Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The psychology of the USS Vincennes incident

A fascinating long extract from cognitive psychologist Viki McCabe’s recent OUP book Coming to Our Senses: Perceiving Complexity to Avoid Catastrophes has just been published on the UTNE website. The extract is headed Structural Perception in the USS Vincennes Incident and deals with the errors in perception by the captain of the ship that led to the shooting down of Iran Air flight 655 and what caused those errors. The following are brief extracts, but the whole piece deserves to be read:]

At 9:54 am on July 3, 1988, the US Navy cruiser Vincennes mistakenly shot down Iran Air’s Flight 655, killing all 290 people on board. It was the ninth worst incident in aeronautical history and to make it even worse, the decision that led to these deaths was based on a theory of the situation rather than on supporting evidence. (...)

When this incident began, the Vincennes was in Iranian territorial waters in violation of international law and had been mixing it up with several Iranian gunboats. At 9:47 a.m., a distant blip—an airplane lifting off from Bandar Abbas airport—was picked up by the Vincennes’ radar, whose crew responded immediately with a standard Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) query. They received a Mode 3 Commair response, which indentified the plane as a commercial airliner. But during the gunboat fracas circumstances on the Vincennes had become chaotic, and in the confusion the crew ended up providing mixed messages—one speculating that the blip could be an enemy F-14 fighter jet and another insisting the blip was a civilian plane.

“In the cramped and ambiguous combat environment of the Persian Gulf…the captain chose to rely on his own judgment.” He reportedly ran a simulation of the situation in his mind where he tried “to imagine what the pilot was thinking, what the pilot’s intent was.” His belief—that without direct evidence, we can nonetheless deduce what someone whom we do not know and cannot see is planning to do—could qualify as magic thinking. Yet without checking further, the captain developed the theory that the plane was an F-14 fighter and that it was diving directly at the Vincennes.

A simulation is not the situation itself. It is only a theory of the situation. A key point is that no one else actually saw this theorized threat. In fact, a crew member standing right behind the captain later “testified that he never saw indications that the aircraft was descending.” Further, the commander of a nearby frigate, the USS Sides, reported that his radar showed an ascending, not a descending plane. That plane was not only much larger than a fighter jet, but it was also flying in Iranian airspace over Iranian territorial waters on its regularly scheduled twice-weekly flight from Tehran, Iran to Dubai, United Arab Emirates via Bandar Abbas, Iran. The radar-tracking systems of the Sides and the Vincennes both covered that same airspace. When the record of the Vincennes’ tracking system was later reviewed, the information it showed was found to be identical to the one from the USS Sides. How was it that the captains of these two ships reported seeing such different situations? (...)

University of Michigan psychologist Richard Nisbett testified before Congress that both the Vincennes’ captain and his crew suffered from “expectancy bias.” Expectancy bias occurs when people expecting something to happen allow this to distort their view of what is actually happening to match their expectations. Nisbett proposed that because the Vincennes’ crew believed the blip was a hostile plane, they failed to see the ascending Airbus. Instead they apparently imagined a descending enemy fighter. But expectations, like simulations, are similar to theories. All three are mental versions of situations as opposed to perceptions that reveal the situations themselves. In other words, by pointing the finger at the people involved and their possible propensities to see what they expected to “see” instead of what was actually there, Nisbett overlooked the more basic role that substituting a cognitive for a perceptual process—a theory for actual evidence—played in promoting this event. We often forget that our cognitive processes lack windows on the world. They receive their information about what goes on outside ourselves from our perceptual systems. They then translate that complex intelligence into simpler symbolic forms that are often influenced by our preconceptions, theories, beliefs, and general worldview. Without such a theory to set the stage, the captain’s and the crew’s expectancy bias would have no ground upon which to play out.

The Navy compounded the situation by creating false videos to cover up what actually happened. The Iranians were enraged at such a maneuver and accused the United States of a “barbaric massacre” and “vowed to avenge the blood of their martyrs.” There have been unconfirmed rumors that to retaliate, the Ayatollah Khomeini retained a hit man who, on December 21, 1988, blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. On November 16, 2003, the International Court of Justice concluded that the actions of the Vincennes in the Persian Gulf were unlawful. The most important fact to take away from this dismal tale is that the outcome would have been very different if the captain and crew of the Vincennes had simply put their theories aside and paid more attention to the information on the radar screen. That information revealed the true structure of this complex event in which the location of the blip, the commercial airspace on the radar, and the ascending Airbus in the sky were linchpin components.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Redeeming Scotland's reputation for justice and humanity

What follows is taken from an item posted on this blog four years ago on this date:

Doubts remain over Megrahi’s guilt because of payments made to ‘star’ witnesses

[This is the heading over a letter from Dr Jim Swire in today's edition of The Herald. It reads as follows:]

There has been widespread condemnation from the United States, in particular, of Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill’s decision to release Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi on compassionate grounds.

