Exclusive: Even in death, Libyan Ali al-Megrahi is dubbed “the Lockerbie bomber,” a depiction that proved useful last year in rallying public support for “regime change” in Libya. But the New York Times now concedes, belatedly, that the case against him was riddled with errors and false testimony, as Robert Parry reports.
By Robert Parry
From the Now-They-Tell-Us Department comes the New York Times obit of Libyan agent Ali al-Megrahi, who was convicted by a special Scottish court for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. After Megrahi’s death from cancer was announced on Sunday, the Times finally acknowledged that his guilt was in serious doubt.
Last year, when the Times and other major U.S. news outlets were manufacturing public consent for a new war against another Middle East “bad guy,” i.e. Muammar Gaddafi, Megrahi’s guilt was treated as flat fact. Indeed, citation of the Lockerbie bombing became the debate closer, effectively silencing anyone who raised questions about U.S. involvement in another war for “regime change.”
After all, who would “defend” the monsters involved in blowing Pan Am Flight 103 out of the sky over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing 270 people, including 189 Americans? Again and again, the U.S.-backed military intervention to oust Gaddafi in 2011 was justified by Gaddafi’s presumed authorship of the Lockerbie terrorist attack.
Only a few non-mainstream news outlets, like Consortiumnews.com, bothered to actually review the dubious evidence against Megrahi and raise questions about the judgment of the Scottish court that convicted Megrahi in 2001.
By contrast to those few skeptical articles, the New York Times stoked last year’s war fever by suppressing or ignoring those doubts. For instance, one March 2011 article out of Washington began by stating: “There once was no American institution more hostile to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s’s pariah government than the Central Intelligence Agency, which had lost its deputy Beirut station chief when Libyan intelligence operatives blew up Pan Am Flight 103 above Scotland in 1988.”
Note the lack of doubt or even attribution. A similar certainty prevailed in virtually all other mainstream news reports and commentaries, ranging from the right-wing media to the liberal MSNBC, whose foreign policy correspondent Andrea Mitchell would seal the deal by recalling that Libya had accepted “responsibility” for the bombing.
Gaddafi’s eventual defeat, capture and grisly murder brought no fresh doubts about the certainty of the guilt of Megrahi, who was simply called the “Lockerbie bomber.” Few eyebrows were raised even when British authorities released Libya’s former intelligence chief Moussa Koussa after asking him some Lockerbie questions.
Scotland Yard also apparently failed to notice the dog not barking when the new pro-Western Libyan government took power and released no confirmation that Gaddafi’s government indeed had sponsored the 1988 attack. After Gaddafi’s overthrow and death, the Lockerbie issue just disappeared from the news.
A Surprising Obit
So, readers of the New York Times’ obituary page might have been surprised Monday if they read deep into Megrahi’s obit and discovered this summary of the case:
“The enigmatic Mr. Megrahi had been the central figure of the case for decades, reviled as a terrorist but defended by many Libyans, and even some world leaders, as a victim of injustice whose trial, 12 years after the bombing, had been riddled with political overtones, memory gaps and flawed evidence.”
If you read even further, you would find this more detailed examination of the evidence:
“Investigators, while they had no direct proof, believed that the suitcase with the bomb had been fitted with routing tags for baggage handlers, put on a plane at Malta and flown to Frankfurt, where it was loaded onto a Boeing 727 feeder flight that connected to Flight 103 at London, then transferred to the doomed jetliner.
“After a three-year investigation, Mr. Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, the Libyan airline station manager in Malta, were indicted on mass murder charges in 1991. Libya refused to extradite them, and the United Nations imposed eight years of sanctions that cost Libya $30 billion. …
“Negotiations led by former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa produced a compromise in 1999: the suspects’ surrender, and a trial by Scottish judges in the Netherlands.
“The trial lasted 85 days. None of the witnesses connected the suspects directly to the bomb. But one, Tony Gauci, the Maltese shopkeeper who sold the clothing that forensic experts had linked to the bomb, identified Mr. Megrahi as the buyer, although Mr. Gauci seemed doubtful and had picked others in photo displays.
“The bomb’s timer was traced to a Zurich manufacturer, Mebo, whose owner, Edwin Bollier, testified that such devices had been sold to Libya. A fragment from the crash site was identified by a Mebo employee, Ulrich Lumpert.
“Neither defendant testified. But a turncoat Libyan agent testified that plastic explosives had been stored in Mr. Fhimah’s desk in Malta, that Mr. Megrahi had brought a brown suitcase, and that both men were at the Malta airport on the day the bomb was sent on its way.
“On Jan. 31, 2001, the three-judge court found Mr. Megrahi guilty but acquitted Mr. Fhimah. The court called the case circumstantial, the evidence incomplete and some witnesses unreliable, but concluded that ‘there is nothing in the evidence which leaves us with any reasonable doubt as to the guilt’ of Mr. Megrahi.
“Much of the evidence was later challenged. It emerged that Mr. Gauci had repeatedly failed to identify Mr. Megrahi before the trial and had selected him only after seeing his photograph in a magazine and being shown the same photo in court. The date of the clothing sale was also in doubt.
