Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Records on TWA Flight 800 Will Remain Secret

(CN) - The CIA need not give a physicist its radar analysis related to the crash of TWA Flight 800, or the names of eyewitnesses, the 1st Circuit ruled.

Trans World Airlines (TWA) Flight 800 exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean just 12 minutes after it took off from New York City on July 17, 1996, bound for Rome. All 230 people on board were killed.

Several witnesses described a streak of light rising up to the plane just before it exploded, giving rise to the theory that a terrorist missile might have caused the crash.

The CIA ultimately concluded that witnesses saw the aircraft beginning to dismantle, not a missile. An analysis of radar-tracking data showed that no missile could have shot the plane down, according to the CIA's report, which attributed the cause of the crash to a mechanical explosion in the plane's fuel tank.

Thomas Stalcup was in graduate school when he opened his own investigation into the flight, according to his website. The 2013 documentary "TWA Flight 800," which Stalcup co-produced, advances the missile-attack theory.

Stalcup, who has a doctorate in physics from Florida State University, had asked the CIA for its crash-investigation records, as well as the names of 244 eyewitnesses interviewed.

Dissatisfied with the 25 documents that the CIA had released in response to an earlier request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Stalcup filed suit in Massachusetts. The CIA ultimately produced an additional 49 documents, a DVD and 89 partially redacted documents.

It refused, however, to give Stalcup its 1998 analysis of radar tracking, its dynamic flight-simulation analysis and the names of FBI-interviewed eyewitnesses.

A federal judge found for the CIA, and the 1st Circuit in Boston affirmed Monday.

The three-judge appellate panel found it "dubious" that the two documents Stalcup seeks are not exempt as issues of policy or legal question since they contain factual information respecting the cause of the Flight 800 crash.

"The question is not merely whether the documents contain factual information - or even whether the document is predominantly comprised of findings of fact - but rather the degree to which the facts are indissolubly linked to the broader analysis," Judge Jeffrey Howard wrote for the court.

In this case, the facts presented in the two requested documents, both labeled "draft" and never finalized, are tied to broader policy considerations, as they were passed on to agency management for possible policy changes, the court found.

The eyewitnesses meanwhile have a significant privacy interest in remaining anonymous to the public, according to the ruling.

"Relying on the testimony of a single witness who felt 'intimidated' from speaking out, Stalcup asserts that the eyewitnesses in this case actually wish to go public with their observations," Howard wrote. "He claims that the CIA has either destroyed their credibility or threatened retaliation if they come forward."

In declining to credit this theory, the court blasted Stalcup for failing to show that he could obtain new information by reinterviewing the eyewitnesses.

"The problem for Stalcup is that he fails to show how providing him the names - thus permitting him to further interview the witnesses - would yield any new information," the 20-page opinion states. "That gap prevents us from concluding that release would further his purported public interest. Thus, given the presence of a privacy interest, and the complete absence of any public benefit, the balance between the two unquestionably banks against release."

Categories / Uncategorized

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.