Monday, 21 July 2014

The price paid at Lockerbie for an appalling and unforgivable blunder

[Today’s edition of The Daily Telegraph contains an article headed This is Putin’s war, and this disaster is his responsibility by the mayor of London, Boris Johnson. It reads in part:]

On the morning of July 3 1988, a passenger jet was taking off from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. It was an Airbus A300 operated by Iran Air, and on board were 290 people including 66 children. They were about to make a routine flight to Dubai, where many of them intended to have a holiday – Iran being a bit miserable at that time, since it was the middle of the Iran-Iraq war. At 10.17am, the plane left the tarmac and began to climb to 14,000 feet for the 28-minute flight. They took an entirely predictable route. They turned on their transponder – in accordance with normal practice – so that it emitted a “squawk code” identifying the aircraft as civilian. The crew was experienced, and at all times maintained communication, in English, with air traffic control.

It was a tragedy for all concerned that on that same morning, a state-of-the-art US warship, the USS Vincennes, was lying more or less beneath them in the Straits of Hormuz. The USS Vincennes had been involved in an engagement in the past few hours, when one of its helicopters had come under small arms fire from Iranian vessels. It was only a year since 37 US sailors had died in an airborne attack by Iraq on the USS Stark. It would be fair to say that the crew on the bridge of the Vincennes were in a state of high battle alertness, if not nervousness.

At any rate, they somehow managed to mistake the Iranian Airbus flight 655 for an F-14A Tomcat fighter of the kind used by the Iranian air force. They thought the plane was descending in an attack run, when it was actually climbing. When the plane failed to respond to their calls, they took this to be a sign of hostile intent. With only minutes to spare, they made a decision to neutralise what they thought was a threat to their lives. They fired SM-2MR missiles at an unarmed jet, and blew it out of the sky, killing everyone on board. There were passengers from Iran, India, Pakistan, Yugoslavia and Italy. It was an appalling and unforgivable blunder, for which America and her allies were to pay a heavy price – not least at Lockerbie. (...)

The reason I mention the Iranian Airbus is not to suggest that there is some kind of moral equivalence between the two disasters – both of them the accidental shooting-down of a passenger jet – but rather the opposite. My purpose is to show the difference between these two events, and the difference that consequently emerges between a great and open democracy and the Russia of Vladimir Putin.

I will not pretend that the Americans were perfect in their handling of the Airbus tragedy. They never made a formal apology to Iran, and for some (incredible) reason the captain of the USS Vincennes was later awarded the Legion of Merit. But the first and most important difference was that when America erred, there was no significant attempt to deny the truth, or to cover up the enormity of what had happened. An inquiry was held, and it was accepted that there was absolutely no fault on the side of the Iranian plane. It was concluded that the bridge crew had essentially made a disastrous error in thinking the plane looked hostile, and this was ascribed to “scenario fulfilment”, whereby people trained to respond to a certain scenario (attack by air) carry out every detail of the procedure without thinking hard enough whether reality corresponds to the scenario.

Many in the US Navy went further, and said that the captain, William Rogers III, was at fault in the sense that he was notoriously willing to “pick a fight”. Furthermore, the US actually compensated the Iranians for the disaster, in that they eventually settled an international court case by paying $131.8 million, most of the sum going to the families of the deceased. In accepting some measure of responsibility towards the bereaved, and in trying to get at the truth, the US showed a degree of maturity and wisdom. Contrast Putin, with his evasion and obfuscation and lies. Can you imagine him ever accepting the reality of what has happened, let alone doing something to atone, such as sending money to the families of the victims?

Then there is the final and fundamental difference in the circumstances of the downing of the two passenger jets. The Americans made a horrific mistake, as they admitted; but they were not in the Straits of Hormuz as belligerents. On the contrary, the US Navy was trying to keep those seas safe. They were there to try to protect all the civilian and commercial traffic that was vulnerable because of the Iran-Iraq war.

Look at what Putin is doing in Ukraine, and the distinction is obvious. There is only one reason why those drunken Russian-backed separatists had access to a Buk surface-to-air missile. It was a present from Vladimir in the Kremlin. He has set on this conflict. He is fanning the flames of violence in a sovereign European state. This is his war. He bears responsibility, and he must not be allowed to get away with it.


  1. Well, that's an original interpretation of the US response, I'll give him that.

  2. I'm sending him an invitation right now.


  3. I wonder if Boris checked with his pals in Downing Street about the wisdom of linking the Vincennes incident directly to Lockerbie. Because of course that raises the rather significant issue of how and why responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing was landed on Libya's doorstep, rather than the original and much more convincing trail pursued by the investigation that led to the PFLP-GC...

  4. James, it seems that everybody and his dug is linking IR655 to Lockerbie. It has virtually entered the pool of "common knowledge", with many people who make the link only vaguely aware, if at all, that by doing so they are contradicting the official version of events.

  5. Lord, you just can't believe how I am enjoying this right now. Sex? Forget it!


  6. I did long ago, Robert. Sigh.

  7. Forgive me if I'm being naive here but where is the evidence, let alone proof, that MH17 was indeed downed by a missile let alone evidence that it was the Ukraininan rebels rather than the Kiev or Russian military that fired it?

    "There is only one reason why those drunken Russian-backed separatists had access to a Buk surface-to-air missile. It was a present from Vladimir in the Kremlin."

    Hmmm. Were they as drunk as lords? The rebels claim to acquired BUK missiles from a Ukrainian army unit operating in eastern Ukraine. If they were as inebriated as Johnson's IMHO racist jibe implies, they'd have missed. Kiev in any case claims the missile had to have been Russian-fired as the rebels lack the necessary skills.

    Whatever, Johnson is an ill-informed demagogue. Anyone would think he'd set his sights on No 10.

  8. Dear dave_bruce,

    It's perfectly plain that the first officer and the chief stewardess were involved in some highly inappropriate and exotic form of congress in the vicinity of the forward cargo door at the time and became a tad carried away, as it were.

    To be serious. We have an exquisitely serious problem on our hands here. Nobody can do a damned thing about Vlad. All his opposition are cripplingly weak career politicians mostly concerned about their bank accounts and their collective assholes. He, by contrast, is an ex-Dresden KGB hand who has now got the power to switch every light-bulb in Europe off! You don't mess around in situations like this. You negotiate.

    I played poker once and, strangely, won against an FBI man who'd staked his year's salary on the game. I, although I was entirely clueless about the game, had the advantage of having the Yellow Jade Emperor behind me at the summit of Hua Shan. I never played again, winning was much too embarrassing.

    Peking is laughing up all the sleeves they've got. Like they say over there:" may you live in 'interesting times'!" Let's hope they don't become too 'interesting'.