This condemnation must presuppose that the man was, indeed, guilty of playing a part in the Lockerbie atrocity, yet America is silent concerning the findings of Scotland’s Criminal Cases Review Commission, which indicated that there may have been a miscarriage of justice.

It may be an uncomfortable exercise for the senators, but perhaps they should don their reading glasses and look a lot closer to home. If they will examine the website of their own Rewards for Justice Program in Washington DC, they will find Megrahi’s name among those brought to “justice” by disbursement of RfJ funds.

If they will then look at the website set up on behalf of Megrahi by his defence team, they will find extracts from a policeman’s diary kept during the investigations into Lockerbie on the island of Malta.

These extracts show that the policeman knew that the shopkeeper Tony Gauci, who later claimed haltingly to identify Megrahi in court as the buyer of the clothes, (remains of which were found at the crash site), was increasingly aware of, and excited by, the offer of substantial reward for him if he would give evidence leading to the conviction of Megrahi. All this, of course, long before Mr Gauci actually did give his evidence in court.

If the proprietor of a small Glasgow clothing store, struggling to feed his family, were to be told that if he gave evidence that he had seen a certain individual buy clothes from his shop some years before, he would receive a gift of $2m, would you trust his evidence? The senators might also like to look at the material surrounding a witness known as Giaka, alleged, in the run up to the trial, to be a “star” witness, but who was shown in court to have been on the payroll of the CIA from before Lockerbie and whose evidence was, therefore, seen as suspect by the court. They might also demand a sight of the suite of CIA cables surrounding this man.

Nor need Westminster feel virtuous. Why did the Metropolitan Police investigation into the break-in at Heathrow the night before Lockerbie remain hidden until after the verdict had been reached? The Crown Office has told me it knew nothing about this until after the verdict.

Why did Lady Thatcher write in 1993 in her memoirs, The Downing Street Years, that, following her support for the USAF bombing of Tripoli and Bengazi in 1986 (two years before Lockerbie) “… there was a marked decline in Libyan-sponsored terrorism in succeeding years”.

We see that Scotland, to whom the solemn task of trying the accused was passed, was on the receiving end of external political interference in what should have been a purely criminal case.

If the senators want to know the truth about this appalling atrocity, let them throw their weight behind the need for a process to be set up within Scotland, objectively to review the case against Megrahi.

Only we ourselves, in the absence of Megrahi’s appeal, can redeem our country’s reputation for justice and humanity, and ensure that our own citizens are protected by a wise and independent judicial system.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Inherent improbability of Malta ingestion of Lockerbie bomb

[What follows is an article by Maltese journalist, author and lawyer Joe Mifsud published in September 2000, while the Zeist trial was in progress, on TheLockerbieTrial.com, a website edited by Ian Ferguson and me. In it he points out the inherent improbability of Malta’s being the place of ingestion of the Lockerbie bomb.]

A terrorist, like any other criminal, will do what he can to cover his tracks.  The Maltese origin of clothing in the bomb suitcase does not establish that either the suitcase or the bomb was once in Malta.

The clothing in the bomb suitcase, which was identifiable as having been manufactured in Malta, bore labels to this effect, enabled Royal Armament Research and Development (RARDE) to determine the country of origin as Malta.  So these labels had not been removed by the terrorists.

The Lockerbie investigators established that six items of the clothing and an umbrella, which originated in Malta were new and had been purchased new from the same shop in Malta on the same occasion.

These items of clothing had been purchased from Mary’s House in Sliema, weeks not days before 21st December 1988.  The prosecution is claiming that the clothes were bought on the 7th December, while the defence is suggesting the 23rd November 1988 as the date.

In my opinion the facts and matters set out above are consistent with an attempt by the terrorists to distract the attention of the investigating authorities away from Frankfurt or Heathrow to Malta in the event of the bomb being detected or as in fact happened of the bomb exploding above land and debris from the bomb and the bomb suitcase being recovered.

