Fact Checking Peter Bergen

The TWA Flight 800 Investigative Team is submitting a rebuttal to “When Passenger Jets Mysteriously Disappear” written by CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen and published in the “CNN Opinion” section of CNN’s website on March 10, 2014.

The team’s rebuttal highlights the inaccuracies that Peter Bergen and other journalists covering this story have carried forward in their reporting for the last seventeen years. Some of these inaccuracies have been reported so persistently that they have hardened into public common knowledge even though they are demonstrably false. Reporters like Bergen have also repeatedly invoked these inaccuracies to discredit factual reporting on TWA Flight 800 as “conspiracy theory.” The most common of these inaccuracies and their corrections are below:

The Cause of the Crash

Inaccurate: The NTSB determined that the cause of the crash was an explosion in the center wing fuel tank

Accurate: The NTSB closed the investigation before definitively determining the cause of the crash. They cited a center wing fuel tank explosion as the “probable” cause even though they could not find any ignition source for that explosion and a team led by their Fire and Explosions Group Chairman determined that the center wing tank explosion was most likely a secondary event, not the event that initiated TWA Flight 800’s demise. The cause of the crash remains officially inconclusive today.

The Eyewitnesses

Inaccurate: The hundreds of eyewitnesses, including those who reported seeing a rocket, flare, or streak of light go up to the plane, were unreliable.

Accurate: Not only were these eyewitness accounts strikingly consistent, according to two NTSB studies, more than 90% of the relevant eyewitnesses (dozens in each study) agreed that an object rose off the surface just before TWA Flight 800 exploded. Further, these accounts match the forensic evidence. After rising off the surface, many people said the object headed south before detonating at the aircraft’s position. Crucially, these well documented accounts were corroborated by multiple radar sites that picked up a high-speed debris plume emanating from the aircraft the moment it lost electrical power on this same south-bound trajectory.

Explosive Traces in Wreckage

Inaccurate: Few explosives traces were found on the plane and those that were found were there because of leaky explosives packages being placed on the jetliner for a bomb-sniffing dog training exercise.

Accurate: Explosives traces were found throughout the plane. Besides the passenger cabin, traces were found in the cargo hold and on exterior wreckage components—areas that weren’t part of the alleged dog training exercise. The FBI promulgated the bomb-sniffing dog training exercise as the reason for some of the explosive traces but that story has been proven false.

Missile Evidence

Inaccurate: There is no evidence of missile damage in the wreckage.

Accurate: There are volumes of hard evidence consistent with a proximity fuse missile engagement, including: internal penetrations and fractures into the fuselage from the outside; more than 100 high energy fractures found throughout the airframe; explosive traces throughout the wreckage; a telltale random damage pattern; the localized recrystallization of aluminum; and radar evidence of debris moving away from the plane at Mach 4—four times the speed of sound—at the moment it lost electrical power.


Inaccurate: There is unanimous agreement among the many groups and agencies involved in the official investigation into TWA Flight 800 that a fuel-air explosion in the center wing tank caused the crash.

Accurate: According to investigation insiders, a majority of investigators who actually handled and analyzed the wreckage disagreed with the fuel-air explosion theory. The Airline Pilots Association had deep concerns with this theory, and TWA never signed onto it, citing the fact that there was no evidence of the fuel tank explosion initiating the aircraft’s demise. Boeing did not sign onto the theory either. Their electrical engineers said such an explosion was virtually impossible because of the design of the electronics in and around the tank. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace workers union concluded that what caused TWA 800 to crash was associated with at least one south-bound moving object external to the aircraft penetrating the fuselage’s left side.

Bergen’s piece is an example of press coverage promulgating inaccurate reporting on the TWA Flight 800 crash while implying that the real facts of the story are part of a “conspiracy theory.” The TWA Flight 800 Investigative Team’s rebuttal of Bergen’s piece is below. Bergen’s comments are in bold.

—-Start of Point-by-Point Rebuttal—-

“Nothing gets conspiracy theorists going more than a passenger plane crashing under mysterious circumstances.”

