Albion Monitor /News

[Editor's note: As reported in the Monitor last year, stock market investors hoped that terrorists were the cause of the crash and speculated heavily that TWA stock would rise when this was proven.]

TWA Flight 800 Inquiry Fades, But Anti-Arab Bias Remains

by Farhan Haq

(IPS) NEW YORK -- After 16 months of searching for clues, the FBI has admitted that it has no evidence of criminal action behind the crash of TWA Flight 800 in the sea off New York last year.

With this statement, the Bureau has opened up a can of worms for the politicians and media who blamed the act on Muslim terrorists.

FBI regional director James Kallstrom wrote last week that "every lead has been covered, all possible avenues of investigation exhaustively explored and every resource of the U.S. government has been brought to this investigation." Yet, he added in a letter to the families of the 230 victims of the Jul. 17, 1996, crash, he had uncovered no evidence that a bomb, missile or similar device had taken down the plane.

Senator Al D'Amato tried to sponsor several measures to crack down on terrorism in the wake of the crash
The formal ending of the FBI's investigation now opens the way for the National Transport Safety Bureau (NTSB) to determine the possibility that mechanical problems downed the flight. It also opens avenues for Arab-American and other groups to protest about the way blame was apportioned in the aftermath of the crash.

Sam Husseini, media director for the American-Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee (ADC), compared the frequency of inaccurate rumours about Muslim or Arab involvement in the TWA 800 case with those that followed the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Then, too, he said, Muslims were blamed for a crime for which Timothy McVeigh was found guilty and sentenced to death earlier this year.

Husseini argued that the blaming of Arab and Muslim terrorists in the TWA case was even "more insidious" because the perception that the plane was bombed has lingered for more than a year. "People would throw out occasional caveats (about other causes for the crash), but they created an impression of terrorist involvement over a much longer time," he said.

"It's a war!" said CNBC commentator Charles Grodin during a broadcast in July 1996. "Who are the terrorists? What do they want? How do we stop them?...Let's infiltrate them. Let's make them frightened of us... people will pay a price if they want to come after us."

New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal, who wrote in one editorial that the TWA 800 crash was "apparently" the work of terrorists, urged President Bill Clinton to "retaliate militarily against the sponsors of terrorism."

Of course, the problem for quite some time was that nobody knew who the sponsors of the 'terrorist attack' were. Several papers, citing the bombing earlier that summer of a U.S. barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, blamed a shadowy Saudi Islamist group.

Other media, including CNN, mentioned the bombing alongside the trial of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef and Eyad Ismoail, two men seized in Pakistan and accused of involvement in the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing. (Both men were found guilty of engineering that bombing in a trial in New York this week, and are expected to face life sentences in jail.)

By contrast, Pierre Salinger, a former press aide to the late President John F. Kennedy, cited rumours that the plane was actually taken down by an errant Navy missile, which prompted the military to cover up the entire incident. That theory was discredited after its originator admitted that he had placed a false story on the Internet to embarrass the military.

Media reports over the past year which implied that Kallstrom would soon link the crash to a bomb were never borne out. But many politicians made even worse mistakes, argued Husseini, citing Senator Al D'Amato of New York for trying to sponsor several measures to crack down on terrorism in the wake of the crash.

Clinton, on the night of the crash itself, urged Americans to "avoid a rush to judgment" and warned that little was known about the incident. But a federal commission set up to make recommendions following the crash, which was chaired by Vice President Al Gore, proposed restrictions on searching, or even allowing entry into U.S. airports and planes, of anyone who fit a computerized 'profile' as a terrorist.

The profiling policy remains in place, with dubious benefits for passenger safety
That procedure, called 'profiling', has since been adopted at all U.S. airports -- to the anger of Arabs. "There is something hypocritical about the Clinton administration's line on this," Husseini said. "They rhetorically say, 'Don't rush to judgment,' and then they institutionalize a policy of rushing to judgment."

Ironically, say civil-rights lawyers, even though mechanical failure is now accepted as the reason for the TWA crash, the profiling policy remains in place, with dubious benefits for passenger safety. Worse, some aspects of profiling -- such as singling out people who travel frequently to the Middle East or have Muslim surnames -- clearly are discriminatory, lawyers say.

"The aviation security measures proposed after the crash of TWA 800 unnecessarily infringe on passengers' right to equality and privacy," said Greg Nojeim, legal counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union. "We are hopeful that these proposals will be viewed with a critical eye, because they won't make passengers any safer."

Since July 1996, the ADC has received more than 200 complaints from Arab-Americans stopped or seized at airports. ADC legal counsel Houeida Saad cited reports by some complainants of "humiliating hand-by-hand search of all their luggage, and, in a few cases, the segregation of all Arabs for searches prior to flights.

"It's illegitimate, it doesn't work, and it's bad policy," Husseini said of profiling. Now, he argued, rights groups should ensure that a policy created in the wake of what was portrayed as a terrorist attack can now be dropped following the dropping of the terrorism theory.

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Albion Monitor November 24, 1997 (

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