Flight 990 Investigators Call in Arabic Experts

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There may be nothing untoward about a prayer muttered in the cockpit of a plane about to plunge headlong into the ocean. But given the history — amplified, and sometimes simplified, by the media and the movies — of terrorists claiming to be inspired by Islam, it could also signal a motive for what is now suspected of having been the criminal downing of EgyptAir Flight 990. The NTSB Tuesday was set to hand over the investigation of the crash to the FBI, believing that the final cockpit conversations on the Boeing 767's voice-data recorder indicate that a crew member may have been responsible for the flight's demise. Handing the case over to Louis Freeh's men signals that a crime is being investigated, although a criminal investigation could still produce a number of scenarios. "Nothing can be ruled out thus far," says TIME Washington correspondent Elaine Shannon. "By making the FBI the lead agency in the investigation, it now becomes possible for a more thorough investigation into the background and lives of everyone aboard the plane. And the men leading the probe headed up the PanAm 103 and TWA 800 investigations respectively, giving them plenty of experience in investigating terrorism that looks like accidents and accidents that look like terrorism."

Part of the problem decoding what happened in the cockpit is cultural. NTSB officials readily conceded late Monday that even after multiple translations, the final conversation in cockpit of Flight 990 wasn't fully comprehensible to the investigators in Washington. Understanding what passed between the pilot — who'd returned to the cockpit after an unexplained absence to find the plane in a death plunge — and whichever crew member had put the Boeing 767 into its final maneuver requires a nuanced, idiomatic interpretation that would require Egyptian analysis. In the meantime, Mr. Freeh may be wishing that Mulder and Scully were real.