Wednesday, 28 June 2017

On evidence as weak as this how could trial court find Megrahi guilty?

[Ten years ago today the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission referred the conviction of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi back to the High Court of Justiciary. At the time, the only information that came into the public domain was contained in a press release issued by the SCCRC. That information formed the basis of an article that I wrote a few days later. It reads as follows:]

On 28 June 2007 the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission referred Abdel Basset Al-Megrahi’s conviction of the Lockerbie bombing back to the High Court of Justiciary for a further appeal. The case had been under consideration by the SCCRC since September 2003 and its statement of reasons (available only to Megrahi, to the Crown and to the High Court) extends to over 800 pages, accompanied by thirteen volumes of appendices. The Commission, in the published summary of its findings, rejected submissions on behalf of Megrahi to the effect that evidence led at the trial had been fabricated and that he had been inadequately represented by his then legal team, but went on to indicate that there were six grounds upon which it had concluded that a miscarriage of justice might have occurred. Strangely enough, however, only four of these grounds are enumerated in the summary. They are as follows:

“A number of the submissions made on behalf of the applicant challenged the reasonableness of the trial court's verdict, based on the legal test contained in section 106(3)(b) of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995. The Commission rejected the vast majority of those submissions. However, in examining one of the grounds, the Commission formed the view that there is no reasonable basis in the trial court's judgment for its conclusion that the purchase of the items from Mary's House, took place on 7 December 1988. Although it was proved that the applicant was in Malta on several occasions in December 1988, in terms of the evidence 7 December was the only date on which he would have had the opportunity to purchase the items. The finding as to the date of purchase was therefore important to the trial court's conclusion that the applicant was the purchaser. Likewise, the trial court's conclusion that the applicant was the purchaser was important to the verdict against him. Because of these factors the Commission has reached the view that the requirements of the legal test may be satisfied in the applicant's case.

“New evidence not heard at the trial concerned the date on which the Christmas lights were illuminated in thearea of Sliema in which Mary's House is situated. In the Commission's view,taken together with Mr Gauci's evidence at trial and the contents of his police statements, this additional evidence indicates that the purchase of the items took place prior to 6 December 1988. In other words, it indicates that the purchase took place at a time when there was no evidence at trial that the applicant was in Malta.

“Additional evidence, not made available to the defence, which indicates that four days prior to the identification parade at which Mr Gauci picked out the applicant, he saw a photograph of the applicant in a magazine article linking him to the bombing. In the Commission's view evidence of Mr Gauci's exposure to this photograph in such close proximity to the parade undermines the reliability of his identification of the applicant at that time and at the trial itself.

“Other evidence, not made available to the defence, which the Commission believes may further undermine Mr Gauci's identification of the applicant as the purchaser and the trial court's finding as to the date of purchase.”

The implications for the verdict of guilty
The reasons given by the Commission for finding that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred in this case are not limited to the effect of new evidence which has become available since the date of the original trial and the non-disclosure by the police and prosecution of evidence helpful to the defence. The prima facie miscarriage of justice identified by the Commission includes the trial court’s finding in fact on the evidence heard at the trial that the clothes which surrounded the bomb were purchased in Malta on 7 December 1988 and that Megrahi was the purchaser. This was the very cornerstone of the Crown’s case against him.   If, as suggested by the Commission, that finding in fact had no reasonable basis in the evidence, then there is no legal justification whatsoever for his conviction by the trial court.

The implications for the Scottish criminal justice system
The present writer has always contended that no reasonable tribunal could have convicted Megrahi on the evidence led at the trial.   Here is just one example of the trial court’s idiosyncratic approach to the evidence. Many more could be provided.

A vitally important issue was the date on which the goods that surrounded the bomb were purchased in a shop in Malta. There were only two live possibilities: 7 December 1988, a date when Megrahi was proved to be on Malta and 23 November 1988 when he was not. In an attempt to establish just which of these dates was the correct one, the weather conditions in Sliema on these two days were explored. The shopkeeper’s evidence was that when the purchaser left his shop it was raining so heavily that his customer thought it advisable to buy an umbrella to protect himself while he went in search of a taxi. The unchallenged meteorological evidence led by the defence established that while it had rained on 23 November at the relevant time, it was unlikely that it had rained at all on 7 December; and if there had been any rain, it would have been at most a few drops, insufficient to wet the ground.  On this material, the judges found in fact that the clothes were purchased on 7 December.

