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TWA Flight 800 and the 9/11 Commission Cover Up: An Interview
With Peter Lance
by Claire E. White (September, 2004)
Was the 9/11 Commission Report a cover up? Were we lied to when we were told that 9/11 was the first time that Al-Qaeda hijacked and destroyed an American jetliner? Five time Emmy® award-winning investigative journalist
So far, Lance's new book, Cover Up: What The Government Is Still Hiding About The War On Terror, a meticulously researched and entertainingly written expose, has been embraced by the right, the left and the middle. Partisan interests seem to see the facts that Lance has brought to light through the lens of their beliefs. Lance has already appeared on Fox News, CNN and many other major news programs to discuss his insights. Lance lays out the amazing blunders and cover ups which began in the Clinton Administration and which continue to this day with officials in the current Department of Justice. As a journalist, Lance says he is just following the trail of facts regardless of where they lead. He is adamant that "If we are truly to be safe, we have to de-politicize the debate over terrorism." But his trail of incendiary facts would seem to have some major political implications -- especially in an election year. Lance provides evidence that Ramzi Yousef, the Al-Qaeda perpetrator of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was likely responsible for the crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996, with the help of his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- the originator of the 9/11 plot. Lance also raises some disurbing questions about the events of 9/11 itself. For instance, it is not common knowledge that the morning of September 11, 2001, there were three war games simulations was taking place. One was being conducted near Dulles Airport in Washington to test the response of the National Reconnaissance Office in case a plane was flown into the NRO building. At the time of the attacks, two F-16s were actually in the air practicing bombing runs, within eight minutes flying time, yet they were never called by NORAD to intercept the attackers. The 9/11 Commission heard sworn testimony about these and many other facts, but failed to mention them in its Final Report which, generally speaking, did not place blame. In fact, much of the most important testimony was never made public, much to the anger of the "Jersey Girls," the 9/11 widows who lobbied for the creation of the 9/11 Commission.
Peter spoke with us about testifying in front of the 9/11 Commission and discusses some of the immensely disturbing facts he uncovered while writing Cover Up. He also addresses the growing threat of terrorism and why Americans need to be informed about the facts before the upcoming presidential election.
What was it like to testify in front of the 9/11 Commission?
This is a short question that will require a long answer. As one who had set out to do a book on the Commission's work, my "testimony" before the Commission on March 15th was an eye opener.
You can read it as an Appendix to Cover Up and get it via my website at peterlance.com.
I had sent my book to Governor Kean (the chairman) over Christmas and he had responded, saying that he wanted to hear my findings. I had only two conditions: first that I not be forced to reveal confidential sources and second, that my information be made a part of the permanent Commission record.
When Gov Kean referred me to Philip Zelikow, the staff director, who had co-written a book with Condi Rice and served on the Bush transition team, Zelikow wrote via email in January that I would be contacted by Dietrich "Dieter" Snell, one of the Team Leaders and a senior counsel to the Commission.
As soon as I heard Snell's name I suspected that what my source had been telling me was true: that the Commission staff was limiting the scope of the investigation and cherry picking evidence.
Snell had been the Assistant U.S. attorney who co-prosecuted Ramzi Yousef for the "Bojinka" case in 1996. In my first book 1000 Years For Revenge I recounted how the Justice Department, during Snell's tenure, had limited the scope of the Bojinka case.
In April, 2002 I went to the Philippines where I interviewed Colonel Rodolfo B. Mendoza, the "Richard Clarke of the Philippines," an expert on al Qaeda and its reach in Southeast Asia.
Colonel Mendoza, aka Boogie, had interrogated the lifelong friend and cohort of Yousef: Abdul Hakim Murad. A pilot trained in four U.S. flight schools in the early 1990's Murad had confessed to Boogie three plots that had been set into motion by Yousef's cell in Manila as early as 1994.
The first plot was a scheme to kill the Pope due to arrive in mid January, 1995. The second plot was the hijack airliners-fly-them-into-buildings scenario that was fulfilled on 9/11 and plot three was "Bojinka;" reportedly named by Yousef after the Serbo Croation word for "Big Noise."
This was a non-suicide plot in which Yousef and his three cohorts, Murad, Wali Khan Amin Shah (a confident of bin Laden's) and Ramzi's uncle, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed would board the first leg of a series of U.S. bound flights heading from Asia. On the initial leg of each flight they would smuggle on the innocuous components of an ingenious "bomb trigger" Yousef had designed. Powered by a Casio watch and utilizing diluted nitroglycerine to be ignited via a broken bulb initiator, the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were to be placed under seats (in the lifejacket pouches) located above the center fuel tanks of 747's.
The plotters would then exit after the planes touched down and the IED's would blow hours later as the planes jetted back across the Pacific. Yousef had intended this to happen on 11 flights and he even "wet tested" one of the Casio-nitro devices on Philippines Airlines Flight 434 on the first leg of a flight from Manila to Cebu in the Southern Philippines on December 11, 1994.
At the time he planted the device under seat 26K, in a row just shy of the center fuel tank. On its way to Japan the bomb blew, killing (Haruki Ikegami) the passenger in 26K and blowing a hole in the cabin floor, but it missed the fuel tank and the plane landed safely.
