From the Archive: In 2009, when Scotland released Libyan Ali al-Megrahi after his prostate cancer was deemed terminal, U.S. and UK polls and pundits thundered against freeing the “Lockerbie bomber,” an outrage reprised this week after his death. But Megrahi’s odd conviction was not questioned, as Lisa Pease noted.
By Lisa Pease (Originally published Aug. 21, 2009)
In any kind of major transnational event, there is the historical truth, what actually happened, and the political truth, what must have happened for the nations involved to continue on as before. Sometimes, these accounts match; other times, these “truths” are wildly divergent, which appears to be the case with the Lockerbie bombing.
In August 2009, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the former Libyan intelligence officer convicted of planting a bomb aboard Pan Am Flight 103 which exploded over the hills over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, was released. The Scottish authorities said they were letting al-Megrahi go free on “compassionate grounds” because he was terminally ill from cancer.
This decision caused an uproar in the United States. Obama administration officials lodged angry protests; family members of the victims decried the move, and TV pundits joined in the lamentations. But what do they really know about the Lockerbie bombing, beyond what they’ve read in the last few days?
The truth about what happened at Lockerbie appears quite a bit more complex than the cookie-cutter version presented by the mainstream media. Several longtime observers of the al-Megrahi case have concluded that it has always been weak, at best.
According to British journalist Hugh Miles in a 2007 article for London Review of Books, many “lawyers, politicians, diplomats and relatives of Lockerbie victims now believe that the former Libyan intelligence officer is innocent.”
Miles quoted Robert Black QC, an Edinburgh University professor emeritus of Scottish law, as saying, “No reasonable tribunal, on the evidence heard at the original trial, should or could have convicted him and it is an absolute disgrace and outrage what the Scottish court did.”
Al-Megrahi was tried along with fellow Libyan intelligence officer Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah. With distraught relatives of victims filling the courtroom, the Scottish judges understandably feared the reaction to two not guilty verdicts. Instead, the judges acquitted Fhimah and found al-Megrahi guilty.
A U.N. observer to the trial, Austrian philosophy Professor Hans Koschler, noted, “You cannot come out with a verdict of guilty for one and innocent for the other when they were both being tried with the same evidence.”
The only important piece of evidence that differentiated al-Megrahi from Fhimah was the dubious identification of al-Megrahi by a storekeeper in Malta who fingered the Libyan as the buyer of clothing found in the bomb suitcase.
But this storekeeper had earlier identified several other people, including one who was a CIA agent. When he finally identified al-Megrahi from a photo, it was after al-Megrahi’s photo had been in the world news for years.
There also were major discrepancies between the shopkeeper’s original description of the clothes-buyer and al-Megrahi’s actual appearance. The shopkeeper told police that the customer was “six feet or more in height” and “was about 50 years of age.” Al-Megrahi was 5’8″ tall and was 36 in 1988.
The Scottish judges acknowledged that the initial description “would not in a number of respects fit the first accused [al-Megrahi]” and that “it has to be accepted that there was a substantial discrepancy.” Nevertheless, the judges accepted the identification as accurate.
As the Scottish judges pieced together their curious rationale for a guilty verdict, they also were rejecting earlier scenarios for the bombing.
For instance, Scottish radio reporter David Johnston devoted a chapter of his book Lockerbie: The Tragedy of Flight 103 to the prevalent theory in the months following the attack, that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) was responsible.
Scottish journalist Magnus Linklater, in an article for the London Timesonline on Aug. 13, noted that this was hardly a wild conspiracy theory at the time:
“It is sometimes forgotten just how powerful the evidence was, in the first few months after Lockerbie, that pointed towards the involvement of the Palestinian-Syrian terror group the PFLP-GC, backed by Iran and linked closely to terror groups in Europe. At The Scotsman newspaper, which I edited then, we were strongly briefed by police and ministers to concentrate on this link, with revenge for an American rocket attack on an Iranian airliner as the motive.”
Indeed, the Sunday Times of London reported in its front-page headline of March 26, 1989, “Pan Am Bombers Identified.” The article stated that anonymous intelligence sources knew who was behind the bombing: “the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command, led by Ahmed Jibril, a Damascus-based PLO renegade who opposes Yasser Arafat’s current peace drive.”
The paper claimed that PLO sources had told it the group had received $10 million to bring down the plane in retaliation for the downing of an Iranian civilian airline by the American cruiser Vincennes the summer before.
