FBI is the primary criminal investigative agency of the government and decisions regarding the presence or lack of evidence of criminal activity are committed to and made by the FBI and the Department of Justice. I do not believe it is appropriate for the NTSB, and agency whose jurisdiction is to conduct aviation accident investigations and which has no criminal investigative jurisdiction, to examine the particulars of and to present the results of the criminal investigation at a public hearing, particularly when there is a possibility, albeit remote, that the criminal investigation could be reactivated based on new information.


Due to the enormity of the tragedy and the intensity of the public interest regarding the possibility of criminal activity in connection with the crash, the FBI took the extraordinary step of detailing the scope of the Criminal investigative effort, announcing our conclusion and answering questions about the investigation at a news conference as well as providing briefings to the appropriate Congressional committee and Subcommittee Chairs, ranking members of the minority, representatives of the families of the victims of Flight 800 and representatives of the governments of the foreign victims. At my press conference, which you attended, and at each of the briefings I reiterated what I said above regarding the status of the criminal investigation and concluded the press conference by inviting anyone with any information of possible criminality to contact the FBI. Since then, I have carefully monitored the public reaction to our announcement. To date, that reaction has been almost uniformly positive and there has been no serious questioning, public or otherwise, from any source regarding our investigative conclusions. Thus, from the standpoint of public information, I see no need to again examine and present the results of the criminal investigation.


Set forth below are the specific parts of the hearing, as set forth in the 11/29/97 5:56 AM draft Witness list, to which we object and the bases for our objections.


Presentation CIA Video


For the reasons noted above, the FBI objects to the use of the CIA video at the hearing if the purpose is to examine the eyewitnesses’ observations or negate the possibility that a missile caused the crash. Because they are the product of a criminal investigation and the remote possibility that the criminal investigation could be reactivated, the FBI also objects to requests to disclose or include in the public docket of any FBIFD-302s or summaries of FD-302s prepared by the NTSB that report the results of any interviews or reinterviews of the 244 eyewitnesses whose reports were examined by the CIA in connection with it’s analysis and to calling any eyewitnesses to testify at the public hearing.


Review of Witness Statements Panel


As noted above, the FBI objects to the use of any of the 244 eyewitness FD-302s or summaries prepared from those FD-302s by the NTSB in connection with this hearing. As I have discussed with you previously, the FBI has serious reservations about the presentation by NTSB of expert testimony regarding the limitations of eyewitness observations. The FBI is well aware of the general issues relating to the reliability of eyewitness observations and testimony and factors those limitations into our criminal investigations. Many of the factors that affect the reliability of eyewitness testimony, e.g., age, visual acuity, position, stress, focus, etc. are peculiar to the individual eyewitnesses as well as the actual event viewed, e.g., lighting conditions, violence etc. I believe that it is inappropriate to use ‘experts’ to present general observations about eyewitness reliability and to apply those general observations to the particular situation presented by TWA Flight 800 when the ‘experts’ have not had the opportunity to review the eyewitness reports or to evaluate the various factors as they relate to the particular eyewitnesses. In addition, because the experts have not had the opportunity to review/evaluate the particular eyewitnesses whose accounts were analyzed by the CIA and have not discussed with the CIA its evaluations of the witnesses’ accounts, there is a risk that the expert presentations questioning eyewitness reliability will have the unintentional effect of undermining the CIA’s work. As you know, I have always stated that the eyewitnesses are good people who told us what they saw. I believe that the presentation of expert testimony that could cast doubt on the eyewitness’ veracity does not further the accident investigation and could complicate our efforts if the criminal investigation were to be reactivated.