“Investigators said Mr. Bollier, whom even the court called ‘untruthful and unreliable,’ had changed his story repeatedly after taking money from Libya, and might have gone to Tripoli just before the attack to fit a timer and bomb into the cassette recorder. The implication that he was a conspirator was never pursued.
“In 2007, Mr. Lumpert admitted that he had lied at the trial, stolen a timer and given it to a Lockerbie investigator. Moreover, the fragment he identified was never tested for residue of explosives, although it was the only evidence of possible Libyan involvement.
“The court’s inference that the bomb had been transferred from the Frankfurt feeder flight was also cast into doubt when a Heathrow security guard revealed that Pan Am’s baggage area had been broken into 17 hours before the bombing, a circumstance never explored.
“Hans Köchler, a United Nations observer, called the trial ‘a spectacular miscarriage of justice,’ words echoed by Mr. Mandela. Many legal experts and investigative journalists challenged the evidence, calling Mr. Megrahi a scapegoat for a Libyan government long identified with terrorism. While denying involvement, Libya paid $2.7 billion to the victims’ families in 2003 in a bid to end years of diplomatic isolation.”
In other words, the case against Megrahi looks to have been an example of gross prosecutorial misconduct, relying on testimony from perjurers and failing to pursue promising leads (like the possibility that the bomb was introduced at Heathrow, not transferred from plane to plane to plane, an unlikely route for a terrorist attack and made even more dubious by the absence of any evidence of an unaccompanied bag being put on those flights).
Also, objective journalists should have noted that Libya’s much-touted acceptance of “responsibility” was simply an effort to get punishing sanctions lifted and that Libya always continued to assert its innocence.
All of the above facts were known in 2011 when the Times and the rest of the mainstream U.S. press corps presented a dramatically different version to the American people. Last year, all these questions and doubts were suppressed in the name of rallying support for “regime change” in Libya.
On March 18, 2011, I wrote: “As Americans turn to their news media to make sense of the upheavals in the Middle East, it’s worth remembering that the bias of the mainstream U.S. press corps is most powerful when covering a Washington-designated villain, especially if he happens to be Muslim.
“In that case, all uncertainty about some aspect of his villainy is discarded. Evidence in serious dispute is stated as flat fact. Readers are expected to share this unquestioned belief about the story’s frame – and that usually helps manufacture consent behind some desired government action or policy.
“At such moments, it’s also hard to contest the conventional wisdom. To do so will guarantee that you’ll be treated as some kook or pariah. It won’t even matter if you’re vindicated in the long run. You’ll still be remembered as some weirdo who was out of step.
“And those who push the misguided consensus will mostly go on to bigger and better things, as people who have proved their worth even if they got it all wrong. Such is the way the national U.S. political/media system now works – or some might say doesn’t work.
“Perhaps the most costly recent example of this pattern was the Official Certainty about Iraq’s WMD in 2002-03. With only a few exceptions, the major U.S. news media, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, bought into the Bush administration’s WMD propaganda, partly because Saddam Hussein was so unsavory that no one wanted to be dubbed a ‘Saddam apologist.’
“When Iraq’s WMD turned out to be a mirage, there was almost no accountability at senior levels of the U.S. news media. Washington Post’s editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, who repeatedly reported Iraq’s WMD as ‘flat fact,’ is still in the same job eight years later; Bill Keller, who penned an influential article called ’The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club,’ got promoted to New York Times executive editor after the Iraq-WMD claims exploded leaving egg on the faces of him and his fellow club members.
“So, now as Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi reprises his old role as ‘mad dog of the Middle East,’ Americans are being prepped for another Middle East conflict by endlessly reading as flat fact that Libyan intelligence agents blew up Pan Am Flight 103 back in 1988.
“These articles never mention that there is strong doubt the Libyans had anything to do with the attack and that the 2001 conviction of Libyan agent Ali al-Megrahi was falling apart in 2009 before he was released on humanitarian grounds, suffering from prostate cancer.
“Though it’s true that a Scottish court did convict Megrahi – while acquitting a second Libyan – the judgment appears to have been more a political compromise than an act of justice. One of the judges told Dartmouth government professor Dirk Vandewalle about ‘enormous pressure put on the court to get a conviction.’
“After the testimony of a key witness was discredited, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission agreed in 2007 to reconsider Megrahi’s conviction out of a strong concern that it was a miscarriage of justice. However, again due to intense political pressure, that review was proceeding slowly in 2009 when Scottish authorities agreed to release Megrahi on medical grounds.
“Megrahi dropped his appeal in order to gain an early release in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis, but that doesn’t mean he was guilty. He has continued to assert his innocence and an objective press corps would reflect the doubts regarding his conviction.”
But today, the United States has anything but an objective press corps. That should be obvious when you contrast the U.S. media’s certitude about Megrahi’s guilt last year – when outrage over the Lockerbie bombing was crucial in lining up public acquiescence to another Middle East war – against the nuanced doubts noted in Megrahi’s New York Times obit on Monday.
[To read more of Robert Parry’s writings, you can now order his last two books, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, at the discount price of only $16 for both. For details on the special offer, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.