TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS -- FROM BEIRUT TO LOCKERBIE -- INSIDE THE DIA
When President George Bush and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher agreed on the telephone in March 1989, to keep the Flight 103 investigation within politically acceptable limits, the octopus was presented with a tricky problem of news management.
As the only official source of information about the disaster, as well as the only official source of information about government business in general, the American and British bureaucracies could count on the polite attention of every mainstream journalist, but the story had run for months and it was hardly possible to retract the tips, leaks, official statements and background briefings already given.
The consensus was that the Syrian-backed PFLP-GC had committed the atrocity for the Iranians; that the Libyans had probably had a hand in it by supplying the bomb components; that the individuals responsible had been identified, and that warrants could be expected at any time.
Undoing these now inconvenient views and expectations was not going to be easy, even without the continued meddling of congressional committees, boards of inquiry, lawyers for both sides in the compensation dispute and police officers still treating the case as a murder investigation. There was also the problem of what to do with the Germans, because there was no way of putting a suitable gloss on events without them.
At their baldest, the new policy requirements were that Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iran should be eased out of the picture, leaving Libya solely to blame, but without seeming to deny or tamper with evidence already made public and without appearing to allow expediency a higher priority than the ruthless pursuit of justice.
Given the usually uncritical reception of 'official news' by the media, and the patriotic reluctance of most people to believe the worst of their own governments, this should have been possible, but the solution to the problem rested in the hands of those who had created it in the first place, and in the end the task was to prove beyond them.
The first requirement was to get the Germans to cooperate, and the only way to do that was to show that the bomb had gone aboard Flight 103 in Frankfurt due to circumstances beyond their control.
After Detective Chief Superintendent John Orr had taken them to task in March 1989, for dragging their feet, the BKA in April sent him the files on the PFLP-GC cell they had broken up some eight weeks before the disaster -- and by any reading, the circumstantial evidence against Dalkamoni, Ghadanfar and Khreesat was strong, not to say overwhelming. Although the first two remained in custody, charged with bombing American military trains in Germany, Khreesat and the other PFLP-GC suspects rounded up in the raids had, unaccountably, been released -- a decision which, on the face of it, might well have cost 270 lives.
A possible solution was to show that the bronze Samsonite suitcase containing the bomb had been fed into the system at some other airport, and that it was therefore a failure on Pan Am's part which had allowed it to go aboard Flight 103 in Frankfurt without an accompanying passenger. If this could be 'proved', then the German authorities would be no more to blame than the British at Heathrow, who had also allowed the bag to be transferred from one aircraft to another for the trans-Atlantic leg of the flight.
To make this version of events plausible, a few awkward facts had first to be smoothed over. There could be no suggestion, for instance, that Frankfurt was the European hub of a 'controlled delivery' pipeline for drugs in transit from the Middle East. There could be no suggestion that 'clean' suitcases, properly checked through, were routinely switched in the baggage-handling area with 'dirty' suitcases containing heroin en route to the United States. There could be no reports of 'suspicious activity' in the baggage-handling area before Flight 103 left Frankfurt on 21 December. Nor could there be any videotapes available from the security cameras in the baggage-handling area.
A good deal of embarrassing speculation had already been made public. On 30 July 1989, for instance, the Observer, in London, had published an 'exclusive' under the headline: 'Lockerbie: Turks "planted bomb."
Reviewing the results of a 'three-month inquiry' into the disaster, the report said the paper had
obtained specific information from a range of Middle East sources who have told us that Turkish nationals were brought into the plot to bomb the Pan Am Boeing 747 at the end of September last year ... Contact is said to have been made, on the instructions of a German-based Iranian diplomat, by a member of the PFLP-GC ...
According to our sources, five Turks were entrusted with the task of planting the bomb on the Pan Am plane ... One has been described as a 'young Turkish engineer' and it is this man who is said to have physically planted a suitcase containing the bomb inside a cargo container on the London-bound Boeing 727 ...
German officials who questioned airport workers after the bombing have refused either to support or dismiss this account. American intelligence agencies want to reexamine and trace all likely suspects, but they appear to have received little cooperation from the Germans. The 'engineer' allegedly left Germany for Beirut via Cyprus shortly after the bombing.
What was needed to divert attention away from Frankfurt into politically safer channels was some 'new' evidence, preferably linked to the hard forensic evidence that had already been established and which, by association, would lend credibility to it. And as the police officers engaged in the field investigation could not be counted upon to cooperate in a political fix, that evidence had to be 'found' in a plausible way, even at the cost of further inter-agency bickering.
On 17 August 1989, eight months after the disaster, Chief Detective Superintendent John Orr received from the BKA what was said to be a computer print-out of the baggage-loading list for Pan Am Flight 103A from Frankfurt to London on the afternoon of 21 December 1988. Attached to this were two internal reports, dated 2 February 1989, describing the inquiries that BKA officers had made about the baggage-handling system at the airport. Also provided were two worksheets, one typewritten, the other handwritten, that were said to have been prepared on 21 December by airport workers at key points on the conveyor-belt network.
