TWA Flight 800 Missile Theory

Pierre Salinger

Reality vs Myth

by Ian Williams Goddard


THE MYTH: While surfing the Internet Pierre Salinger was duped by a hoax mischievously claiming that TWA Flight 800 was shot down by a US Navy missile. He then rushed to the media with the hoax and said it must be true because it was on the Internet.

THE REALITY: As first reported, Salinger’s long-time French Intelligence contact told him that the US Navy accidentally shot down TWA Flight 800 and gave him a report by Captain Richard Russell. In that report, Russell, a retired 747 pilot and crash investigator, said the jet was accidently hit by a Navy missile. In an affidavit filed in a lawsuit, Russell stands by his claim and says it was based on information relayed to him from a friend who attended a high-level briefing on the crash. Russell’s report had circulated on the Internet and had been denied by the Navy before it was given to Salinger.

Two months before Salinger made headlines WCBS News reporter Marcia Kramer reported that “Highly placed sources say the theory that a missile was fired at TWA 800 is still viable [...] Friendly fire is a possibility.” [*] So the friendly fire theory or claim traces to: (1) Kramer’s “highly placed sources,” (2) Salinger’s French Intelligence contact, and (3) Captain Richard Russell’s inside contact. This reality differs from the myth that reduces the source to some Internet prankster. Critics of the Navy-missile theory have posited the criterion: if there was a cover-up, surely some leak would develop.

The first section below has some accurate media reports citing Captain Richard Russell, a retired 747 pilot and former crash investigator, as the source of Pierre Salinger’s document. Russell’s report was based on information relayed to him from a long-time friend who had just attended a high-level briefing on the Flight 800 crash.

Accurate news reports about Salinger’s sources

CNN (11/8/96): “Salinger said he was basing the claims on information he saw in a document given to him six weeks ago by someone in French Intelligence with close contacts to U.S. officials.

CNN (3/13/97): “Salinger first based his friendly fire claim on a memo Russell wrote and circulated on the Internet.” Russell’s memo is the document that Salinger’s French Intelligence source gave him noted in the previous CNN report.

USA Today (10/31/96): Richard Russell, a retired United Airline pilot and former crash investigator, shouldn’t have been surprised when an authoritative sounding e-mail he sent to fewer than a dozen friends Aug. 22—claiming a government cover-up in the crash of TWA Flight 800—was copied across the ‘Net’.”

New York Times (11/17/96): “[The] anonymous message that began circulating in late August ... was written on America Online by Richard Russell, a 66-year-old Floridian and former United Airlines pilot. ... Russell can’t be accused of courting publicity. He says he has been contacted by several major television shows, but they’ve all lost interest because he won’t give up his source.

The Westchester Weekly (1996) published a detailed and accurate review of Richard Russell and the Flight 800 friendly fire theory.

Accurate book reports about Salinger’s sources

Pat Milton (AP reporter) in her book In The Blink of an Eye writes: “Sometime in early October, Salinger was handed a copy of an unsigned document written, he was later told, by a former United Airlines pilot.” (page 266-7). Milton goes on to note in detail that the author and retired pilot was Richard Russell (see pages 272-5).

Christine Negroni (CNN reporter) accurately states in her book Deadly Departure that the author of the document that Salinger held as evidence was Richard Russell (see pages 109, 141-5).

NOTE: the file to which the Richard Russell links here go is an affidavit from Russell filed in a lawsuit against the NTSB for their refusal to make mathematic equations available for peer review that allegedly support their claim that Flight 800 shot upwards like a missile after its forward section was blown away, causing witnesses to think they were seeing a missile. Numerous experts and others have filed affidavits in that case testifying against a wide range of claims the government has made about the TWA Flight 800 crash. Affidavits filed in this lawsuit are available here. Further details on this lawsuit are available here.

Here is a copy of Captain Richard Russell’s report (backup).

The following reports make false claims about Salinger and the friendly fire theory:

Inaccurate reports about Pierre Salinger

Jim Hall:One of the effects of Drudge and others like him [...] seems to be a reduction by media generally in the time and effort devoted to checking stories. Perhaps the most notorious example of such abrogation of responsibility are the reports, derived solely from mischievous information placed on the web (via Usenet), that TWA flight 800, which crashed off Long Island in 1996, was brought down by a missile.” Hall, Jim. Online Journalism, A Critical Primer. London: Pluto Press, 2001, page 134.

The source of the friendly fire theory was not “mischievous information placed on the web” but media reports, the official investigation that reportedly investigated the Navy early on, Salinger’s French Intelligence contact, and Captain Richard Russell whose claims outlined in the report Salinger held were based on information relayed to him from a long-time friend who had just attended a high-level briefing on the Flight 800 crash. See the previous accurate-reports section for details.

