NEWSMAKER: MR. KALLSTROM
November 18, 1997
After sixteen months, the FBI concluded its criminal investigation into the downing of TWA Flight 800. Following a background report, Jim Lehrer talks with Assistant FBI Director James Kallstrom about the decision.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
July 16, 1997
A year later the details of what felled TWA Flight 800, killing all 230 passengers on board, remain uncertain.
November 19, 1996:
Newsmaker interview with James Kallstrom FBI Assistant Director in charge of the criminal investigation.
September 19, 1996:
Investigators have yet to determine what caused the plane to go down. Now, perhaps, the investigation is taking a new turn.
July 18, 1996:
The beginning of NewsHour coverage of the crash of TWA Flight 800 .
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of transportation.
National Transportation Safety Board
FAA Office of Accident Investigation
KWAME HOLMAN: The FBI's investigation began literally within minutes of Trans World Airlines Flight 800's explosion and plunge into the Atlantic, nine miles off Long Island, New York. Eyewitnesses on that July 17, 1996 night said they saw the Boeing 747 with 230 people on-board explode in mid-air.
CECELIA PENNEY, Witness: We all looked up, and a couple of seconds later, we just saw this burst of flames, and it separated.
KWAME HOLMAN: The clear suspicion a bomb or missile caused the disaster required the FBI's criminal probe. And the possibility of a mechanical or human failure brought in the National Transportation Safety Board. One immediate outcome of the crash was tough new security measures at the nation's airports, which continue today. As the investigation progressed, news reports gave strength to the theory of a criminal act. In August last year, the New York Times said investigators had found traces of a chemical used in plastic explosives in the wreckage of TWA 800. Two months into his investigation, however, FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom said the bombing theory was unproven.
JAMES KALLSTROM: Based upon all the scientific and forensic evidence analyzed to date, we cannot conclude that TWA Flight 800 crashed as a result of an explosive device.
The missile theory.
KWAME HOLMAN: Ultimately investigators said that traces of explosives were left aboard TWA 800 during a bomb-detection training exercise five weeks before the deadly crash. Flight 800 was in the headlines again last November when former ABC News reporter Pierre Salinger claimed a Navy missile was responsible for the crash. He later released radar images on videotape and a 60-page document to support the allegation.
PIERRE SALINGER: That tape done by the Air Traffic Control completely confirms that a missile fired downed TWA 800.
KWAME HOLMAN: Last fall the FBI concluded there was no evidence to support Salinger's "friendly fire" theory. Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board continued its exploration of possible mechanical malfunctions. For more than a year the NTSB has said the explosion resulted from the ignition of jet fuel fumes that accumulated in the center fuel tank of the 747. But to date, investigators have not determined what caused that ignition. At an afternoon news conference the FBI's James Kallstrom announced the FBI officially has closed its criminal investigation. He released a videotape prepared by the CIA reconstructing what happened off the Atlantic Coast on the night of June 17, 1996.
SPOKESMAN: Just after the aircraft exploded, it did stop abruptly and climb several thousand feet from its last recorded altitude till about 13,800 feet to a maximum altitude of about 17,000 feet. Shortly after Flight 800 reached the peak of its ascent--about 20 seconds after it exploded--a fireball erupted from the aircraft. When the jet reached an altitude of roughly one mile--about 42 seconds after it exploded--its left wing separated from the fuselage, releasing unburnt fuel. The fuel's subsequent ignition and blaze produced a dramatic cascade of flames visible to eyewitnesses more than 40 miles away. About seven seconds after the left wing detached and forty-nine seconds after the initial explosion, the burning debris hit the water.
KWAME HOLMAN: The NTSB said it will continue its investigation into why that explosion occurred with public hearings beginning next month.
Assistant FBI Director James Kallstrom
JIM LEHRER: Assistant FBI Director James Kallstrom is with us now from New York City. Mr. Kallstrom, welcome.
JAMES KALLSTROM, FBI: Hi, Jim. How are you?
JIM LEHRER: Just fine. You found no evidence that that plane exploded because of a criminal act, correct?
JAMES KALLSTROM: That's correct, not one scintilla of evidence after all these months and all the investigation, but I feel good, Jim, that we did a very comprehensive, total investigation. We left no stone unturned. In fact, we looked under every rock multiple times. We owe that to an investigation of this magnitude and this much tragedy.
JIM LEHRER: Are you surprised yourself that 16 months after this began that you're saying what you're just saying? Did you expect it to turn out this way?
JAMES KALLSTROM: No. I, in fact, I thought there was a good chance that first night--you know, with the initial information we had--this tragic scene on the ocean--a 747 with a huge fire ball, no communications from the air crew of any distress, anything wrong with the plane, almost immediately witnesses seeing things in the sky--some of the first reports came from air crews transferring through the air space. That's not a normal occurrence for any airplane, certainly not for a 747.