In the margin of the computer print-out, a penciled cross drew particular attention to bag number B8849 - that is the 8849th bag to be logged into the computerized system at Terminal B that day. By reference to the worksheets, B8849 could be shown to have arrived in Frankfurt by a scheduled Air Malta flight from Luqa airport and to have been 'interlined' through to Flight 103. But neither the Air Malta nor the Pan Am passenger lists showed anybody who had booked a through flight from Luqa to New York that day. In other words, bag B8849 had arrived from Malta unaccompanied but tagged for New York and had been loaded aboard Flight 103 without being matched with a passenger. And as the job of matching bags with passengers is the responsibility of the airline, not of the airport authorities or of the host government, Pan Am had plainly been guilty of lax security amounting to 'wilful misconduct'.
This tied in nicely with the forensic evidence, which had already shown that the bomb had been hidden in a Samsonite suitcase filled with an assortment of clothing made in Malta, including a baby's blue romper suit.
Less than three months after the disaster, in March 1989, two Scottish police officers had flown out to the island to interview the manufacturer of the romper suit but had drawn blank. At least 500 of them had been sold to babywear outlets all over Europe. To trace the purchaser of the suit that had been all but destroyed in the explosion was clearly impossible. Now, with the baggage records pointing to a suitcase originating in Malta, the field of search was dramatically narrowed.
Two weeks after the BKA released the Frankfurt baggage print-out, two of Detective Chief Superintendent John Orr's men returned to Malta and, with the help of the manufacturers, traced the clothing to a shop in Sliema.
As 'luck' would have it, the proprietors not only remembered selling the exact items which the forensic team had shown were used as packing around the bomb but remembered the date on which they had sold them, 23 November 1988, a month before the bombing; remembered the purchaser -- a Libyan, they thought -- and, ten months after the event, remembered what he looked like clearly enough to brief an FBI video-fit artist to produce an acceptable likeness to Abu Talb of the PFLP-GC, who was known to have visited Malta not long before the bombing.
Leaving the shopkeepers guarded around the clock by security men, the police officers returned home with their questions answered so neatly that in other circumstances they might have been forgiven for suspecting the witnesses had been coached.
Never mind that Air Malta, the Maltese police and the Maltese government categorically denied that any baggage, unaccompanied or otherwise, had been put aboard Air Malta flight KM180 to connect with Pan Am 103 in Frankfurt on 21 December 1988, and never mind that the airline's record-keeping showed this to be so -- as David Leppard of The Sunday Times pointed out later, if the fatal bag 'had been smuggled on to the flight unaccompanied, it must have bypassed Luqa's baggage control system. No one could blame the airline company for the criminal activities of a terrorist gang.'
He was not prepared to exercise the same understanding for Pan Am in Frankfurt, however. 'Under international airline rules, bags unaccompanied by passengers should never be allowed on to aircraft,' he wrote (erroneously) in The Sunday Times of 29 October 1989. 'The new evidence casts serious doubt on the theory that the bomb was placed on board in Frankfurt and carried by an unwitting passenger who died in the crash.'
Leppard did not address the possibility that the bomb might have 'bypassed' Pan Am's baggage-control system at Frankfurt in the same way as he suggested it might have bypassed Air Malta's at Luqa; nor did the Independent, in London, two days later.
'Police investigating the Lockerbie bombing,' the paper reported, 'have confirmed they are investigating whether the bomb was first placed aboard an airliner in Malta, and then transferred to the Pan Am flight even though it had no accompanying passenger.' The story went on to quote a spokesman for the BKA as saying 'there are clues that a suitcase from Malta may have played a part. There are also clues that someone from Libya -- or at least, someone with a Libyan accent -- may have bought the items.'
John Orr declined to comment.
With this sensational breakthrough in the case, everybody but Pan Am and its insurers were off the hook. If the world could be persuaded to buy this scenario, then the responsibility would be shifted from the Iranians and Syrians to the Libyans, to the obvious benefit of Western foreign policy, not least in its attempts to secure the release of Western hostages in the Middle East; the security and police forces of the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom would be seen to be blameless, and the families of the victims would have a clear shot at a clear target in seeking proper compensation for their loss.
But there were problems.
The weight of circumstantial evidence against the PFLP-GC unit in Germany was still impressive and not to be wished away. If the bomb had been built there by Marwan Khreesat and hidden in the copper-coloured Samsonite suitcase that he had brought with him from Damascus, how did it get into the hands of the Libyans in Malta?
And why? It was winter time, when flight delays and missed connections were commonplace. Was it likely that any well-organized, well-funded, seriously determined terrorist group, capable of building a sophisticated explosive device to blow up an American aircraft over the Atlantic, would choose to put it aboard the target flight by sending it, unaccompanied, in a suitcase that had first to be smuggled on to an Air Malta flight (which might have been delayed or diverted) to Frankfurt (where it might have been mislaid or misrouted), in the hope that Pan Am would fail to search it or match it with a passenger and forward it, unaccompanied, on a feeder flight (which might also have been delayed or diverted) to Heathrow (where again it might have been misplaced or misdirected), still in the hope that no one would notice or examine the suitcase before it was finally loaded aboard the third, and target, aircraft for the New York leg of the flight?
