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Relentless pursuit


The FBI Investigation of TWA Flight 800

By Pat Milton

Random House, $26.95

Reviewed by BILL ADAIR

My favorite tale about James Kallstrom comes not from the investigation of TWA Flight 800, but from an incident years earlier involving Rottweilers and some spiked meatballs.

Kallstrom, then a top official at the FBI's New York field office, wanted to plant bugs to eavesdrop on someone from the mob, but he and his agents couldn't get past the dogs. So they fed them meatballs laced with laxatives and sedatives. Soon enough, the dogs were incapacitated, allowing them to plant the bugs.

His relentlessness in pursuing bad guys (and bad dogs) is one of the things that makes him such an interesting character. Law enforcement agencies are often run by dull managers who hide their feelings in a cautious doublespeak. But Kallstrom is not afraid to be brash in his pursuit of evil. As the leader of the Flight 800 investigation, his brashness shaped the federal response.

"Washington is treating this as a potential act of war," he told his deputies a few hours after the July 17, 1996 crash. "And gentleman, you've all become generals."

But as Pat Milton shows in this fascinating book, Kallstrom's relentlessness is also his biggest flaw. For months, he wouldn't dismiss the theory that a bomb or a missile caused the crash off the coast of Long Island, N.Y., even when it became clear he had no evidence. When FBI lab official William Tobin pointed out the lack of evidence, Kallstrom responded with a childish tirade. "What do you want to do - fold your tent and go home? You tired? You miss your mommy?"

Milton, a reporter for the Associated Press in New York, has written a compelling story that goes behind the scenes of the FBI investigation to reveal the extraordinary things the agency did to solve the mystery. She shows how the investigators pursued every wacky lead and how the FBI's massive effort overpowered the tiny National Transportation Safety Board.

The most intriguing person in all this is Kallstrom, who talks like a cross between a Marine drill sergeant and someone from the Untouchables.

After his agents met with presidential-aide-turned -conspiracy-theorist Pierre Salinger, Kallstrom declared, "What's this guy's problem? Has he eaten too many rotten escargots, or is he just a moron?"

But we also see the tender side of Kallstrom and a few moments of patriotism that are downright hokey. Milton writes that when Kallstrom saw the American flag at a Coast Guard station the day after the crash, he saw it as "a symbol, not just of freedom, but of the need to keep this investigation at full throttle."

Unfortunately, that's exactly what Kallstrom did. He went full-throttle for 16 months on the mistaken belief that a terrorist brought down the plane. Kallstrom came from a culture that saw the world in clear outlines of good and bad, so it was easy for him to cling to the idea that "a coward" _ his often-used term for a criminal _ blew up the Boeing 747.

That approach is fine in the FBI, but it's a lousy way to investigate a plane crash.

The lesson of Flight 800 is one that is drilled into crash investigators from the day they start: Don't jump to conclusions.

Milton shows how everyone, including the experienced crash investigators at the NTSB, bought into theories about sabotage and terrorism. The NTSB sent a relatively small team immediately after the crash because officials figured it was a criminal act that would be under the FBI's jurisdiction.

When the NTSB finally tried to assert itself, the FBI balked and kept much of the investigation under wraps. The FBI's we're-the-boss attitude is summed up by one of its agents who said, "We're the bigger feds. We've got more people, more equipment. And we've got the guns."

Milton provides some stinging portrayals of the NTSB officials, especially Vice Chairman Robert Francis, who was the agency's spokesman at the nightly briefings with Kallstrom. Describing Francis as "dressed for a Hamptons cocktail party or the U.S. Open," she says he was out of touch with the investigation and disliked by the NTSB employees.

The only weakness of Milton's book is that it is too heavily focused on the FBI. She pays relatively little attention to the NTSB, which has been in charge of the investigation since late 1997. A telling mistake in the book is a photograph of an investigator studying wiring from the plane. The caption reads: "An FBI explosives expert scrutinizes the wreckage."

It's actually Bob Swaim of the NTSB.

The joint effort of the NTSB and the FBI was a tug of war, but Milton's account is largely one-sided, often through Kallstrom's eyes. By publishing the book now, she chose not to wait for the completion of the NTSB's investigation, which is like describing a baseball game without telling what happened in the ninth inning.

Still, despite its shortcomings, it's an interesting book that provides a rare glimpse at the power and culture of the FBI.

Bill Adair, a staff writer in the Times Washington bureau, wrote the series "28 Seconds: The Mystery of USAir Flight 427."