T.W.A. Flight 800 Skeptics Paying a Heavy Price

J. Bruce Maffeo came out of Federal District Court at 40 Centre Street on Feb. 9 after arguing the appeal of his client, investigative reporter James Sanders, and looked around to see how many journalists had shown up. Just three: me, Allan Wolper of Editor & Publisher and Mr. Wolper’s student at Rutgers, Tina Bui.

Mr. Maffeo got a disgusted look. “The press marginalized Jim as a kook,” he said. “And now they walk by him like he’s a dog run over by a semi.”

Back in 1997, Mr. Sanders got two swatches of seat material from a disgruntled source inside the investigation of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 to test for rocket fuel. The test backed his theory that a Government missile brought the plane down, he reported, thereby enraging the Government, which prosecuted him and his wife, Liz, for aiding and abetting the removal of parts from a crash site, a law aimed at scavengers. Since then, the couple has lived a journalist’s nightmare. They had to sell their house, their son had to leave college. Mrs. Sanders lost a beloved job.

Their case has what her attorney Jeremy Gutman calls “totalitarian” overtones: The Government has repeatedly characterized the couple’s crime as putting out “misinformation” or, as NBC put it, “what the [F.B.I.] calls a plot to rewrite the history of T.W.A. 800.”

That should have been a wake-up call, said Eve Burton, deputy general counsel for the New York Daily News , but she couldn’t get other news organizations to support a friend-of-the-court brief. “I regret to say there was not a lot of enthusiasm,” said First Amendment lawyer Victor A. Kovner. “I thought the Reporters Committee was filing something.” No, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said it didn’t know about Mr. Sanders’ appeal in time. “They never stepped up to the plate,” Mr. Maffeo grumbled.

The truth is the press never liked Jim Sanders. “He’s a little bit of a wacko and belligerently antigovernment,” said a media source.

What’s fascinating about this case is not whether Mr. Sanders is right or wrong (though I think he’s mostly right). It’s how the media exercises self-censorship. The same year Mr. Sanders was indicted, two women in important jobs whom he worked with in challenging the official story on T.W.A.800lefttheirjobsfollowingpainful ordeals: Kelly O’Meara, administrative assistant to Representative Michael Forbes, whose district was nearest to the crash, and Kristina Borjesson, a producer for CBS News.

Their stories point up a deep divide in our public life between a highly paid institutional press that instinctively trusts Government and a segment of the public educated by Waco and the Clinton scandals that doesn’t. In the old Soviet Union, critics were put in psychiatric hospitals. Now the media merely labels them “wacky” and ignores them.

IN JULY 1996, T.W.A. FLIGHT 800 crashed in the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island, killing all 230 aboard. Jim Sanders, then a 51-year-old former cop who’d published books on conservative causes, was a natural to write about it. His wife, Elizabeth, was a longtime T.W.A. employee who knew that many at the airline had doubts about the official investigation.

Mrs. Sanders called Terrell Stacey, a top T.W.A. pilot who had flown the plane the day before it crashed and was a member of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation. Captain Stacey was disturbed. He knew that a veteran pilot who had witnessed the crash from the air had been warned not to use the word “missile” to describe what he saw to the press. He felt that the F.B.I. was not sharing information and had lagged in testing a suspicious red residue on some seats.

The author and pilot met secretly, and in January 1997 Captain Stacey removed two two-inch swatches of foam from two seats and sent them by Federal Express to the journalist at his Virginia home. Mr. Sanders said he felt he was acting legally. All he wanted were “scrapings.” There was plenty of material left.

He had one strip tested at a California lab. He said the test revealed high percentages of magnesium and calcium, consistent with solid rocket fuel, and he shared the findings with an old friend, David Hendrix. A seasoned reporter at the Riverside, Calif., Press-Enterprise , Mr. Hendrix had investigated T.W.A. 800 for months for a simple reason: The Government had misled him when it said initially that no military assets were near the crash. On March 10, 1997, the Press-Enterprise bannered Mr. Sanders’ news on the front page.

The F.B.I. was enraged. It called Mr. Hendrix and summoned the Sanderses, threatening to indict the couple if they didn’t reveal the name of the source Mr. Sanders called Hangar Man. In the noblest journalistic tradition, the Sanderses refused. Mr. Sanders feared that the F.B.I. would raid his house and seize the second sample. He sent it on to the Press-Enterprise to preserve it for a corroborative test.

The newspaper felt lonely. Its bombshell story had been all but ignored by the mainstream press. “James Kallstrom [the F.B.I. chief in New York] finally called us back the day before the story ran and said, ‘I can tell you that it is not traces of missile fuel,'” said Mel Opotowsky, former managing editor. “‘What is it then?’ we said. ‘I can’t tell you,’ he said. Then the next day we published our story, and he and his lieutenants said, ‘It was glue.’ Why didn’t he tell us that before? He didn’t even try, off the record. I don’t trust that man.”