On evidence as weak as this how was it possible for the trial court to find him guilty? And how was it possible for the Criminal Appeal Court to fail to overturn that conviction?   The Criminal Appeal Court dismissed Megrahi’s appeal on the most technical of technical legal grounds: it did not consider the justifiability of the trial court’s factual findings at all (though it is clear from their interventions during the Crown submissions in the appeal that at least some of the judges were only too well aware of how shaky certain crucial findings were and how contrary to the weight of the evidence).

It is submitted that at least part of the answer lies in the history of the Scottish legal and judicial system. For centuries judges have accorded a specially privileged status to the Lord Advocate.   It has been unquestioningly accepted that, though a political appointee and the government’s (now the Scottish Executive’s) chief legal adviser, he (now, of course, she) would at all times, in his capacity as head of the prosecution system, act independently and without concern for political considerations and would always place the public interest in a fair trial above the narrow interest of the prosecution in gaining a conviction. This judicial vision of the role of the Lord Advocate was reinforced by the fact that, until the Scottish Judicial Appointments Board commenced operations in 2002, all Scottish High Court judges (and sheriffs) were nominated for appointment to the Bench by the Lord Advocate of the day. This meant that, in all criminal proceedings, the presiding judge owed his position to the person (or one of his predecessors in office) who was ultimately responsible for bringing the case before him, and for its conduct while in his court.

The behaviour of the Crown in the Lockerbie trial was certainly not beyond criticism -- indeed casts grave doubt on the extent to which the Lord Advocate and Crown Office staff can be relied on always to place the interest of securing a fair trial for the accused above any perceived institutional imperative to obtain a conviction. To illustrate this in the context of the Lockerbie trial it is enough to refer to the saga of CIA cables relating to the star Crown witness, Abdul Majid Giaka, who had been a long-standing CIA asset in Libya and, by the time of the trial, was living in the United States under a witness protection programme.

Giaka’s evidence was ultimately found by the court to be utterly unworthy of belief.  This was largely due to the devastating effectiveness of the cross-examination by defence counsel. Their ability to destroy completely the credibility of the witness stemmed from the contents of cables in which his CIA handlers communicated to headquarters the information that Giaka had provided to them in the course of their secret meetings. Discrepancies between Giaka's evidence-in-chief to the Advocate Depute and the contents of these contemporaneous cables enabled the defence to mount a formidable challenge to the truthfulness and accuracy, or credibility and reliability, of Giaka's testimony.  Had the information contained in these cables not been available to them, the task of attempting to demonstrate to the court that Giaka was an incredible or unreliable witness would have been immensely more difficult and perhaps impossible.

Yet the Crown strove valiantly to prevent the defence obtaining access to these cables.

At the trial, on 22 August 2000, when he was seeking to persuade the Court to deny the defence access to those cables in their unedited or uncensored form, the then Lord Advocate, Colin Boyd QC,   stated that the members of the prosecution team who were given access to the uncensored CIA cables on 1 June 2000 were fully aware of the obligation incumbent upon them as prosecutors to make available to the defence material relevant to the defence of the accused and, to that end, approached the contents of those cables with certain considerations in mind.

Mr Boyd said: "First of all, they considered whether or not there was any information behind the redactions which would undermine the Crown case in any way. Secondly, they considered whether there was anything which would appear to reflect on the credibility of Mr Majid… On all of these matters, the learned Advocate Depute reached the conclusion that there was nothing within the cables which bore on the defence case, either by undermining the Crown case or by advancing a positive case which was being made or may be made, having regard to the special defence... I emphasise that the redactions have been made on the basis of what is in the interests of the security of a friendly power... Crown counsel was satisfied that there was nothing within the documents which bore upon the defence case in any way."

One of the judges, Lord Coulsfield, then intervened: "Does that include, Lord Advocate ... that Crown counsel, having considered the documents, can say to the Court that there is nothing concealed which could possibly bear on the credibility of this witness?"