It is inherently unlikely that terrorists would have tried to place the bomb suitcase on board Air Malta KM 180 on the 21st December 1988 for the following four reasons.

1.  Terrorists do not expose themselves and their plans to any unnecessary risk of detention or of error.

2.  Accordingly the terrorists responsible for the bombing of Pan Am 103 would not have routed the bomb suitcase through Frankfurt and chosen to run the risk of it passing undetected through the security systems of three different airports on two different airlines when Air Malta during that period flew only three flights each week to Frankfurt but ten flights each week to Heathrow.

3.  Further if the bomb consisted of a timer device, terrorists would not have run the unpredictable risk of the passage of the bomb suitcase being delayed in one or more of the following ways:

a)  on the ground at Luqa as a result of mechanical failure, poor weather, security alert, air traffic control or any other reason;

b)  by being diverted away from Frankfurt for any of the reasons at above;

c)  above Frankfurt as a result of air traffic control delays for incoming flights (as in fact happened);

d)  by missing the interline connection at Frankfurt as a result of the bomb suitcase being lost, mishandled or detected in the course of x-ray or baggage reconciliation procedures;

e)  on the ground at Frankfurt for any of the reasons at (a) above;

f)  by being diverted away from Heathrow for any of the reasons at (a) above;

g)  above Heathrow as a result of air traffic control delays for incoming flights;

h)  by missing the interline connection at Heathrow for any of the reasons at (d) above;

i)   on the ground at Heathrow as a result of the connecting transatlantic aircraft being delayed, mechanical failure, poor weather, security alert or any other reason.

4.  Further if the bomb consisted of a barometric pressure device triggered by altitude which itself triggered a timer, terrorists could not have avoided (alternatively would not have risked) the bomb being prematurely triggered on board KM 180 or on board Pan Am 103A from Frankfurt to Heathrow, and then detonating on board either of these flights or on the ground at Frankfurt or at Heathrow.

No terrorist could have predicted in advance the exact altitude at which either flight would have flown or, if such a prediction had been made, no terrorist could have guaranteed that the aircraft would have remained at that altitude and would not have been ordered away from it by air traffic control.  The bomb on board Pan Am 103 exploded approximately 35 minutes after take-off from Heathrow.

It is not clear for me why the Lockerbie investigators choose to blame Malta and Air Malta in this case, when it is so clear that we are the scapegoats for others that lacked security at their airports.

Joe Mifsud is currently following the Lockerbie Trial at Camp Zeist for ONE News and Kullhadd.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The winding path towards a Lockerbie trial

[On this date sixteen years ago a letter from me was published in The Scotsman. It read as follows:]

Your report ("Lockerbie suspects' lawyers sacked", 24 September [1998]) claims the new Libyan defence team had been appointed by the Libyan Government (or by Colonel Gaddafi).  What evidence is there for this?

I met five members of the team in Tripoli last Monday.  The chairman, Kamel Hassan Maghur, said he and his colleagues (who include the present President of the Tripoli Bar Association and the most senior past-President) had been appointed by the two suspects themselves; that their sole concern was with representing the interests of their clients;  that those interests did not necessarily coincide with the wishes or interests of the Libyan Government; and that if the Government sought to interfere in their work or to influence in any way the advice which the lawyers might render to their clients, they would not hesitate to publicise this fact in the international media.

Mr Maghur (who as well as being a former Foreign Minister, is also a retired Libyan Supreme Court judge) said nothing to indicate that his team wished to dispense with the services of Alistair Duff, the Edinburgh solicitor who for many years has represented the two suspects in Scotland: indeed, quite the reverse.

If, as you state, Dr Ibrahim Legwell is claiming (a) still to represent the suspects and (b) that the new team has been foisted on them without their consent, then this conflict should be speedily resolved by direct consultation with the accused themselves.  I was deeply impressed by the professionalism, commitment and independence of the Libyan lawyers. If they do indeed now represent the suspects, I am convinced that their interests are in capable hands.

[This letter appears no longer to feature in The Scotsman’s online archives. It, and other material relating to the change in Megrahi and Fhimah’s Libyan legal team, can be found here.]

