(CN) – Government agencies that investigated the 1996 crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 – which exploded in midair, killing all 230 people on board – are not required to release the identities of FBI agents and eyewitnesses to a former commercial pilot who insists the plane was hit by a U.S. Navy missile.
Ray Lahr rejected the government’s conclusion that the accident was caused by an explosion in one of the plane’s fuel tanks, likely triggered by an electrical short circuit. Instead, the former Navy and commerical pilot theorized that the plane was struck by a missile launched offshore by the U.S. Navy. The burning plane plummeted into the ocean off the coast of Long Island on July 17, 1996.
More than 250 eyewitness reported seeing a “streak of light, resembling a flare, moving upward in the sky to the point where a large fireball appeared,” according to the government. Eyewitnesses then saw the fireball split in two as it fell into the ocean.
These accounts prompted many individuals and government agencies, including the National Transportation Safety Board and the CIA, to consider the possibility of a missile or bomb.
The NTSB concluded its “most expensive and the most extensive” investigation in history by determining that the explosion was not caused by a weapon. It said the “streak of light” was the burning plane itself, flying upward after the fuel-tank explosion caused the front part of the aircraft to separate and fall. The rest of the burning plane ascended more than 2,000 feet before falling and crashing into the ocean. As it dropped, the wings separated and the wreckage erupted into a “fuel-fed fireball.”
The CIA’s investigation also discounted the missile theory. CIA analysts concluded that the “eyewitness sightings of greatest concern – the ones which originally raised the possibility of a missile – took place after the aircraft exploded.”
In 2000, the NTSB issued its final report on the crash, made available to the public, along with nearly 3,000 documents from the investigation.
However, Lahr insisted that the government’s “investigations” were part of a massive cover-up. To gather evidence for his theory, he filed more than 200 Freedom of Information Act requests, seeking documents and data on the investigation.
The NTSB and the CIA released some documents, parts of which were redacted, withheld others, and were unable to find the rest. Dissatisfied, Lahr sued.
The district court ruled for Lahr on 26 of the 32 disputed requests.
The government appealed only one aspect of the ruling: an order to release the names of eyewitnesses and FBI agents, which the government had redacted in order to protect their privacy.
Lahr cross-appealed, challenging the government’s reasons for withholding certain documents and calling its searches inadequate. He also sought information on the agencies’ computer simulations of the crash.
A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Pasadena, Calif., reversed the lower court’s order requiring disclosure of FBI and eyewitness names, but upheld the rest of the ruling.
Judge Berzon said the eyewitnesses have a privacy interest in avoiding unwanted contact by Lahr and the media. This privacy interest is also shared by the FBI agents, the judge said.
“We have held that an investigator’s privacy interest may be reduced when there are doubts about the integrity of his efforts,” Berzon wrote. “There is no evidence here, however, that the particular FBI agents mentioned in the requested documents themselves behaved improperly.”