The Lord Advocate replied: "Well, I'm just checking with the counsel who made that -- there is nothing within the -- -- there is nothing within these documents which relates to Lockerbie or the bombing of Pan Am 103 which could in any way impinge on the credibility of Mr Majid on these matters."

Notwithstanding the opposition of the Lord Advocate, the court ordered the unedited cables to be made available to the defence, who went on to use their contents to such devastating effect in questioning Giaka that the court held that his evidence had to be disregarded in its entirety. Yet, strangely enough, the judges did not see fit publicly to censure the Crown for its inaccurate assurances that the cables contained nothing that could assist the defence.

Beyond the Lockerbie trial, the failure of the Crown to place the public interest in a fair trial above the interest of the prosecution in obtaining convictions is illustrated by the extent to which the Lord Advocate has recently had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, through the Privy Council in London before making available to the defence material in the prosecution’s possession that no-one could conceivably deny was of relevance and assistance in the accused person’s defence: see Holland v HMA 2005 SCCR 417;   Sinclair v HMA 2005 SCCR 446. So much for the fairness of the trial being the Crown’s primary and predominant motivation!

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (I Corinthians xiii. 11) It is high time for all involved in the Scottish criminal justice system to put away childish things. All of us, judges included, are surely too old to believe any longer in fairy tales. Fairy tales can be convenient and comforting and can bolster our self esteem. But, as in the case of the belief that the Crown can uniformly be relied upon always to act selflessly in the public interest, they can be dangerous and, if acted upon, work terrible injustice.

It is submitted that the Lockerbie case demonstrates just how necessary it is, if public confidence is to be maintained, for the Scottish Executive to institute a high-powered, independent, investigation into all three aspects -- investigation, prosecution and adjudication -- of the Scottish criminal justice system.

[RB: The full text of the SCCRC’s 2007 Statement of Reasons is now in the public domain. It can be read here.]

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

What did the Crown Office know and when did it know it?

[What follows is excerpted from a letter written by Dr Jim Swire to the Lord Advocate (at the time Elish Angiolini QC) that was reproduced on this blog on this date in 2009:]

In the early morning of 21 December 1988, there was a break-in at Heathrow airport, as discussed in the first appeal at Zeist. This break-in gave access to an unknown individual to ‘airside’, through a breech in the night security cordon in terminal 3. The first appeal court accepted that that was the case.

As I understand it the break-in point was close to the facility given over to Iran Air and to that of the baggage assembly shed, where baggage container AV4041 was part loaded on the evening of 21 December.

The evidence about this break-in had ‘disappeared’ for 12 years before Manly caused it to be raised.

This had the bizarre effect of meaning that during the trial, Luqa airport Malta was alone put forward as the airport of origin for the ingestion of the IED, though there was total absence of evidence as to how Megrahi was supposed to have breached security there. A lacuna which their Lordships described as a serious difficulty for the Crown case.

Yet during the trial Heathrow airport lacked sufficient supporting evidence to be considered as the point of ingestion in the main trial, since the break-in was unknown to their Lordships.

By the time the evidence about Heathrow did surface, the verdict had been reached, and the defence had long abandoned their ‘incrimination’.

Once the appellant in the current appeal had been found guilty, it became immediately justifiable to deny him the ‘presumption of innocence’, to which accused but untried people are entitled. Indeed, ever since the verdict he has been described of course either as ‘the Lockerbie bomber’ or ‘the man found guilty of the Lockerbie bombing’. From this different world of presumed guilt, it is difficult to imagine a scenario suggesting that his proven movements and his use of false passports etc bore no relation to the Lockerbie disaster.

Now the information about this break-in was simply not available to the trial court nor the defence in the main trial at Zeist, only becoming known in time for the first appeal, where it was examined against the background of ‘proven guilt’ and did not of course cause the verdict to be overturned.

It seems quite extraordinary that this information was not available sooner to the trial nor to our Fatal Accident Inquiry in 1990.

If the defence in the main trial had known of it, they might well have pursued their defence of ‘incrimination’ with a great deal more determination than they did in fact show.

