Crash report `buried by FBI'

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THE FBI was so keen to prove that the 1996 air disaster off Long Island was caused by a terrorist attack that it suppressed a report linking the cause to a mechanical defect, a newspaper said yesterday.

That action delayed mandatory safety checks on jumbo-jet fuel tanks by almost a year - placing more lives at risk.

Yesterday's allegations were printed by The Washington Post on the eve of a US Senate sub-committee hearing on bureaucratic in-fighting during the crash inquiry. Flight TWA 800, a Paris-bound Boeing 747, crashed into the Atlantic soon after take-off from New York in August 1996, with the loss of all 230 passengers and crew.

According to the newspaper, the initial investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) concluded that the crash had been caused by mechanical failure, probably originating in a design fault that made the central fuel tank liable to catch fire under certain conditions.

Witness accounts, however, suggested that the plane might have been hit by a missile, and the FBI was called in to investigate the possibility of sabotage. Memories of the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City terrorist bombings were still fresh in the public mind.

The ATF completed its report in January 1997, but the FBI dismissed its conclusions as "unprofessional and reprehensible" and - the Post claims - persuaded an official at the Treasury Department to keep it under wraps. It was not until November 1997 that the FBI ruled out sabotage.

The ATF, supported by the National Transportation Safety Board - legally in charge of the investigation - and the CIA protested that the report should be made public, but the FBI blocked release, with Treasury support.

The assistant director of the ATF, Andrew Vita, noted at the time: "We have what we believe, whether right or wrong, is evidence of possible design flaws in Boeing airplanes ... and we are being ordered not to release that information ... for no compelling good reason; to risk hundreds of human lives."

The FBI, which has been attacked by the political right in recent years for appearing to be soft on Democrat wrongdoing, is said to regard the fresh allegations as politically inspired.

At the very least, however, FBI officials question the effectiveness of existing administrative procedures, given that the Treasury Department apparently suppressed the ATF report in the belief that the FBI - and not the safety board - was leading the inquiry.