Monday, 29 December 2014

"Libya’s vulnerable..., small country, Gaddafi’s hated, let’s go for it"

[The following are excerpts from an article by Alexander Zaitchik headed Lockerbie: the truth and those who dared to reveal it published yesterday on the Muslim Village website:]

The final documentary produced by the American filmmaker Allan Francovich, The Maltese Double Cross: Lockerbie was buried by the American press upon its release in 1994. It was dismissed and attacked for including testimony from terrorists, convicted felons, turncoat spooks, and others of dubious character. But mostly it was ignored. Unlike Francovich’s previous films about the US intelligence world, no art house theater screened it; no public television station aired it.

With the 26th anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing, Francovich has been vindicated. The basic elements of his film’s alternative theory — that the bombing of Pan Am 103 was an Iranian hit in revenge of the US downing of Iran Air 655, contracted out to a Syrian-backed, Beirut-based splinter group of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — are sturdier than ever. The official story of a lone Libyan in Malta, meanwhile, has never looked so pathetic or full of holes, especially in Scotland, scene of the crime, where polls show a majority still wants an independent investigation. This past March, the publication of a three-year Al Jazeera investigation added more ballast corroborating the basics of Double Cross.

The Maltese Double Cross was never screened or aired in the United States. Because of legal threats and official pressure, it almost never aired or screened in the UK, where the bombing killed 270 people on Dec 21, 1988. The doc’s controversial Glasgow debut followed a series of sudden cancellations, including a high-profile, last-minute erasure from the schedule of the 1994 London Film Festival. Double Cross finally opened under the defiant banner of the Scotsman newspaper, whose editors, supported by victims’ families, risked consequences to bring the film to the public. One of those editors, Lesley Riddoch, remembers thinking as the curtains parted, “Would The Scotsman, as one prominent journalist had warned, find itself frozen out of Crown Office briefings for a decade? Would we be sued, contradicted, even disappeared?”

The film and its many advocates, it turned out, weren’t easily suppressed. In 1994, nearly six years after the bombing, the British public had not forgotten the government’s sudden messaging shifts about the likely culprit, which seemed to follow a US lead, or its refusal to allow an independent investigation. Double Cross, for all of its problems, presented plausible explanations for both, often from the mouths of high U.S. officials. Following the Glasgow open, Double Cross won Best Documentary at the Edinburgh Film Festival; that spring, a truncated version of the sprawling 155-minute film aired on the UK’s Channel 4 and on Australian television.

When I first watched Double Cross in the pre-streaming year of 1995, it felt a little like watching a banned movie. A college buddy had returned from a semester at St Andrews with a choppy VHS bootleg of the Channel 4 broadcast in his suitcase. Everyone we showed it to had the same question: How was it possible this film wasn’t being shown anywhere in the US? It’s easy to forget how big a deal Lockerbie was into the mid-‘90s.

The Christmas bombing of the Pan Am jumbo jet, last century’s symbol of U.S. civilian air power, killed 189 Americans, making it the country’s deadliest act of international terrorism prior to 9/11. But after a brief flurry of skeptical reporting following the bombing, questions about Lockerbie dropped off in the US, where legal threats against broadcasters and theaters kept Double Cross off screens. The full-length version of the film is now available on YouTube.

Even the abbreviated version of Double Cross required an open notebook and heavy use of the pause and rewind buttons. Francovich, who produced several documentaries about the CIA for PBS and the BBC, was not afraid to make audiences work. He believed in letting his subjects tell the story. They talk at length, sometimes at cross-purposes, often in a domino-row of interviews without connecting tissue or explanatory bone-tosses to the viewer. But for all of its editing failures, substantive errors and questionable sources, the film deserves praise and revisiting, both as investigatory feat and intelligence-world rabbit-hole for the ages.

