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Federal Officials Criticize FBI Role in TWA 800 Investigation

By Edward Walsh

Several federal officials told a Senate subcommittee Monday that the FBI’s role in the investigation of the crash of TWA Flight 800 was overbearing and at times inept. According to that testimony, the agency clung to the theory that a bomb or missile had downed the plane months after its own chief scientist on the case had reached the opposite conclusion.

The hearing before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts is the culmination of a two-year congressional review of the TWA investigation. Witnesses portrayed a probe riddled by sloppy investigative techniques and dominated by a powerful FBI agent-in-charge who seemed determined to prove the crash resulted from an act of terrorism.

All 230 people aboard the Boeing 747 died when it plunged into the ocean south of Long Island shortly after taking off from New York on July 17, 1996.

Opening Monday’s hearing, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, the subcommittee chairman and a frequent FBI critic, said the crash investigation was “a model of failure, not success.” He described the bureau’s leadership in the case as “a disaster,” saying the bureau hindered the investigation and “risked public safety” with its alleged attempt to suppress a report on the cause of the crash by another government agency.

The Jan. 20, 1997, report by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) concluded that the plane crashed after a mechanical flaw ignited an explosion in its central fuel tank, a finding that became official and was endorsed by the FBI several months later. But Andrew Vita, ATF’s assistant director of field operations, testified that when he sought to submit the report in March 1997 to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), he “met resistance” from the FBI.

Grassley has accused the FBI of suppressing important public safety information in an act that could have endangered airline travelers. That charge was vigorously denied Monday by Lewis D. Schiliro, head of the FBI’s New York office.