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Criminal acts and the Lockerbie evidence

What follows is the text of an item posted on this blog four years ago on this date:

Angiolini tells Parliament “no evidence of any criminal act” in Pan Am 103 evidence chain

[This is the headline over a news item just published on the website of Scottish lawyers' magazine The Firm. It relates to the written answers given by the Lord Advocate to questions submitted by Christine Grahame MSP. The news item reads in part:]

The Lord Advocate has told the Holyrood Parliament that “there is no evidence of any criminal act having been carried out in relation to any of the forensic evidence in the Lockerbie investigation.” 

Elish Angiolini was responding to a Parliamentary question from MSP Christine Grahame (...)

Grahame asked Angiolini if she was aware of the reported comments of former FBI scientist Frederic Whitehurst implying that the FBI laboratory in Washington DC may constitute an additional crime scene in the case. 

Former Lord Advocate at the time of the trial, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, has stated publicly in a television interview for Dutch television in 2009 that he was not aware that the timer fragment known as PT35 was sent to the United States of America for examination by FBI officials, and that he would have opposed such transportation of this fragment on the basis of concerns that it might be lost in transit or provoke accusations that it had been tampered with. 

Angiolini said in her Parliamentary answer that she was aware of this information, and confirmed that the fragment was taken to the United States of America by Scottish police officers and a British forensic scientist in June 1990 as part of the investigation into the Lockerbie event. 

"There is no evidence of any criminal act having been carried out in relation to any of the forensic evidence in the Lockerbie investigation," she said.

“The fragment remained in the custody and control of the Scottish police officers and the British forensic scientist during the visit to the United States and was subsequently identified as having come from an electronic timer manufactured by a Swiss company, MEBO, to the order of the Libyan intelligence service,” she said. 

In July 2007, one week after the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission referred the case back to High Court for Megrahi’s appeal, former MEBO employee Ulrich Lumpert swore an affidavit stating that he had personally manufactured the fragment, and that it had been introduced falsely into the Crown’s evidence chain. He said that he handed the fragment to authorities investigating the case on 22 June 1989, and admitted committing perjury in the Zeist trial, citing fear of his life if his testimony reflected what he narrated in his affidavit. (...)

Angiolini's answers did not narrate what investigations may have been undertaken within the Crown Office or in Scottish police forces to reach the conclusion that there was no evidence of criminal acts.

This is not the first time the conduct of the trail and its handling has been considered a crime. On 14 October 2005, UN Special Observer Hans Koechler concluded that the conduct of the trial of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmend Al Megrahi had concerned him to the extent that a crime may have taken place at Camp Zeist to manufacture the conviction of Megrahi. 

“The falsification of evidence, selective presentation of evidence, manipulation of reports, interference into the conduct of judicial proceedings by intelligence services, etc. are criminal offenses in any country,” Koechler's office said in a statement. 

“In view of the above new revelations and in regard to previously known facts as reported in Dr. Koechler’s reports, the question of possible criminal responsibility, under Scots law, of people involved in the Lockerbie trial should be carefully studied by the competent prosecutorial authorities.”

[RB 2014: While the Lord Advocate in 2010 may have believed that there was no evidence of any criminal act having been carried out in relation to any of the forensic evidence in the Lockerbie investigation, no such belief can be honestly held today in the light of the revelation that PT35 had a metallurgical profile entirely different from the circuit boards in the timers supplied by MEBO to Libya. And, since the Crown knew this long before 2010 (indeed before the Zeist trial in 2000-2001) but did not disclose it to the defence, it is perhaps permissible to be somewhat sceptical that that belief was honestly held within the Crown Office in 2010. This issue features among the allegations of criminal conduct in the Lockerbie investigation, prosecution and trial that are currently under investigation by Police Scotland.]

Friday, 26 September 2014

US Attorney General resigns

Eric Holder has submitted his resignation as Attorney General of the United States. His interventions in the Lockerbie case can be followed here. At least as far as the Lockerbie case is concerned, his tenure was not a distinguished one.

Greenock, Musselburgh and Edinburgh perfomances of Lockerbie - Lost Voices

[There are to be performances of Lee Gershuny’s play Lockerbie: Lost Voices at the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock on Friday 3 October 2014; at The Brunton in Musselburgh on Saturday 11 October; and at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh on Friday 7 and Saturday 8 November. The play was first performed, to considerable acclaim, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013. What follows is from an article published yesterday on the Inverclyde Now website:]

A play that looks at the Lockerbie plane bombing from the viewpoint of six hypothetical passengers comes to The Beacon, Greenock, next week.

