Saturday, 27 June 2015

Flight from the truth

[This is the headline over an article by John Ashton and Ian Ferguson that was published in The Guardian on this date in 2001.  It reads in part:]

There are two versions of the Lockerbie story. One - told at the trial - is neat, clearcut and, ultimately, reassuring. The other, which we believe is the true story, is far less comfortable. In the official version it was bad guys against good: Muammar Gadafy and his recently convicted henchman Abdel Baset al-Megrahi versus the heroic international investigation led by the tiny Dumfries and Galloway police force. It ends with the triumph of justice over terror. In the alternative version the heroics of the cops are obscured by dirty politics. It ends with a dreadful miscarriage of justice.

The conviction of Megrahi (his co-accused, Al-Amin Khalifah Fhimah, was acquitted) supposedly proved the official version and drew a line under the Lockerbie saga. But the case will not go away: Megrahi is planning an appeal and the relatives of the British passengers are determined to hold the Labour government to their promise, made in opposition, of an independent inquiry. If the relatives get their way, a huge can of worms will be opened for, (...) almost from the night the plane went down, vital evidence was suppressed.

In the official version, of course, nothing of the kind happened. It posits that on December 21 1988 Megrahi placed a bomb in a suitcase, which was loaded, unaccompanied, on to a flight from Malta to Frankfurt, where it was transferred to Pan Am flight 103. It exploded over Lockerbie just after 7pm that night, killing all 259 people on board and 11 on the ground. The bomb was built into a Toshiba radio-cassette player and fitted with a distinctive timing device supplied to the Libyan intelligence service by a Swiss company, Mebo. The firm's Zurich offices were shared in 1988 with the Libyan company ABH, with which Megrahi was closely involved. He was also alleged to have bought the clothes in the bomb suitcase from the Mary's House shop in Malta on December 7 1988.

During the eight-month trial the prosecution could offer no direct evidence of the bomb being loaded in Malta, and their star witnesses, Abdul Majid Giaka - a former colleague of the two accused - was exposed as a money-motivated fantasist. The court heard that Mebo sold identical timers to the East German Stasi (which armed Middle East terrorist groups), and the evidence of the Mary's House shopkeeper, Tony Gauci, suggested that the man who bought the clothes was considerably older and taller than Megrahi, and that the purchase occurred two weeks earlier, when, it is believed, Megrahi had an alibi. The fact that the judges refused to be swayed by the clouds of doubt hanging over the prosecution case left many observers staggered.

In the alternative version, the real culprits lay not in Libya, but in Iran, Syria and Lebanon. It begins in July 1988, when a US warship accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 people. The CIA later revealed that, within days, Iran hired the Syrian-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC) to avenge the incident. The group had close ties to the Lebanese Islamic radicals Hizbullah and in the early 1970s specialised in bombing airliners. Its favoured method was to plant carefully disguised bombs on innocent dupes.

The group's leader, Ahmed Jibril, dispatched his right-hand man, Hafez Dalkamoni, and a bomb-maker, Marwan Khreesat, to West Germany, where Khreesat manufactured at least five barometric bombs designed to blow up aircraft, two - possibly more - of which were built into Toshiba radio-cassette players. Six weeks before Lockerbie, police raided the PFLP-GC gang and found one of the Toshiba bombs. In the official version this put an end to the revenge mission, but there is every reason to doubt this. The PFLP-GC may not have relied solely on Khreesat to make bombs and, in any case, at least four of his devices were unaccounted for. Three were recovered four months after Lockerbie, but the second Toshiba was never found.

Five weeks after the raid, the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) warned of the continuing threat of an Iranian reprisal and noted that Middle Eastern terrorist groups active in Germany had the infrastructure to conduct bombings. At around the same time, the US state department circulated a specific warning that radical Palestinians were planning to attack a Pan Am target in Europe.

