Five years after a charter plane crashed in Gander, Newfoundland, and killed 248 American soldiers, the U.S. government will finally have to defend its dubious account of what happened.

A tightly held report of a congressional investigation criticizes the National Transportation Safety Board's handling of the case. And it takes a swipe at the FBI's investigation of the crash, calling it "unacceptable, if not also unbelievable."The report was strong enough to inspire the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime to order a hearing on the crash for Dec. 4. The hearing may finally give an open forum to the whispered rumors of a terrorist bombing.

The government nearly tripped on itself in a rush to blame ice for the crash of the DC-8 on Dec. 12, 1985. That theory was accepted almost three years later by a report from the Canadian Aviation Safety Board, which led the investigation into the crash. But four of the nine board members felt so strongly the conclusion was wrong that they issued their own report. They said an in-flight explosion may have caused the crash.

The U.S. government has been strangely reluctant to take responsibility for a thorough investigation. The Army says it handled only the body identification. The National Transportation Safety Board says it advised only the Canadians. The FBI says it left Gander two days after the crash because there was no sign of terrorism, and the Canadians had everything under control.

Anyone who tries to get more than that out of the administration gets the runaround. When congressional investigators were assigned to look into the case, they got the same runaround. Their report, obtained by our associate Jim Lynch, calls the NTSB "grossly negligent."

That report also notes that the NTSB's chief investigator on the case, George Seidlein, was mysteriously removed from the investigation. NTSB officials told the congressional investigators that Seidlein "was not good at public relations." But Seidlein said he was not asked to review the final Canadian report because he could not accept the icing theory, and it was "unlikely his views would have been accepted" by the NTSB, the investigative report says.

As for the FBI's performance, the congressional investigators said they did not buy the docile account that the FBI left Gander because the Canadians were on top of the case. "Such a course of conduct on the part of the FBI is, in the view of the subcommittee, unacceptable if not also unbelievable," the report says.

If the FBI bowed out quickly, it still left a massive report on the crash - most of which is censored. One of the unsolved mysteries is that the FBI denies the claims of a former pilot for Arrow Air, the company that owned the charter plane, that FBI agents interviewed him. The pilot claims that he was asked what would happen if explosions occurred in sections of a DC-8.

The report goes soft on the Army, accepting the story that the Army played only a small role in the investigation. But we have seen documents which indicate that the Army was doing more than attaching toe-tags to bodies. A week after the crash, an internal memo to the Army deputy chief of staff for operations notes that the Army wanted to use a "helicopter-borne, multi-spectrum prototype minefield sensor" to inspect the crash site. Such equipment is used in searches for explosives.

Many of the families of the victims - members of the 101st Airborne Division on a peace-keeping mission in the Sinai Peninsula - believe the government is simply lying to them. That is why they continue to ask questions. They hope that the congressional hearing will give them some answers as they commemorate the fifth anniversary of the tragedy.