Copyright (c) 1996, Roanoke Times

DATE: Sunday, December 1, 1996               TAG: 9612030138
SECTION: HORIZON                  PAGE: 1    EDITION: METRO 


In the night of July 17 TWA Flight 800 exploded and crashed off the coast of Long Island, N.Y., killing everyone on board.

For months investigators have focused on three possible causes - a bomb, mechanical failure or a terrorist missile. On Nov. 20, with 95 percent of the wreckage recovered, the lead FBI investigator into the crash said it is now ``less likely that a bomb or missile'' downed the plane.

Yet barely 36 hours after the disaster, a message posted on an Internet discussion site called ``rec.aviation.piloting'' suggested a darker possibility.

``Did the Navy do it?'' wrote someone from New York who identified himself as Evan B. Gillespie. ``It is interesting how much evidence there is that it was hit by a missile.''

Actually there wasn't any weightier evidence for this than for the other two theories.

But reports from eyewitnesses - who said they saw a streak of light approaching the jet before it crashed - prompted investigators to entertain the idea that someone shot it down. Within days of the crash, numerous Net writers mulled over the witness reports and made a startling leap.

They speculated that the jet was downed by accidental ``friendly fire'' from a U.S. Navy ship on a training cruise.

Such a horrifying blunder, according to the evolving theory, was quickly covered up by a conspiracy involving federal investigators, the military and President Clinton.

Even by conspiracy standards, this one was pretty weak. But as a study in how conspiracy theories mutate in the age of easy global communication, the friendly fire story is a gem.

On the Internet, conspiracy theories gestate almost instantly, and spread with dizzying speed. The theorists seize on and often distort mainstream media reports, make gross assumptions about the government's allegedly boundless capacity for malevolence and, occasionally, fabricate reports outright.

In the case of Flight 800, the process happened so fast and with such intensity that the conspiracy theory, which once might have bounced around harmlessly on the fringe, briefly elbowed its way into mainstream coverage.

In September and again in October, prompted largely by the Internet's conspiratorial buzz, journalists felt compelled to ask officials about the possibility of friendly fire. The authorities labeled it ``an outrageous allegation.''

News organizations, which subsequently took a closer look, agreed. But the fact that friendly fire came up at all says a lot about the power of the Internet.

Here is a chronological review of how a theory catapulted to 15 minutes of fame.

July 17-23: A penny for your plots

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, unhinged speculation was cheap. Some theorists suggested that the true target of the TWA ``attack'' was Henry Kissinger, who was supposedly on board. He wasn't.

Over time, the theories included such notions as the jet being zapped by a death ray possibly operated by a consortium of Russians, North Koreans and the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult. Predictably, some asserted that a UFO was responsible.

But only the friendly-fire theory developed real legs, thanks largely to a July 21 Jerusalem Post story in which unnamed ``French Defense Ministry experts'' asserted that ``the infrastructure needed to fire a missile powerful enough to hit a plane at that altitude is only possessed by Army units.''

The story was clearly presented as ``what if'' speculation, but many conspiracy theorists took it as confirmation that the U.S. government had shot down Flight 800. The Post is available on the World Wide Web, and the story spread rapidly all over the planet.

``I think it's pretty obvious,'' stated one contributor to the ``talk.politics.guns'' news group, ``that TWA 800 was taken down by a SAM [surface-to-air missile]. ... Friendly fire, as it were.''

July 24-29: Troopergate|

A posting in the news group ``alt.conspiracy'' made a more startling claim: President Clinton was probably involved.

``Two of the passengers were former Arkansas state troopers on Bill Clinton's security detail,'' it read, explaining that the men were on their way to Paris to tell all to Le Monde. The ``source'' for this shocker? The Miami Herald.

The ``Troopergate'' message generated excitement among Net conspiracy theorists, many of whom believe Clinton to be capable of anything, from drug dealing to multiple homicide.

``Suddenly the TWA 800 explosion got a whole lot less mysterious,'' wrote one correspondent in ``misc.survivalism.''

Over in ``,'' an America Online subscriber wondered, ``How many [total] does that make now of people who have previously known our Komrad Klinton who are now pushing up daisies?''

Aug. 2: Cyberhoax

The Miami Herald quickly exposed the trooper message as a hoax. The Herald traced it to the Net address of one Gene Hilsheimer, a Florida resident.

The Herald said ``Hilsheimer denied creating it,'' though he did opine later that the posting was probably designed to bait ``conspiracy nuts.'' Despite this particular debunking, friendly fire kept on going. Other writers surged ahead with the unsupported claim that ``there is a report of sailors at sea routinely locking on to airliners during mock missile practice.''

