EgyptAir Flight 990 - Questions persist over 33 military officers on flight

The Providence Journal-Bulletin November 10, 1999, Wednesday,

Government investigators say there is no evidence they were potential targets of a terrorist attack.

MIKE STANTON; Journal Staff Writer

The 33 Egyptian military officers aboard EgyptAir Flight 990 had been in the United States for a variety of reasons, illustrating the close military partnership between the two countries.

Since signing the Camp David peace accord with Israel in 1978, Egypt has received more than $ 30 billion in military assistance from the United States, according to the Federation of American Scientists, which monitors arms sales.

Egypt now receives $ 1.3 billion a year in military financing from the United States, second only to Israel.

Much of that aid has paid for weapons from U.S. defense contractors tanks, fighter planes, helicopters and missile systems. Thousands of Egyptian officers have visited the United States to meet with defense contractors and participate in Pentagon-sponsored training programs.

Among them were most of the officers, including an Army and an Air Force brigadier general, on Flight 990 last week when it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Nantucket Island shortly after taking off from New York's JFK Airport.

The presence of the 33 officers aboard the commercial flight, which carried 217 people, has prompted questions about whether they were potential targets of a terrorist attack.

But government investigators have cautioned against such a conclusion, noting that there is no evidence of foul play.

Asked at a Pentagon news briefing whether the officers or their activities in the United States made them potential terrorist targets, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon replied: "Not that I can see.

"But I caution you again, to heed the warning given by the head of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is it's too early to rule anything in or anything out. We just don't know what caused this plane to come down."

An official with the NTSB, which is spearheading the investigation into the crash, said there were no "declared hazardous materials" on board Flight 990.

A military attache to the Egyptian embassy in Washington said there was no military cargo aboard Flight 990. Such material is never shipped on commercial flights, he said.

AMERICAN AND EGYPTIAN officials have released few details of what the officers were doing in the United States, or even their names.

Most of the officers were in the United States to deal with unnamed defense contractors.

According to the Pentagon, three separate groups of officers, totaling 15 people, received communications training in California, Florida and Massachusetts.

A fourth group of six officers attended a conference about defense contracts for repairs to Chaparral missiles. Seven other officers were at a defense contractor near Fort Rucker, Ala., testing two H-3 helicopters.

The Pentagon said it could not say why the other five officers on Flight 990 had come to the United States. Unlike the other 28 officers, their visas had not been sponsored by the Egyptian Ministry of Defense, as is customary when Egyptian officers travel to the United States on military business.

"We believe that they were here on personal business," the Pentagon's Bacon said.

The reluctance of government officials to say more about the Egyptian officers speaks both to the sensitivity of the Flight 990 investigation and to the intrigue that swirls about Egypt's military dealings with the United States.

In the absence of hard evidence, officials are loathe to speculate, as was the case three years ago, when TWA Flight 800 crashed off Long Island. The FBI was convinced that the plane had been brought down by terrorists, but the cause later turned out to be mechanical failure.

In addition, a Pentagon official noted that the Egyptian government "may not want the world, and its adversaries, to know what exactly its people were doing and where they were going."

THE U.S. SUPPORT of Egypt's military has come with underlying tensions, say outside military experts.

After U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen announced a $ 3.2-billion arms sale to Egypt in Cairo early this year, he flew to Jerusalem to pledge that the deal would not threaten Israel's "qualitative edge" in military strength.

Despite the historic Camp David accord, the relationship between Israel and Egypt in recent years has been described by both sides as a "cold peace."

While Egypt was able to look to the United States for some of its military needs, the United States was not willing, until recently, to assist Egypt in other areas, such as improving its missile and air defenses.

According to a military attachi at the Egyptian embassy in Washington, about eight of the officers aboard Flight 990, including an Air Force brigadier general, had been in Florida, studying missile-launch systems for air defense.

Last March, Cohen announced that the United States would help Egypt in a major military modernization by selling the Egyptians 24 of the latest-model F-16 fighter planes, a Patriot missile battery and 200 new heavy tanks. Congressional approval of the deal is required and expected.

The Egyptians "would take it as an insult" if the United States refused to sell arms to them, Cohen said at the time. "They would see it as a breach of our friendship with them, and they would seek another supplier."

After the deal was announced, an Israeli official told The Dallas Morning News that Israel considered Egypt to be a potential risk, especially if its moderate government came under extremist pressure or if a Palestinian crisis eroded the Israeli-Egyptian peace.

Conversely, some Egyptian military officials have been impatient with the pace of U.S. military support.

"There is debate within the Egyptian military on the use of U.S. cooperation," said Amin Tarzi, an analyst with the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies, in Monterey, Calif. "Some are unhappy with the military cooperation they want things that they have not received."

Michael T. Klare, a professor of peace and world studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., said that Egypt has its own national-security agenda, particularly to increase its missile capability, that the United States would not wholeheartedly endorse.

"Egypt has a history of using its ties to the U.S. to obtain missile-related technology that the U.S. would object to," said Klare, an author of books about the international arms trade.

In the late 1980s, Klare noted, Egyptian military officials were charged with trying to smuggle unauthorized materials for producing missiles out of the United States on an Egyptian military cargo plane.

Officials were not aware of any similar episodes in recent years.

A DEFENSE ANALYST with the Federation for American Scientists discounted the possibility that the Egyptian officers were targets of terrorists.

"It would be difficult for anyone to ascertain what flight these officers would be on," said the analyst, John Pike. And if any particular officer was a target, terrorists could have an easier time trying to assassinate him in Egypt.

Finally, observers noted, the deaths of the officers is not going to derail the strong military relationship between Egypt and the United States.

Under tight security in Cairo late last week, the Egyptian defense minister and top military officers joined in prayers at the armed forces mosque to remember the 33 officers aboard Flight 990.

The victims were described as having "died in service."

"In Islam, anyone who dies for their country is considered a martyr," an Army brigadier general told the Agence France Presse. "These officers were on a mission so they died in service."

Copyright 1999 The Providence Journal Company