As this is still the official view, such a plan must surely represent the most conspicuous victory of optimism over elementary common sense in the annals of terrorism. On the face of it, the PFLP-GC would have been better advised to post their bomb to the United States as a registered air parcel.
More particularly, there were problems with the computer records and worksheets from Frankfurt. For one thing, they did not tally with Pan Am's own baggage records, which although questionable as to their accuracy, were at least compiled in good faith. To this day no one knows exactly how many pieces of luggage there were aboard the doomed flight or consequently whether they have all been recovered or accounted for. Nobody even knows exactly how many suitcases were in the luggage pallet that contained the one with the bomb -- it was 45 or 46 -- or how many of these were brought in by the feeder flight from Frankfurt. (The number was also thought to include not one but four unaccompanied bags.)
The BKA estimate that 'about' 135 bags were sent through to the baggage room below the departure gate of Flight 103A, some belonging to the 79 passengers whose journey ended in London and the rest to the 49 who were going on to New York. There were no records of luggage sent directly to the departure gate, nor of interline luggage taken directly from one aircraft to another, nor of bags belonging to first-class passengers.
Of the 49 passengers bound for New York and beyond, 28 began their journey in Frankfurt, and 21 transferred from other connecting flights. As with the other interline passengers who joined the flight in London, their luggage was X-rayed before it went aboard but no attempt was made to match baggage with passengers, even though it had already been established that the Semtex explosive in the PFLP-GC Toshiba radio bombs was virtually undetectable by X-ray examination alone. (Later on, it would emerge that the X-ray machine operator had been instructed to pull out any bag that appeared to contain a radio. According to his testimony, he X-rayed 13 bags but none contained anything resembling a Toshiba radio.)
Of the 135 bags mentioned by the BKA, 111 had been logged on the Frankfurt computer and about 24 taken directly to the aircraft from three other connecting Pan Am flights. The list compiled by Pan Am at its check-in desks, however, showed not 111 but 117 items of luggage, and the discrepancy has not been convincingly cleared up to this day.
Although the 'discovery' of an unaccompanied bag from Malta was seized upon as a breakthrough in the investigation, there were in fact 13 items of unaccompanied luggage on the flight. According to the minutes of the fourth international conference of police agencies called on 14 September 1989, to consider the new Libyan link with the bombing, this cast 'doubt on the total reliability of hand-written entries of the baggage handlers on the computer print-out,' which had indicated only one such item. Details of the Malta connections were discussed, 'and it was explained that the bomb need not have been brought on in Malta, but must at least have come from Frankfurt'.
Well, they said it. Given that the flight wreckage was picked over initially by the CIA, that the total number of bags loaded aboard is not known, that the remains of others may yet be found in the wilder reaches of the Kielder Forest and the Scottish border country, and that there is still no reliable manifest for Flight 103 listing all the passengers by name with their seat numbers and baggage -- given all this uncertainty, to suggest that the theory of a suicide bomber or of an unwitting 'mule' had been eliminated or that the baggage could not have been tampered with at Frankfurt or Heathrow or that the investigation had accounted for every piece of luggage on board and, except for the bag from Malta, matched every piece to a passenger is, to say the least, unpersuasive.
Indeed, the claims are almost as unconvincing as the provenance of the crucial computer listing itself.
If the new Malta/Libyan theory was to replace the established Iran/PFLP-GC scenario, it was necessary, first of all, to believe that no one thought to ask for the baggage-loading lists for Flight 103A as soon as terrorist action was suspected -- which was almost at once.
It was necessary to believe that no one in any of the British, German and American police, intelligence and accident inquiry agencies who had a hand in investigating the disaster, or anyone who was in any way involved with airport management or security at Frankfurt or London, thought to secure the baggage lists as the one indispensable tool that would be needed to unravel the mystery of how the bomb got aboard.
It was necessary to believe that the only person who considered the lists to be at all important was a lowly computer operator at Frankfurt airport.
The Observer's chief reporter, John Merritt, described how this came about in a story published almost two years after the disaster.
He wrote, on 17 November 1991:
A major breakthrough in the hunt for the Lockerbie bombers came to light only because of the quick thinking of a conscientious computer operator at Frankfurt airport.
The vital computer evidence, proving conclusively that the bag from Malta, identified as Item B8849, was on board as the airliner was blasted apart on the last stage of its journey from Heathrow to New York would have been lost forever if the woman operator had not kept her own record.
Acting on her own initiative, the woman, an employee of the Frankfurt Airport Company, who for legal reasons cannot be named, was working at the computer system known as KIK on the day of the disaster. She knew records relating to baggage loaded on to flights were kept in the system for only a limited time [eight days] before being wiped. So when she returned to work the next day she made her own print-out of the information and placed it in her locker before going on holiday.