Lockerbie – Lost Voices is being staged by The Elements World Theatre, an Edinburgh based new writing company. The play premiered to great acclaim during the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe.

It comes to the Beacon Studio Theatre on Friday 3 October at 7:30 pm. Tickets are £10 (£8 concessions), available online or from the box office on 01475 723723.

The play gives voice to six hypothetical passengers both before and after flight Pan Am 103 explodes over Lockerbie on 21 December 1988.

It takes them out of the anonymity of a statistic and reveals courage, love and humour in their real family relationships just moments before they die. Their personal conflicts draw the audience into the intimate, thought-provoking issues raised in the characters’ personal lives, making the actual explosion even more shocking.

In the final scenes, the dead passengers honour the lives they have lived while presiding over their own funeral and creating an opportunity for the audience to participate in a dramatic requiem. Speaking from the neutrality of death, the characters also give voice to those whose published reports challenged the official version of the disaster.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Many Scots feel that Megrahi was unjustly convicted

[What follows is an excerpt from an article published on this date in 2009 in The New York Times and reproduced on this blog:]

In Scotland, opinion polls show a mixed reaction to the Megrahi release. A BBC poll found the majority were opposed to the decision. But polls in local newspapers found heavy majorities applauding it, and in an Internet poll conducted by The Firm, a magazine for lawyers, judges and others in the legal profession, some 69 percent of responders said they supported the release.

And, as a complicating factor, many Scots — including influential members of the legal establishment — feel that Mr Megrahi was unjustly convicted and should never have been imprisoned in the first place.

Among them are Robert Black, the lawyer who helped broker the deal to hold the Lockerbie trial in the Netherlands rather than in Scotland; and Hans Koechler, the United Nations observer at the trial, who called the guilty verdict “inconsistent” and “arbitrary,” and has been a harsh critic of Scottish justice.

Mr Megrahi has always maintained his innocence. His first appeal failed, but an influential group called the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission then referred his case back for another appeal, saying that it believed he “may have suffered a miscarriage of justice.”

Mr Megrahi dropped the appeal in August, a tactic that he thought would help his chances of being released early, his lawyer said. But he has begun publishing on the Internet the legal arguments he had planned to use, as a way toward establishing his innocence.

In the Scottish Parliament, Kenny MacAskill, Scotland’s justice secretary, defended his decision to release Mr Megrahi on compassionate grounds, saying that humanity “is viewed as a defining characteristic” of Scotland.

In fact, releasing terminally ill prisoners is fairly standard practice in Scotland. Since 1997, 31 prisoners, including Mr Megrahi, have applied for compassionate release. Twenty-four have had their applications granted; the remaining seven did not meet the medical criteria, in which, generally, the prisoner is deemed likely to die within three months.

“Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion be available,” Mr MacAskill told Parliament. “Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown.”

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Protection of the system and its wrongdoers taking precedence

What follows is an item posted on this blog on this date two years ago:

Hillsborough-Pan Am 103 links laid before Justice Committee

[This is the headline over an article published today on the website of Scottish lawyers’ magazine The Firm.  It reads as follows:]

The Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament has been told by the Justice for Megrahi campaign group that the Pan Am 103 debacle bears parallel’s with “England’s shame”, the Hillsborough cover up.

In its submission to the committee ahead of tomorrow’s hearing of a petition calling for an inquiry into the affair, the Justice for Megrahi group say the efforts of the government to protect “wrongdoers” was prioritised ahead of the protection of innocent people.

The JFM campaigners also say that a further criminal appeal may be raised in the event the committee does not convene an inquiry.

“The outcome of the Hillsborough enquiry has undoubtedly shone a light on the inner workings of a justice system that purported to keep its citizens safe and secure,” the submission says.

“Now we can see that protection of the system and the wrongdoers within it took precedence over protection of the individual citizen. Indeed efforts were made to transfer blame to innocent third parties.

“If Hillsborough was England’s shame then Lockerbie is Scotland’s, and much of the indifference and arrogance identified within the former can be identified in the latter. We applaud the open- minded approach of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, and hope to see a similar scrutiny of the Lockerbie investigation, without fear or favour.”

