Editor’s note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of“Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden — From 9/11 to Abbottabad.”
(CNN) — Nothing gets conspiracy theorists going more than a passenger plane crashing under mysterious circumstances.
In the absence of hard information to explain such disasters, people look for answers, and the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 early Saturday could prompt the same response.
TWA Flight 800 fell out of the sky on July 17, 1996, shortly after leaving JFK International Airport, killing all 230 people on board.
Some soon posited that terrorists armed with surface-to-air missiles had brought down the plane.
This theory seemed to be bolstered by eyewitness accounts such as that provided by Naneen Levine, who said she saw something streaking up toward the doomed plane. “I thought it was something on the beach going straight up.”
Three months after the TWA crash, former ABC News correspondent Pierre Salinger, who had once been President John Kennedy’s press secretary, weighed in at a news conference that a U.S. Navy ship had brought down TWA 800 with a missile. Salinger came to this conclusion because of a document on the Internet making this claim.
Bob Francis, the former vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said of Salinger, “He was an idiot. … He didn’t know what he was talking about, and he was totally irresponsible.”
After a four-year investigation, the NTSB ruled that the TWA 800 crash was caused by “an explosion of the center wing fuel tank, resulting from ignition of the flammable fuel/air mixture in the tank.”
Three years after TWA 800 went down, EgyptAir Flight 990 left JFK International and soon plunged into the Atlantic, killing more than 200 people on board.
Two competing theories about what happened emerged. The NTSB, widely regarded around the world as the most authoritative investigator of plane crashes, concluded after a three-year investigation that one of the Egyptian pilots, Gameel al-Batouti, had intentionally downed the plane.
NTSB pointed to the fact that the downward trajectory of the plane was inconsistent with mechanical failure. Based on the recovered cockpit voice recorder, NTSB also underlined al-Batouti’s constant use of the phrase, “I rely on God,” and his lack of surprise when the passenger jet suddenly began descending.
In Egypt, this was not a popular view, and Egyptian officials pointed to supposed mechanical failure as the cause of the crash.
The conspiracy theories that developed around TWA 800 were caused by unreliable eyewitness accounts and Internet rumor-mongering. In the case of EgyptAir 900, Egyptian officials would not accept that an Egyptian pilot would commit suicide, killing many others, and came up with an alternative explanation for which there was scant evidence.
In the case of the downing of Pan Am Flight 103, there was a deliberate effort to inject a conspiracy theory into the narrative of the events.
Pan Am 103 blew up over Scotland on December 21, 1988, because of a bomb in the hold, which killed 270 on board and others on the ground.
Juval Aviv, who presented himself as a former Israeli counterterrorism official, was hired by Pan Am to investigate what happened.
In his report, Aviv claimed to have proof that the murder of the passengers on Pan Am 103 was the result of a CIA sting operation that went awry, an assertion for which there was not a shred of evidence.
Yet a piece partly based on Aviv’s fairy tale then ended up as a cover story in TIME magazine. The U.S. government later concluded that the attack was ordered by the Libyan government, something the Libyans would eventually concede was, in fact, true.
The TWA 800, EgyptAir 990 and Pan Am 103 cases represent the likely range of reasons that brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: mechanical failure, pilot actions or terrorism.
Based on these past cases, we should be careful not to allow conspiracy theories about what happened to get too much play. The truth will come out only after a careful and lengthy investigation.
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