The reason for that speculation is that they were to have promoted the use of a (Syrian based) PFLP-GC IED. These devices were specifically designed for introduction into an airport well in advance of their use, being stable indefinitely at ground level. On the other hand if placed within the fuselage of an airliner they were designed to explode around 40 minutes after take-off without any intervention being required at any point, other than their placement within the aircraft. As I’m sure you know, the Lockerbie flight lasted for 38 minutes.

Thus the break-in situation at Heathrow with a plane exploding 38 minutes after taking off from there, was a textbook description of how the PFLP-GC devices were designed to work, as had been explained to the main trial court by Herr Gobel of the West German forensic service. Hence it would have been a huge encouragement to the defence incrimination hypothesis.

Evidence was led in the first appeal that the Heathrow guard (the late Mr Manly) who gave this information to the defence after the verdict had been passed had been interviewed by both the Met’s anti-terrorism branch and the police, and had entered the details of his discovery in the Heathrow night security log immediately.

It is therefore very difficult to see how the Crown Office could have been in ignorance of it.

In his remarks to the first appeal court, concerning the break-in evidence, Mr Taylor (for Megrahi’s defence) said (from transcripts Pages 11085/6):

'No production or statement was made available
to or discovered by the Defence in the course of the
preparation for this trial gave any notice of the
existence of Mr. Manly or the evidence which it turns
out he is able to give. There was no reasonable basis,
in my submission, for the Defence anticipating that it
would turn out that there had been a breach of security
at the baggage build-up area at Heathrow Airport.

'The circumstances of this case are rather
special. The Defence was informed by the Crown that
14,000 witness statements had been taken in the course
of its inquiry. Defence preparations began more than
10 years after the event. The police had fully
investigated matters at Heathrow in the immediate
aftermath of the disaster. The Crown had prepared for
and conducted a Fatal Accident Inquiry in 1990. The
Defence were heavily dependent on the assistance from
the Crown in preparing for trial.

'The Crown had indicated at an early stage
that it would approach the issue of disclosure in
accordance with the principles laid down by Your
Lordships' court in the case of McLeod and that if
possible it would go further than McLeod to assist the
Defence.

'Since it can be taken that the Crown with all
its resources and access to information did not uncover
this evidence in preparing for trial, it would seem
that it would be unreasonable to expect that the
Defence would have guessed that such evidence might
exist and to discover witnesses who were unknown to it.'

Mr Taylor made the assumption that the Crown knew nothing of this matter. On the other hand partial or non-disclosure of relevant material to the defence by the Crown was one of the referral reasons given by the SCCRC as to why there might have been a miscarriage of justice in this case.

For the moment we must avoid harming the appeal process, but there seems no reason why a search should not be made of the copious documents in possession of the Crown to see whether they did in fact have evidence of this break-in. If they have, we need an explanation of why they did not pass it to the defence; if there is no record of them having heard of this evidence then an explanation for that should be sought..

The effect of the absence of the information about the Heathrow break-in was not confined to the Zeist trial. In 1990 (the late) Sheriff Principal John Mowat told our Fatal Accident Inquiry that it must assume that the device had ‘come from Frankfurt’. No mention could be made of the situation at Heathrow, for that was hidden from that court.

I was one of only two relatives who decided to represent himself at the FAI. I did this because I was not satisfied with what I saw as the failure by lawyers representing the relatives to call witnesses and lead evidence requested by us, their clients. I was not alone in this, there was widespread distress among us about this.

During my contribution to the court, I concentrated upon the responsibility of Heathrow to examine hold baggage using the latest technology, but was denied the opportunity to return to the question of Heathrow security, by the Sheriff Principal on the grounds that that had already been covered by our ‘professional representatives’.

Had I known about the break-in, my submissions would have been almost exclusively about Heathrow perimeter security, terminal three night security in particular, and their amazing failure to close the airport pending discovery of who had broken in.

Thus the content of that court was misdirected (inadvertently, since Mowat presumably did not know about the break-in either).

Since I believe that had Heathrow behaved responsibly in the face of this break-in, at a time of heightened terrorist warnings, then my daughter might still be alive, the issue seems crucial to the ability of the FAI to determine accurately what factors contributed to the deaths.

