Wednesday, 5 February 2014

This is a big deal, Mr Linklater

[This is the headline over an article by Dr Morag Kerr published in today’s edition of the Scottish Review.  It reads as follows:]

Magnus Linklater tells me he has read my book (Adequately Explained by Stupidity? – Lockerbie, Luggage and Lies, Troubador, £12.99), but you really wouldn't know from his treatment of it in his article for the Scottish Review (8 January). He quotes a couple of ambiguous passages that might have been taken from the publicity material, and then proceeds to criticise what seems to be an entirely different volume.

Surely the very title might suggest to him that his favourite pejorative, 'conspiracy theorist', might be misapplied, but not a bit of it. This is a contemptuous dismissal, nothing more than a lazy slur, used to avoid a proper examination of challenging facts and evidence. It is a put-down, intended to insult, discredit, belittle and embarrass. And Mr Linklater pulls it out repeatedly.

I'll say it one more time. I do not allege any conspiracy. I see an investigation that went off the rails at an early stage for reasons that are unclear, which pursued a red herring down a blind alley, which refused to backtrack when it could find no evidence of the obvious suspects in that cul-de-sac, and in the end found some poor person called Abdelbaset al-Megrahi who happened to be in the right place at the right time with just enough nebulous suspicion surrounding him for a case to be manufactured.

The eventual conclusion of the investigation was politically convenient, to put it mildly, but that tells us nothing about the sincerity of those who arrived at that conclusion. As I said in my book, there is nothing quite so lethal as a policeman, or a prosecutor, or indeed a forensic scientist, who is absolutely and sincerely convinced of a suspect's guilt.

Mr Linklater admits that he is not a Lockerbie expert, seeming to base his position mainly on a blind trust in the court and the judicial processes, plus a few talking points gleaned from insiders with an axe to grind. Those of us who have become convinced of Megrahi's innocence, however, have based this conviction on the facts of the matter. The case against Megrahi (and his associate Fhimah) was founded on a few crucial points, and if these are disproved the entire house of cards falls to pieces. These points have indeed been thoroughly disproved, and it is this that Mr Linklater must confront, rather than taking refuge in insults and unsubstantiated assertion.

The investigators were convinced that the bomb had been introduced into the baggage system at Luqa airport, Malta, as illegitimate unaccompanied luggage. It was then, they proposed, transferred to the Pan Am 103 feeder flight at Frankfurt, then again to Maid of the Seas waiting at Heathrow. There were two reasons for this belief. First, because some of the clothes which appeared to have been packed in the suitcase with the bomb were traced to a small shop only three miles from Luqa airport, and second, because analysis of the confused and partial baggage records recovered at Frankfurt seemed to show an item of luggage being transferred from a flight from Malta, although there was no passenger booked to make such a transfer.

The provenance of the clothes appears to be quite genuine, however the proposition that clothes bought on Malta weeks before the disaster prove that the bomb began its journey that day from the island is clearly nonsense. Whatever he may say about it now, Megrahi's advocate Bill Taylor understood this perfectly well at the time of the trial, pointing out quite rightly that clothes may be transported anywhere at all in the time available, and that such a conspicuous purchase of easily-traceable items in a small shop might well have been intended as a deliberate red herring pointing away from the real scene of the crime.

The baggage records are another matter. The security system at Luqa in 1988 was extremely stringent. Years of investigation on Malta failed to find any evidence that an illegitimate suitcase had been smuggled on to the plane in question, and indeed the evidence that this had not happened was extremely strong. The judges at Camp Zeist acknowledged this, but sailed right on past the 'major difficulty' without further comment.

The evidence relied on to assert the Malta origin lay not at Luqa but at Frankfurt, in a single page of luggage listing which was all that was recovered after the computer record for the day was accidentally wiped a week after the disaster. Lacking the full dataset, its interpretation was problematic. Twenty-five items were recorded as being transferred to the PA103 feeder from incoming flights, but only 10 of these could be matched to legitimate transfer luggage by the method prescribed for interpreting the listing. Eight or nine additional items were discovered which must also have been transferred in this way, but these could only be matched to the written records by guesswork. This left not just one but six or seven of the recorded transfer items unidentified, and there were no further known items of luggage to fill these slots. These mystery items seemed to come from four airports – Bombay, Berlin, Warsaw, and Malta. The investigators were so enchanted by the match to the Maltese clothes that they didn't even visit the other three airports.

