Despite Egyptian concerns, U.S. law enforcement officials said yesterday they are increasingly convinced that co-pilot Gameel Batouti intentionally crashed EgyptAir Flight 990 and resisted his captain's urgent pleadings to help him take the plane out of its death dive.
In addition, new data released yesterday by the National Transportation Safety Board show that as the Boeing 767's elevators, which control the plane's altitude, were being forced in opposite directions, the side manned by Batouti pushed the plane downward while that manned by Capt. Ahmed Habashy tried to pull the plane out of the dive.
Law enforcement officials also said that Habashy urged, "Pull with me! Pull with me!" But Batouti apparently kept pushing downward, they said.
The board also disclosed that late in the dive, someone pulled a device called a speed brake--panels on top of the wing that help the plane descend rapidly while still controlling the speed--a confusing move that someone probably would make only if attempting to continue the dive.
While the handle is on the captain's side, the co-pilot could have reached over to deploy it, sources note.
Habashy, who voice data show was out of the cockpit when the plane began its plunge, reentered the cockpit only after the plane was well into its dive, when it was unlikely he could have saved the plane without the full cooperation of his co-pilot, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
The growing conviction that Batouti downed the aircraft, taking 217 passengers and crew members to their deaths in the Atlantic Ocean off Massachusetts, comes as U.S. and Egyptian officials are hoping to keep tensions between the two governments to a minimum.
U.S. investigators are eager to maintain a collaborative relationship with Egypt so they can do investigative work overseas that requires the approval of Egyptian officials. That is part of the reason the United States has so far been willing to comply with Egyptian requests to defer transferring the probe from the safety board to the FBI.
Egyptian officials, meanwhile, are worried that, if it is shown that one of their pilots intentionally crashed the plane, it could damage the country's national image and jeopardize tourism and air travel.
Part of what Egyptian officials want to examine is Batouti's use of the Arabic phrase "Tawakilt ala Allah," which one Egyptian diplomat called a common phrase that might be used on any number of occasions and roughly translates as, "I put my fate in God's hands."
Those words were followed by Batouti saying, "I have made my decision," according to government sources. Batouti's words, coupled with the prayer, were important clues that led law enforcement officials to question Batouti's role in the crash.
But officials say it is the sequence of events, less so than any precise set of words, that has led them to suspect Batouti forced the plane down intentionally. Synchronizing the voice data with the flight data shows that he made the religious utterance before he disengaged the autopilot--a first step toward manually pushing the plane downward.
While it is conceivable that Batouti could have discovered a mechanical problem with the plane that caused him to utter the religious words in fear or consternation, safety board officials say there is no indication of such a problem.
Egyptian officials yesterday were not offering evidence that supported a mechanical failure of some kind. "Let us be precise," said one Egyptian diplomat. "The Egyptian position is let us wait, let us get all the facts until we make decisions."
The transfer of the crash investigation from the NTSB to the FBI--making it a criminal matter--was all but settled Tuesday when Egyptian officials raised objections. Egypt wanted its own experts to review the voice and data tapes.
"If anything, the Egyptians feel [U.S. officials] were being a little hasty--and this is all so sensitive. EgyptAir's reputation hangs in the balance, and tourism to Egypt," said a former CIA official with extensive Middle East experience.
A team of aviation and intelligence experts arrived on Tuesday, and a second team is slated to arrive today, according to the State Department. The safety board said its specialists and the new Egyptian contingent would begin listening to the voice recording this morning. The session is also to include several parties pointedly left out while the FBI and CIA were involved--the Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing Co. and engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney.
Egyptian Ambassador Nabil Fahmy met with Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering yesterday to discuss EgyptAir and other matters such as Iraq. State Department officials played down the meeting's importance, and a spokesman said, "We're just in this close cooperation, consultation process."
Said an Egyptian diplomat: "There's no sensitivity at all. We and the Americans have a vested interest in getting at the truth."
In Egypt yesterday, government, aviation and press officials scrambled for an explanation other than the mass-murder-suicide scenario that they believe Americans are ascribing to one of their own.
The delicacy of the EgyptAir investigation is colored by the 1997 massacre of foreign tourists by religious militants at a Pharaonic temple in Luxor, Egypt. After an initial drop in tourism, hotel rooms are once again occupied and Egypt's reputation as a land of instability and Islamist violence has been largely lived down.
U.S. officials are anxious to keep relations with Egypt amicable. Without making specific reference to Egypt or the crash, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh said during questioning at a Georgetown University speech on terrorism yesterday that the FBI has no jurisdiction to work overseas on probes without the explicit permission of foreign governments. Critical investigative work into the cause of the crash of Flight 990 would likely take place on Egyptian soil.
"Anything we do overseas is totally dependent on the permission of the host government," Freeh said. "If we don't have the permission of the host government, we have no authority."
Before the speech, Freeh confirmed that some Egyptian experts had arrived in Washington to listen to the tape and offer their perspective on its contents. Asked to comment on developments in the crash probe, Freeh said things were in a bit of a holding pattern and expressed hope that they would move forward soon.
Things are "pretty much status quo," Freeh said, "and hopefully we'll get some developments over the next few days."
Staff writers Vernon Loeb in Washington and Howard Schneider in Cairo contributed to this report.
Inside the Cockpit
Investigators believe that co-pilot Gameel Batouti assumed the controls of EgyptAir Flight 990 sometime before the plane began to dive. Transcripts of the cockpit conversations have not been released, but sources say a few words were spoken.
Pilot leaves. Within minutes, co-pilot utters a short phrase in Arabic.
"Tawakilt ala Allah"
Co-pilot shuts off autopilot.
He pushes the plane into a steep dive.
The plane reaches Mach 0.86; warning alarms sound.
Pilot returns late in the dive.
"Pull with me!"
Elevators in the plane's tail move in opposite directions.
The engines are cut off. Seconds later, the flight data recorder stops working.