The first line of Bergen’s piece signals his intention to examine the current Malaysia Airlines crash and other previous airline crashes within the secondary, derogatory sense of the term “conspiracy theorists,” which refers to those who believe in and promote outlandishly inaccurate, irrational and otherwise false information.

“In the absence of hard information to explain such disasters, people look for answers, and the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 early Saturday could prompt the same response.”

Here, Bergen provides his rationale for writing his piece: that the disappearance of Malaysia Airline Flight 370 “could prompt the same response” from conspiracy theorists. He then takes his readers directly to another airline crash, TWA Flight 800.

“TWA Flight 800 fell out of the sky on July 17, 1996, shortly after leaving JFK International Airport, killing all 230 people on board.”

The importance of TWA Flight 800 to Bergen’s thesis is evident by its placement within his piece. It is the first and most frequently mentioned crash. It should be noted here that critical distinctions between TWA 800 and Malaysia Air are that TWA 800 did not “mysteriously disappear” and that in fact, Air National Guard pilots flying in the area, along with hundreds of people on and off the coast of Long Island, NY witnessed the aircraft’s demise. The National Guard pilots flew directly to the scene, arriving as debris was still falling, and recorded a GPS fix on the tail of the plane before it sank in the relatively shallow waters off Long Island.

“Recovery and investigative efforts were hampered because TWA 800 went down in the Atlantic.”

Bergen provides no information about why or how the investigation was “hampered” and the significance of that hampering. In fact, the jetliner fell within ten miles of the Long Island coastline and the massiveresources used to recover it resulted in, according to the NTSB’s senior accident investigator assigned to the crash, Hank Hughes, 90% to 95% of the wreckage being recovered. Therefore, whatever unexplained hampering Bergen had in mind did not impair the investigation because a virtual trove of forensic evidence was recovered–certainly enough to determine what really happened. The copious amounts of recovered wreckage and other available hard evidence, including radar, clearly show what happened to the airliner. This begs the question: did Mr. Bergen review the hard evidence before including TWA Flight 800 in his piece? Did he reach out to any of the former experts and crash investigators who actually handled the evidence and have the expertise to assess it?

“Some soon posited that terrorists armed with surface-to-air missiles had brought down the plane.”

Bergen identifies a pervasive theory that was mainly posited by individuals, including reporters, who had not researched the facts of the case very thoroughly.

“This theory seemed to be bolstered by eyewitness accounts such as that provided by Naneen Levine, who said she saw something streaking up toward the doomed plane. ‘I thought it was something on the beach going straight up.'”

In fact, Levine’s account as well as those of other eyewitnesses who provided descriptions similar to hers cast a doubtful light on the terrorist missile scenario. This is because they observed the streak climbing all the way up to Flight 800’s altitude (13,700 feet) before exploding. The rocket motor on small shoulder-launched missiles that terrorists commonly use would have burned out about half-way up, which means that the object Mrs. Levine saw streaking up to the jetliner would have disappeared long before it reached the plane. Levine’s observation of the streaking object rising continuously to the point where it exploded (at TWA 800’s position) implies that she saw a missile larger than those terrorist organizations are known to have.

“Three months after the TWA crash, former ABC News correspondent Pierre Salinger, who had once been President John Kennedy’s press secretary, weighed in at a news conference that a U.S. Navy ship had brought down TWA 800 with a missile. Salinger came to this conclusion because of a document on the Internet making this claim.”

Bergen’s dredging up of “conspiracy theorist” poster child Pierre Salinger to bolster Bergen’s thesis that a missile hit on TWA 800 is an absurd conspiracy theory has been done numerous times before by other reporters who have relied heavily on official sources without verifying their statements or conducting any substantial investigations into the available hard evidence. Bergen’s piece is a startlingly faithful echo of CNN reporter Jeffrey Reid’s July 2006 article titled “’Pierre Salinger Syndrome’ and the TWA 800 Conspiracies.” Salinger went to the press with no proof of his claim and a document of questionable provenance, which made him a bad source. The irony is that even though he is not a valid source, Salinger’s missile claim does have a basis in the facts connected to forensic evidence. Bergen and Reid evidently did not adequately review the hard evidence to back up their reporting, which again begs the question: were they even aware of the forensic evidence and its implications?