Ronald De Wolk:The consequences of these destructive elements suddenly grown from the Web were evident in an early debacle involving former newspaperman, network news correspondent and presidential spokesman Pierre Salinger. He announced to the world that he had discovered that the sudden explosion of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island, New York, in July 1996, was caused by a U.S. military missile. His announcement, because of his standing, was covered widely. When real reporters asked him to attribute his statement, he said he had read it on the Internet.

The sites Salinger used were run by non-journalists who had little or no concern about accuracy, multiple sourcing, independent verification, libel or fairness. The result of Salinger’s initial pronouncement and subsequent insistences resulted in a sad ending to a long and distinguished career.” De Wolk, Ronald. Introduction to Online Journalism, Publishing News and Information. Allyn & Bacon: 2001, page 172.

I contacted De Wolk about his errors, which are outlined here. As the contemporaneous CNN reports in the accurate-reports section above confirm, Salinger did not say he had "read it on the Internet" as De Wolk claims.

Kristina Borjesson:Salinger announced to the world on November 8, 1996, that he’d received documents from French intelligence proving that a U.S. Navy missile had accidentally downed the jetliner. [...] Without a doubt, Salinger’s rushing to the press with a statement he couldn’t back up was incredibly irresponsible, and he got what he deserved.” Into The Buzzsaw. New York: Prometheus Books, 2002, pages 110, 116.

While I recommend Borjesson’s book (Prometheus Books), her comments on Salinger are inaccurate. In reality the press rushed to Salinger catching him unprepared rather than Salinger “rushing to the press.” Milton (pages 266-70) and Negroni (pages 141-5) cited in the accurate-reports section above give accurate accounts of this. As Negroni aptly puts it: “Salinger had mentioned TWA Flight 800 in a speech to aviation executives” (141). Being famous, Salinger gives lectures in various forums. On November 7, 1996 he happened to be speaking at an aviation conference in France and thus decided to mention what his friend in French Intelligence (the DGSE) had told him a month ago (Milton, 266). Then, an AP reporter who happened to be in the audience rushed to publish a report about Salinger’s allegation at the conference. Within hours the media and the FBI were rushing to Salinger’s door (not the other way around) and he found himself in the world spotlight.

Salinger’s certitude in the friendly fire claim rested with the trust he placed in his long-time friend in the DGSE, but scrambling for some concrete justification other than faith in a friend he relied on the papers his friend had given him a month ago errantly assuming they were government documents. The picture Borjesson paints in her book Into The Buzzsaw, of Salinger breathlessly rushing to the media is inaccurate and unfair because she uses it to denigrate, indeed to “buzzsaw,” someone who was subjected to more buzzsawing than anyone.

Salinger, a retired journalist had valid concerns about the crash and expressed them in a forum that seemed appropriate. When he spoke to the media that then rushed to him he was not speaking as an active investigative journalist, just as someone relaying what he had been told to people who were asking him. The mistake Salinger made was assuming that Captain Russell’s report was a government document.

Los Angeles Times (11/06/97) headline reads: “Author of Flight 800 Tale Admits Hoax.” The article falsely claims Ian Goddard created the friendly fire theory. See a factually accurate timeline of the friendly fire theory or claim here.

Omaha World Herald (11/8/97): Internet Hoax a Damaging Lesson [...] “the reputation of Pierre Salinger was tarnished by Goddard’s story. Salinger swallowed the story and went public with a condemnation of the government.

Howard Kleinberg:Ian Goddard who influenced former John Kennedy press chief Pierre Salinger to make a fool of himself last spring in not only accepting the missile theory, but claiming he had irrefutable evidence - which he did not.” The Tampa Tribune, November 9, 1997.

Roxanne Barber: “[...] Pierre Salinger, who reported in the fall of 1996 that TWA Flight 800 had been shot down by U.S. Navy missiles, a claim supported by ‘government documents’ in his possession. After a national stir, news reports revealed that the source of the ‘government’ information was Ian Goddard’s Web site.” The Quarterly, winter 2001.

REALITY: Salinger’s sources, documents, and belief in the friendly fire theory were based on a trusted French Intelligence source and Captain Richard Russell, not on Ian Goddard or his website. Goddard was also not a source of any original factual claims or alleged items of evidence regarding the Flight 800 crash. Russell’s document claiming that the Navy shot down Flight 800 was based on information relayed to him from a long-time friend who had just attended a high-level briefing on the Flight 800 crash. See the previous accurate-media-reports section above and Captain Richard Russell’s affidavit for details.

Here is a copy of Captain Richard Russell’s report (backup).


[*] Kramer, Marcia. Newsradio 88 and Channel Two News, WCBS New York, September 5, 1996. Later that day U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Edward Kristensen responded to Kramer’s report saying “the Navy didn’t bring it down in friendly fire“ (Nighttime Edition, NTLI Cable, New York).


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