The Buffoon Brigade

Pierre Salinger and his conspiracy-minded colleagues are stopping investigators from finding out what really happened to TWA Flight 800.

Published March 26, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

"These people should get a life," said the FBI's chief investigator of the still-unsolved downing of TWA Flight 800 last July.

That blast of frustration from the FBI's James Kallstrom was aimed at the motley army of believers, including former JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger, who continue to push the theory that American "friendly fire" blew the plane out the sky, killing all 230 people on board.

The theory, wearily discounted by investigators, got a fresh lease on life earlier this month in an article co-written by Salinger in Paris Match claiming that a "super-secret" new Navy missile had destroyed TWA 800 during a botched test firing. As "proof," Salinger showed off a photo from an official radar tape with an "unexplained blip," which he said was the Navy missile.

Kallstrom said the blip was an unarmed Navy P-3 Orion flying approximately 7,000 feet above TWA Flight 800 when it exploded. Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Aviation, after looking at the tape, said his committee was "unequivocally convinced that friendly fire did not cause this crash."

This has not stopped Salinger & Co. from pushing the friendly fire angle, much to the chagrin of official investigators who say they have wasted enormous resources and time on what they regard as crackpot theories. One FBI investigator, interviewed just before the latest friendly fire allegations surfaced, said that Salinger's original claims had prompted the FBI to review all relevant Navy records and conduct dozens of interviews with Navy personnel. No evidence of a missile launch or a cover-up was found.

Last fall Salinger, a former ABC News Paris bureau chief, cited unnamed "French intelligence" sources who he says provided an allegedly secret document -- which he released at a press conference -- "proving" that a U.S. Navy missile had downed TWA 800. It turned out to be a letter that had circulated on the Internet for months, written by Richard Russell, a former United Air Lines pilot.

This is not the first time "French intelligence" has been cited as the source of the "friendly fire" theory by conspiracists. An Anglo-Pakistani journalist named Parveez Syed was one of the first to claim, on the Internet, that the U.S. military was responsible, only hours after the plane fell into the sea last July. "Basically, when the crash happened," Syed explained to this reporter in a telephone conversation and a 21-page e-mail from his London office, "I received information from French intelligence sources, asking me to look at the possibility that there were American military activities (in the crash zone)."

A spokesman for the French embassy in Washington, Bernard Valero, scoffed at the notion. "We wouldn't go looking for someone in London," said Valero. "We can very well do it ourselves."

Such denials, says Syed, are only to be expected. He labels the other theories -- that the crash was caused by a mechanical failure or, possibly, a terrorist act -- as "lies." "There's a strong possibility that this (crash) was stage-managed," Syed suggests. "Perhaps (the disaster) was deliberate, to make sure a certain piece of legislation was passed -- that every person would show a piece of ID to fly, (or) to computerize (the record) of everyone who flies."

Syed says that this theory was suggested to him by "people in the U.S. government and intelligence community, in the U.S. and Europe." In an Internet posting, Syed quoted one such source as saying that TWA 800 was "a case of (an) Israeli security firm, angry at losing a contract with a major airline, engineering a little 'accident' to make the replacement 'American company' look like incompetents -- a message to major airlines saying, 'You'd better have Israeli security' or we'll see that you regret it."

Salinger hasn't gone quite that far -- yet. He and his co-authors in Paris Match said that the Navy has concealed the truth of the TWA 800 crash to cover up a top-secret new missile that violates the long-standing SALT I arms control treaty. Their article declares that "without question," such a missile was "fired from the sea (perhaps by a submarine) during a U.S. Navy training exercise."

They also have a different explanation for the P-3 Orion plane being in the vicinity. According to Salinger, it was guiding a decoy drone that somehow failed to attract a submarine-launched missile that hit TWA 800 instead. Air National Guard information officer Maj. James Finkle confirmed that there was indeed a submarine as well as a P-3 in the area, but said they were conducting an exercise in which the Orion "paints" the ocean surface with infrared light, to detect a periscope. No missiles were fired in that exercise, he said.

Are these denials, as Salinger and others insist, merely lies? If so, notes Clark Staten, executive director of the Emergency Research and Response Institute, a private intelligence company, they are part of a conspiracy that must now necessarily include "thousands of people -- everybody on the ship (that fired on TWA 800), everyone monitoring the ship's frequencies, all their superiors, whoever tracks missile inventories, anybody who reviews those inventories, the Air National Guard and everybody from the FBI and NTSB who investigated."

That would make it, by far, the most far-reaching and successful criminal conspiracy in the history of the U.S. government -- but merely another day in the warped reality of Salinger and his conspiracy-mongers.

By Mark Hunter

Mark Hunter has written for the New York Times Magazine, Le Monde Diplomatique and Modern Maturity, among other publications. He has won numerous awards, including the H.L. Mencken Award.

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