I’ve had members of Congress ignore my interview requests and seen my Freedom of Information Act petitions go unanswered, so I’ve learned that sometimes former insiders are our only hope for getting information. Last week came news of yet another group of whistleblowers, a cadre of six government and non-government experts who served the National Transportation Safety Board when that independent federal agency investigated the explosion of a Boeing 747 off the coast of Long Island in July 1996. They are the protagonists of a new documentary, TWA Flight 800, that will air July 17 on EPIX-TV. After four years of investigation, the NTSB claimed the cause of Flight 800′s explosion was a mechanical defect, but the new documentary, written and directed by journalist Kristina Borjesson, claims the FBI, NTSB and other government agencies may have covered up that the plane was brought down by a missile strike. Participants in the film have called on the NTSB to reopen the case based on altered physical evidence, suppressed data, and unexamined testimony from hundreds of eyewitnesses.
Of course, in a healthy and functioning democracy, we shouldn’t need whistleblowers—government employees who uncover waste, fraud, or abuse would be supported straight through to the Oval Office. But many of us know better, especially when it comes to the airline industry. When my book, Attention All Passengers: The Airlines’ Dangerous Descent—and How to Reclaim Our Skies, was published last year and I thanked “the brave men and women who are Federal Aviation Administration, Transportation Security Administration, and airline whistleblowers,” I was not overstating their importance. These whistleblowers confirmed such problems as defective airline maintenance outsourcing, FAA oversight failures, TSA waste, and many other important findings.
An invaluable source was Gabe Bruno, who founded the FAA Whistleblowers Alliance after he criticized the agency and was ousted from his FAA management position. When I asked his opinion about the current controversy, he said he “absolutely” supports reopening TWA 800 if there is credible evidence, but criticized the film’s key witnesses. “I’ve got a problem with why the hell it took 17 years for them to come forward,” Bruno says. “When you blow the whistle, you’re trying to fix something—you can’t do that 17 years later.” But Loretta Alkalay, a former FAA regional counsel, told me, “It’s pretty tough to be a whistleblower in the government…It can destroy your life. I wouldn’t blame these [TWA 800] people for not coming forward sooner—although I don’t believe the issues they raise are new or substantial enough to warrant reinvestigation.”
While researching aviation safety I got to know John Goglia, who signed off on the TWA 800 findings and to date remains the only FAA-licensed aircraft mechanic to serve as an NTSB board member. He says he still supports the original report, but adds, “I support reopening any report where substantial new and credible evidence warrants.” That said, he published his own response to the documentary on Saturday, and dismissed cover-up charges as “spurious.”
Although I’m not ready to support all the film’s premises, after watching the documentary, I believe there are enough smoking guns to warrant an unbiased reexamination. What surprises me, although I suppose it shouldn’t, is the rush to slam the movie sight unseen. Last week one major news site was in near hysterics about the documentary, employing the term “conspiracy” ten times and cattily referencing it “on an obscure cable channel,” yet stacking the deck by quoting biased sources. When I talked to the movie’s creator, Kristina Borjesson, she wasn’t surprised, noting that reexamining hot topics “discredits previous reporting.” She also defends her film’s witnesses by noting that several did speak out during the investigation, and one former NTSB accident investigator, Hank Hughes, even testified before Congress in 1999.
I also contacted John King, a former Eastern Air Lines mechanic turned whistleblower, and it turns out that he claims he was rebuffed when trying to present data supporting alternate theories to the FBI during the TWA 800 investigation. “The media have a long, sordid history of ignoring these events,” says King. It’s time that journalists and government officials alike recognize the best way to quell public doubts is to encourage further investigation. And let the results speak for themselves.