On her return, weeks later, she was surprised to learn that no one had shown any interest in the computer records. She passed the print-out to her baggage section leader who gave it to investigators from the West German Bundeskriminalamt. But it was not until mid-August, eight months after the bombing, that the German authorities turned over this information to Scottish police in charge of the investigation.
The woman employee's role became known only last week when lawyers for families of the American victims took evidence from her in Germany. She had kept her own copy of the print-out and still had it in her locker.
The Observer's readiness to print this story contrasted sharply with its scepticism when Pan Am subpoenaed the CIA and five other US government agencies in the US District Court for 'all documents concerning warnings, tips, alerts and other communications as to plans by any person to place a bomb, make an assault or commit another form of terrorist attack at Frankfurt airport during November or December 1988'.
The request seemed reasonable enough, given that the airline and its insurers were facing damage lawsuits totaling some $7 billion, and possibly as much again in punitive damages, but it was instantly dismissed as a fishing expedition when it became known, five weeks after the subpoenas were served, that Pan Am was seeking through the courts to compel the US government to produce the documents necessary for its defence.
This step had been prompted by the now notorious Interfor Report commissioned by the airline from Juval Aviv, whose inquiries into the disaster had produced intelligence information that was sometimes more reliable than the conclusions he drew from it. When copies of the report were leaked to the press and to Congressman James Traficant, a member of the House Aviation Committee who was then seeking re-election, its findings captured media attention across the world.
'Pan Am Seeks to
Prove US Was Warned of Lockerbie Attack' -- The Independent, London.
In vain, Pan Am protested that it was embarrassed by the leak of its confidential report (which was certainly doing the airline's position no good at all) and, in vain, did its spokesman insist that: 'We are not supporting the findings, neither are we suggesting that they are nonsense. What we are trying to do is establish what is fact and what is fiction. That is why we asked for the subpoenas.'
No sooner had the furor died down than the Observer weighed in on 26 November with the results of a 'Special Investigation':
'Pan Am Lockerbie
Report a Sham'
In marked contrast to the sympathetic hearing the paper was later to give the story of how the computer baggage-list came to light in Frankfurt, its reporting team fastened on the Interfor Report and its author like piranha fish.
An investigator's report which claims that the CIA allowed terrorists to place the bomb on board Pan Am Flight 103 is today exposed as a sham, following an investigation by the Observer [it announced]. Pan Am's insurers commissioned the report from an Israeli intelligence expert based in New York. As a result of his findings, the airline issued subpoenas demanding information from the CIA and five other US intelligence agencies ... As the agencies will strenuously contest any attempt to force information from them, Pan Am will be able to argue it was prevented from presenting a complete case.
And why not? Why would the agencies 'strenuously' contest the subpoenas if their hands were clean and they could prove the airline was wrong?
Described as 'incredible', 'unbelievable' and 'bizarre', the Interfor Report was summarized in the context of interviews with Juval Aviv -- 'a chubby Donald Pleasance, wearing a grey suit and a Gucci watch, -- and Congressman Traficant -- a 'former sheriff, who was once accused by Federal tax inspectors of accepting $108,000 in bribes from organized crime figures.'
When the Observer team met with Aviv, 'he failed to provide any evidence to substantiate a single claim in his report.' And when Traficant was told that there were 'serious doubts about the report', he suggested the Observer might be working for the CIA. When pressed, Mr. Traficant said: "'You've come here a day late, a dime short and you're a piece of shit." The Observer made its excuses and left.'
In the Observer's summary, the Interfor Report claimed
... that an autonomous CIA unit based in Frankfurt, West Germany, struck a deal with a Syrian drugs dealer with terrorist connections [Monzer al-Kassar]. He was supposedly allowed to smuggle heroin into the United States in return for helping to negotiate the release of American hostages in Beirut. Knowing of his 'protected' route, the bombers used his network to place the device on board the plane. It also alleges that warnings that Flight 103 was the target of a terrorist attack were suppressed because they would have exposed the 'drugs-for-hostages' deal ...
On first reading, the report is a detailed and strictly factual account of a complex plot to strike back at the US for the downing of an Iranian airliner over the Gulf in July 1988. Many of its facts are true, but they have no link with Lockerbie. Other details do not stand up to close examination. The report is riddled with errors.
The Observer team then itemized the errors they had found and the details which did not stand up to close examination.
1. The report claimed that al Kassar had rented a car in Paris and driven to Frankfurt with components of the bomb. On examining the records of the rental firm for the day in question, 'No car hired on that date clocked up sufficient mileage to have made the trip.'
2. The report claimed that 'Corea' was the code name for the drugs-for-hostages deal. 'But Corea actually refers to communications between members of Trevi, the group of European intelligence, customs and police forces set up to monitor "terrorism, revolution and violence".'