The witness list does not explicitly indicate that you desire to use summaries prepared by the NTSB from FBI FD-302s reporting the results of interviews of individuals other than the 244 eyewitness reports analyzed by the CIA. While we object to the use of any of the FD-302s or summaries prepared from those FD-302s by the NTSB of the 244 eyewitnesses whose reports were reviewed by the CIA in connection with its analysis, we do not object to the use of and inclusion in the public docket of summaries prepared by NTSB of FBI interviews of other individuals to the extent their information may relate to mechanical or similar issues, e.g., fuelers, aircraft mechanics, passengers on the flight from Athens, etc., provided that the names of those individuals are deleted to protect their privacy and this office has the opportunity to review those summaries prior to their disclosure.


Investigation For Missile/WarheadImpact/Bombs/Explosives; Residue Examination (exhibit 20I); PETN Findings, Small Explosive Charges


Because each of these items address matters addressed by the criminal investigation, the FBI believes, for the reasons stated above, that it is not appropriate for the NTSB to address them at the public hearing. In addition to the general objection, we particularly object to discussion of the residue examination and the use of exhibit 20I, an FBI Laboratory report on the chemical analysis of the red residue found on the seats. As you know, this office and the office of the United States Attorney, Eastern District of New York is vigorously investigating a conspiracy to steal and the actual theft of pieces of the seats that contained this red residue in support of an "investigation" by an author/journalist We fully expect this investigation to result, shortly, in a prosecution of those responsible. The residue examination and the FBI Laboratory report of the results of that examination will likely be evidence in this prosecution.


We do not object to the presentation of the metallurgical findings and are willing to allow Dr. Shabel, the outside expert retained by the FBI, to testify regarding his factual observations and his conclusion that his observations are consistent with an over pressurization of the center fuel tank, he break-up of the aircraft and the aircraft impact with the ocean.


Finally, I have discussed these concerns with Director Freeh and the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Zachary Carter, and they are in agreement with the position and concerns set forth above.




James K. Kallstrom[9]


This letter is clearly an attempt to intimidate the NTSB into the unlawful concealment of vital information of which the law requires public disclosure.   Yet when faced with this challenge to its authority and integrity, the NTSB was a willing participant in the extralegal suppression of information.   In a May 17, 1999 editorial, Aviation Week and Space Technology was harshly critical of both agencies:


What is not understandable is the FBI's arrogance. Its leaders blocked the participation of experts with decades of experience in explosives and accident investigation. It brought in experts who knew little or nothing about commercial aircraft. The FBI also blocked up the exchange of information that normally occurs within an accident investigation and from the investigation to the flying public. The NTSB for too long collaborated in cutting off the flow of accurate, detailed information on the status of the accident probe. This all fueled suspicions that the government was withholding what it really knew about the cause of Flight 800's downing.[10]


Is such suspicion justified?  Ronald Reagan believed that in dealing with the Soviet Union on arms control issues, the United States should "trust, but verify."  An objective observer might consider a similar approach to the official investigation prudent.  Incredibly, the NTSB and FBI have erected a Berlin Wall of secrecy around a number of troubling issues, declaring these matters off limits for public discussion. The demolition of that wall is long overdue.



[1] About the NTSB: The Investigative Process, National Transportation Safety Board, 1997

[2] Code of Federal Regulations, Title 49, Volume 5 [Revised as of October 1, 1997]

 Part 831, Accident/ Incident Investigation Procedures

[3] Newsday, July 19, 1996 Law Enforcement Moves In Early, Jordan Rau

[4] The New York Times, August 23, 1996  Behind a Calm Façade, Chaos, Distrust, Valor by Joe Sexton

[5] Aviation Week and Space Technology, December 8 and 15, 1997

[6] Newsday, November 19, 1997, FBI: Case ‘Inactive’, Sylvia Adcock and Robert E. Kessler

[7] Press Release, November 18, 1997, Federal Bureau of Investigation, New York Office

[8] Proceedings, Baltimore, December 8, 1997, National Transportation Safety Board

[9]Kallstrom, James K., Assistant Director in Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation

December 3, 1997 Letter to Honorable James E. Hall, Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board

[10] Aviation Week and Space Technology, May17, 1999

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