Three months after the bombing, the transport minister Paul Channon told lobby journalists that the culprits had been identified and charges were imminent. Everyone knew he meant the PFLP-GC. The months passed and nothing happened. A White House leak later revealed that Margaret Thatcher and George Bush had agreed to downplay the investigation for fear of endangering hostages in Lebanon - almost all held by Syrian and Iranian proxy groups. Following the Gulf war, in which Syria became a crucial western ally, the PFLP-GC and their Syrian and Iranian sponsors were officially exonerated, and the blame was shifted to Libya.

The alternative version becomes murkier still when it comes to how Jibril's men got the bomb on to flight 103. Two PFLP-GC insiders and many western intelligence sources claim it was planted in the luggage of Khalid Jaafar, a Lebanese-American mule in a heroin trafficking operation. The whistle-blowing spooks say elements within the CIA were allowing Middle Eastern dealers to ship drugs to America in return for help in locating and releasing US hostages. In allowing the suitcases containing heroin to bypass security procedures, the CIA handed the dealers' terrorist associates a failsafe means of getting the bomb on the plane.

Among the Lockerbie victims was a party of US intelligence specialists, led by Major Charles McKee of the DIA, returning from an aborted hostage-rescue mission in Lebanon. A variety of sources have claimed that McKee, who was fiercely anti-drugs, got wind of the CIA's deals and was returning to Washington to blow the whistle. A few months after Lockerbie, reports emerged from Lebanon that McKee's travel plans had been leaked to the bombers. The implication was that Flight 103 was targeted, in part, because he was on board.

As with the official version, there is no proof of this scenario, but there is a chain of circumstantial evidence. Much of it comes from the army of police officers and volunteers who scoured the vast crash site in the weeks after the bombing. And much of it was either not revealed at the recent trial or, worse, covered up.

One such item was a T-shirt found in Kielder forest, Northumberland, by David Clark, who was later told by police that it was potentially important evidence because it bore the insignia of Hizbullah. The T-shirt has never been officially acknowledged or explained. At least four large quantities of US dollars were also found. No one knows who was carrying the cash, but it has been speculated that McKee's team would have had large amounts to pay Lebanese informants. When the Labour MP Tam Dalyell asked about the cash finds in 1995, the Scottish Office minister, Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, replied that nothing other than "what might ordinarily be regarded as personal money" was found.

Also denied was the existence of two large quantities of what appeared to be heroin: one found on Lockerbie golf course and the other in a suitcase discovered by a farmer a couple of miles to the east. The Rev John Mosey, whose 19-year-old daughter Helga died in the bombing, learned about the latter find and assumed the farmer would be questioned at the Lockerbie fatal accident inquiry held in October 1990. But the farmer did not appear, and police witnesses denied that any drugs were found. Mosey raised the issue with a senior police officer, who told him that the farmer would be interviewed. To the best of Mosey's knowledge, this never happened. In 1992 Dalyell wrote to the Scottish lord advocate, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, about the drugs. In his reply, Lord Fraser stated that none had been found, save for a small quantity of cannabis.

Who engineered the cover-up? Almost certainly not anyone in Britain. Police officers and volunteer searchers have spoken of American agents removing items from the crash site. A proper inquiry into these issues could reveal a picture that governments on both sides of the Atlantic dare not face, but without it the echoes of the Lockerbie bomb will be ringing for a long time to come.


  1. This is an example of something I was talking about a few days ago. The focus.

    I have the greatest regard for John Ashton. He's been working on this case since before most of us knew who Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was. If it hadn't been for his contribution, we wouldn't be where we are now with it. Especially as regards PT/35b. This isn't a criticism of him, it's more of an observation about woods and trees, and maybe not even being able to see the tree for the leaves.

    That article was written in 2001. That's after all the evidence that came out at Camp Zeist, including Bedford and all the weird shenanigans about who actually had luggage in AVE4041 and what did it look like and did Sidhu move the interline luggage and what was actually under the bomb anyway. To someone coming at it for the first time, that's what sticks out a mile. Read the Opinion of the Court and I defy you not to pick that out as the most obvious anomaly.