3. The report claimed that documents proving Pan Am's case were held in the safe of Kurt Rebmann, 'a West German equivalent of an assistant attorney general, based in Berlin'. This was denied by Mr Rebmann, 'who is, in fact, a Federal prosecutor based in Karlsruhe'.
And that was it, apart from other unspecified 'facts' that appeared 'to have been cobbled together from newspaper cuttings, many of which have turned out to be wrong'. On the strength of these revelations, which seem little enough to warrant such a conclusion, the Interfor Report was never again to be referred to in the public prints, either in Britain or the United States, without being described as 'discredited' or 'a sham'.
Aviv may have failed to provide the Observer with any additional evidence to support his findings, but equally the Observer failed to provide any solid evidence to refute them, despite the obvious pains it had taken. It was also a little ungrateful of the paper to attack him so vigorously, for in his preamble to the report, Aviv had spoken of crossing the trail of several other private investigations into the Flight 103 disaster, notably those of the Observer and The Sunday Times but 'only the Observer', he wrote, 'seems to continue trying to identify how the act was done and by whom.'
The Sunday Times was less dismissive of Aviv's work, although its reporter, David Leppard, agreed that 'the report at first appears so fantastic as to be ridiculous. Almost all the agencies involved have denied it. The CIA called it "nonsense"; one intelligence source said it was "fantasy". But the report, however bizarre, does contain remarkable detail, including names, dates, times of meetings, telephone and bank account numbers.'
The Interfor Report was commissioned by James M. Shaughnessy, of the New York law firm, Windels, Marx, Davies & Ives, who was acting for Pan Am as lead counsel in its defence of the liability suit. The report was an internal document, summarizing mostly unverifiable intelligence data collected in the field, designed to open up lines of inquiry that might lead to the discovery of evidence admissible in court, which the report self-evidently was not. Aviv began work in the spring of 1989 and when his findings were submitted to Shaughnessy on 15 September they provided the basis for the subpoenas served shortly afterwards on the CIA, the DEA and other government agencies.
The leakage of the report to Congressman Traficant and the press some six weeks later was a severe setback for Pan Am's legal team -- indeed, the embarrassment it caused was so acute that conspiracy buffs might well have suspected the US Justice Department itself of leaking the report. A US magistrate thought otherwise, however. Amid a blizzard of media speculation, an evidentiary hearing was ordered, at which John Merritt of the Observer was questioned, and, after hearing the testimony, the magistrate concluded that Aviv's denial of having leaked the report was 'not credible'.
After defining its terms of reference -- which had nothing to do with exculpating Pan Am, as was widely suggested even by those who had read them, but was 'to determine the facts and then to identify the sources, nature, extent, form and quality of available evidence' -- the report reviewed the results of the official investigation to date and the theories then current as to who was responsible ... Then followed a review and assessment of the anonymous intelligence sources who had contributed to Aviv's findings, rated on a scale of reliability from 'good' to 'excellent'. In some cases, their anonymity was barely skin-deep. 'Source 5', for example, rated 'excellent', was described as 'an experienced director of airport security for the most security-conscious airline'.
Next came a 'Background History' to the disaster, starting two years beforehand, in which the politics and principal players were put in context. Libya's leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, 'a major funder of terrorism', was said to have demanded better coordination among terrorist groups, and better 'deniability' for himself, with the result that the Abu Nidal group took over drugs and arms smuggling while Ahmed Jibril's PFLP-GC, backed by Syrian intelligence as its 'front team', concentrated on arms and terrorism.
Nidal's partner was Monzer al-Kassar, a Syrian arms and drugs smuggler, married to Raghda Dubah, sister of Ali Issa Dubah, then chief of Syrian intelligence, and a close associate of Rifat Assad, Syrian overlord of the Lebanese heroin industry and brother of Syria's President Hafez Assad. Al-Kassar's mistresses in Paris included Raja al-Assad, Rifat Assad's daughter, and a former Miss Lebanon who had previously been married to two prominent terrorists -- most recently to a friend of Nidal's, Abu Abbas, who had planned the Achille Lauro hijacking.
Al-Kassar had many passports and identities, which Aviv listed in his report by serial number and date and place of issue, and operated through cover companies and offices, also listed by address and phone numbers, in Tripoli, Warsaw and Berlin. One of the principal drugs/arms smuggling routes ran through Frankfurt, with Pan Am being the favoured carrier. Tipped about what was going on, 'reportedly by a jealous Jibril', the BKA, in cooperation with the CIA and the DEA, began to monitor the operation and infiltrated 'at least two agents as well as informers, one of whom was Marwan Khreesat', the PFLP-GC's ace bomb-builder.
Aviv's Interfor Report went on:
The Pan Am Frankfurt smuggling operation worked as follows: an accomplice boarded flights with checked luggage containing innocent items. An accomplice Turkish baggage handler for Pan Am was tipped to identify the suitcase, then switched it with an identical piece holding contraband which he had brought into the airport or otherwise received there from another accomplice. The passenger accomplice then picked up the baggage on arrival. It is not known how this method passed through arrival customs, where such existed, but this route and method worked steadily and smoothly for a long time ...