Few have chased rabbits home with as much energy as Francovich. Critics sometimes dismissed him as a conspiracy theorist, but he didn’t care. He dug as hard as anyone in the business, and his films were in no way analog antecedents to the investigative amateur-hours that animate the 9/11 Truth movement. His BBC2 investigation into Operation Gladio — a network of clandestine paramilitary “stay-behind” cells scattered throughout NATO countries that trained for post-apocalypse guerilla war — explored one of the juiciest Cold War veins ever tapped. His PBS dive into the CIA, On Company Business, won best documentary at the 1980 Berlin Film Festival.

For Double Cross, Francovich and his main researcher, the Scottish journalist John Ashton, interviewed hundreds of subjects up and down the chain before arriving at an elaborate theory, strong in some areas, weaker in others. Like Gary Webb’s investigation, it relied on much that was already public record. But he put it all together for the first time, and worked through every implication to advance the story.

Double Cross posits that after a US warship in the Strait of Hormuz mistakenly shot down an Iran Air flight in July 1988, the Iranian regime put up $10 million to finance a revenge attack. The exiled former Iranian president Abulhassan Bani Sadr tells Francovich, “All Iranians viewed the US act as a crime [requiring justice]… Iran ordered the attack and Ahmed Jabril carried it out.”

Jabril was the Beirut-based leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [-General Command], a group known for its sophisticated bomb expertise. Jabril sent some of his best bomb makers to Frankfurt, where they caught the attention of German intelligence. In October 1988, German police arrested 17 members of the group (some with ties to Syrian intelligence) and confiscated caches of weapons and bomb material, including a primed Toshiba cassette player of the exact type used to bring down Pan Am 103. But the sweep did not put the entire cell behind bars, or stop the bombing. In early 1989, months after the downing of 103, German police conducted another raid on a PFLP safehouse in Neuss, northeast of Frankfurt, where they discovered more electrical-device bombs. Some of these bombs had altitude triggers used to bring down planes. All of this pointed clearly in the direction of Iran and Syria.

Then, on a dime, during the runup to the Gulf War, the official story told by American and British officials shifted to Libya. Jack Anderson, the muckraking syndicated columnist, reported in a January 1990 column that intelligence sources had told him that George H W Bush and Margaret Thatcher agreed to downplay the evidence pointing to Jabril, Syria and Iran. (Anderson suggests the need to keep Syria on board for the Gulf War coalition as a factor.) Forty minutes into Double Cross, Howard Teicher, senior director of Reagan’s NSC from 1985 to 1988, says he finds it unlikely the leaders of the free world would choose to frame Libya because so much corroborated intelligence “clearly links the bombing to [Iran and Syria].”

And yet, in November 1991, U.S. and UK authorities indicted two Libyans who worked for Libyan Airlines at the Malta airport, Abdel al-Megrahi and Lamen Fhimah. The key witness against al-Megrahi, the only one ultimately convicted, was a Malta shopkeeper named Tony Gauci, a witness as unreliable as anyone Francovich interviewed for his movie. Gauci picked al-Megrahi out of a suspect book after coaching from the FBI, and said he recognized him from media reports. During the trial, he said he “resembled a lot” the man who bought the clothes found at the crash site in Lockerbie, but couldn’t place his age and height in the right ballpark. He was given a $2 million reward.

The new focus on Libya timed to the arrival of Vincent Cannistraro to run the CIA’s Lockerbie investigation. During the 1980s, Cannistraro (interviewed extensively in Double Cross) and Col Oliver North ran a covert effort to undermine and destroy the Qadafi regime. In his front-page story about the program, Bob Woodward wrote that “deception and disinformation” were at the program’s heart. (...)

Subsequent reporting has vindicated Francovich’s core thesis that the Libyans were framed, and that the bombing was a tit-for-tat case of blowback caused by a trigger-happy U.S. Naval commander. In 2012, Al Jazeera acquired classified Defense Intelligence cables stating, “The execution of the operation was contracted [by Iran] to Ahmad Jabril, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC) leader. Money was given to Jabril upfront in Damascus for initial expense. The mission was to blow up a Pan-Am flight.”