Aug. 22: Russell takes charge

Friendly fire might have stalled were it not for an anonymous message that began circulating in late August.

``TWA Flight 800 was shot down,'' one version stated, ``by a U.S. Navy guided-missile ship which was in area W-105 ... a Warning Area off the southeast coast of Long Island.''

The message was attributed to ``a man who was safety chairman for the Airline Pilots Association for many years and he is considered an expert on safety.''

In fact, it was written on America Online by Richard Russell, a 66-year-old Floridian and former United Airlines pilot. Russell later told reporters that he never intended his message - originally a private E-mail communication sent to about a dozen friends who were aviation accident investigators - to be widely distributed.

Nonetheless, replicated countless times by unknown Netizens, it spread like a viral contagion.

``Hey, those who want the truth. This is no joke!!!'' wrote one fan. ``Just read on and watch the papers, knowing where you heard it first. Pretty shocking.''

Aug. 28-Sept. 1: Friendly fire skyrockets

As the crash investigation of TWA 800 entered its second month, friendly-fire talk began to move beyond the Internet. It was helped along, inadvertently, by news reports of more eyewitness anomalies, including the murky snapshot taken by Linda Kabot, a Long Island secretary.

Blown up and distributed on the Net, it showed a blip, supposedly a long cylinder streaking through the night sky, allegedly in the vicinity of the doomed jet.

About this time, multiple copies of the hijacked Russell opinion began arriving in newsrooms via fax and E-mail. With populist speculation about friendly fire becoming a roar, major media outlets decided to take a closer look.

On Sept. 1 Newsday launched a pre-emptive strike on the friendly-fire theory, quoting a ``senior federal source'' who advised, perhaps wishfully, ``You can put that to bed.''

Sept. 5-7: Going up, up, up ...

Another mainstream report - this one by a local TV reporter - helped amplify the Net buzz about friendly fire.

On Sept. 5 Marcia Kramer of WCBS-TV in New York broadcast that investigators were examining whether a missile from ``a U.S. military plane'' might have torn through the jet without exploding.

Her sources? Unnamed officials close to the investigation. Kramer's report was ignored by most of her colleagues, a fact that itself inflamed Net suspicion.

``This news item did not show up anywhere else on radio or TV during the following day,'' one Net surfer wrote. ``Shades of censorship?''

Sept. 8-17: Pffft! Russell fizzles

In the next several days Newsday, Newsweek, the Associated Press, Reuters and CNN decided they had to take a hard look at friendly fire.

``Because so many people were talking about it we felt it was the responsible thing to do, to revisit this question,'' says Ron Dunsky, a CNN producer whose network investigated friendly fire in July, found no evidence to support it and didn't run a story.

Why did it come to the fore again, since there was no new evidence?

``The Internet was part of the reason,'' he says, ``one of the factors that tipped the scales.''

At a Sept. 16 news briefing on Long Island, FBI and National Transportation Safety Board officials found themselves under unfriendly fire from a fixated press corps. The investigators responded to at least four straight questions about the theory - including one from CNN, which later that day ran a serious report on friendly fire. It mentioned the Russell-authored message and conveyed emphatic denials from the government.

Russell can't be accused of courting publicity. He says he has been contacted by several major TV shows, but they've all lost interest because he won't give up his source. Unless Russell decides to say more, or his claimed source comes forward, his now-notorious e-mail message has to remain filed under ``Rumors: Unsubstantiated.''

Aftermath: it lives!

Though the Russell-gram seemed at a dead end, the Net has made it immortal.

On Sept. 27 Tom Snyder, on his ``Late Late Show,'' announced that he'd just found the message on the Net and wondered aloud - albeit skeptically - about a government cover-up.

Then on Nov. 8, friendly fire made headlines again. This time it was Pierre Salinger - the noted journalist and John F. Kennedy administration press secretary - who went public with the theory.

Salinger, according to news accounts, said his source was a document given to him by ``someone in French intelligence in Paris,'' written by an American who ``was tied to the U.S. Secret Service, and has important contacts in the U.S. Navy.''

But apparently, the document was the Russell message, or at least a clone of it.

CNN showed Salinger a copy of the message and he said: ``Yes. That's it. That's the document. Where did you get it?''

He also told other reporters that he learned only after he went public on Nov. 7 - U.S. media ran the story the next day - that the same document had been on the Net for weeks. He said the message was dated Aug. 22 - the same day Russell sent his famous e-mail.

As Net writers might say: ``Interesting!!!''

Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen are the authors of ``The 60 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time,'' to be published this month by Citadel Press.|

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by CNB