    It gets worse if you read the judgement of the FAI and compare the two. The FAI founded entirely on the assumption that Sidhu hadn't moved the interline luggage. If he had, the Bedford case couldn't have been excluded. But then at Zeist, they excluded the Bedford case by deciding Sidhu had moved the luggage, without actually asking him. Except they didn't exclude it, they waved it away.

    Some people did start getting very interested in Bedford's evidence, after Zeist. But the really analytical people, the people who were au fait with the detail of the evidence, went on and on about Khaled Jaafar and Frankfurt. That article is great for the first eight paragraphs. Then paragraph nine gets to the uncertainty about where the bomb went on the plane - and immediately starts talking about Jaafar. Not a word about what Bedford saw. Then it moves on to examining even more individual leaves. Suitcases of drugs and a t-shirt and lots of money. How do they fit into the overall pattern? Very difficult to say.

    It may be inevitable. People become fascinated by certain leaves, and the exact pattern of the veins and the chlorophyll. More leaves appear, but they go on studying the ones they know. They're vaguely aware of the other leaves, but not that they change the entire shape of the tree, and maybe of the wood. Other people look at the new leaves and say, well isn't that interesting, but the real experts are looking at different ones and they ought to know, really.

    I suppose I'm still trying to understand how it came about that something which was obvious and simple and quite straightforward to figure out wasn't figured out for more than twenty sodding years!

    Before Zeist, the conundrum concerns the investigators. I'm coming to the conclusion that one or two people at the top were told not to look at the Heathrow angle, so they didn't, and welcomed the chance to pursue evidence at Frankfurt instead. I still don't know how they got so many forensics and AAIB officers to declare categorically that the bomb wasn't the one on the bottom, though. When there is clear evidence that it was. The vast majority of the more junior staff probably didn't know anything about it. They just looked where they were told to look.

  2. [continued]

    Then at Zeist, the prosecution team become involved. It's possible they didn't realise either, and simply withheld evidence that looked as if it might be a wee bit awkward, on principle. On the other hand, as I said on the following thread, the nature of what was withheld from either the court or the defence, is awfully specific. It sure looks arguable that someone realised.

    But if they did, the defence didn't. Not at the trial and not at the appeal and not afterwards. Everything was treated piecemeal, people were playing draughts when they should have been playing chess. It was more, how can we muddy the water still further, when actually clarifying the water would have allowed clear evidence of innocence to be seen. (I still think it would have helped a lot if there had been one or maybe two people high up in the defence who were batting for the other team, but that's just my suspicious mind.)

    Then from 2001 onwards, there was a lot of material available, and a lot of people obsessing about it, but still nobody cottoned on. Megrahi himself didn't cotton on, and he had more time and more incentive to figure it out than anyone.

    I honestly don't understand it. It starts to sound like, oh I'm so very clever and you lot are all idiots, but it's not like that. There has to be some reason the bleedin' obvious wasn't spotted before 2012, but I'm still struggling with it.

  3. "... To someone coming at it for the first time, that's what sticks out a mile."

    I have some recollection of what I thought at the time:
    Here we have a man, Bedford, seeing an two unexpected suitcases. One is a brown Samsonite. That he even notices it is remarkable and important. When we later learn that the bomb was in such a suitcase, it becomes extremely important. The man is not clairvoyant.

    "It was argued on behalf of the accused that the suitcase described by Mr Bedford could well have been the primary suitcase, particularly as the evidence did not disclose that any fragments of a hard-shell Samsonite-type suitcase had been recovered, apart from those of the primary suitcase itself."

    Yes, 'particularly'. This is conclusive evidence unless we can say "Correct" to the following statement:
    "It is reasonably likely that the suitcase seen by Mr. Bedford simply could disappear otherwise."

    This question can be evaluated very simply: How many suitcases were known to be on the plane, but not found?

