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Exhausted when I got home, I fell asleep early. It was July 17. "There's been another crash. It doesn't look good," I heard my husband say through my fog of sleep. "It crashed into the ocean." I got up and followed him to the television. TWA Flight 800 had just plummeted into the Atlantic in a ball of flames off Long Island, and it looked like hundreds of passengers were dead. A familiar, wrenching dread tugged at me. Echoes of ValuJet questions bounced around my head. Had the TWA jet crashed because an incompetent mechanic missed something? Because a bogus part sold to the airline by shady dealers had failed? Or was the plane blown out of the sky because lax security had permitted a bomb to be hidden on the plane or slipped aboard as luggage or cargo?
For two weeks after TWA Flight 800 blew up, I sat through interview after interview on television as the country tried to sort out what could have gone wrong. Yet it was difficult for me to reassure the public when I knew about the FAA's sloppy safety and security record. To be sure, many FAA field employees are hardworking civil servants who have devoted their careers to aviation. They fly all the time, and so do their families and friends. Many FAA inspectors helped my office with investigations, reports and testimony before Congress. Senior FAA officials tried to reach compromises with my office and with the NTSB. But most of the time we pursued opposite goals.
SILENCING THE WATCHDOG
After I resigned my position as Inspector General at the Department of Transportation, the report on airport security that my office had readied for the Secretary, the White House and Congress was suppressed. It didn't matter that the decision had already been made not to classify the report. It was buried for several weeks, until after the Democratic National Convention. When it was finally issued, all the incriminating information about the FAA had been blacked out, including the failure rates and the FAA's response to our findings.
Another report that my office was preparing on FAA inspections was also killed. It was critical of the FAA because the agency had not made improvements in the terrible inspection system we had previously uncovered. Even though an assistant inspector general had already testified to Congress about this report, it was not issued.
FAA administrator Hinson resigned his position in November 1996, and Transportation Secretary Pena has since become Energy Secretary. The job of Inspector General has remained unfilled for more that eight months, and for the time being that office is keeping a lower profile.
Inspector General employees have been barred from talking to the press. The office will no longer get involved in Department of Transportation or FAA policy issues, even though the Inspector General's Act says that is one of the office's purposes. Safety issues are now beyond the scope of the Inspector General's office.
The FAA wanted peace with the Inspector General and the NTSB, but it wanted harmony by persuading us to lay off, to leave its officials to do their jobs as they always had. Planes are not falling out of the sky, the FAA kept saying. Aircraft are not crashing. Stated over and over, this agency mantra was a blanket justification for business as usual.