I never intended to become a “conspiracy theorist.” In the fall of 2000, when I first dipped my toe into the murky headwaters of the TWA Flight 800 intrigue, I thought myself something of a skeptic, the Socratic nitpicker who rained on the paranoid parades of others.
At the time, I worked mostly in advertising but contributed the odd piece to the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, the Kansas City Star and the Weekly Standard.
Within a few years, the editors of these publications would not even return my phone calls. I had no reason to anticipate this fall from grace when I headed off to a local country club to hear a presentation by James Sanders.
A veteran cop turned investigative reporter, Sanders had authored the 1997 book, “The Downing of TWA Flight 800,” and paid a high price for doing so.
As he explained, 53 TWA employees were on board that doomed aircraft, most of them deadheading back to Paris. His wife, Elizabeth Sanders, had served as a trainer for TWA flight attendants and knew many of those who had died on the plane.
At a memorial service, Elizabeth encountered a friend named Terry Stacey, a 747 pilot and manager. Stacey had been working at the investigation site in Calverton on Long Island and harbored deep suspicions about the direction of the investigation.
Knowing that James Sanders was an investigative reporter with a couple books to his credit, Stacey asked Elizabeth to introduce them. Her role in what followed would not go much deeper, but for the authorities that was deep enough.
Once Sanders began to publish the information Stacey helped unearth, the Clinton Justice Department (DOJ) had little choice but to hunt down the conspirators.
The FBI honchos pursued Stacey and the Sanders with more passion than they pursued the culprits behind the crash. Soon enough, agents found their way to the conspirators, arresting all three of them.
“Conspiracy theorist and wife charged with theft of parts from airplane,” the FBI announced much too proudly on the New York office’s website. The “parts” in question were two pinches of foam rubber with telltale signs of missile residue embedded therein.
The handy phrase “conspiracy theorist” would be used over and over throughout the investigation to discredit anyone who dared to report the truth. When I worked with Sanders to produce a video and then a book on TWA 800, I too became a “conspiracy theorist.”
Thanks to CBS veteran Sharyl Attkisson’s indispensable new book, “The Smear,” we know how the phrase first entered the lexicon. Attkisson traces its provenance to a specific memo penned by the Central Intelligence Agency on April 1, 1967.
“Conspiracy theories have frequently thrown suspicion on our organization,” said the memo writer. “The aim of this dispatch is to provide material for countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists.”
Among other tricks, CIA station chiefs were asked to contact “friendly elite contacts especially (especially politicians and editors)” and “urge them to use their influence to discourage unfounded and irresponsible speculation.”
In 1996, the strategy worked like a charm. The CIA involved itself in the investigation of the TWA 800 crash on day one and never let go. Using their “elite contacts” at the New York Times, the FBI and the CIA managed to pull off the most successful cover-up in American peacetime history.
These many years later, those of us who dared investigate this crash still struggle to pull “conspiracy theorist” off our Wikipedia pages where, at least on mine, it mysteriously keeps popping back on.
For us, this is an inconvenience. For those who lost a loved one in the crash, having the truth reduced to a “conspiracy theory” is salt in a wound that will never heal.
The 21st anniversary of Flight 800’s demise is Monday, July 17. For more information, please read “TWA 800: The Crash, The Cover-Up, The Conspiracy.”
Media wishing to interview Jack Cashill, please contact [email protected].