AMERICA'S FEDERAL Bureau of Investigation is being accused by officials and diplomats in Washington of deliberately leaking information on the EgyptAir crash, some of it incorrect. The agency, which has been the focus of previous tensions in airline crash probes, would take over the investigation if criminal activity were suspected.
The leaks are just part of a poorly handled investigation which has soured US relations with Egypt. And they have contributed to the idea that there is only one possible theory of how flight 990 came to crash; in fact there are still several lines of inquiry.
Several US agencies and newspapers on Friday quoted an anonymous "law enforcement official" who retracted an earlier claim that the relief co- pilot, Gameel el-Batouty, had said: "I have made my decision now," before reciting a Muslim prayer. The official claimed that this was "an innocent mistake", but it was one of the principal elements which led the US media to assume that Mr el-Batouty had put the aircraft into a dive in an attempt to commit suicide. Yesterday, the pilot's family - and most of Egypt, which is aghast at the suggestion that the jet was deliberately downed - was celebrating an important victory.
The only law enforcement agency directly involved in the probe is the FBI. The agency is thought to have been the source of numerous other leaks which led Jim Hall, head of the US National Transportation Safety Board, to condemn a "cyclone of speculation" last week.
The initial leap to judgment was made after it was revealed that someone, perhaps Mr el-Batouty, had uttered a prayer shortly before the aircraft went into a precipitous dive. No attempt was made to explain that Muslims can use this prayer in everyday circumstances and that it does not necessarily indicate either religious zeal or an abandonment of hope for life. It can be used before beginning to cook a meal, for instance.
US authorities were hampered by the fact that their translators were not Egyptian Muslims. They were, according to some sources, Lebanese Christians from the Central Intelligence Agency who would have had little idea of the meaning of the sentence.
One US Congressman has booked himself on to an EgyptAir flight to Cairo to protest at the torrent of speculation. Jack Metcalf, a Republican from Washington state, said he would switch to EgyptAir for a flight from New York to Cairo for meetings with Egyptian officials as a protest at the "premature and irresponsible spec- ulation". …