Please will you urgently consider discovery of what, if anything, the Crown Office knew about the Heathrow break-in, and also the question of whether the Fatal Accident Inquiry should be reconvened, in view of this compromising of its purpose to discover all the factors contributing to the deaths. I do not see why this part of the issues raised herein cannot be urgently addressed, appeal or no appeal.

[RB: No useful reply was received.]

Monday, 26 June 2017

US media on the death of Megrahi

What follows is an item originally posted on this blog on this date in 2012.

The American press on the death of the "Lockerbie bomber"


[This is the heading over an article by Ambassador Andrew I Killgore just published on the website of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.  It reads as follows:]

The Washington Post, New York Times and the US edition of the Financial Times all carried articles on the May 20 death in Tripoli, Libya of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, convicted of bombing Pan American Flight 103 on Dec 21, 1988.

The Post, whose pro-Israel sympathies cause its Middle East coverage to be unreliable at best, had a straight one-column article. It expressed no doubts that the bomb that destroyed Pan Am 103 was transported from Valletta, Malta to Frankfurt, Germany to London, where it was loaded onto the doomed plane.

Determined to publish as little as possible on the Lockerbie tragedy, the news of Megrahi's death was published in the Post's little-read obituary section—alongside the death of singer Robin Gibb of the disco group the Bee Gees. In a stunning example of the paper's priorities, the Post devoted nearly twice as much space to Gibb's obituary as it did to Megrahi's.

The Financial Times article is better, and much less linear. "Discrepancies at the trial led many to believe in Megrahi's innocence," it informs its readers. The former Scottish lord advocate, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, in expressing his doubts about Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci's identification of Megrahi as having bought certain clothes from his shop in Valletta, remarked that Gauci was "an apple short of a picnic." The Financial Times also notes that "there were reports that Gauci received at least $2 million from the US, possibly via the CIA."

As a result, the paper concludes, "we may never know who placed the bomb that brought down terror and death to a planeload of passengers, to the crew that served them, and civilians in a sleepy Scottish town [Lockerbie] below."

The New York Times carried two articles on Megrahi's death, one by John F Burns and the other by Robert D McFadden. Neither is bad, given the American media's strange silence on the Lockerbie issue. Burns writes, "Even Megrahi's death may not end the saga of Flight 103."

Dr Jim Swire, who lost his daughter Flora in the Pan Am 103 crash, is mentioned by name, but Dr Robert Black is not. It was Black, professor emeritus of Scots Law at the University of Edinburgh, who originated the idea of holding the Lockerbie trial in The Netherlands with Scottish judges under Scottish law. Nor is any mention made of the Justice for Megrahi Committee (of which this writer is a member).

Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister, noted in a television interview that the Scottish police investigation of the bombing had never been closed, and that Libya's new government had "promised to cooperate" in an effort to settle who was responsible.

Dr Swire, whom Burns describes as "the most persistent — and most controversial — of Megrahi's defenders in Britain," fainted in court when Megrahi was convicted and his indicted co-defendant Lamen Khalifa Fhimah acquitted. Swire is a vigorous advocate of an independent inquiry into the bombing, Burns writes, and was reported to have said in broadcast interviews on May 20 that there were two false pieces of evidence in Megrahi's conviction. According to Swire, shopowner Gauci had been paid "millions of dollars" by Western intelligence agencies. Also, the bomb's circuit board was one used by Iranian — not Libyan — intelligence.

McFadden provides much evidence on doubts about Megrahi's guilt. The Lockerbie court "found the case circumstantial, the evidence incomplete and some witnesses unreliable," he writes, but nevertheless left "no reasonable doubt" on Megrahi's guilt. He quotes Hans Koechler, a United Nations observer at the trial, as calling it "a spectacular miscarriage of justice." McFadden continues: "Many legal experts and investigative journalists challenged the evidence, calling Megrahi a scapegoat for a Libyan government long identified with terrorism." While denying involvement, he writes, Libya paid $2.7 million to the victims' families in 2003 in a bid to end years of diplomatic isolation. 