    Strangely, this does not interest the judges at all. Instead they write:
    "...while the forensic evidence dealt with all the items recovered which showed direct explosive damage, twenty-five in total, there were many other items of baggage found which were not dealt with in detail in the evidence in the case."

    No, we are not interested in items that are not interesting.
    We are interested in whether it was likely that a suitcase could disappear.

  4. Now here's the thing. The judges can only go by the evidence that's presented to them in court. Only a selected subset of the evidence was presented in court, by the prosecution. The defence presented nothing of any significance to the suitcase puzzle, and little of any significance to anything.

    The only suitcase evidence that was presented was what was in the Joint Forensic Report, which included only the 25 or so items classed as "blast-damaged". Nothing else. This was the three-card trick the prosecution played on the court.

    The reason it was decided Sidhu must have moved the interline luggage was that there was no candidate among the damaged luggage that corresponded to the case Bedford saw. There was only one case damaged in the way a case that was lying flat against the bomb suitcase would have been damaged, and that was the blue Coyle case from Frankfurt.

    So you might think if there was only one case that could have occupied the "flat against the bomb" position, that was powerful evidence the bomb was really on the floor of the container. The inference sticks out a mile, but it was never explored. All the forensic guys insisted there had been another case on the floor of the container and this was never really refuted. So if there had been another case under the bomb, and the Coyle case was the only one that could have been lying flat against the bomb, then obviously the Coyle case must have been under the bomb. And since that case came in on the feeder flight, then Sidhu must have moved the interline cases, right?

    There are a number of things one could say about this, starting with, if the Coyle case was under the bomb, what was on top of it? None of it was said. Inferences could have been drawn from the detailed condition of other cases in the container, but nobody drew them. Nobody called Sidhu to ask him if he had moved that luggage, or inquired what his statements had to say on the matter.

    It would have been perfectly possible to have presented an irrefutable argument that the Coyle case was on top of the bomb - there was quite sufficient raw data there to come to that conclusion. But since none of the advocates did, the judges were in no position to make that inference for themselves. Certainly the defence did try to insinuate that the bomb might have been on the bottom, but without making a strenuous challenge to the ubiquitous and forceful forensic assertion that it definitely hadn’t been there, it wasn’t very credible.

    So what were the poor judges to make of all this? They were presented with what was quite obviously a partial dataset. This isn’t an inquisitorial system. They’re not supposed to ask for the missing evidence, apparently, and the defence chose not to provide it to them. They were obliged to run with what they had.

  5. [continued]

    So, there had been a case under the bomb, and the only one it could have been was the Coyle case, so Sidhu moved the interline luggage and at that point the Bedford case could have been anywhere. The prosecution didn’t attempt to produce another brown Samsonite and say, lookie here, this must have been what Bedford saw - they couldn’t, because the only other brown Samsonites recovered were also off the feeder flight. So it was just left hanging.

    This is where the judges made a highly prejudicial decision. The defence was trying to argue that as the prosecution seemed to have no idea what the case Bedford had seen was or what had become of it, there was absolutely no reason it couldn’t have been replaced on top of the Coyle case and have been the bomb. This was an entirely legitimate argument based on the Crown’s own premises, and in my opinion should have been compelling enough to introduce reasonable doubt as to whether the bomb had indeed come from Malta.

    The judges decided to prefer the Malta explanation, despite its manifest deficiencies. So they had to make some determination about what happened to the Bedford case, and they simply noted that they’d only been told about 25 blast-damaged items, whereas if the Bedford case had been moved out of range of the blast, it could have been one of the other cases they weren’t told about. I think they threw in the bit about not all cases having been recovered as a sop to the embarrassment that was the Crown’s failure to produce the case and put an end to the speculation.

    And that’s how that happened.

  6. I think I see how it came about.

    In the early stages of preparation for Zeist, it seems to me that the defence teams were expecting the prosecution to run the same argument as had been run at the FAI. There, Feraday was adamant that the bomb hadn’t been on the floor of the container, but at the same time it was universally accepted that Sidhu hadn’t moved the interline luggage. If you take both of these points together, without inquiring any more closely, the Bedford case has been ruled out.

