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Missile Attack a Favorite of Conspiracy Theorists

September 3, 1996 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ Conspiracy buffs love to theorize about cover-ups, and the idea that a missile _ from a hand-held launcher, a Navy ship or a National Guard helicopter _ brought down TWA Flight 800 is irresistible.

Investigators refuse to rule out the theory, despite calling it far-fetched, remote or no more than marginally possible. So it grows and flourishes, spread through The Internet, the airline-employee grapevine and even fliers on utility poles in Brooklyn.

The theory won’t die as long as the FBI continues to give missiles equal billing with a bomb and mechanical failure in its trio of possible causes for the crash.

Among some 1,800 interviews conducted by the FBI, about 50 people described light streaks or other oddities suggesting a missile hit the Boeing 747. While analysis of radar tapes showed nothing to back this up, the reports cannot be dismissed, chief FBI investigator James Kallstrom said.

One persistent rumor is that a U.S. warship or aircraft downed the jet with an errant missile and the government is covering it up. The investigation has not turned up anything to support this, said Rear Adm. Edward Kristensen, head of the Navy salvage operation off Long Island.

Other versions of the conspiracy theories involve a nugget of truth, but don’t stand up under examination.

``TWA flight 800 was shot down by a U.S. Navy guided missile ship which was in area W-105,″ says an Internet posting attributed to an unidentified former safety chairman of the Airline Pilots Association. ``W-105 is a Warning Area off the Southeast coast of Long Island and is used by the military for missile firing and other military operations.″

A guided missile ship was in the Atlantic that evening, Navy spokesman Lt. Nick Balice said. The USS Normandy was 180 miles south of the crash site. But it was not conducting weapons drills. A Navy anti-submarine plane also was training in the region, but it was unarmed, he said.

A poster circulated in Brooklyn claimed the state National Guard was training off Long Island with helicopters equipped with various weapons, including Stinger missiles.

A National Guard helicopter was practicing rescue missions in the area, but it too was unarmed, said Walt Sweeney, a state National Guard spokesman.

The missile theory focuses on portable weapons, including the U.S.-made Stinger. But experts have remained skeptical that such a missile could shoot down a plane 13,700 feet in the air, the outer limit of the Stinger’s effective range.

``After looking at all the factors, we say it’s possible but highly unlikely,″ said a U.S. officer, a missile expert who spoke on condition of anonymity. ``If I wanted to take out an aircraft like that with a hand-held missile, I sure wouldn’t be out in a boat.″