But the media took Mr. Kallstrom at his word (this in spite of later tests showing that 3M glue used in the 747 has a tiny percentage of heavy metals). Fearing legal consequences, the Press-Enterprise sent the package on, unopened, to a CBS producer to whom Mr. Sanders was talking. Kristina Borjesson was media elite: a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, an Emmy Award winner for investigative reporting at CBS Reports .

The F.B.I. got wise to Ms. Borjesson when it found her name on an overnight package at Mr. Sanders’ house. It called CBS and asked if it had the material.

“CBS rolled over,” Mr. Sanders recalled. “Kristina was beside herself. She was describing the fear inside CBS, the terror inside CBS when the Government threatened to come in and destroy the place, instead of describing the excitement of joining the battle with an agency out of control.”

CBS dissociates itself from Ms. Borjesson. Josh Howard, a senior producer at 60 Minutes , said, “Her official relationship with CBS ended before she pitched that story. She had maybe a month to go on her contract. She was anxiously looking around for other projects to prolong her employment.”

Ms. Borjesson said there was more to it. She had been told to look into T.W.A. 800 months before. “I was unwilling to accept the fabric without permission from a CBS executive, and senior producer Josh Howard gave me that permission–which is why the fabric ended up in his desk,” she told me. “I had offered it first to CBS Evening News , and they said No. I told Josh, ‘Be aware that a grand jury sitting in Brooklyn wants to subpoena anyone interfering with evidence. Josh said, ‘We’ve dealt with grand juries before.’ I was thrilled. I remember telling him that 60 Minutes was the last broadcast with balls.”

Mr. Howard said he has no recollection of those events, and that he never saw the sample. “All I got from her was a proposal for a story. It sounded kind of wacky, and we said, ‘No thanks.'”

(Ms. Borjesson said Mr. Howard was lying. She faxed me a typescript of a memo, dated April 13, 1997, that she wrote to Jonathan Sternberg, CBS counsel, setting out the sequence of events. The memo said she offered the material to Mr. Howard, and “Howard agreed to take it.” The memo was C.C.’d to Mr. Howard, who told me he does not recall seeing it.)

In any case, CBS gave Mr. Sanders’ sample back to the Government, and Ms. Borjesson soon left the network (and eventually went to work for CNN). “She was expendable,” said someone who then worked at CBS. “Kristina wanted to find out what happened. She didn’t care where it ended up. In this instance, she was going against the grain of what the network had committed to.”

The showdown between the Government and CBS, virtually unmentioned in the mainstream press, set the tone for events to come. The network had refused to air Ms. Borjesson’s interviews of Mr. Sanders. It believed its senior correspondents, who had close associations with Government sources and assured their desks that Mr. Sanders was out to lunch. “The guys I talk to who I have a history with and I trust, they saw nothing, not a scintilla of evidence of a missile,” said Bob Orr, a Washington correspondent for CBS. He said he was never impressed by Ms. Borjesson. “What was her level of access and expertise, and who did she talk to? Who were her sources? One, and he was alarmingly thin.”

When CBS folded, it put wind in the Government’s sails. “I was devastated,” Mr. Sanders said. “My chance for vindication, to force the media to turn around, was gone. I realized I was in serious, serious trouble.”

In what was later ruled an illegal seizure, the Justice Department took Mr. Sanders’ computer. And violating its own guidelines for investigating journalists, it subpoenaed his phone records, thereby discovering Terrell Stacey’s number. Captain Stacey pled guilty to a misdemeanor and cooperated with authorities, and in December 1997 Mr. Sanders and his wife were arrested, paraded before a mob of reporters with their hands handcuffed behind their backs. In a press release, Mr. Kallstrom inveighed against Mr. Sanders’ views, saying he had “increased the pain already inflicted on the victims’ families.”

This Orwellian theme was later sounded by Jim Hall, the chairman of the N.T.S.B., in a letter to the judge seeking stiff sentences. “[T]his was not a so-called victimless crime,” Mr. Hall wrote. “These defendants have traumatized the families with the release of misinformation, the only plausible cause for which is commercial gain.”

Mr. Hall’s statement apparently backfired. In sentencing Jim Sanders and his wife to probation last July, the Federal judge called Mr. Sanders a serious journalist.

The press doesn’t want his company. The New York Times slurred Mr. Sanders, who has published two books about the crash, as a “self-styled freelance investigative journalist.” And many journalists distance themselves from him, saying there is a crucial difference between taking documents and property.