But Yousef realized that if he just moved the devices a few rows forward they would serve as "blasting caps" to rip open the fuel tanks so he plotted with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Murad and Shah to plant the Casio-nitro bomb triggers aboard up to 11 jumbo jets exiting Asia.
Yousef was captured in February 1995 after a fire in his Manila bomb factory. Murad was captured a month before and Shah was eventually arrested after first escaping from custody.
By the spring of 1996, Dietrich Snell and his partner AUSA Mike Garcia were preparing to prosecute Yousef, Murad and Shah for the plot they dubbed "48 HOURS OF TERROR."
In 1000 Years I questioned why Snell and Garcia had limited the scope of the Bojinka trial, never mentioned this suicide hijacking scenario, or Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and never brought Col. Mendoza to the U.S. to testify even though they flew over 11 other PNP officials.
Further Khalid Shaikh Mohammed had been secretly indicted with Yousef in 1996 but his name had never surfaced in the press until January of 1998 when it appeared on the inside "jump" page of a NYT story on Yousef's sentencing for both Bojinka and the WTC bombing.
Dietrich Snell was one of the few ex-Department of Justice officials who would know why the Justice Dept. limited the scope of the Bojinka trial and why they kept the hunt for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed -- the man the FBI calls "the mastermind of 9/11" -- so secret.
His nephew Ramzi had been captured after a very public hue and cry via a tip to the State Dept's Rewards for Justice Program. Yousef's want poster had been distributed world wide. It was even on matchbook covers. Yet the DOJ kept Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's identity quiet. If anybody knew why, it was an ex-DOJ prosecutor like Dietrich Dieter Snell. As I saw it, he should have been a witness before the 9/11 Commission, vs. one of its lead interrogators.
Now on March 15th as my closed door "testimony" progressed I asked him a number of questions, to which he would reply, "that's classified," or "I can't discuss that." Variations on those responses. Why does this matter?
Because the limitation of Colonel Mendoza's evidence by the Justice Department that Snell worked for would come to have dire consequences on 9/11. Later Snell ran the 9/11 Commission team that wrote Staff Statement #16 on the origin of the 9/11 plot.
Despite the evidence that I sent him following my testimony including files from the PNP and the audio and video of my interview with Colonel Mendoza, Snell took the position that the plot was not hatched by Yousef and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in 1994 (as I had found) but by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed alone in 1996. The Commission even implied that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was not a member of al Qaeda at the time.
This was absolutely ridiculous since Yousef, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Murad, Shah, Blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and a dozen other New York based cell members had been part of an active al Qaeda funded cell operating in New York City since the early 1990's. In fact the FBI had many of them under surveillance as early as July of 1989.
1000 Years had a 32 page timeline in the middle. Your readers can access it right now by going to my website and clicking on "Terrorism." In year by year detail (illustrated with pictures) the three part timeline proves that Yousef was bin Laden's chief point man on terror from 1992 through his capture in 1995.
But one of the most stunning revelations of my new Harper Collins book Cover Up, is that Yousef and his uncle Khalid Shaikh Mohammed may have also been behind the downing of TWA Flight #800 in July of 1996.
We know that the 9/11 Commission had knowledge of this possible Yousef tie to TWA 800 as early as April 7th, 2004, but for unknown reasons, they left this startling revelation out of their Final Report.
In concluding, that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed alone conceived the 9/11 plot in 1996 and separating Yousef from it, Snell removed a significant amount of culpability from the Department of Justice and the FBI; since my last book showed that they could have stopped Yousef in 1992 before he set the WTC bomb which killed six and injured 1000.
If the FBI's New York Office (NYO) had stopped him then, they would have interdicted the Yousef-Khalid Shaikh Mohammed spawned 9/11 plot.
But Snell took Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's own word for his conclusion that the plot was generated in 1996 and that he had acted alone.
To me that's like taking the word of David Berkowitz for the date of his first Son of Sam Murder.
I believe Dietrich Snell should answer publicly:
a) Why the last official body looking into the biggest mass murder in U.S. history left out probative evidence of an al Qaeda connection to the second biggest: TWA #800.
b) Why the DOJ initially kept the hunt for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed so secret and
c) Why they buried evidence that the 9/11 plot was created by Ramzi Yousef (the original WTC bomber) and his uncle as early as the fall of 1994.
What surprised you the most about the experience? What was the most frustrating aspect of the experience?
The frustrating part was sitting across from Dieter Snell who wouldn't answer why he and his partner limited the scope of the Bojinka trial and never called Col. Mendoza.
In the end, the Commission reduced my findings to an end note and, still never mentioned Colonel Mendoza's name. Why?
I'd like to talk about your new book, Cover Up: What the Government is Still Hiding About the War on Terror, which contains a number of shocking revelations. One of the most disturbing facts revealed is the true cause of the crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996 which killed 230 people. The evidence linking Al Qaeda member Ramzi Yousef (architect of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing) to the crash of Flight 800 appears indisputable. So, to me, the key question here is: why hasn't the American public been told that Al Qaeda blew up a U.S. airliner in 1996, killing 230 people? If we had known that, surely airline security would have been stepped up considerably in 1996 -- not in 2001?