The network also attained a copy of the Scottish police report showing dismay over the holes in the case against al-Megrahi. Had the Libyan been allowed an appeal, the report claims, he would have easily won. But appeal was denied following his non-jury trial in Holland in 2001. (At the time, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook hailed the use of a third-country court as “an historic innovation in international legal practice.” Robert Black, meanwhile, the Scottish legal scholar known as the “architect” of the trial, has emerged as a leading critic of the proceedings and the official story generally.)

At the end of all this, the big question, why? Why would the US and Britain let the real culprits off the hook? Among the people interviewed in the recent Al Jazeera report is former CIA official Robert Baer, who worked on the Lockerbie investigation. “As far as I can tell,” he says, “someone said, look, Libya’s vulnerable to prosecution, small country, Gaddafi’s hated, let’s go for it. It was an executive decision, and then once that happened everybody lined up.” This accords with much earlier reporting and many of the interviews in The Maltese Double Cross.

Although mostly Americans died on Pan Am 103, conversation about Lockerbie in this country today revolves around the subject of victim pain. In October, NPR broadcast a segment about a “poignant letter” that emerged from the tragedy. The Smithsonian Channel produced a maudlin hour-long documentary last year that exploits the harrowing screams of a mother getting the news at JFK, but never touches the questions around the official story. As for Allan Francovich, he died in 1997 at the age of 56, a few years after the Glasgow premier of Double Cross. He suffered a heart attack in in the customs section of Houston’s George H W Bush International, the only airport named after a CIA chief, shortly after being detained by officials on his arrival from London. 

[It would appear that this article was first published on 15 December 2014 on the AlterNet website.]


  1. I love that film.

    There are some editing problems (like the treatment of the phone box), and you really have to watch it several times to follow it properly, but it's an enormously powerful piece of cinema. It's the only Lockerbie documentary that makes me cry, Its use of music is particularly effective.

    It's just such a shame that the producers, working in the early 1990s before some vital stuff that came out at the trial was readily available, latched on to Khaled Jaafar as the means of getting the bomb on the plane. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Jaafar's suitcase was the one allegedly found at Tundergarth Mains with drugs in it, but it appears that he wasn't carrying the bomb.

    The amount of detail presented in the film to support the Jaafar theory is suspicious. Some of it has to be fabricated, and for the avoidance of doubt I'm not suggesting that Francovich or anyone else involved with the film fabricated it. I can't help wondering if there were people who had an interest in promoting a plausible "conspiracy theory" explanation that wasn't in fact the right one, to distract the attention of the awkward squad from what David Leppard had mentioned in his 1991 book about the evidence of a certain baggage handler called John Bedford. I wonder if Francovich was fed spurious "evidence" to support the Jaafar theory.

    This rather seems to tie in with the Juval Aviv Interfor report episode. Aviv appears in the film, but his 1989 report implicating Jaafar's baggage seems to imply a different modus operandi. While Francovich proposes that Jaafar had the device in his suitcase at check-in (I think), Aviv presented a complicated tale about his suitcase being switched at the departure gate for the bomb suitcase, by Kilinc Tuzcu. Aviv's story is clearly moonshine, but he claimed a BKA officer had filmed the operation and to have had possession of the tape which he passed to the authorities after which it was never seen again. He didn't keep a copy. Hmmm.

    Why would an apparently reputable investigator like Aviv (his firm was long-established even in 1989 and is still trading) invent a pile of hokum in his report to the Pan Am insurers? Who dreamed up the tale of the BKA officer witnessing the suitcase-switch, and the phone call to check when the substitute case was noted to be the wrong weight, and the instruction to go ahead anyway?

    I said that the Heathrow loading of the bomb suitcase was level 1 of this puzzle. That seems to be solved, at least to my entire satisfaction. (I don't aspire to discover who actually placed the suitcase in the container, though I can take a good guess.) I think the "trail of sweeties" leading the investigators to Malta is level 2. Maybe this lot is level 3. A retirement project?

  2. Libya's a convenient scapegoat. It's politically inconvenient for Iran's involvement to be confirmed, thus highlighting to everyone just how badly the Vincennes / IR655 episode was handled, and it's also politically convenient to have yet one more atrocity to vilify Gaddafi with. I totally go with that.