JIM LEHRER: Now, your investigation over 16 months involved what, 7,000 interviews, is that right?
7,000 interviews later...
JAMES KALLSTROM: That's right, Jim. We did about 7,000 interviews. We had a major investigation obviously of Kennedy in Athens, Greece, where the plane came from--out on Long Island from the standpoint of, you know, was it a terrorist missile, which involved hundreds and hundreds of agents; the friendly fire investigation, of course, the intelligence in and around the world.
JIM LEHRER: Tell us a little bit about--I know you can't give us specifics, but tell us how you went about at going--trying to determine from an intelligence point of view first whether or not terrorists or somebody put a bomb on that plane.
JAMES KALLSTROM: Well, as you know, as you probably know, we have the counter-terrorism responsibility for the United States. We do that jointly with our friends in law enforcement. In New York City we have a terrorist task force, so we know a lot about terrorist activities. We know a lot about groups that have said things and done things in the past. So obviously we check all that. We check all our sources; we check all our means. We have relationships with our own intelligence agencies, obviously. We have relationships with intelligence agencies around the world. You know, to deal with terrorism in this day and age, all of us in the free world and even others have come to believe that we have to work together, so obviously we check all that, and we ask for assistance. We look at overhead satellites; we look at all kinds of things to find out what this is about.
JIM LEHRER: Did you not get even a scintilla of a smell that this might--from your intelligence part of this now that this might have been a terrorist act?
JAMES KALLSTROM: You always get a few smells when you--I mean, you always get information, and I don't want to make it sound like we didn't get any information. We didn't get anything that we put much credence in. We didn't get anything with real specificity. We didn't get any golden nuggets or any grains of gold, quite frankly.
JIM LEHRER: So then the second part--or a second part--was the forensics part of the investigation, where--to oversimplify it, just the evidence you had in hand, right--tell us about that and how you went about determining that there was no criminal sign there.
About a million pieces of airplane.
JAMES KALLSTROM: Well, that's right. I mean, we ended up with close to a million pieces of this once proud airplane. So think about all these pieces coming in the front door of the hangar at Calverton, Long Island. Of course, chain of custody and where they--the water--all those things were important. And then think about a bunch of scientists standing at the door, a metallurgist, a chemist, forensic scientist, bomb technicians looking at each and every piece, and from their experience separating the pieces into two piles--those that needed further investigation because of their obvious characteristics of the damage and those they felt didn't, and then, of course, the ones that needed further examination having that examination take place.
JIM LEHRER: And they're looking for the way metal was bent or residue of things--
JAMES KALLSTROM: Sure. That's right. Unfortunately, we know a lot about bombs. I mean, things have been bombed. So we know what metal and other things look like that have been bombed. So we have a lot of experience. We have databases. Forensic scientists know what things look like under microscopes. We're looking for scarrings, for fittings, certain characteristics of how the metal is twisted--those are things they're looking for. From a missile standpoint we really didn't know a lot about missile damage. Surely, the if the highly explosive warhead blew up near the metal, it would be the same as a bomb, but think about this. I mean, most times missiles that have been shot at planes--thankfully, thank God, it hasn't happened in this country--have been on military. For instance, a number of planes in Desert Storm were shot with missiles, and most of them landed back safely. The pilots never got out and asked the question, "What was that?". They knew it was a missile, so we never developed a scientific database, and quite frankly, we looked around the world for that, and there wasn't any, so we had to develop our own.
JIM LEHRER: And how did you do that?
JAMES KALLSTROM: We had the great offices of places like China Lake and Redstone Arsenal and--
JIM LEHRER: Those are military Air Force bases.
JAMES KALLSTROM: We actually went out to military facilities with their help and with the help of DOT and we looked at planes that have been shot with missiles. We shot our own missiles at fuselages of 747's.
JIM LEHRER: Just to see what it would do, you mean?
JAMES KALLSTROM: Sure. We wanted to catalogue that damage. We wanted to look at how it looked, and of course, with a missile it's even more complicated because it could go into the middle and blow up inside; it could blow up outside. It could be a dud and just pass through the plane.
JIM LEHRER: Now, the other element of this investigation, of course, were the eyewitnesses. There were 244 of them, and that videotape that we showed just a piece of, the CIA videotape, was designed to speak to what they said and the issues that they raised by what they said.
JAMES KALLSTROM: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: Explain that, would you please.