Tray 8849, the listing apparently connecting to the Malta flight, is far from an isolated anomaly screaming 'bomb here!'. We have no idea what was in any of these unidentified trays, but they certainly weren't all carrying the bomb. The fact is, the surviving records are simply too incomplete to support the interpretation being placed on them. The reason the judges were prepared to trust these confused and confusing records over the complete and perfectly clear Luqa records was not, of course, simply that the clothes had been purchased on Malta.

They came to their conclusion because it was alleged that Megrahi, who was present at Luqa airport when the flight to Frankfurt departed, was the man who made that purchase. The so-called eyewitness identification that supported this allegation has however been the subject of detailed and damning criticism, not least by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission itself.

The SCCRC in effect declared the Camp Zeist verdict to be unreasonable, when it noted that 'there is no reasonable basis in the trial court's judgement for its conclusion that the purchase of the items took place on 7 December 1988'. Make no mistake about it, this one statement destroys the entire judgement, because the date of 7 December for the clothes purchase was the hook on which the whole daisy-chain of inference and supposition was hung. If the clothes weren't bought on 7 December, Megrahi wasn't the man who bought them. And if the man who bought the clothes wasn't at Luqa airport when the flight for Frankfurt departed, then the justification for the finding that the bomb suitcase must have been in the mysterious tray 8849 vanishes.

Of course there was more to it than that, which Mr Linklater must be aware of as he claims to be familiar with the SCCRC report, and indeed to admire it. Tony Gauci, the shopkeeper, originally described his customer as a burly, dark-skinned man, about 50 years old and over six feet tall. Megrahi was of slight to medium build, light-skinned, five feet eight inches tall, and in 1988 he was only 36 years of age. Gauci first picked out a very poor-quality passport photo of Megrahi well over two years after the clothes purchase, and it was a mind-boggling 11 years after the encounter before he picked Megrahi out of a live identity parade.

Even the judges acknowledged that the composition of the line-up meant that Megrahi was 'comparatively easy' to pick out as the suspect, and of course by 1999 he was nearing the age the customer was said to have been in 1988. Gauci never made a confident identification, merely testifying to a resemblance, and indeed his first words following the 1999 identity parade were, 'not the man I saw in the shop, but...'.

The other points relating to police pressure on Gauci to make an identification, his familiarity with photographs clearly identifying Megrahi as the Lockerbie accused before his attendance at the identity parade, his awareness of the eye-watering reward being offered by the US Department of Justice, and the eventual payment to him of at least $2 million after Megrahi's conviction had been secured, will also be familiar to anyone who is a fan of the SCCRC report.

A quite separate piece of evidence apparently linking Megrahi to the bombing was the tiny fragment of printed circuit board said to have been part of the timer which had detonated the bomb. This was said to have been one of only 20 such items to have been manufactured, all of which had been supplied to the Libyan military. Megrahi was the co-owner of a company which rented office space in the same building in Zurich as the manufacturer, and had done business with that company – though not in relation to the timers.

The identification of the small shard of PCB as apparently originating from a type of timer supplied exclusively to Libya was a major breakthrough in the investigation. However, as has been ably demonstrated by John Ashton, this identification was fatally flawed. A crucial metallurgical peculiarity of the fragment, known about from an early stage in the investigation, was not present in the timers supplied to Libya. The simple fact is that we do not know what this PCB fragment is or where it came from, but one thing we do know is that it is not what the prosecution said it was.

Despite having read my book, Mr Linklater failed to make any reference to its central revelation, the whole point of the narrative. He continues to assert that the trial court, the first appeal and indeed Megrahi's defence 'tested to destruction' the theory that the bomb suitcase was introduced not on Malta but at Heathrow airport. This was never the case. The defence made a spirited and rational case for a Heathrow introduction, however the judges, while acknowledging this as a possibility, chose to prefer the fragmented and inferential case for the Malta-Frankfurt routing. The court, however, was not shown the full story.

A careful and detailed analysis of the totality of the evidence from Heathrow, something which was never undertaken either by the original forensic investigation, the prosecution team or the defence experts, shows quite conclusively that the bomb was indeed in a suitcase that was seen in the baggage container while it was still in the interline shed at Heathrow, an hour before the feeder flight landed.

The court judgement depended on the assumption that a blue American Tourister suitcase was underneath the bomb suitcase. The forensic evidence clearly shows it was on top. The judgement depended on the assumption that the bomb suitcase had not been the one on the bottom of the stack. The forensic evidence clearly shows that is exactly where it was. The judgement depended on the assumption that the Heathrow interline luggage was rearranged when the feeder flight luggage was added to the container. The baggage handler who carried out that task (who was not called as a witness) was insistent that he did no such thing.

