Amelia Earhart: Was She Or Wasn't She?

ON A JULY MORNING IN 1937. long before anyone ever heard the expression "grassy knoll," Amelia Earhart disappeared in the South Pacific and set off a riot of speculation that would be rivaled only by the assassination of JFK. Was the beloved aviator lost at sea, as the official version had it? Did she land on an atoll and die of thirst? Did the Japanese pick her up, decide she was a spy and execute her? Was she a spy?

Absolutely, claims Randall Brink, whose new book Lost Star (206 pages. Norton. $25) has reopened a clamorous debate. A pilot and novelist, Brink has spent 13 years on the Earhart trail, analyzing documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

He concludes that the U.S. government secretly arranged to turn Earhart's last flight, a circle-the-globe stunt, into a spy mission. Earhart would photograph Japanese military activity in the Marshall Islands: in return, the government would pay for the flight. After flying over the Marshalls, writes Brink, Earhart was unable to locate the prearranged landing site; she was forced down by the Japanese and imprisoned. According to Brink, records that would further substantiate his account remain classified. "There is no smoking gun," he told NEWSWEEK. "We're dealing with a compendium of information that, taken out of context, is not particularly remarkable. But when it's correlated, it's very telling."

Longtime Earhart buffs are skeptical. Rick Gillespie, who heads an organization dedicated to aviation history says Brink is merely recycling old theories that lack solid proof "We've done exhaustive work and have never run up against anything still classified," he says. Tom Crouch, of the National Air and Space Museum, says Brink is overinterpreting his findings. For example, in a phone conversation Brink cites between FDR Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. and the White House, Morgenthau indicated that if the full story of Earhart's last flight were made public, her reputation would be ruined. "Brink reads the spy story into that," says Crouch. "I say what he's talking about is, she went out with crummy equipment and improperly trained...She didn't know Morse code, for instance."

Whether or not Brink's ideas hold up, Earhart remains an irresistible subject. In recent months, there's been a new biography and a PBS documentary. As Crouch puts it, "She's our favorite missing person."