(The U.S. claimed the Vincennes thought it was being attacked, and fired in self-defense, a claim which had no basis in reality, despite having been voiced by President Ronald Reagan and Vice President and former CIA director George H.W. Bush. President Reagan refused to apologize to Iran for this tragic mistake.)
The Observer reported that, after the shootdown of the Iranian plane, the Iranian chargé d’affaires in Beirut invited Ahmed Jibril and other terrorists to a meeting attended by representatives of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, where plans were made to bring down a plane with a bomb.
The final meeting purportedly took place at the Carlton Hotel in Beirut just days before the Lockerbie incident.
On Dec. 24, 1989, the Sunday Times reported that white plastic residue found at the Lockerbie crash site matched material in alarm clocks purchased from a couple of Jibril’s PFLP-GC associates just before their arrest in West Germany in October 1988, just two months before the Lockerbie bombing.
As Bill Blum’s report, recently republished at Consortiumnews.com, noted, the Iranian-PFLP-GC conspiracy “was the Original Official Version, delivered with Olympian rectitude by the U.S. government — guaranteed, sworn to, scout’s honor, case closed — until the Gulf War came along in 1990 and the support of Iran and Syria were needed.”
Enter the political truth. With Iran and Syria no longer available as sponsors, given the new political reality, Libya became the new enemy. Never mind that the evidence was nearly nonexistent.
In a BBC report from 2002, U.N. trial observer Koschler stated it appeared to him the U.S. and UK authorities exerted undue influence over al-Megrahi’s trial. Why would U.S. and UK authorities try to influence the court? Beyond their roles as advocates for the victims, what did theyhave to gain or to hide?
Authors John Ashton and Ian Ferguson, who together wrote Cover-up of Convenience: The Hidden Scandal of Lockerbie, point out that more than just bodies were found in the wreckage of Flight 103.
Along with the 270 dead were approximately $500,000 in American bills and an envelope marked with $547,000, carrying travelers checks. But according to a few key witnesses, something else was found. Drugs. Heroin, to be exact.
Additionally, locals were perturbed by the immediate presence of large numbers of Americans who showed up in Lockerbie within a couple of hours of the downing of the plane.
When the CIA agents arrived on the scene, they were looking for highly confidential papers that should have been found on the body of the pilot, Captain James McQuarrie, No such papers were found. They also sought something of great importance, but would not specify what it was. They told the Scottish officials they’d know it when they found it.
Among the victims was a man alleged to have been planning a rescue operation for the American hostages then being held in Beirut, U.S. Army Major Charles McKee, a Defense Intelligence Agency employee who had been assigned temporarily to the CIA.
McKee had been accompanied by four others that were later identified as CIA men: Matthew Gannon, the CIA’s Beirut Deputy Station Chief; Ronald Larivier, Daniel O’Connor, and Bill Leyrer. Was the presence of these men on the flight significant in any way? Were they targets? One investigator believed that was a possibility.
Pan Am’s attorney James Shaughnessy hired Juval Aviv, president of a private intelligence firm named Interfor and a former Mossad member, to conduct an investigation into the bombing. Pan Am was facing a civil suit from families of victims regarding lax security policies. The more they knew about the bombing, the better Pan Am could determine whether to contest the suit or settle.
Aviv’s report, commonly called the Intefor Report, contains several claims, which, if true, are remarkable. It’s hard to know how much credibility to give the report, although Aviv’s firm had done business with the IRS and other government agencies, and had even been hired by the Secret Service to investigate potential threats against President Reagan.
The Interfor Report claims that one or more baggage handlers at Pan Am’s facilities in Frankfurt serviced the drug trade, swapping out innocent baggage for drug-laden baggage. The Report also claims that a CIA team (referred to as CIA-1 in the Report) had learned about this drug operation and was using their knowledge of it to extract concessions from those holding the hostages in Beirut.
The report claims that the McKee-led team of CIA people – in Beirut to plan a hostage rescue operation – learned of this drug smuggling operation and the role of some CIA people in it. According to the report, “The [McKee] team was outraged, believing that its rescue and their lives would be endangered by the double dealing.”
The report said, “By mid-December the team became frustrated and angry and made plans to return to the U.S. with their photos and evidence to inform the government, and to publicize their findings if the government covered it up. They did not seek permission to return, which is against the rules. The return was unannounced. … Sources report eight CIA team members on that flight, but we only have identified the five names reported herein.”