“Bob Francis, the former vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said of Salinger, ‘He was an idiot. … He didn’t know what he was talking about, and he was totally irresponsible.'”

Here Bergen buttresses his depiction of Pierre Salinger with a quote from a former official source denigrating Salinger. Quoting Francis calling Salinger an “idiot” makes for sensational copy but contributes nothing to the accuracy or substance of Bergen’s piece.

“After a four-year investigation, the NTSB ruled that the TWA 800 crash was caused by ‘an explosion of the center wing fuel tank, resulting from ignition of the flammable fuel/air mixture in the tank.'”

This is factually inaccurate. The NTSB ruled that the probable cause of the jetliner’s demise was a center wing fuel tank explosion; their conclusion was by no means definitive. The NTSB shut down their investigation before definitively identifying any ignition source for the alleged fuel tank explosion. More to the point, they failed to prove that the fuel tank explosion was the initiating event that brought down the plane. In fact, Dr. Merritt Birky, the NTSB’s own Fire and Explosives Group Chairman assigned to the TWA 800 investigation, concluded in a detailed field report that the tank explosion was most likely a secondary event. Birky’s entire Fire and Explosives Group team backed this finding. This startling admission has yet to be reported by any CNN journalist. Beyond the fact that the NTSB’s own experts have concluded that the fuel tank explosion most likely was a secondary event, other forensic evidence including radar, wreckage damage patterns, explosives traces throughout the interior and exterior portions of the wreckage and high-velocity fractures characteristic of ordnance damage—all of which are corroborated by eyewitness accounts—point to a proximity fuse missile downing the jetliner.

In a purported effort to examine the evidence, CNN’s documentary unit produced a program titled No Survivors that was rife with inaccuracies. A full account of the inaccuracies in No Survivors can be seen here: https://flight800doc.com/fact-checking/critique-of-cnns-no-survivors-show/. Producer Jim Polk is largely responsible for the reporting in No Survivors. Dr. Tom Stalcup, Ph.D., of the TWA Flight 800 Investigative Team brought the inaccuracies in No Survivors to Mr. Polk’s attention after the documentary aired. In a subsequent telephone conference call that included members of the TWA Flight 800 Investigative Team and Polk’sboss, Bud Bultman (director of CNN’s documentary unit), Polk said that he did not consider fact-checking statements of official sources like the FBI’s James Kallstrom to be part of his job.

“Three years after TWA 800 went down, EgyptAir Flight 990 left JFK International and soon plunged into the Atlantic, killing more than 200 people on board.”

Having included TWA Flight 800 in his piece on the basis of inaccurate reporting, Mr. Bergen moves on to other examples.

“Two competing theories about what happened emerged. The NTSB, widely regarded around the world as the most authoritative investigator of plane crashes, concluded after a three-year investigation that one of the Egyptian pilots, Gameel al-Batouti, had intentionally downed the plane.”

“NTSB pointed to the fact that the downward trajectory of the plane was inconsistent with mechanical failure. Based on the recovered cockpit voice recorder, NTSB also underlined al-Batouti’s constant use of the phrase, “I rely on God,” and his lack of surprise when the passenger jet suddenly began descending.”

“In Egypt, this was not a popular view, and Egyptian officials pointed to supposed mechanical failure as the cause of the crash.”

“The conspiracy theories that developed around TWA 800 were caused by unreliable eyewitness accounts and Internet rumor-mongering. In the case of EgyptAir 900, Egyptian officials would not accept that an Egyptian pilot would commit suicide, killing many others, and came up with an alternative explanation for which there was scant evidence.”

Bergen’s line referring to “unreliable eyewitness accounts” is factually inaccurate. As previously mentioned, not only were the TWA 800 eyewitness accounts very consistent, the forensic evidence corroborated them, which shows that they were reliable. Further, the FBI vetted the eyewitnesses who saw something rise from the earth’s surface and deemed them credible, which is why the FBI team assigned to determine what the eyewitnesses saw concluded that they had most likely seen a missile.

