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U.S. focused on Iran after TWA 800 explosion

By Jim Polk
Investigators pieced together this 93-foot section of the TWA Flight 800 fuselage as part of its probe.


White House
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House, suspecting terrorism, readied plans for retaliation in the Middle East when TWA Flight 800 exploded over the ocean in 1996 after takeoff from New York, killing all 230 people on board.

"I think our first thought when we got the news was that it was terrorism," President Clinton's national security adviser, Anthony Lake, told "CNN Presents" as part of an investigative documentary airing Saturday and Sunday.

"We especially wanted to look for an Iranian connection."

In fact, terrorism was ultimately found not to be the cause, but twice before Boeing 747s had been bombed out of the sky -- Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland in 1988, with 270 dead; and an Air India flight off Ireland in 1985, with 329 killed.

Within hours of the TWA explosion, security officials were meeting at the White House to discuss possible bombing raids as retaliation, once they knew who might be responsible. (Watch a clip from "CNN Presents: No Survivors" -- 2:40 )

"The administration has done initial planning for response to various suspects if they're implicated in this," a White House official told CNN several days later.

Iran was the leading suspect because the intelligence community believed it was behind the deaths of 19 American military service members in a bomb attack on the Khobar Towers military housing complex in Saudi Arabia only three weeks earlier. Ultimately, the U.S. government said the Iranian-backed Hezbollah was responsible for that attack.

Also, a U.S. guided missile cruiser had shot down an Iranian jetliner, by accident, over the Persian Gulf in the summer of 1988, killing 290 people.

James Kallstrom, the leading FBI investigator on the TWA 800 case, told CNN, "If this was an act of terrorism, it had an awful lot of consequences."

But as weeks began to pass and no evidence surfaced, top officials began to question the terrorism theory.

"We were not getting information to that effect," then-Chief of Staff Leon Panetta said. "No one was taking credit for it." (Watch officials discuss the terror climate after TWA 800 -- :38)

Eventually, the FBI found no evidence of terrorism and the National Transportation Safety Board concluded TWA 800 was the victim of a center fuel tank explosion, most likely caused by a spark in its vapor-filled center tank directly below the passenger compartment.

The White House did take some steps, however, against terrorism after the TWA catastrophe.

President Clinton, meeting with victims' families a week after the crash, launched a safety commission headed by Vice President Al Gore.

Among its recommendations: improve screening at airports, require identification for all passengers and match bags to those on board. All would eventually be adopted.

But one recommendation went largely unnoticed and unheeded.

"The FBI and CIA should develop a system that would allow important intelligence information on known or suspected terrorists to be used in passenger profiling," the commission concluded.

The CIA and FBI, which often failed to share information with each other, subsequently did little or nothing to help the Federal Aviation Administration create an airport watch list for terrorists.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the 9/11 Commission referred to that ignored Gore recommendation in its own report when it wrote: "As of 9/11, the FAA's 'no-fly' list contained the names of just 12 terrorist suspects."

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