When passenger jets mysteriously disappear

Story highlights

  • Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared early Saturday with more than 200 aboard
  • Peter Bergen says passenger jet disasters lead often to conspiracy theories
  • He notes that people questioned government findings on TWA Flight 800 and Pan Am 103
  • Bergen: The truth will come out after a careful and lengthy investigation

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

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.

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

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

Peter Bergen

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

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."

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.

Is Flight 370 similar to past mysteries?
Is Flight 370 similar to past mysteries?

    JUST WATCHED

    Is Flight 370 similar to past mysteries?

MUST WATCH

Is Flight 370 similar to past mysteries? 02:12

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."

Opinion: Why so few clues about missing Malaysia flight?

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."

Missing jet spawns conspiracy theories
Missing jet spawns conspiracy theories

    JUST WATCHED

    Missing jet spawns conspiracy theories

MUST WATCH

Missing jet spawns conspiracy theories 02:59
Quest: Odd to lose contact while cruising
Quest: Odd to lose contact while cruising

    JUST WATCHED

    Quest: Odd to lose contact while cruising

MUST WATCH

Quest: Odd to lose contact while cruising 03:40
International crews search for plane
International crews search for plane

    JUST WATCHED

    International crews search for plane

MUST WATCH

International crews search for plane 03:55
Questions swirl after airliner vanishes
Questions swirl after airliner vanishes

    JUST WATCHED

    Questions swirl after airliner vanishes

MUST WATCH

Questions swirl after airliner vanishes 01:57

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.

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.

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.

Based on these past cases, we should be careful not to allow conspiracy theories about what happened to get too much play. The truth will come out only after a careful and lengthy investigation.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

      Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

    • nr intv moni basu husbands quiet suffering flight 370_00020822.jpg

      An empty space on earth

      His wife never came home from her flight on MH370, and now K.S. Narendran is left to imagine the worst of possible truths without knowing.
    • This handout photo taken on April 7, 2014 and released on April 9, 2014 by Australian Defence shows Maritime Warfare Officer, Sub Lieutenant Ryan Penrose watching HMAS Success as HMAS Perth approaches for a replenishment at sea while searching for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. Two fresh signals have been picked up Australian ship Ocean Shield in the search for missing Malaysian flight MH370, raising hopes that wreckage will be found within days even as black box batteries start to expire.

      Is this the sound of the crash?

      Was the sound of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 striking the water captured by ocean devices used to listen for signs of nuclear blasts?
    •  A crew member of a Royal New Zealand Airforce (RNZAF) P-3K2-Orion aircraft helps to look for objects during the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in flight over the Indian Ocean on April 13, 2014 off the coast of Perth, Australia. S

      Search back to square one

      What was believed to be the best hope of finding the missing plane is now being called a false hope. Rene Marsh explains.
    • Caption:A Chinese relative of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 uses a lighter as she prays at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing on April 8, 2014. The hunt for physical evidence that the Malaysia Airlines jet crashed in the Indian Ocean more than three weeks ago has turned up nothing, despite a massive operation involving seven countries and repeated sightings of suspected debris. AFP PHOTO/WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)

      Bring in the lawyers

      Involved parties, including the manufacturer Boeing, are bracing for a long public relations siege.
    • The painstaking search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 got a vote of confidence Friday that the effort is headed in the right direction, but officials noted that much work remains.
Credit: 	CNN

      Pings likely not from Flight 370

      Official: The four acoustic pings at the center of the search for Flight 370 are no longer believed to have come from the plane's black boxes.
    • INDIAN OCEAN (April 14, 2014) -- Operators aboard ADF Ocean Shield move U.S. Navy's Bluefin-21 into position for deployment, April 14. Using side scan sonar, the Bluefin will descend to a depth of between 4,000 and 4,500 meters, approximately 35 meters above the ocean floor. It will spend up to 16 hours at this depth collecting data, before potentially moving to other likely search areas. Joint Task Force 658 is currently supporting Operation Southern Indian Ocean, searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. (U.S. Navy video by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter D. Blair/RELEASED)

      Underwater search on hold

      The underwater search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane will effectively be put on hold this week, and may not resume until August at the earliest.
    • Movie-makers say they have recruited leading Hollywood technicians to bring their experience to mid-air flight sequences.

      An MH370 movie already?

      Movie-makers in Cannes have announced they're making a thriller based on the disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370.
    • The story of the search

      The search for the missing Boeing 777 has gone on for eight weeks now. CNN's David Molko looks back at this difficult, emotional assignment.