I have stated that members of the Justice Department covered up the evidence linking al Qaeda to the crash of TWA #800 and Dietrich Snell was a party to that cover up.
Go to http://www.peterlance.com and click #FBI #302's. Then click on the one for 3/7/96 and you'll find an internal FBI memo showing that Snell and two other senior Department of Justice officials (Valerie Caproni, chief of the criminal division for the EDNY (Eastern District of New York) and Patrick Fitzgerald, head of terrorism and organized crime in the SDNY (Southern District of New York) knew of the intelligence coming from Yousef, in the spring of 1996.
Their source was Gregory Scarpa, Jr. a Mafia informant at the MCC (federal jail) in Lower Manhattan. Yousef passed Scarpa Jr. notes through a hole in the wall between their cells. In addition to intricate bomb schematics identical to the device Yousef used in the PAL #434 "wet test," and other details only Yousef could know, the notes offered the high explosive RDX as an alternative to nitro glycerin in the manufacture of one of the "bomb triggers."
These #302's repeatedly warn that Yousef was going to get his "people" to put a bomb on a plane to get a mistrial in the Bojinka case. As it turned out, TWA 800 went down on July 17, 1996, the eve of the most damning evidence versus Yousef being admitted at trial; namely Murad's confession to Colonel Mendoza.
Further, in the weeks that followed, the FBI found RDX, PETN and nitroglycerine in the area of the center fuel tank between rows 17-25 in the plane's wreckage dredged from Long Island Sound. This was the precise area where Yousef planned to plant devices for Bojinka following his PAL "wet test."
The 9/11 Commission Report was noteworthy in the fact that it didn't blame anyone for 9/11. Not one person has lost his job because 9/11 happened; even though high-ranking witness after high-ranking witness to the Commission described blunders and missed opportunities leading up the attacks. Why did the Commission do that? Are the 9/11 widows unhappy with the findings? Was it a whitewash?
Five of the leading widows -- "The Jersey Girls" Kristen Breitweiser, Mindy Kleinberg, Patty Casazza and Lorie van Auken along with Monica Gabrielle of Connecticut -- were extremely upset that the Commission failed to assess blame. That was one of their central goals in fighting for the creation of the Commission. Last week the five of them endorsed John Kerry. There's no doubt in my mind that the 9/11 Commission Report was a whitewash. It's well documented in Cover Up.
Among the astonishing lapses left out of the final report: the fact that two F-16's from the 177th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard were practicing bombing runs over the Pinelands of Southern Jersey, eight minutes from Manhattan, but they were never notified by NORAD or the FAA.
In your book you state that "Based on two years of extensive research on the growing al Qaeda threat, it seems clear that the invasion of Baghdad was a mistake of catastrophic dimensions." You also state that this is not a political position; it's simply a statement of the facts as they stand today.
There's no question about it. Further, by ripping open the country and deposing Saddam, the U.S. has allowed al Qaeda members of infiltrate and link with Baathists and other Islamic extremists they might have spit on prior to the invasion.
If the best minds in this Administration had sat around in January, 2001 when they first hit the White House and brainstormed for the worst possible policy initiative –- one that would unite the Arab street against the U.S. and one that would put us into an open ended multi-billion dollar protracted occupation with brave Americans and innocent Iraqis dying each day, they could not have picked a better move than the "shock and awe" invasion of Iraq. Which presidential candidate do you think Osama bin Laden is supporting?
On the morning of 9/11, President Bush was in an elementary school classroom in Sarasota, Florida reading "My Pet Goat." According to your book, the President stated that he didn't make any major decisions about how to respond to the 9/11 attacks until he was in his airborne command center, which would be 50 minutes after being informed that "America is under attack."
We don't know the answer to that because Bush and Cheney talked to the Commissioners behind closed doors in the White House, when they should have been compelled to testify under oath in open session as Condi Rice was forced to do. The fact that two Democrats on the panel, Bob Kerrey the ex-Senator and Congressman Lee Hamilton, the co-chair, bailed early for appointments showed how seriously they took the questioning. Think about it: the 9/11 attack was arguably the worse defense failure in U.S. history and the Commander In Chief, who was effectively incommunicado (and thus unable to issue a shoot down order) was never called into an open session to explain his actions to the American people. If Clinton's Lewinsky scandal testimony was ultimately made public, why shouldn't George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, have been compelled by the full Commission to explain their actions on "the day of" in public session and under oath.
Have we ever gotten an answer as to why President Bush would only testify in private, not under oath and only if Vice President Cheney were there with him?
Because of the fact that this is an election year -- and a particularly contentious one at that -- the issue of the government's handling of terrorism is a volatile one. As an award-winning journalist, how do you keep clear of the incendiary political implications of this book? Or do you just follow the facts where they lead, regardless of the consequences?
I ask anyone reading this to go to my website and spend a half hour reading the color, illustrated Timeline. It will give them a quick overview of the road to 9/11 and the danger that lies ahead.
**You can read an excerpt from Cover Up: What the Government is Still Hiding About the War on Terror here.