According to the report, an undercover Mossad agent tipped off the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) 24 hours in advance that a bomb was to be placed on Pan Am Flight 103. BKA, said the report, passed that information to CIA-1, which reported that information to its control, but received no guidance one way or another back.
The Interfor Report alleges that a Turkish baggage handler stashed a suitcase in the employee locker area, as was his usual practice with drug shipments.
During the loading of bags, a BKA agent noticed a bag that looked different than the usual drug bags. Since he was on alert for a potential bomb, he notified CIA-1, which again passed that information to its control.
The report said, “Control replied: don’t worry about it, don’t stop it, let it go.” The report said CIA-1 gave no instructions to BKA, and BKA did nothing to stop the bag.
In one of its most startling allegations, the report said, “The BKA was then covertly videotaping that area on that day. A videotape was made. It shows the perpetrator in the act. It was held by BKA. A copy was made and given to CIA-1. The BKA tape has been ‘lost.’ However, the copy exists at CIA-1 control in the U.S.”
Aviv encouraged Pan Am to obtain a copy of that tape, warning that the CIA would deny its existence, and that Pan Am would need to be persistent.
This story took on new dimensions in 1990, when both ABC and NBC did their own report on a drug ring link to the bombing. Both chose, however, to focus on a DEA operation, and the CIA was never mentioned by either network.
NBC named Khalid Jaafar, the only Arab on Flight 103, as the unwitting courier whose bag got swapped for the bomb. The Interfor Report had named the same person.
According to Cover-up of Convenience authors Ashton and Ferguson, on Oct. 30, 1990, NBC reported:
“NBC news has learned that Pan Am flights from Frankfurt, including [Flight] 103, had been used a number of times by the DEA as part of its undercover operations to fly information and suitcases of heroin into Detroit as part of a sting operation to catch dealers in Detroit. The undercover operation, code-named Operation Courier, was set up three years ago by the DEA in Cyprus to infiltrate Lebanese heroin groups in the Middle East and their connections in Detroit …
“[I]nformants would put suitcases on the Pan Am flights, apparently without the usual security checks, according to one airline source, through an arrangement between the DEA and German authorities. Law enforcement officials say the fear now is that the terrorists that blew up Pan Am 103 somehow learned about what the DEA was doing, infiltrated the undercover operation and substituted the bomb for the heroin in one of the DEA shipments” so the bomb would sail through the security loophole, undetected.
ABC produced a similar report the next day, and also claimed that Khalid Jaafar was one of the drug couriers.
The DEA investigated itself in the wake of these stories, and declared itself clean to a House subcommittee. The DEA claimed only three drug operations had been run through Frankfurt, and none in December of 1988 when the bombing took place.
In 1992, long after the DEA’s denials, a new report supporting the Interfor Report surfaced, in Time magazine of all places, supporting some of the reports core allegations.
The article, by Roy Rowan, stated that Ahmed Jibril used a Middle Eastern heroin traffic operation to get the bomb on the plane, and that McKee was heading back to Washington to expose the CIA unit’s operations with the drug dealers.
So is this the true history of what happened at Lockerbie? I don’t know.
The direction of the case shifted dramatically in the fall of 1990 as President George H.W. Bush was scrambling to assemble a coalition to drive Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. The Bush administration was in need of Iranian and Syrian help, too, in freeing U.S. hostages then held by Islamic militant groups in Lebanon.
Also in 1990, spin-off investigations from the Iran-Contra scandal were underway with Iranian officials possessing possible information that could have incriminated President Bush as he was looking toward a tough reelection battle in 1992. In short, the Iranians held a number of cards that would have made them inconvenient targets of the Pan Am investigation.
However, the Libyans were opposing Bush’s Persian Gulf intervention and had long ranked near the top of the list of America’s favorite enemies. Laying the blame on the Libyans let a lot of influential people off the hook.
While I don’t know if the alternative theories of the Pan Am 103 bombing are true, what I do know is that there is a lot more support for some of them than there ever was for the conviction of the unfortunate and now cancer-ridden al-Megrahi, whose release on Thursday was widely condemned by U.S. officials and media figures with almost no reference to the lingering doubts about his conviction beyond brief mentions that he continues to assert his innocence.
How did we get so far off track on this story? In part, by not having a truly independent media to investigate and report on the truth behind this case.
Lisa Pease is a historian and writer who specializes in the mysteries of the John F. Kennedy era.