Khalid Jafaar was a regular 'passenger' accomplice for the drug route.
The BKA/DEA/CIA surveillance continued to monitor the route without interfering with it, according to the report, and by visibly increasing the police presence in other locations, the team sought to focus drug smuggling through Pan Am's baggage area at Frankfurt. The reason for this was mainly convenience, as it was already under close watch by the CIA because of cargo shipments via Pan Am to and from the Eastern bloc through Frankfurt, Berlin and Moscow.
In Aviv's opinion, the CIA team concerned with this operation was not closely supervised. 'It appears that it eventually operated to some, or a large, extent as an internal covert operation without consistent oversight, a la Oliver North ... To distinguish what it knew as opposed to what CIA HQ definitely knew, we refer to that unit as CIA-1.'
In March 1988, the report went on, the CIA team was advised by the BKA of a secret meeting in Vienna between delegations from France and Iran that led to the delivery of weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of French hostages held in Lebanon. Having identified Monzer al-Kassar as a key player in the deal, BKA/CIA-1 approached him to see if he could also help arrange the release of American hostages in return for their protection of his drug routes.
According to Aviv, al-Kassar not only agreed to this but helped the CIA 'in sending weapons ostensibly to Iran ... supposedly to further the US hostage release', and also used his arms routes to supply weapons to the Contras in Nicaragua, sometimes financing the shipments out of his drug profits. For these and other services, he was designated a CIA 'capability', which meant that he and his business activities were then virtually immune from interference.
'It is believed that US Customs at JFK were ordered by CIA to allow certain baggage to pass uninspected due to national security interests. Thus the drug-smuggling operation was now secure.'
That was in the summer of 1988, at about the same time as a special team of counter-terrorist agents led by Matthew Kevin Gannon, the CIA's deputy station chief in Beirut, and Major Charles Dennis McKee, of the Defense Intelligence Agency, left for Beirut 'to reconnoitre and prepare for a possible hostage rescue'.
Against this background, Aviv now set out the sequence of events leading up to the bombing of Flight 103 as described by his sources.
On 13 December 1988, Jibril met with Khalid Jafaar and a Libyan bomb-maker known as 'the Professor' in Bonn -- 'sources speculate that Jafaar was offered money to make a private drug run to raise money "for the cause".' The 'passenger accomplice' was now lined up. But the BKA's raids on the PFLP-GC cell in late October had made it necessary for another bomb to be brought in, and Aviv asserts that al Kassar took care of this personally.
'His brother Ghassan's wife, Nabile Wehbe, traveling on a South Yemen diplomatic passport, flew from Damascus to Sofia on 13 November 1988, picked up the bomb components from [Ali] Racep and then flew to Paris. Al-Kassar picked up the bomb from her, and on 25 November 1988, rented a car from Chafic Rent-a-Car, 46 Rue Pierre Charron in Paris and drove to Frankfurt (carrying other contraband as well). He had previously been arrested twice by West German border guards but each time was suddenly released after a telephone call was made. Sources speculate that he apparently felt secure because he had "protection".' (The Observer, which later discovered that Chafic had no record of any such rental transaction, also managed to reach al-Kassar by telephone in Syria. Not unnaturally, he insisted he had been somewhere else at the time.)
Aviv's report went on to list the warnings that began to come in from the beginning of December 1988.
The first, from a Mossad agent about three weeks before the disaster, was to the effect that a major terrorist attack was planned at Frankfurt airport against an American-flag carrier. This warning was passed to CIA HQ and BKA HQ. The local CIA team is said to have suggested that the BKA visibly secure all the American carriers except Pan Am so that the threat, if it was genuine, would be focused on an airline and airport area already under close surveillance.
The second warning, on or just before 18 December, came from associates of Nidal and al- Kassar, who wanted to save their protected drug route without seeming to lack zeal in the cause of militant Islam.
Having 'figured out the most likely flights for Jibril's bomb ... they tipped BKA that a bomb would be placed on this regular Pan Am Frankfurt-London-New York flight in the next three days. They figured that BKA would increase visible security, thus dissuading Jibril in case that was in fact his target. So, two to three days before the disaster, and unwittingly, these terrorists tipped off the authorities to what proved to be the very act.'
The third warning, a follow-up of the second, was issued by CIA HQ, 'which sent warnings to various embassies, etc., but not apparently to Pan Am. CIA-1 thought that BKA surveillance would pick up the action and that BKA would stop the act in case the tip was correct.
Meanwhile, al-Kassar had learned that the Gannon-McKee official hostage team in Beirut had found out about his relationship with the CIA unit in Germany and his protected drugs/arms smuggling route through Frankfurt. According to Aviv, the official team had advised CIA HQ of what was going on and when no action was taken to put a stop to it, Gannon and McKee decided to return home, outraged that their lives and rescue mission should have been put at risk by CIA-1's deal with al-Kassar.