    Only, I don't think it was a change of plan. I think the US wanted and intended to pin the blame on Gaddafi right from the beginning. Look at Reagan's pronouncements round about Christmas 1988. And what about Herr Bollier of this parish and his "catch-letter" of January 1989? And there are other pointers suggesting an early desire to have Gaddafi as the prime suspect from the beginning.

    The BKA were the problem. The BKA spotted what the PFLP-GC were up to in Neuss and arrested them. As soon as the BKA told the Lockerbie investigators all about Operation Autumn Leaves, the cat was out of the bag. The circumstantial evidence pointing to the PFLP-GC (and thereafter to Iran) was way too strong for the wholly speculative Libya tale to hold up. It looks as if the US authorities simply bowed to the inevitable at that point.

    However, many months later, the investigation was running into the sand on Malta. Nobody could find any evidence of the PFLP-GC cell on Malta planting the bomb there. (Or indeed of anybody planting the bomb there.) Then in the summer of 1990 it became possible to resurrect the original Libya plan and persuade the Scottish investigators (now absolutely desperate for a new lead) to pursue it.

    Or at least that's the pattern this saga is falling into, in my eyes. It's a very curious one.

  3. Blaming Iran is based on an assumption that they would both seek revenge and do so by downing a US civilian airliner, as opposed to attacking another civilian or military target.

    I know they did vow revenge, you wouldn’t expect them to say anything else, but actually doing so is another matter. Indeed they sensibly settled the matter in court.

    They did so because the Iranian leadership is religious and rational and would consider it un-Islamic to deliberately target civilians and irrational to incite further US attacks and sanctions, particularly following the destruction and huge sacrifices in the Iran/Iraq war.

    Also calling it a copy-cat attack ignores the significant differences in the attack. But even if it was why launch a copy-cat attack when they could get revenge by simply placing a bomb in a crowded foyer or transport hub?

    Consider, if a friend is run over in a road accident, would you plot revenge by running over the person responsible or would you be satisfied by shooting them?

    But even if we blame them, how did they do it? The official line says an IED was loaded in a suitcase in Malta and Rolfe says it was loaded at Heathrow!

    But the ‘Heathrow ingestion’ postulates that a small ‘pot-luck’ IED [as opposed to a large bomb, presumably available in a State sponsored plot!] was smuggled in [one of two suitcases] into an almost empty luggage container [bound to be seen by the loader], but the ‘plot’ succeeds because the cases aren’t checked because the loader inexplicably but fortuitously ‘thinks’ a work colleague said they had put them there!

  4. Oh God, not again. *loses will to live*

  5. If told a plane has crashed due to a bomb, it’s reasonable to speculate where it was loaded! But it’s also reasonable to expect the bomb type and details of the plot to vary depending on where and how it was loaded.

    In other words it’s not enough to say a ‘bomb’ was loaded without a credible explanation of how it was done. And the problem with the ‘Heathrow ingestion’ is it relies on the ‘plot details’ of the Maltese ingestion, which debunks it.

    The evidence of an explosion in a luggage container that ‘caused the crash’ is based on evidence [fragment and clothing] from the Maltese suitcase. And the Maltese suitcase [a hidden IED and clothing from a local tourist shop] makes sense if the ‘pot-luck’ plot is to pass it through customs in Malta.

    But it makes no sense if the ‘pot-luck’ plot was to by-pass customs, because at Heathrow it would make more sense to load a large bomb!

    In other words the ‘bomb evidence from the luggage container is dependent on the bomb being loaded in Malta’! Thus if the official line is wrong about a Malta ingestion then it’s also wrong about the luggage container damage being evidence for the crash!

  6. Dave, the above comment demonstrates that you do not understand (and misrepresent) the Heathrow ingestion thesis and the evidence on which it is based. Until your comments on this subject disclose such understanding, they will not be published on this blog because they are capable of misleading the unwary and uninformed. I do not require you to agree with Morag Kerr's thesis but I do require you to understand it and the evidence on which it is based before you can make any useful further contribution on the subject.