November 19, 1999


The gullibility and herd-instinct of the American media, its willingness to let itself be used as a mouthpiece and servitor of government, was never more on display than in the downing of EgyptAir 990. The lead was taken, as usual, by the New York Times, [November 16, 1999] with a front-page headline complete with a diagram illustrating what was described as the government's "developing theory": that relief pilot Gamil al-Batouti took advantage of the main pilot's absence from the cockpit to shut off the engines, and crash the jet. What is this theory based on? Very little – in reality, nothing.


The two main pieces of "evidence" – that Batouti uttered a prayer in Arabic translated as "I put my trust in God" before he supposedly shut down the engines, and the allegation that he forced the plane's tailpieces down, which prevented it from regaining altitude – are a matter of interpretation and supposition rather than solid fact.


First, what the Times called "the enigmatic prayer uttered in Arabic" by Batouti – Tawakilt ala Allah – is a common linguistic tic in the Arab world, often uttered at the beginning of even the simplest and most non-threatening tasks. The next day, the Times reported the controversy over the translation, citing Mahmoud el-Azzazzay, a travel agent who once worked for EgyptAir, as saying: "We say it probably 200 or more times a day. This is what God recommends us to do. It means all my future is in God's hands." In the secular West, naturally, such a devout mindset is utterly incomprehensible, and even sinister.


Speaking of sinister – we are now told that widely-published reports of Batouti's last words "were not spoken"! Reuters and several other news organizations have been reporting that not only did Batouti utter the sinister prayer, but he preceded it by saying: "I made my decision." Now it turns out that, according to the NTSB, "on closer review of the tape," Batouti said nothing of the kind. One NTSB official averred that this was "an innocent mistake", but, according to news reports, "was unsure how it had happened." Now this is a strange "error" -- not a mistranslation, but a case of "hearing" something that was not even spoken. An "innocent mistake"? Give me a break.


As for the second tidbit of "evidence" – depending on the circumstances, shutting down the engines could be interpreted as an heroic attempt to save lives. According to Captain Zaki al-Kashef, a pilot at EgyptAir, instead of sabotaging the plane Batouti was intent on making an emergency landing in response to some cataclysmic event. "The speed he landed at, which was 0.86 mach, was almost the usual speed for an emergency landing. Switching off the engines was in accordance with standard procedures in cases of landing on water."


The American media is trumpeting the conflicting positions of the plane's elevators as "evidence" of some kind of struggle between Batouti and the chief pilot, Ahmed al-Habashi. This is said to have ensued soon after Habashi, upon his return, was heard to say "What's going on?" But what does any of this prove? The answer is: nothing. For there is a far simpler and more credible explanation for the conflicting positions of the tailpieces, and that is sheer panic and confusion. If some other kind of disturbance occurred elsewhere in the plane, then that would explain Habashi's otherwise unexplainable absence from the cockpit. According to the U.S. government's evolving scenario, the chief pilot left Batouti alone in the cockpit. But this would violate the safety rules of all airlines everywhere, and is never done – except, perhaps, under extremely mitigating circumstances.


The rush to judgment on the part of the media and US government officials is, in itself, suspicious. The hard push for the "suicide" scenario in the English-speaking press is being taken to great lengths; e.g. the November 18 Sydney Morning Herald piece, headlined "Agony of the pilot on death flight 990," which starts out "Copilot Gamil el-Batouti had a lot on his mind as he boarded EgyptAir Flight 990 at Los Angeles International Airport on the afternoon of October 30." The article points out that he had just returned from a visit to his seriously-ill daughter, being treated in the US for lupus, and goes on to declaim that "the news was not good." But that is not true: Batouti had been told by doctors that her illness was treatable: instead of handing down a death sentence, doctors handed him a message of hope. Again, it is a matter of interpretation. Family members deny that Batouti had any kind of financial problems: as a former trainer for the Egyptian airforce, and a longtime employee of EgyptAir, Batouti was no pauper. In spite of the cost of his daughter's illness, he had made arrangements for the whole family and some friends to travel together to New York – hardly a likely plan for a bankrupt planning suicide.


On the Egyptian side, the story of the pilot's suicide is angrily rejected. This anger is reflected in the protests of the Egyptian government that the Americans, in rushing to judgment, are dissing the state-owned airline, and, it seems, impugning the national honor of Egypt. This "spin" naturally carried over pretty faithfully to the Egyptian media, which immediately latched on to the idea that a technical malfunction had occurred. Several lawsuits by relatives of the deceased are already being launched in New York, against Boeing (the maker of the aircraft) and others, based on precisely that contention. Cannily playing the nationalist card, the regime of Hosni Mubarrak needs as much bolstering as it can get, what with Islamic radicals constantly barking at his heels. The Islamic underground, outlawed and ruthlessly suppressed, nonetheless persists and is very active: add to this the proximity of Sudan, the potential patron and ideological lodestar of Egyptian Islamic groups, and it is easy to see why the Egyptian government and media (or do I repeat myself?) downplay the prospect of terrorism – except in a wildly distorted form.