'Al Kassar contacted his CIA-1 handlers sometime in the third week of December,' the Interfor Report went on, 'communicated the latest news and travel information and asked for help. There were numerous communications between CIA-1 and its Control (in Washington).'
The fourth warning came two or three days before the disaster. A BKA undercover agent reported a plan to bomb a Pan Am flight 'in the next few days' and the tip was passed on to the local CIA team. Though anxious not 'to blow its surveillance operation and undercover penetration or to risk the al-Kassar hostage release operation', the warning was passed on and the State Department advised its embassies. As a result, BKA security was tightened even further around all the American carriers operating out of Frankfurt except Pan Am. Observing this, Jibril scratched American Airlines as his preferred target and finally selected Pan Am.
'We do not know exactly when this decision was made,' wrote Aviv, 'but the dates point to two or three days before the flight ... Jibril, through an intermediary, activated the Jafaar /Turkish baggage-handler connection via Pan Am. For the Turk and Jafaar, this was another normal drug run. Jafaar does not profile as a suicidal martyr type.'
The fifth warning, from an undercover Mossad agent 24 hours before take-off, was of a plan to put a bomb aboard Pan Am Flight 103 on 21 December. BKA passed this to CIA-1 who reported it to Control.
'The bomb was ready,' Aviv's report went on. 'Within 24-48 hours before the flight, a black Mercedes had parked in the airport lot and the Turkish baggage-handler picked up a suitcase from that auto and took it into the airport and placed it in the employee locker area. This was his usual practice with drugs.'
The sixth warning came from a BKA surveillance agent watching the Pan Am baggage loading about an hour before take-off on 21 December. According to Aviv's sources, he noticed that
... the 'drug' suitcase substituted was different in make, shape, material and color from that used for all previous drug shipments. This one was a brown Samsonite case. He, like the other BKA agents on the scene, had been extra alert due to all the bomb tips ... He phoned in a report as to what he had seen, saying something was very wrong.
BKA passed that information to CIA-1. It reported to its Control. Control replied: 'Don't worry about it. Don't stop it. Let it go.'
CIA-1 issued no instructions to BKA.
BKA did nothing.
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 US.
Jafaar boarded the flight after checking one piece of luggage. The suitcase first emerged from hiding and was placed on the luggage cart in substitution for Jafaar's only after all the checked suitcases had already passed through security. The suitcase was so switched by the Turkish Pan Am baggage loader ...
The special, designated communications codename which BKA/CIA-1 had set up for their operations as described above is known at CIA HQ as 'COREA'. All communications concerning the surveillance operation and as described above as between or among BKNCIA-1 and CIA-1 Control were made via COREA. Thus all documents concerning all communications described above ought to be marked at the top COREA.
This completes the recitation of intelligence as to the act.
After listing other possibly useful details, such as the banks and account numbers used by al-Kassar, President Hafez Assad, Abu Abbas and Ali Issa Dubah to deposit their drug revenues in Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Beirut and Damascus, the Interfor Report declared
... it is our firm conclusion and opinion that our sources are correct as to why, how, where, when, by whom and what act was committed, and who had what prior warnings and when and what they did about it ...
From the perspective of intelligence analysis, our findings are conclusive. From the perspective of journalists, it is publishable speculation. From the perspective of trial lawyers, it probably remains inadmissible speculation or hearsay. Fortunately, the intelligence provides leads to admissible evidence. The videotape is the gem. But all the evidence is guarded by formidable constraints. Only carefully planned and tenaciously and narrowly pursued efforts will make acquisition possible.
The remaining six pages of the report consisted of Interfor's practical recommendations as to how Shaughnessy should proceed in seeking to obtain that evidence, including the issue of discovery subpoenas.
In the light of affidavits sworn to later by Lester Coleman and many other witnesses and investigators, the Interfor Report -- a confidential document never intended for public consumption -- can be challenged more for errors of interpretation than errors of fact (although there were probably more of the latter than the Observer was able to find).
Lester Coleman believes that, by grouping the CIA agents in Germany together under the designation of CIA-1, Aviv endowed them with a collective, conspiratorial purpose which almost certainly did not exist, and that he entirely omitted the contribution to the Flight 103 disaster of the US Drug Enforcement Administration and its country office in Cyprus.
With the sinister expansion of 'narco-terrorism' everywhere in the world during the 1970s and 1980s, the work of the two agencies overseas had become ever more closely entwined, with the CIA emerging as the senior partner in view of its superior resources, its loftier purpose and its greater freedom of covert action. As often as not, the requirements of narcotics law enforcement were subordinate to those of foreign policy and national security, as defined in Washington but reinterpreted by the octopus in the light of changing local circumstances.
In Coleman's view, the Lockerbie disaster was not the consequence of a malign conspiracy by a rogue CIA team in Germany -- as many assumed Aviv was saying from a careless reading of the Interfor Report -- but the result of misguided decisions and misplaced confidence in their own abilities on the part of a loose alliance of US government agents in the field, often working with different agendas and priorities, and always without adequate supervision, on an ad hoc, day-to-day basis.