It should be noted here that over the last 17 years since the crash occurred, government agencies connected to the investigation of TWA 800 and the official sources representing them have persisted in hiding and misrepresenting the truth about what happened to TWA Flight 800. The press, largely through unquestioning official source coverage, has aided and abetted their efforts so successfully that certain key misperceptions have hardened into public common knowledge. The misperception that hundreds of eyewitnesses to the crash were unreliable is chief among those. The vehicle for this persistent misperception is an egregiously inaccurate CIA-produced animation discrediting the eyewitnesses. The animation was commissioned by the FBI. The CIA team that produced the animation knew it was inaccurate but nonetheless gave it to the FBI for public dissemination. The press has never diligently fact-checked the animation’s contents so the falsehood persists and continues to be carried forward by reporters like Bergen and former official sources like James Kallstrom, who headed the FBI’s criminal investigation into the crash and who unveiled the animation during a widely covered press conference.

“In the case of the downing of Pan Am Flight 103, there was a deliberate effort to inject a conspiracy theory into the narrative of the events.”

“Pan Am 103 blew up over Scotland on December 21, 1988, because of a bomb in the hold, which killed 270 on board and others on the ground.”

“Juval Aviv, who presented himself as a former Israeli counterterrorism official, was hired by Pan Am to investigate what happened.”

“In his report, Aviv claimed to have proof that the murder of the passengers on Pan Am 103 was the result of a CIA sting operation that went awry, an assertion for which there was not a shred of evidence.”

“Yet a piece partly based on Aviv’s fairy tale then ended up as a cover story in TIME magazine. The U.S. government later concluded that the attack was ordered by the Libyan government, something the Libyans would eventually concede was, in fact, true.”

“The TWA 800, EgyptAir 990 and Pan Am 103 cases represent the likely range of reasons that brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: mechanical failure, pilot actions or terrorism.”

The comment in this last paragraph wraps up Bergen’s factually inaccurate reporting on TWA Flight 800. His reporting on this case raises questions about the unsupported information he presents about the other cases as well as the validity of his “likely range of reasons”.

“Based on these past cases, we should be careful not to allow conspiracy theories about what happened to get too much play.”

Here again, Bergen’s first five words, “based on these past cases” includes at least one case that he has inaccurately represented. In all of the cases, he fails to provide one instance of hard evidence to back up his statements. The antidote to conspiracy theories is hard evidence. The deleterious effects to American society of Bergen’s work here combined with that of many other veteran reporters who have persisted in inaccurately reporting on issues of great public interest, including TWA Flight 800 and, equally notoriously, the run-up to the Iraq War, are immeasurable. In the case of TWA Flight 800, for the past 17 years, a long line of reporters from the most powerful media outlets in the United States have consistently failed to accurately report on the crash. A key reason for this is their heavy reliance on official sources whose statements are rarely checked for accuracy or veracity. Only last July, upon the airing of the documentary “TWA Flight 800” on the Epix Channel, were the facts, the hard forensic evidence and corroborating eyewitness accounts pertaining to the TWA 800 crash finally put before the American public. The documentary features six members of the original official investigation blowing the whistle on a multi-agency (including the CIA, FBI and NTSB leadership) cover-up of the evidence as well as presenting the hard forensic evidence (which they personally handled) and explaining what itshows.

“The truth will come out only after a careful and lengthy investigation.”

Bergen’s last line, “the truth will come out only after a careful and lengthy investigation,” is what happened in the case of TWA Flight 800. But it took 17 years of persistent work on the parts of physicist Tom Stalcup, Ph.D. and an extraordinary team of whistleblowers who joined him to finally bring out the truth. This occurred only after several government agencies egregiously failed to perform their public duties to honestly and conscientiously serve the American people, the victims of the crash and their families as well as the entire international flying public. Journalists who have not and do not do their due diligence reporting on this case also fail these constituents.

For additional information about other reporters and outlets that have misrepresented the facts and/or misreported on the TWA Flight 800 case, go to Flight800doc.com and click on “Fact Checking.”