Mr Linklater notes that Megrahi was in Malta on the day of the bombing, and presents this as a major point for the prosecution. However, if the scene of the crime was Heathrow, then far from Megrahi's location that day being incriminating, it provides him with an unbreakable alibi. At the time the bomb suitcase appeared in that baggage container, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was in fact in Tripoli, having travelled there from Luqa on a morning flight.

I realise it can be hard to take on board the fact that something this simple and this obvious has only emerged 25 years down the line, but that's how it is. This is a big deal, Mr Linklater, and it deserves a more honest response than misdirection and point-scoring.

Something which an astute journalist might want to investigate is why the Scottish police and the Crown Office have failed even to interview the metallurgist who demonstrated the discrepancy between the PCB fragment found at Lockerbie and the timers supplied to Libya, nearly two years after the discrepancy was first made public.

Similarly, it is nearly a year since the detailed analysis showing the bomb to have been introduced at Heathrow was made available to the police, but they have still not commissioned an independent forensic evaluation to test and verify the findings presented. Instead they continue chasing off to Libya, where the much-trailed evidence pointing to Megrahi's so-called accomplices has so far proved as elusive as Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

Something else a journalist with a real nose for a story might find interesting is the sheer amount of exculpatory evidence that was not disclosed to the defence at Megrahi's original trial or indeed later. The documents that led to the discovery of the metallurgical discrepancy relating to the PCB fragment were not disclosed until July 2009, six weeks before Megrahi returned to Libya. The unedifying saga of the non-disclosure of the unredacted CIA cables, which revealed the Crown's original 'star witness' Majid Giaka to be a money-grabbing fantasist, is there to be read in the court transcripts themselves. And these are only two examples.

Mr Linklater seizes on this aspect to bolster his favourite allegation. This is a conspiracy you're alleging. Therefore you are a conspiracy theorist. And so the uncomfortable facts are given a body-swerve. Whether or not the non-disclosure may be described as a conspiracy is a subjective matter, but the non-disclosure itself is a matter of simple fact which doesn't go away simply because the c-word is used.

A final matter Mr Linklater takes issue with is the suggestion that the real bombers might have been a Palestinian terrorist group known as the PFLP-GC. This group had extensive experience in bringing down airliners in flight dating back to the 1960s, and they were known to have re-formed in Germany in October 1988. This time, they were said to be in the pay of the Iranian government, who had commissioned them to exact revenge for the accidental shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane by a US warship a few months previously. The PFLP-GC were the original suspects for Lockerbie, and remained such until 1990 when the PCB fragment was linked to the timers supplied to Libya.

Mr Linklater insists that the involvement of this group was thoroughly disproved by the original inquiry, and that neither the defence nor the SCCRC were able to find anything to substantiate their involvement. I've got one thing to say about this. If investigators are looking in the wrong place, at a false modus operandi, they are not going to solve the case, even if they are looking for the right suspects. These are the people who failed to carry out the extremely simple analysis of the blast-damaged suitcases that shows quite clearly that the explosion happened in the bottom suitcase in the stack, the one loaded at Heathrow.

Forgive me if I don't immediately assume that their failure to close the deal on the PFLP-GC means that that group, which we know was making bombs designed to bring down a plane in just the way Maid of the Seas was brought down, may be assumed to be innocent.

Lastly, though, I will concede that the title of my book includes a question mark. Can this atrocious debacle really be completely explained by tunnel vision and confirmation bias? While I don't allege a conspiracy, it would be naive to assume that a conspiracy can be categorically ruled out. Just as irrational as the propensity to see nefarious conspiracies in every major public event is the blind refusal to admit that anything could ever be a conspiracy. From Iran Contra to Watergate to Hillsborough, we know that conspiracies happen. The Lockerbie investigation may yet prove to be one of them.

However, at this stage, that isn’t the point. The point is that Megrahi was not 'the Lockerbie bomber'. The evidence against him falls apart under even moderately close scrutiny, and worse than that, he was provably more than 1,000 miles away when the bomb was introduced into the baggage container. This is what those Mr Linklater dismisses as 'Megrahi's supporters' are seeking to highlight. Wild accusations of 'conspiracy theorist' are a distraction to avoid reasoned argument, and unworthy of anyone making a serious contribution to the debate.

Morag Kerr is the author of 'Adequately Explained by Stupidity? – Lockerbie, Luggage and Lies' 

[Posted from Lüderitz, Namibia.]


  1. Well, the SR ha changed one word (guess which), slightly altered some punctuation, and messed up the paragraph splits.

    Not complaining.

  2. Yes, very well written! Nice settings too.