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Labour Government policy on Lockerbie prosecution

[What follows is an exchange that took place in the House of Lords on this date in 1997, shortly after the election of Tony Blair’s Labour government, between the new Lord Advocate, Lord Hardie, and one of his Conservative predecessors, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie:]

HL Deb 25 June 1997 vol 580 cc1571-3

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie asked Her Majesty's Government:
What is their policy concerning the prosecution of those responsible for the murder of those on flight PanAm 103 and of residents of Lockerbie in December 1988.
The Lord Advocate (Lord Hardie) My Lords, the Government's policy in relation to the prosecution of any crime is that those allegedly responsible should be brought before the courts having jurisdiction for such matters in order that the accused may receive a fair trial.
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has not quite answered the Question that I put to him. As the new Administration takes up office and as the noble and learned Lord as the new Lord Advocate takes over responsibility for these matters, it would be helpful if a clear signal were given not only to this country but also to the rest of the world that the policy pursued by previous Lord Advocates will be maintained. Even in the absence of a clear answer from the noble and learned Lord, I hope I may ask him two questions. First, he will appreciate that as the public prosecutor in Scotland in that respect he does not share a collective responsibility with other ministerial colleagues but has a singular and possibly rather lonely duty to determine whether or not there should be a prosecution. Will he guard against any attempt, however well intentioned, to fetter that discretion for foreign policy or trade reasons?
Secondly, if the noble and learned Lord should determine at any stage that there should not be a prosecution in this matter, will he give an assurance that he will explain that to your Lordships' House? It is not just the relatives of those 270 people who died at Lockerbie who would like to know on what evidence the original decision was taken, but those of us who were involved in the prosecution and the original investigation, who have had our integrity impugned as conspiracy theory has piled upon conspiracy theory, would like the opportunity to reflect on how we would wish to take the matter forward.
Lord Hardie My Lords, I assure the House—as I did in my maiden speech—that I intend to guard the independence of the office which I hold. I assure the noble and learned Lord that I shall not allow anyone from any side of the House to fetter my discretion in any way. As regards reaching any decision, as the noble and learned Lord will be aware, I was involved, along with him, in the public inquiry into the Lockerbie disaster. Since taking up office I have had access to much information that was not available to me at that stage and which is not in the public domain. I can assure the House that I am satisfied on the information available to me that there is no reason not to proceed with the petitions. The noble and learned Lord will be aware that the situation is still fluid in the sense that if additional information becomes available any decision would have to be reviewed. I can also assure the noble and learned Lord that should it be decided that no prosecution will take place I shall return to the House and make a Statement to that effect.
Lord Bruce of Donington My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord tell the House whether Her Majesty's Government are in possession of any prima facie evidence indicating the identity of those responsible?
Lord Hardie My Lords, as the noble Lord may be aware, there are petition warrants which name two people. Those warrants were issued on the basis of information available linking them with the disaster which occurred.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Early report that Lockerbie investigation pointing to Libya

[Pan Am 103 Clue Leads to Libyans : Terrorism: US and Scottish investigators now believe that the regime of Moammar Kadafi carried out the jet bombing that killed 270 is the headline over a lengthy report by Robin Wright and Ronald Ostrow that was published in the Los Angeles Times on this date in 1991. It reads as follows:]

