TWA 800: Remember the Missile Theory?

The CIA argued that witnesses who described seeing a streak of light leading to an explosion instead probably saw the aircraft already on fire, suddenly climbing 3,000 feet from an altitude of 13,800, after the plane’s nose broke off. The sudden weight loss propelled the rest of burning plane abruptly upward, trailing flames, they concluded.

The streak that 98 eyewitnesses said they saw originate from the Earth actually started high in the air, the CIA said.

The CIA briefed the FBI on its final analysis in October 1997 and the FBI, at a press conference the following month, released a video produced by the CIA to explain its theory titled, TWA Flight 800: What Did the Witnesses See?

Parts of the video were broadcast widely on network TV news.

Doubts About CIA Analysis

But some critics charged the CIA analysis — an unusual endeavor for a commercial air disaster investigation — seemed curiously non-comprehensive.

The analysis, for instance, did not take into account all of the eyewitness testimony. It was produced as the FBI gradually fed the CIA just 244 of the 755 eyewitness accounts, a CIA official later acknowledged.

Also, CIA officials told an NTSB panel their theory about the crash was largely supported by the testimony of a single eyewitness to the crash, whose account appeared at odds with many others, but whom analysts had determined was highly reliable.

Moreover, that key witness’ testimony at first didn’t fully support the CIA’s theory, a CIA analyst told the panel. The witness at first told the FBI that the streak of light originated from the Earth. Only when interviewed for a third time did the eyewitness give the FBI an account that better matched the CIA theory — also based on radar, satellite, physical and other evidence — that the light had originated high in the sky.

The CIA’s theory drew some skepticism from the NTSB panel, called the Witness Group, during the briefing.

“My concern is that when all 755 statements are made available to the public, you and the public will see numerous statements that appear to be excellent witnesses that don’t agree with [the CIA’s key witness],” said Jim Walters, with the Air Line Pilots Association, according to an NTSB transcript of the briefing.

The CIA analyst responded that those witnesses who saw something ascend steeply and lead to an explosion that then split and fell to Earth were probably mistaken.

“[W]e are confident that even though they thought what they saw was something originating perhaps off the ocean’s surface, streaking up and hitting the plane, that in fact, what they really saw was a fire trail in the sky which culminated in the breakup of the plane.” he said.

The CIA “had all of the evidence that we thought were worthy of consideration,” says Kallstrom. “Those were the best witnesses, which had the best location. They had the best recall. They were articulate. They were people who we thought were not just making up stuff because they heard it on the radio.”

And Kallstrom notes the CIA’s analysis was derived from far more than the key witness to calculate what might have happened to the plane.

“[W]e gave them the product of 12 different radars of [a] satellite atomic clock, and [the satellite] saw the infrared explosion of the plane, so we could pinpoint that. We had all of the facts of the flight data recorder. We knew where all of the witnesses were. You know the speed of sound, the speed of light.”

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