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'Pierre Salinger Syndrome' and the TWA 800 conspiracies

By Jeffery Reid
CNN

Salinger
Pierre Salinger's comments helped spread TWA 800 conspiracy theories.

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Bolstered by eyewitness accounts and the Internet, the explosion of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of New York 10 years ago spawned a slew of sinister conspiracy theories, most notably the belief that a missile from a U.S. Navy ship was responsible.

So prevalent were these theories that the term "Pierre Salinger Syndrome" -- the belief that everything on the Internet is true -- entered the lexicon.

For investigators, the conspiracy theories wasted time and diverted valuable resources. Investigators ultimately determined that Flight 800 was the victim of a center fuel tank explosion, most likely caused by a spark in its vapor-filled center tank. Terrorism was ruled out, as was the notion of a friendly fire missile. (Watch animation of what happened aboard the flight -- 1:10)

"There's some percentage of people that think this was a conspiracy. That's crazy," James Kallstrom, who led the FBI investigation, told "CNN Presents" as part of an investigative documentary airing Saturday and Sunday.

But to some, the idea that the U.S. Navy ship, USS Normandy, brought down the 747 is very real. Donald Nibert of Montoursville, Pennsylvania, lost his 16-year-old daughter, Cheryl, on the flight and believes friendly fire is to blame.

"I know the answer, but no one will accept that," he said.

How could FBI agents be silenced?

Some witness accounts seemed to support the missile theory. It quickly became a hot topic on the young but quickly growing Internet.

Naneen Levine was among those whose story was collected by Web sites. That summer evening, she was at the family's Long Island beach house. As the sun was setting, she says she looked out a window toward the ocean and saw a fireball in the sky. She talked with CNN 10 years ago, and the FBI interviewed her twice and asked her to sketch what she saw. (Watch Levine draw the sketch of what she saw -- :23)

"The little red dot went up like this, sort of curved and came to a point where I thought little fireworks were going to come down and fade and be a flare," she said. "Then like big, big thick streams of fire coming down, a little bit up, but it was very, very vertical coming down like that."

Compounding the confusion created by witnesses was a document on the Web -- one that took the missile theory and added layers of intrigue. It was a theory of how the USS Normandy accidentally shot down Flight 800 and how the government was covering it up.

Kallstrom said the theory is "crazy," because it wouldn't be possible to "keep the thousand agents in the FBI quiet on some conspiracy or the 400 people on the Normandy aren't going [to] say anything to anybody."

Kallstrom said the ship was too far away, didn't even shoot any missiles, and if a missile had hit the plane the 747 would have been blown to "smithereens."

Then came Pierre Salinger

It might have stayed simply an Internet conspiracy had it not been for Pierre Salinger, President Kennedy's press secretary who had worked as a network news correspondent for a time.

Three months after the TWA tragedy, while working as a freelance public relations director, he claimed to have verified the friendly fire cover-up.

"It's a document I got about five weeks ago -- came from France -- from an intelligence agent of France. He had been given this document from an American Secret Service agent based in France," Salinger said at the time. "He had been doing an inquiry and had some contacts with the U.S. Navy."

It turned out to be a discredited document that had been floating around the Internet for weeks. Salinger took to the news airwaves, including CNN, touting his theory. But as baseless as it sounded, Salinger could not be ignored. His accusations gave conspiracy theorists a voice of distinction and credibility.

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

Salinger's evidence was actually an e-mail from Richard Russell, a former United Airlines pilot who also used to investigate crashes for the Airline Pilots Association. A few months after Salinger stepped forward, Russell said he obtained even more "evidence" from friends in high places. That evidence was a videotape of radar screens from the night TWA exploded. (Watch clips of the radar video -- 1:00)

Russell claimed a blip on the radar was the supposed missile, and it took 30 seconds to reach the plane. One problem with the theory is that a missile would have gotten there much quicker. Also, the blip never appears to reach its intended target; instead it seems to be moving away from TWA Flight 800 when the airliner disappears from radar.

NTSB experts have said the blips could have been boat traffic or false returns from the radar, which happen all the time.

A decade later, Naneen Levine's sketch remains unchanged and so does her story.

"Deep down, I think it was a missile," she said. "But I know it's been refuted by experts."

As for Salinger, after years of suffering from dementia, he died of heart failure in 2004, but his syndrome lives on.

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