The clue that turned the case was a microchip, a tiny piece of a triggering device to detonate a bomb.
From it, American and Scottish investigators found a new trail that refuted the conclusions of almost two years of arduous legwork by thousands of agents worldwide -- and eventually changed major assumptions about the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over a small Scottish village just four days before Christmas, 1988.
A key breakthrough, which came just as the largest international criminal probe in history neared an impasse, was almost a fluke. A "brilliant young CIA analyst," as one insider described him, decided to try a new hypothesis: Could someone besides the widely suspected culprits -- Palestinian radicals, their Syrian patrons or Iranian militants -- have been involved?
The analyst started with a hunch.
He searched for a "signature" that would match the Pan Am bombing with earlier incidents to prove his suspicions. Culling through CIA files, he came up with the 1984 bombing of a French UTA airliner in Chad. A premature explosion blew up the baggage compartment while the plane was still on the ground and wounded 27 people.
He also found a link with the 1986 attempt to blow up the US Embassy in Togo. Officials in Lome, the Togolese capital, had arrested nine people with two suitcases full of plastic explosives.
But the biggest find was an obscure case in Senegal involving the arrest of two men at Dakar airport in February, 1988. In their possession were 20 pounds of sophisticated Semtex plastic and TNT explosives, weapons and several triggering devices.
The analyst's hunch was right.
In all three cases, the "signature" was distinctly Libyan.
In Senegal, the two men who were arrested -- Mohammed Marzouk, alias Mohammed Naydi, and Mansour Omran Saber -- were both agents of Libyan intelligence. And the triggering devices in their possession matched the microchip fragment from the Pan Am bomb.
The connection has since provided a new set of answers to how and why Pan Am 103 blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, and who masterminded the blast.
Based on the forensic breakthrough and the links with earlier cases, investigators now believe:
* The regime of Moammar Kadafi carried out the bombing. Libyan intelligence, headed by Abdullah Sanussi, orchestrated the plot.
* The primary motive was revenge for the 1986 US bombing of Tripoli in which about 40 people, including Kadafi's adopted daughter, were killed. "The notion that the 1986 bombing of Tripoli deterred Libyan terrorism is greatly flawed," a leading counterterrorism expert concluded.
* The mysterious bag carrying the bomb-laden Toshiba radio-cassette player on the blown-up Pan Am 103 came from Malta. Investigators believe the bomb was probably flown on an Air Malta flight to Frankfurt, Germany -- although the passenger and cargo log has disappeared. In Germany, the cassette player was loaded on Pan Am 103 as an interline bag, unattached to any passenger.
Vital missing pieces in the puzzle finally fell into place. "We followed a lot of leads that looked promising at the beginning but turned out to be nothing," a counterterrorism specialist said. "All the streets followed down to dead ends."
The breakthroughs mean that, unlike the unsolved cases of half a dozen terrorist spectaculars against US targets in the 1980s, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 may go to court.
Assistant Atty Gen Robert S Mueller III, who heads the Justice Department's Criminal Division and has been meeting frequently with the FBI on the investigation, appears poised to take the case to a grand jury, according to US officials.
Should the grand jury return sealed indictments, the biggest obstacle may not be just arresting those involved. US authorities already are working with French police now seeking to apprehend one of the Libyan suspects somewhere in North Africa, the officials said.
The problem instead may be competition over which country will get them for trial. French intelligence now believes yet another terrorist attack -- the 1989 bombing of UTA Flight 772 over the West African country of Niger -- was also directed by Libyan intelligence.
Although the method differed in each case, the signature was once again the telltale clue. The UTA explosive, part of which did not blow up and was retrieved from the Sahara desert, was one of five "suitcase bombs" that investigators believed Libyan intelligence purchased earlier from the notorious Mideast bomb maker Abu Ibrahim.
The primary motive, French officials suspect, was revenge for French aid that enabled Chad -- where the UTA flight took on most of its passengers -- to rout Libyan troops occupying parts of the neighboring state in 1987. The bomb was probably loaded in Brazzaville, the Congolese capital where the flight originated.
The new evidence on the Pan Am bombing, which began to emerge last summer, contradicts the longstanding belief that it was linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) headed by Ahmed Jibril. The radical PFLP-GC, based in Syria, is outside the PLO umbrella.
The original case was based on the arrest of a cell of 16 operatives in Germany two months before the 1988 Pan Am bombing. The group was found to have five sophisticated bombs, especially designed to blow up aircraft, hidden in electronic equipment.
From his base in Damascus, Jibril was also known to have worked closely with Iran, where he frequently traveled. Investigators believed that Tehran commissioned the PFLP-GC to target an American plane in retaliation for the accidental 1988 US downing of Iran Air Flight 655 over the Persian Gulf in which 290 people died.