Writing exclusively in The Firm last week, Dr Jim Swire also said the Hillsborough cover up was part of a consistent pattern of the Government in instances where it was at fault after the fact, such as the Chinook crash in 1994, the Shirley McKie affair and the Bloody Sunday events.

The issue will be discussed at a Firm Event addressed by Professor Robert Black QC, taking place in Glasgow tomorrow.

The JFM campaigners say that the possibility exists for a further appeal to be initiated by the executors or immediate family of Abdel Baset Al Megrahi, under the provisions of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995, section 303A, which permit’s the transfer of the rights of appeal of a deceased person.

The committee adds that if the al-Megrahi family opt not to pursue it, “the door may be open for bereaved families” to do so.

“Whilst for some the death of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi on 20 May this year may have changed the tenor of the debate surrounding the 1988 Pan Am 103 tragedy, it has not deflected the determination of campaigners seeking justice for the 270 victims of the disaster and an independent inquiry into the conviction of Mr al-Megrahi for the atrocity,” the group adds.

“Events of 2012 have only strengthened the argument for an inquiry.”

The campaigners have also sent a letter to Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, lodging serious formal allegations relating to the conduct of the Lockerbie investigation and the Kamp van Zeist trial.

“Out of respect to Mr MacAskill, JFM does not propose to go public with the text of the letter or to divulge detail concerning the precise nature of the allegations for a period of thirty days from 13 September, in order to allow Secretary MacAskill sufficient latitude to respond,” the group said.

“The manner in which the allegations are dealt with could have a direct bearing on [the petition].”   

[This story has now been picked up on The Scotsman website.  It can be read here.]

RB 2014: Mr MacAskill, of course, refused to appoint an independent person to investigate JFM’s allegations and insisted that they be lodged with the very police force whose conduct featured amongst the complaints of criminality embodied in these allegations. The allegations are now under investigation by Police Scotland whose report will, when completed, be submitted to the Crown Office. Crown Office personnel also feature prominently in the allegations of criminal conduct levelled by JFM.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Further steps on the path towards a Lockerbie trial

[What follows is the text of a Reuters news agency report published on this date sixteen years ago:]

Libya fears the two men accused of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing could be assassinated if they go to the Netherlands for trial, the spokesman for British relatives of the victims said on Wednesday.

Jim Swire, who had just returned from a visit to Tripoli where he met Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and the suspects' legal team, said he felt the fears were real and were not just a stalling manoeuvre. Swire said that if the matter could be cleared up, the trial could begin within weeks.
Libya has criticised a plan by Britain and the United States under which the two men would be tried before three Scottish judges in the Netherlands. The proposal was intended to end a prolonged impasse over Libya's refusal to hand over the men for trial either in the United States or Britain.

“There are real worries...that the lives of these men are at risk,” Swire told a meeting at a conference of Britain's minority Liberal Democrats in Brighton, southern England. He later told reporters the Libyans' fears related primarily to the US Central Intelligence Agency, although defence lawyers were also worried about the possibility of attempts on their clients' lives by Iranian or Syrian agents.

Speaking at a fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrats conference in Brighton, Dr Swire, a spokesman for UK Families Flight 103, said: "There are structures in this wicked world that don't want this trial happening and one way to stop that happening might be to kill these two."

Asked who was the most likely to carry out such an attack, he said: "The most obvious sources would be structures inside the US. It would be a convenient way of blocking other forms of investigation." He agreed it was "quite possible" that the Syrians or Iranians, who were blamed very soon after the 1989 bombing for funding and ordering the atrocity, could also attempt such an attack.

Swire travelled on Saturday to Tripoli along with Robert Black, a professor who pioneered the idea that the trial should take place under Scottish law in the Hague out of deference to Libyan objections to it being held in Scotland.

Swire said he and Black held talks with lawyers for the two Libyans, Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, and with the Libyan foreign ministry as well as with Gaddafi. Libya announced on Wednesday that it had subsequently replaced the defence lawyers.

“The objections (the Libyans drew) to our attention...were really sensible objections which require to be sorted out in a satisfactory manner, and not delaying tactics,” Swire said. He said he had discovered that the US air force still had the right to use the Dutch air base to which it was proposed to fly the two suspects. Swire based his optimism that a trial could still be imminent on proposals that he said Black had just sent to the United Nations to speed up negotiations on outstanding issues.

“If this (Black's proposal) is accepted, I think there is no reason why we should not be looking at weeks,” he said, declining to give details.