JAMES KALLSTROM: A bit unprecedented for us to show something like that, but, after all, we are in the information age so we ought to take advantage of the best way, in my view, to explain that. I mean, having said at the press conference no forensics, no evidence, no criminal investigative evidence, no evidence from anything else, and I listed a whole lot of investigations, we're still left with 244 people that saw things in the sky, and that we took very seriously, so I thought it was important not only to ourselves--we have to convince ourselves first--but probably next--the victims' families, the public in general around the world, what did these people see, what could they have seen, did it make sense that they saw something other than a missile? So we had a lot of information. We knew from the radar--some 12 radars--where the plane was through this entire catastrophe. We knew from the data recorder and the voice recorder a lot of information. We knew from the satellite of the United States government the exact time of the huge blast, the huge yellow, terrible, tragic explosion that everyone saw, so we had a lot of information-- if we were a calculus teacher, we could fill in a lot of the blanks. We gave that to CIA. They have the best capability technically and did a super job--take all that data and to do an animation of what happened to this tragic airplane, what happened to these poor people on this plane, and, you know, what made sense that witnesses saw. Quite frankly, the great majority of the witnesses--some 239 of the witnesses' stories--all which were given to us truthfully and they were good witnesses--fit into this scenario, which is an extremely high percentage of the witnesses.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. And that theory was that a lot of the confusion or not--confusion's not the word--that a lot of people misunderstood what they were seeing because of the relationship between an--when you hear an explosion and you see it, right?
JAMES KALLSTROM: Well, that's right. In fact, a number of the witnesses--I think around 60--I'm not quite sure--but a high percentage of the witnesses actually looked up from their patio deck or the golf course or their boat or wherever they were and when they heard the sound, and the reality is it took the sound 50 seconds or so to reach this tragic area close to 10 miles out and 13,000 feet high--it took that long to reach the shore. So when they actually looked up, they were seeing an event that was already close to 50 seconds old.
JIM LEHRER: For you personally what was the most difficult part of this investigation?
JAMES KALLSTROM: Well, you know, that's a good question. We're used to showing up at places that are sort of mob scenes where there's thousands of people, where there's tragedy. I think if I had to say thing, though, I've never been involved through my experience in the Marine Corps, in Vietnam, or in any case I've ever investigated with is so much tragedy in one place, and so many tragic human stories--walking into a Ramada Inn on day two or day three, and seeing a thousand plus people that have just lost their daughter or their son, a mother or father in some cases, the entire family--was so incredibly tragic, and to be involved in that personally--from the very beginning, that night, we had a personal tragedy. One of our agents in the office lost his wife on the plane was one of the stewardesses, but very quickly, myself and the thousands of people involved in this investigation, you know, got involved in the tragedy, galvanized us, believe me, not that we weren't already have been galvanized us to--to just do a super job, which we always try to do, but we had tremendous emotion behind us on this one.
JIM LEHRER: You said a moment ago that there is--some folks were difficult to convince that a criminal act couldn't have been responsible for this terrible thing. Were you a hard sell yourself all the way?
JAMES KALLSTROM: Absolutely. And I think that I was a hard sell and every one on my team was a hard sell because we need to be. We need to convince ourselves. We need to argue ourselves. We need to put every possible thing up on the board. Jim, in this day and age, you know, we can't just look for the obvious things, not that we ever should, but, you know, we don't see the obvious this, the obvious that. We're not the Federal Bureau of the Obvious Investigation. You know, we need to look out in the third and fourth and fifth standard deviations from the middle of that curve and look at every crook and every cranny and every possibility. We put friendly fire on the board the first night. You know, it didn't take Pierre Salinger two months later to have us do a comprehensive investigation of that.
JIM LEHRER: I watched a news conference--and we ran a little piece of it in our News Summary. It seemed to me you got a little hot when the reporter asked you about why it took so long, why it took sixteen months. Did I read you right?
JAMES KALLSTROM: Yes, I was. And, you know, I understand the question, but, you know, I've seen--and I just--at a point in time you get frustrated--someone representing all these hard working people. I mean, the notion that we could have walked away from this a year ago or is months ago is just--is actually stupid, and I mean, we have so many things to do. The reason we closed this two weeks ago is we had no more leads. I mean, the notion that we wouldn't look at the mock-up, that we wouldn't look at all the holes in relationship to each other, that we wouldn't bring in another metallurgist and certify all the opinions of prior scientists, this type of investigation is too important; we cannot guess at things. You know, we can't take a laissez-faire approach, and we worked as hard as we could work for as long as we did, and I'm proud of what all the investigators from the task force, all the people that helped us, I'm very, very proud of what they did.
JIM LEHRER: A sense of relief tonight, Mr. Kallstrom?
JAMES KALLSTROM: Yes. I think--I'm glad that we could get to the point of actually proving a negative, which is a very difficult thing to do, Jim, as you probably know, and--but it's necessary. It's good that we now know it wasn't criminal, and that can no longer be, you know, the hot light of the focus, and it shouldn't be. We stand prepared to jump back in at any time if some new information presents itself.
JIM LEHRER: So if that comes tomorrow, you all are back on the case?
JAMES KALLSTROM: Oh, without question, and we're going to support NTSB. We're going to help them with the security of the plane; we're going to help them with whatever they need.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, Jim Kallstrom, thank you very much for being with us.
JAMES KALLSTROM: Thank you, Jim.