Monday, June 22, 2009

Lahr v. NTSB (9th Cir. - June 22, 2009)

I'm not a conspiracy nut. In the slightest. True conspiracies are freakishly hard to keep secret, and generally the alleged motivations for them aren't sufficiently strong to justify the potential downside.

I mention this only because while I don't believe there's a grand conspiracy, as I was reading this case earlier today, I was nonetheless struck by the underlying facts. It's a FOIA lawsuit about TWA Flight 800, which was the airplane that exploded off the coast of Long Island back in 1996. The explosion is generally attributed at this point to a short circuit that caused the fuel tank to explode. But lots -- and I mean, lots -- of witnesses said they saw a streak of light going towards the airplane, and there was both an initial and lingering theory that the plane had been shot down by a missile.

I obviously don't know which theory is correct. Prior to reading this opinion, I had thought that anyone who still believed the "missile" theory was probably either a committed partisan or a nutjob. But now I don't. It's a toughie in part because there are 250 or so witnesses who say they saw the streak, and while there's a "zoom-climb" theory that attempts to explain what these witnesses saw (consistent with the no-missile theory), it's far from conclusive.

In the end, I'm pretty confident that there was no grand conspiracy, and tend to believe (more likely than not) that the experts are right that there was no missile. But I'm far from certain.

Here's a good -- and not overly rambling -- discussion of the missile strike theory from the plaintiff in the case. Who, parenthetically, largely prevails in his FOIA request.

One other point. It's not that I consistently reject conspiracy theories. For example, I think even on the slim evidence that's available, it's pretty solid that there was massive fraud in the recent Iranian election. But fraud in an unfree country is a lot easier than a conspiracy in a liberal democracy.