FBI Probe of TWA Crash Criticized
By Edward Walsh
Several federal officials told a Senate subcommittee yesterday that the FBI's role in the investigation of the crash of TWA Flight 800 was overbearing and at times inept. According to that testimony, the agency clung to the theory that a bomb or missile had downed the plane months after its own chief scientist on the case had reached the opposite conclusion.
The hearing before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on administrative oversight and the courts is the culmination of a two-year congressional review of the TWA investigation. Witnesses portrayed a probe riddled with sloppy investigative techniques and dominated by a powerful FBI agent-in-charge, who seemed determined to prove that the crash resulted from an act of terrorism.
All 230 people aboard the Boeing 747 died when it plunged into the ocean south of Long Island shortly after taking off from New York on July 17, 1996.
Opening yesterday's hearing, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the subcommittee chairman and a frequent FBI critic, said the crash investigation was "a model of failure, not success." He described the bureau's leadership in the case as "a disaster," adding that the bureau hindered the investigation and "risked public safety" with its alleged attempt to suppress a report on the cause of the crash by another government agency.
The Jan. 20, 1997, report by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms concluded that the plane crashed after a mechanical flaw ignited an explosion in its central fuel tank, a finding that became official and was endorsed by the FBI several months later. But Andrew Vita, ATF's assistant director of field operations, testified that when he sought to submit the report in March 1997 to the National Transportation Safety Board, he "met resistance" from the FBI.
Grassley has accused the FBI of suppressing important public safety information in an act that could have endangered airline travelers. That charge was vigorously denied yesterday by Lewis D. Schiliro, head of the FBI's New York office, who called it "ludicrous" and defended the TWA investigation as "professional, responsible and methodical."
Schiliro produced an unsigned copy of a letter from his predecessor, James K. Kallstrom, apparently forwarding the report to the NTSB along with a complaint that it was "unsolicited and premature." But safety board officials have said they have found no record that they received the ATF report and that Grassley said he remains convinced it was never sent.
Kallstrom, who has retired from the FBI and is now a bank executive, was the dominant figure in the TWA investigation. He was also, according to yesterday's testimony, obsessed by the bomb or missile theory – a scenario that would have kept the case under FBI jurisdiction.
William A. Tobin, the FBI's former chief metallurgist, said that by September 1996, about six weeks after the crash, he and other scientists working on the case unanimously agreed that there was no evidence that the crash was caused by a bomb or missile. But Kall strom resisted this conclusion, Tobin said, once coming within six inches of Tobin's face as he "advised me in graphic terms that it was a bomb."
"I ended up wearing several particles of his saliva," Tobin said.
Tobin said that when the investigation discovered residue from explosives in the shattered wreckage of the aircraft, Kallstrom told him: "We've got it. Proof of the bomb." Fearing "a major P.R. gaffe" for the FBI, Tobin said he warned Kallstrom that he would not support him if he announced such a conclusion.
Kallstrom did not testify personally at the hearing and did not respond to a message left with his office yesterday.
NTSB officials also complained to the subcommittee that initially the FBI insisted on taking and developing all photographs of the aircraft wreckage and at times failed to provide these photos to the safety board.
The FBI's attitude was "not whether but when they would get evidence of a bomb," said Frank Zakar, the NTSB's former chief metallurgist.
Asked about the FBI's treatment of ATF agents working on the case, Hank Hughes, a senior accident investigator for the safety board, replied: "Unkind is the best way I can put it."
Hughes compiled a list of what he described as the FBI's missteps, which included mishandling of evidence and an unauthorized invitation by an agent on the case to a psychic to view the wreckage and render an opinion.
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