FBI Grilled Over Role in TWA 800 Probe

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WASHINGTON: Are too many cops spoiling the broth? Los Alamos physicist Wen Ho Lee is free and clear because the Justice Department wouldn't let the FBI look at his computer. Now it's the FBI that's under fire -- for suppressing a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms report that pegged mechanical failure, not terrorism, as the cause of the 1996 TWA Flight 800 disaster. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) held a subcommittee hearing Monday on why the FBI didn't announce until November 1997 that a mechanical flaw, not a terrorist rocket (or a Navy missile, as the Pierre Salinger crowd had it) was what ignited the Boeing 747's central fuel tank. The ATF had said the same thing 11 months before. Why didn't anyone hear about it?

Grassley is convinced that the FBI just doesn't play well with others in the crowded sandbox of federal law enforcement. Veterans of the 800 probe from the ATF and the National Transportation Safety Board, as well as some of the FBI's own scientists, are testifying to that effect. Grassley will even produce a March 1997 report sent to the FBI by the deputy director of the CIA, concluding that there was "absolutely no evidence" of a missile attack. The FBI maintains it was merely being thorough when it stretched taxpayer dollars and public anxiety another half-year to reach the very same conclusion. But the agency may also have put other airline passengers at risk by keeping the focus off the deadly fuel-tank problem; not until the FBI talked did the airlines listen. Grassley's hearings will no doubt conclude that the FBI should have done some more listening of its own -- but they won't solve the greater problem of why Washington's top cops can't seem to get along in the field.