The crucial clues that changed the direction of the probe were the detonators. The Palestinian group's detonators were all Czech-made. They were attached to altimeter devices that were set to go off once a plane reached a certain altitude.
But, as forensic experts discovered, the detonator fragment that was culled from the wreckage of Flight 103, which had been scattered over 845 square miles of Scottish countryside, had important discrepancies.
It was of Swiss manufacture--from the same firm that had made the triggering devices that were found on the Libyan agents in Senegal. And it was attached to an ordinary timer that had been set to go off at a certain hour.
The "fingerprints" -- as forensic experts call the telltale characteristics of sophisticated explosive devices -- of the Pan Am bomb and the PFLP-GC bombs were vastly different. But the fingerprint of the Pan Am bomb was identical to the devices carried by the Libyan agents who were caught in Senegal.
Unfortunately, Senegal freed the Libyan agents, who were never formally charged, in June, 1988. US officials believe their release was part of a package deal in exchange for ending Libyan support for Senegal's opposition forces and for restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries, which had been severed eight years earlier.
At the time, the State Department issued a largely unnoticed -- but perhaps tragically prescient -- official comment: "We are extremely disappointed by Senegal's action, which raises questions about that country's commitment to the struggle against international terrorism."
Six months later, all 259 people on board Pan Am 103 and 11 others on the ground died when the New York-bound plane, flying 31,000 feet over Scotland, exploded just 38 minutes after takeoff from London's Heathrow Airport.
Crucial evidence held by Senegalese authorities also subsequently disappeared. US investigators have had to rely on photographs of the Libyan agents' materiel to match up the fingerprints of the two bombs.
US officials are unwilling to say where the two Libyans are today, but there are hints that they may be suspects in the Pan Am case. Investigators do believe, however, that the same top Libyan intelligence officials -- including Sanussi -- masterminded both the operation that was uncovered in Senegal and the Pan Am bombing.
Sanussi has been a constant headache to counterterrorism officials in the United States, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, a well-placed US source said. In 1986, he was sentenced in absentia by an Egyptian court to 10 years' imprisonment for conspiring to assassinate a group of prominent Libyan exiles.
Sanussi also reportedly makes regular use of Libyan Arab Airlines, the national carrier, as a cover for intelligence and terrorist activities. He is believed to have recruited baggage-handlers and airport personnel in Europe and Africa to facilitate his operations.
The new case against Libya has effectively absolved Syria, the PFLP-GC's primary sponsor, of involvement in the Pan Am bombing, counterterrorism officials say.
But neither Damascus nor Jibril has been cleared of plotting terrorist activities. US officials also believe the arrests that broke up the radical Palestinian cell operating in Germany probably foiled what could have been an even bigger terrorist spectacular: the bombing of three other planes over a period of only a few days.
Counterterrorism analysts suggest that one of the Palestinian group's targets was an Iberia Airlines flight from Madrid to Israel via Barcelona. Among its scheduled passengers were members of an Israeli sports team.
A former US intelligence official says that PFLP-GC operatives also had surveyed the Pan Am counter at Frankfurt airport, although no evidence indicated specific plans against Flight 103 as one of the three planes.
The biggest outstanding question in the investigation is what role, if any, Iran may have played, several key US sources say.
"Unlike the connection established between Iran and Jibril, we have nothing to prove Iran's link with Libya," one official said. "But some still believe there's a link (that) we haven't found yet."
Another added: "I'll go to my grave believing Iranians had a role in Pan Am 103."
By contrast, before the latest breakthrough, investigators felt they had a strong circumstantial case of Iranian links with the PFLP-GC cell on the Pan Am bombing.
Through electronic intercepts, intelligence services had monitored messages from Iranian officials known for their militancy who expressed concern after arrests of the PFLP-GC cell. They apparently were worried about the implications for an operation they wanted carried out.
Investigators initially thought the PFLP-GC and Libyan plots were directly connected. One early scenario suggested that Iran funded two separate cells for the same operation. The second cell was to provide a backup if the first one failed.
But investigators have increasingly moved away from the so-called "Cell A, Cell B" scenario.
So far, investigators have no evidence from intercepts or secret meetings of direct contact between Libya and Iran. Indeed, relations between Tripoli and Tehran have been erratic.
But if the PFLP-GC and Libyan plots were not linked, the implications are even more serious. "You have to be terrified that there were two groups out there in the fall of 1988 plotting to bomb planes," the well-placed official said. "That's even scarier."
[RB: It was just under five months later that it was announced by the prosecution authorities in Scotland and the United States that charges were being brought against Abdelbaset Megrahi and Lamin Fhimah.]