It was only after the event, in his opinion, that Washington engaged in a deliberate conspiracy, and that was to avoid the potentially disastrous political fall-out from Lockerbie by covering up the incompetence, complacency and bravado that had let the terrorists through.
Aviv was also perhaps confused by his sources' reference to COREA, a matter the Observer seized upon in its attack on the Interfor Report. COREA may well have referred to communications within the Trevi group, as the paper suggested, but as Coleman pointed out later, it could also have been a mishearing of khouriah, a Lebanese slang word for 'shit', which is, in turn, the international slang word for heroin.
With the media only too happy to savage Aviv's report as a device to allow Pan Am to escape its obligations, the government was under no necessity to descend into the arena and battle it out line by line.
'Garbage,' said the CIA.
'Rubbish,' said British intelligence.
'We never received any credible threat against Flight 103 on 21 December or any other date,' said the State Department, diplomatically hedging its bets with the weasel word 'credible'.
With the report made public, Juval Aviv's usefulness to Pan Am as an investigator was virtually at an end, a consequence he might have foreseen if he had, indeed, leaked it to the press. In an attempt to flesh out its findings with hard evidence, he met Shaughnessy with a polygrapher, James Keefe, in Frankfurt in January 1990, and interviewed the three Pan Am baggage-handlers who, on 21 December 1988, were thought to have been in a position to put the suitcase bomb aboard Flight 103.
They were Kilin Caslan Tuzcu, a German national of Turkish origin, who had been in charge of incoming baggage; Roland O'Neill, a German who had taken his American wife's maiden name, and was load master for the flight, and Gregory Grissom. All three voluntarily submitted to polygraph examinations.
Tuzcu was tested three times, O'Neill and Grissom twice. On reporting the results to the Scottish police, Shaughnessy was asked to sign a statement about the tests in the presence of an FBI agent, and readily agreed. The only visible result, however, was that, upon his return to the United States, James Keefe, the polygrapher, was served with a subpoena at Kennedy airport to appear before a Federal grand jury in Washington.
When he did so, he testified that Tuzcu 'was not truthful when he said he did not switch the suitcases'. And in Keefe's opinion, 'Roland O'Neill wasn't truthful when he stated he did not see the suitcase being switched, and when he stated that he did not know what was in the switched suitcase.' He thought the Grissom results were inconclusive.
A second polygrapher brought in by Shaughnessy to review Keefe's findings agreed with his interpretation of Tuzcu's and Grissom's tests but found those on O'Neill inconclusive. (Grissom was later eliminated from Pan Am's inquiries when it was shown he had been out on the tarmac at the time.)
The interest displayed by the FBI in the fact of Pan Am's polygraph tests rather than in the results was not shared by the British authorities, however. Convinced that the Scottish police would wish to interview Tuzcu and O'Neill on the strength of this lead, the airline found a pretext to send them to London so that they could be questioned and, if necessary, detained, but nobody seemed in the least bit interested. After hanging around all day, they returned to Frankfurt that night. (Intelligence sources suggested later that O'Neill was an undercover BKA agent, which, if true, might account for the lack of British and American interest. Otherwise, it must be assumed that the British investigators were as committed as the Americans to the politically more convenient theory that the bomb had arrived unaccompanied from Malta.)
Predictably, the results of the polygraph tests were leaked to the press, and just as predictably, on 28 January, the Observer heaped scorn on the airline's initiative: 'Both the timing of the pair's interrogation [by polygraph] and the circumstances surrounding it have refueled suspicions about Pan Am methods in defending the lawsuit brought by relatives of the 270 people who died when Flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie.'
Unable to resist having another tilt at the Interfor Report, which 'was exposed as a sham by the Observer two months ago', the paper went on to say that the report 'weaves a fantastical tale around the assertion that the CIA, operating a drugs-for-hostages deal through Frankfurt airport, allowed the bomb to proceed, thus overriding or corrupting the airline's own security controls'.
Whether that was a fair statement of Juval Aviv's position or not -- he still believes that Tuzcu and O'Neill are prime suspects in the mass murder -- it was certainly typical of the prevailing view that Pan Am was indulging in spy-fiction fantasy to pervert the course of justice.
But in the scale of probabilities, was it any more likely that the management and staff of a major international airline, its insurance underwriters and the best legal brains that money could buy would seek to evade the legitimate claims of the victims' families and counter the determination of three governments to pin all the blame on Pan Am by inventing a fairy tale?
Is it any more fantastic than Aviv's report to think that they would hire, not just Aviv, but a small army of investigators to run around the world looking for some shred of happenstance to clothe that invention?
Or that they would persevere with it for years in the face of almost universal condemnation and ridicule and at a cost of millions of dollars in the hope that one day they would find someone like Lester Coleman, who might transmute some of that fantasy into fact?