    If you want the Bedford case to be the bomb, you have to attack one or other of these points. The defence decided to attack the latter. There are notes where they’re going over Sidhu’s evidence at the FAI and wondering if maybe he might say he isn’t sure whether he moved the stuff or not, and introduce reasonable doubt about the Bedford case that way.

    Meantime the prosecution were looking at the same evidence and trying to put their case together. It’s clear from what John Ashton tells me that initially they were intending to go with the FAI reasoning, but in the autumn of 1999 something changed. They notified the defence that they wouldn’t be attempting to identify every case in the container and demonstrate which passenger had been carrying which, and because of that they wouldn’t be handing over the detailed reports on the baggage reconciliation which in any case contained some errors. The defence asked for the longer of the two reports, merely to assist in their own analysis, and they were given it, but the prosecution declared that they weren’t going to lead it in court and didn’t propose to rely on it. They didn’t disclose the shorter, more informative report into the Heathrow interline luggage.

    I think this is the point where the prosecution realised they were up a gum tree. If they couldn’t produce any evidence at all that the case Bedford saw had any existence as a distinct item from the bomb suitcase, the inference that it was the bomb suitcase becomes irresistible. It seems to me they decided they wouldn’t risk running the FAI logic for that reason. Clearly it was vital to preserve the assertion that the bomb suitcase couldn’t have been the one on the bottom, because that was all that was preventing the Bedford case from being the bomb. So they decided it was better to give way on the moving of the interline luggage. If the luggage had been moved, superficially they were in a worse position because obviously the Bedford case could have been replaced on the second layer. It may be that they anticipated losing the case on the grounds of reasonable doubt on that point.

    However, reasonable doubt is better than losing because the accused has been proved to be factually innocent, which is what they were looking at if they were pushed into a position of having to explain why they couldn’t produce the case Bedford saw, and then the proposition about the bomb not being on the floor of the container started to take some serious scrutiny. The ploy kept them afloat, and if they stayed afloat there was still hope something might turn up. (As it did, when the judges made that prejudicial decision to prefer the dodgy Frankfurt evidence to the possibility that the Bedford case had been on top of the Coyle case.)

  7. [continued]

    So the defence were presented with all their Christmases at once, it seemed. The Crown was prepared to concede that the Bedford case had been moved. That was what they wanted! So whoopee. The main effort from then on was expended in agreeing with the Crown that yes of course it could have been moved, and then going on to assert that in that case it had been moved to the second layer and was the bomb. But they couldn’t prove that, and the judges decided not to prefer the explanation.

    The really infuriating part of this is that Taylor was presenting all sorts of things he said might have happened, and in the middle of it there was the actual, correct, explanation. The bomb suitcase left-side-up into the corner of the overhang, on the bottom. It’s right there. But it was only put forward as one of several possibilities, and not the favourite one either. In that context it all sounded like someone scraping around for excuses, and the judges perhaps took it that way.

    I’m told by an English lawyer friend that he loves uncertainty in defence work. Certainty is bad, and he tries to avoid it wherever possible. Muddying the water is the way to go to get your client acquitted, apparently. I suspect that’s often a good strategy, as defendants are supposed to get the benefit of the doubt - both sides of the border. I think that’s the principle Taylor was operating on, and it backfired because the judges weren’t going to give Megrahi any benefit of any doubt. The burden of proof was informally reversed for this trial.

    So they went for uncertainty and muddying the waters in preference to rigorous analysis and clarity. Which is a pity because rigorous analysis and clarity would have shown their client to be innocent.

    Both sides were at it, really. The prosecution was muddying away like mad to disguise the weakness in their case. The defence was aiding and abetting them, in the hope that the uncertainty would be interpreted in their client’s favour. It should have been, but it wasn’t.