Samir Ragah, editor of the influential "semi-official" Al Gomhuriya, lashed out at the US government as well as the American media for making Batouti a "scapegoat," which prompted an angry response from the American ambassador. "America's goal is to hide the truth by blaming the EgyptAir pilot," declared Al Shaab in a banner headline. "The cover-up is obvious," sniffed Al Ahram. But what is being covered up? Al Shaab demanded "international intervention in the course of the investigations" on the grounds that – all evidence gathered by the American authorities suggests foul play.'' But these vague accusations of "foul play" are invariably aimed at "the Zionists," never domestic terrorists. In explaining why Batouti could not have committed suicide, one Egyptian journalist was quoted by Reuters as saying:

"It's a shame for someone to commit suicide in our culture, it's a sin and whoever does it will go to hell forever. It's impossible for the pilot to kill himself and terrorism is not even an issue."


But why isn't terrorism an issue? As much as the Egyptians and the Americans seem to be at loggerheads, the suicide scenario versus the Boeing-Zionist conspiracy theory does seem to preclude the most obvious and far more realistic alternative, and that is an attack by Islamic radicals on America's most dependable (some would say slavish) regional ally. On the politically sensitive subject of terrorism, both governments have good reason to be in denial: the Egyptians, because the news of a successful and spectacular terrorist attack would undermine the aura of invincible stability projected by the regime, and throw the spotlight on the growing Islamic insurgency welling up from the Arab "street." The Americans are in denial because, as I pointed out in my last column on this subject, it would not take long for the foreign policy implications to sink in. The cry would soon go up: why are we massively subsidizing a typically repressive Middle Eastern regime such as the one that now rules Egypt? Who knows, but such a development even could lead to a real foreign policy debate in this country – something that neither of the major parties would welcome.


This Just In – Bill Safire's New York Times column [November 18, 1999] breathlessly announces the highlights of George W. Bush's much-awaited foreign policy speech, in which Dubya announces that "I'm going to say that America has got to reject isolationism"! Wow! What a scoop! But there is something about this theme that seems, well, strangely familiar. Where have we heard all this before? Like Clinton, Dubya is taking out after those nasty old Republican isolationists in Congress – who earned his ire a few weeks ago, you'll remember, for not being "compassionate" enough (ostensibly because they dispensed heating oil subsidies for the poor in monthly installments instead of on a yearly basis). Safire pats his avid pupil on the back, as if to say "Attaboy!" and explains this Bush-Clinton confluence by cleverly averring that it "blunts President Clinton's attack by joining it." Now there's a winning strategy for the GOP, one that ought to cheer the hearts of party activists in every state – an all-out assault on the Republican party by its presidential candidate!


Al Gore's political fortunes may sink as quickly as EgyptAir flight 990 plummeted into the ocean, and with the same force, if and when it becomes known that this was a terrorist act. For he took special responsibility for the much-touted "anti-terrorism" program initiated by the feds. It was Gore who led a government commission that instituted new security measures – including the controversial "profiling" program, which singled out certain passengers as potential suspects based on several factors (including ethnicity, method of payment, etc.). But I guess racial profiling could not work in the case of EgyptAir flight 900, which was filled with Egyptian nationals on their way to Cairo. Gore's only hope is that Clinton will take the lion's share of the blame, not only for lax security measures but also for covering up the facts. For what everyone will want to know, if and when the terrorist explanation proves true, is: what did Bill Clinton know and when did he know it?


But it is impossible, especially in this day and age, to pull off a successful cover-up on this scale without at least the passive cooperation of the media; not only the newspaper reporters but the opinion-makers, the editorialists and pundits, who are, in theory at least, the conscience of the nation. The media and government officials have a symbiotic relationship, with the former entirely dependent on the latter for access and juicy tidbits thrown their way as a reward for consistently putting the right "spin" on things. The echo chamber effect, in the case of the EgyptAir mystery, is all too obvious: further proof – as if any were needed – that the "mainstream" media have degenerated into little more than government courtiers.


Which brings us to another interest group, other than the US and Egyptian governments, that would definitely not benefit from the revelation that the EgyptAir tragedy was an act of terrorism – journalists. For the question would immediately be raised: how is it that they accepted the government's official story so readily, even eagerly, to the point of diagramming the government's line, in full color, on the front page of the nation's leading newspaper? And the longer they miss the story, the more likely they are to have an interest in not pursuing it beyond the limits set by the Washington spin machine.


And as to the implications of that: well, I won't go there, not in this column, except to say that not all journalists are caught in the web of government lies and evasions. But you have to search them out, you have to know where to look, and, above all, you have to think critically. Where can you find such journalists without trolling through dozens if not hundreds of newspapers a day – and who has time for that? Well, the answer is: we at have time for it. That, after all, is what we are all about. If you want to keep track of how (and why) your rulers are lying to you (no matter what country you're in), this is the place to be. So look around. Explore. And stay tuned to this column for more developments in the mystery of EgyptAir 990 as it unfolds.

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (forthcoming from Prometheus Books).

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