When TWA Flight 800 crashed off Long Island in July 1996, many suspected a bomb. After all, terrorist Ramzi Yousef was then on trial in New York for plotting to blow up 12 American airliners.
It is now known that the cause of the crash was mechanical - the near-empty center fuel tank exploded. The Federal Aviation Administration ordered design changes in November 1997 to prevent a recurrence.
In between those events, however, is a sorry story of federal turf-battles and a flawed investigation that points to an urgent need for clearer guidelines and better cooperation among agencies. The obvious absence of these elements in this instance may have prevented safety officials from taking corrective steps earlier and added to public speculation about the accident.
By law, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) runs the investigation of air accidents. Scientists from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the FBI often assist.
The NTSB's expertise in such matters is unmatched. The ATF specializes in investigating explosions. If investigators find evidence of criminal activity, FBI agents are brought in.
In this case, however, the FBI appears to have broken all the rules. The New York office was so convinced there was a bomb that it shoved the NTSB experts aside and took over the investigation.
Some of those experts last week told a Senate judiciary subcommittee chaired by Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa that the FBI mishandled evidence, withheld information, and arrogantly interfered with NTSB and ATF personnel.
Several times NTSB investigators found that recovered items from the aircraft were missing. Only after repeated complaints did the FBI investigate; two of its own agents were removing the items.
A former FBI scientist testified that forensic investigators came to the conclusion within six weeks of the accident that no bomb or missile was involved. Yet the FBI's New York chief, James Kallstrom, was so certain a bomb was involved that he allegedly lost his temper when the scientist challenged him.
The scientist said that only by threatening to publicly disagree did he prevent the FBI's New York chief from announcing that bomb evidence had been found.
When ATF experts wrote a report in January 1997 concluding mechanical failure was responsible, officials wanted to send it to the NTSB immediately so the board could protect the flying public from similar accidents. But Mr. Kallstrom went over ATF's head to the Treasury Department to block its release. (The FBI insists it sent the NTSB a copy anyway, but the board has no record of receiving it.)
An FBI official says the bureau believes the investigation went well. He argues the FBI needed to wait until more of the plane was recovered before drawing final conclusions, and had to conduct an inquiry that would hold up in criminal court if necessary.
The FBI laboratory director says the bureau and the NTSB have agreed to cross-train personnel and negotiate an understanding for future investigations.
The steps the FBI and NTSB have outlined are encouraging. But more is needed. Grassley and others propose amending the law to clarify who is in charge of such inquiries and when. Common sense and the safety of travelers should dictate such changes be quickly considered and enacted.