Maybe, but Victor A. Kovner warns that under the Government’s theory of the crime, journalists might be criminals if they ask sources to give them documents that are illegal for those sources to remove. Moreover, the samples were a form of information, there was plenty left, and the whistle-blower, Captain Stacey, testified that he gave them to Mr. Sanders “of my own volition,” seeing them as a way to expose corruption.

“This was not some wild grabbing at things,” Mr. Gutman argued in appeals court. “We don’t depend on the authorities as the sole source of information on their doings. We need journalists.”

That’s the problem. The institutional press has always accepted the Government’s line and never seen Mr. Sanders’ story as legitimate. Worshipful of Government sources, CBS two years ago hired James Kallstrom, who had by then left his F.B.I. job, as a commentator on law enforcement matters!

“You can investigate the underbelly of America all you want–the disenfranchised, the dispossessed,” Ms. Borjesson said. “But you start looking into the Government or the powers that be, you walk into a buzz saw.”

Finally, there’s Ms. O’Meara. A tenacious blonde with a street-smart manner and 17 years of experience on Capitol Hill, she was the administrative assistant to Representative Forbes when the plane crashed in the waters off his district. Mr. Forbes asked her to look into the crash. Over the next year, she shared information with the reporter David Hendrix and, like him, concluded that the Government had lied about how close military assets were to the plane.

Mr. Forbes did not return phone calls about Ms. O’Meara, but Diana Weir, his former chief of staff, said that the Congressman initially pressed Ms. O’Meara to get answers, then cooled on the case. A crisis occurred when Ms. Weir and Ms. O’Meara got permission to tour the hangar containing the recovered debris, and brought along Ms. Borjesson, late of CBS. Mr. Kallstrom called Mr. Forbes. “I was furious,” he said, according to a new book about the crash, Deadly Departure , by Christine Negroni (Cliff Street Books). Mr. Kallstrom saw Mr. Forbes’ office as a center for “conspiracy” thinking, orchestrated by “some strong person with a lot of leeway.”

That was Ms. O’Meara. No longer on speaking terms with her boss, she said, she quit. She later became a reporter at Insight on the News , a weekly magazine published by The Washington Times .

She and Ms. Borjesson also worked on a documentary about the scores of eyewitnesses who say they saw something streaking from the ocean toward the plane. This documentary was for a show, Declassified , that was being produced by Oliver Stone and slated to air on ABC. But the Stone connection grew controversial, and ABC canceled the program. “I talked to 30 eyewitnesses and then wrote them letters saying we were sorry,” Ms. O’Meara said. “It took a lot for them to agree to come forward.”

The point is not whether Ms. O’Meara, Ms. Borjesson and the witnesses are right or wrong (though I think they’re right). It’s that democracy depends on airing such views. Yet simply raising questions about the official version has meant being discredited. “Once you’ve lived through this thing, you say, ‘Whoa,'” said Ms. Weir, now a town council member in East Hampton, L.I. “It has nothing to do with politics, Democrat or Republican, it has to do with the Government. It’s like, you hear about the Tuskegee experiments 40 years later.”

Last summer, Ms. O’Meara developed startling information, radar data the N.T.S.B. released three years after the crash, showing a score of unidentified vessels in a military warning area 25 miles from the crash.

Preparing her story, Ms. O’Meara went to the N.T.S.B. and interviewed three officials. The meeting was tense. The officials made gratuitous comments like, “Is he part of the conspiracy?” and scoffed at the notion that the blips might be significant. “Did you identify any other military planes out there?” Ms. O’Meara asked. “It all depends on what you mean by ‘out there.'” “How about a 30-mile radius from the crash site?” “I don’t know, I just can’t answer that question off the top of my head.”

Minutes after the interview ended, Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post learned of it and called Ms. O’Meara’s editor. Then he published an item on Ms. O’Meara, quoting N.T.S.B. managing director Peter Goelz saying that Ms. O’Meara was “extraordinarily antagonistic.” The piece said she had had several “incarnations” before she was a reporter, including work on an Oliver Stone “docudrama.” (It was a documentary.) Needless to say, Mr. Kurtz did not consider the new data, or the Government’s failure to release it earlier or explain it. His piece gave the impression of Ms. O’Meara as a nutcase who did not know how to behave in company.

I asked Mr. Kurtz what value he saw in printing a one-sided story (Ms. O’Meara didn’t return his calls) undermining a reporter before she even published her work. He said it was like writing about George Stephanopoulos becoming a commentator. Readers should be forewarned about Ms. O’Meara’s background as an “advocate.”

But what was she an advocate for?

“At a minimum, skeptical of the official explanations in the T.W.A. 800 case.”