Wednesday, August 03, 2016

TWA 800: Calling Agent Bongardt, Your Nation Needs You

By Jack Cashill
August 3, 2016

The reconstructed wreckage of TWA 800, stored by the NTSB, May 1997

It has been four weeks since my book, TWA 800: The Crash, The Cover-Up, The Conspiracy, debuted. Despite a two-week media hiatus due to the conventions, I continue to receive one or two new leads a day, many from inside the investigation.

I would encourage those with information to share to contact me in confidence through my website, As one new source told me, he never knew before where to turn. Another, a retired international captain, said I was the first person in the media to listen to him after years of trying to break through.

As a quick reminder, TWA Flight 800 blew up off the coast of Long Island on July 17, 1996. A few weeks ago, I received an email from a fellow that, in a fairer world, would have been newsworthy in itself. Joe Johnson worked with the FBI missile team on the investigation as an industry partner. He concluded his initial email with the compelling line, “It would be better if we had a chat on the phone. I can prove that it was a missile.”

In the course of our subsequent conversations, Johnson laid out the evidence to support a missile strike: the motion correction for small guidance errors, the smooth turn toward the target at intercept, the resistance of Jet A fuel to a spark, and for Johnson, most significantly, the radar data that showed “debris exiting the aircraft at a supersonic velocity.” In the excellent 2103 documentary, TWA Flight 800, physicist Tom Stalcup considered that radar data “the smoking gun.”

Johnson also added a bit of information that may prove more valuable in the long run, that is the likely identity of the FBI agent who boldly resisted the CIA’s attempt to corrupt the investigation. In my book, I called this otherwise anonymous missile team member “Lewis Erskine” after the character Efrem Zimbalist Jr. played on the hit TV show, The F.B.I.

Johnson worked directly with a member of the FBI missile team named Steve Bongardt and vouched for his integrity. At the time of the confrontation with the CIA in April 1997 the missile team had only two members. Based on his future performance, Bongardt, a former U.S. Navy aviator and Naval Academy grad, would seem the more likely of the two to have defied the CIA analysts. As Bongardt says of himself on his LinkedIn page, “His efforts to fight the FBI and CIA bureaucracy in the days leading up to 9/11, in order to pursue one of the 9/11 hijackers, has been documented in the public media.”

Bongardt does not overstate his role. In 2006, the year after Bongardt stepped down from the FBI, noted author Lawrence Wright wrote an extensive piece in the New Yorker highlighting Bongardt’s exploits subtitled “Did the C.I.A. stop an F.B.I. detective from preventing 9/11?” 

In the summer of 2001, Bongardt became aware that known terrorist Khaled al-Mihdhar was in the United States. Citing the “wall” that allegedly prevented intelligence gatherers from cooperating with criminal investigators, FBI headquarters informed Bongardt that none of its many agents on the criminal side could pursue Mihdhar. Instead, that task was left to one lone FBI intelligence operative who was himself new to the job.

According to Wright, Bongardt called the wall a “bureaucratic fiction.” Bongardt was in a good position to know how fictional the wall could be. From July 1996 to November 1997 the intelligence operatives of the CIA worked freely, if uneasily, with the criminal investigators of the FBI on the TWA 800 investigation.

“Someday somebody will die -- and, Wall or not, the public will not understand why we were not more effective,” Bongardt emailed his superiors in 2001. That “someday” came just weeks later when Mihdhar joined eighteen other hijackers in their terrorist September 11 attack on America.

If Lawrence Wright had written about TWA 800, he might have subtitled his piece, “Did the C.I.A. stop an F.B.I. detective from telling the truth about TWA 800?” According to a CIA memo from April 29, 1997, an unnamed member of the FBI missile team -- almost assuredly Bongardt -- sent the CIA a blistering critique of the working CIA theory.

According to that theory, an internal explosion blew the nose off the doomed 747. The noseless fuselage then tilted back and rocketed upright for nearly a mile. According to the CIA, this zoom climb confused hundreds of credible witnesses into thinking they had seen a missile.

Unconvinced, the dissenting FBI agent demanded answers to more than a dozen salient questions. He wanted to know why the CIA analysts failed to account for the eight witnesses who saw an object “hit the aircraft” or the numerous witnesses who saw the object move from east to west, the opposite direction of TWA 800.  In all, he cited some thirty “problem witnesses” whose accounts did not begin to square with the “agency scenario.”

In his conclusion, this agent hit the CIA hard. He recommended that the CIA “withdraw its conclusions” until it could meet several conditions, any one of which would have unraveled the CIA scenario. These included the integration of radar data, the validation of key witnesses, and the reconciliation of the thirty “problem witnesses” with the zoom climb scenario.

At the time, Bongardt likely did not know that the newly minted CIA director George Tenet had already signed off on the CIA theory. A month earlier, the politically wired Tenet had sent FBI director Louis Freeh a letter assuring him that “what these eyewitnesses saw was the crippled aircraft after the first explosion had already taken place.”

“CIA will continue to look at problematic witnesses,” the analyst responded to the dissenting agent. He got to work quickly. On the very day the analyst sent this memo to his superiors, April 29, 1997, a second “302” was prepared for the most “problematic” of the FBI, eyewitnesses, Witness #73. In this second interview, #73 conceded that she had been drinking ‘Long Island Ice Tea’ cocktails” before witnessing the explosion, a concession that undermined her original testimony.

As #73 told me years later, she did not know what a Long Island Iced Tea was, did not drink, and did not give a second interview. In her initial interview three days after the crash, she not only described a missile attack on the 747 in stunning detail, but she also “observed the front of the aircraft separate from the back,” a fact that took the authorities weeks to confirm.

Curiously, the FBI agents whose names appear on this second 302 were Bongardt and his partner, Ted Otto. They were alleged to have interviewed #73 on April 29, 1997, in her North Carolina home. She was one of at least three key eyewitnesses for whom the CIA manufactured second interviews and the only one attributed to Bongardt. I wonder if he knows this.

Bongardt put in twenty years with the FBI and quit. It is not hard to understand why he left. Today, he serves as vice-president for a certain cyber security firm, a fact confirmed on his LinkedIn page, an article he posted in July, and a program for a conference at which he will speak in September. I have tried contacting this firm no fewer than a half-dozen times. The automated system does not include Bongardt’s name, and the receptionist claims to know nothing about him. If anyone knows him, please have him contact me.

As I will explain in a future article, authorities have tried to intimidate at least one of my high-level sources. His public posture protects him. Here is hoping Bongardt understands that it is safer to go public than not.

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