[It was on this date twenty-five years ago that the FBI’s James ‘Tom’ Thurman, so he says, identified the fragment of circuit board PT/35b as coming from a MST-13 timer manufactured by the Swiss company MEBO. The circumstances are narrated in chapter 4 of John Ashton’s Megrahi: You are my Jury, especially at pages 62 to 66. The account that follows is taken from a long article entitled Thurman’s Photo Quest on Caustic Logic’s blog The Lockerbie Divide:]
What we have in Thurman's case, with or without the actual piece of evidence, was the crucial identification. And one point that's consistent throughout is that he held a photo only when he found the match. The question at hand is how long it took him to find it and to determine its meaning vis-a-vis who carried out the bombing.
Tom Gets a Green Light
On the 10th of January 1990 new Senior Investigating Officer Stuart Henderson (who replaced John Orr) presented at a meeting of investigators in the UK. He did not openly mention the circuit board fragment PT/35(b), an amazing find UK investigators had been puzzling over for four months. But off to the side, he told FBI chief investigator Richard Marquise about it, Marquise says in his 2006 book SCOTBOM. [p58] He expressed interest in helping find a match, but Henderson insisted on going it alone. “This decision cost us six months,” writes Marquise.
It was at a later conference in Virginia, on 11 June, when Marquise relates how the Scots finally made their puzzlement known to all, having blindly checked 55 companies to no avail. Given the opening, special Agent Thurman “approached Henderson and asked if he could take photographs of PT-35 and attempt to identify it. Henderson, who believed the Scots had done all they could do, agreed.” [p60] This passage is (...) rather ambiguous. It seems to read that Thurman, in Arlington, was allowed to snap a pic of evidence SIO Henderson had there with him. Then perhaps it means he took some of the prints they had brought.
Either way, he walked away with a picture or pictures of this crucial and curious evidence, a half-inch square, perfectly readable, mammoth of implausibility. The "forensic explosives expert" didn't balk at it, just ran with it. Or crawled, as he suggests.
"Months, Literally" or 2-4 Days?
A 1991 Miami Herald article, based on interview with Thurman, reported that he had “meticulously compared the picture of the fragment to hundreds of other devices,” a lengthy-sounding process. Affirming this, Thurman himself told the adoring program Air Crash Investigation in 2008:
“I spent, uh, months, literally, looking through all about the files of the FBI on other examinations that we had, uh, conducted over many many many years. […] After a period I just ran out of leads. And at that point I said, okay now we need to go outside the physical FBI laboratory.”
And it was there, in a CIA facility, that he found the long-sought answer.
But Marquise said “what Thurman did yielded fruit within two days.[…] Henderson and his colleagues were on an airplane headed back to Scotland” when Thurman set to work. They had barely settled back in at home before his efforts “would turn Henderson around quicker than he ever imagined,” putting him back stateside, along with electronics fiend Alan Feraday, within 24 hours of the discovery. [p60]
Further evidence against Thurman’s "months" claim is his own well-memorized “day that I made the identification,” recalling it as one would a wedding anniversary: June 15 1990. He had four days tops to get this grueling season of cross-checking out of the way after the 11 June conference (perhaps a multi-day event) where Marquise has him first learning of the thing.
Who He Ran To
What Thurman did, Marquise sums up, is know where to look. He took the photo to a CIA explosives and timers expert code-named John Scott Orkin (real name unknown - he testified under this name at Camp Zeist). [p60] Thurman mentions him only as an unnamed "contact" in the 2008 ACI interview. From the vast photo files on hand, "Orkin" helped locate an obvious fit with the blow-up of PT/35(b). If you were Tom Thurman and knew about John Orkin, would you waste even one afternoon scrounging in the FBI's files, or go right to him?
Nothing I've seen specifies this match-up was achieved in only one visit on a single day, but that makes the most sense, as does starting right there. That would give us no more than "hours, literally" to describe the search duration. And either way we're at the point of days at most.
The matching circuit board was found in a timer confiscated in the African nation Togo in 1986. This device, assembled in a small plastic case, was physically available for Thurman to look at. He was given permission to take it apart and examine the main board inside. Upon confirming again the obvious similarities, “within a few minutes, literally, I started getting cold chills,” he told Air Crash Investigation. He's also described as declaring "I have you now!" [p60] and other variations. In a 2010 interview, he said "I could not believe it under any circumstances, and it was there."
That he got these chills only after getting access to the CIA’s special stores is noteworthy, and the Agency is right to claim much of the credit, as they have in places. An AFIO newsletter from just after the Zeist verdict purred that “the CIA’s most important contribution in helping secure the conviction” was “when a CIA engineer was able to identify the timer […] shifting the focus of the probe from a Palestinian terrorist group to Libya.” (This report's oblique reference to the CIA's less brilliant offering, Giaka, is also worth a read.)
As the overall story tells it, this was clearly a collaborative CIA-FBI effort, via Thurman and "Orkin", that neither side can claim sole credit for. And without this coming together, we're to infer, the naming of this planted piece of Libyan black magic would be delayed or impossible for both Scottish and American investigators. The power of cooperation, between intelligence and law enforcement, and across the Atlantic - a running theme of the 103 investigation - is nicely illustrated here.
[Dr Ludwig de Braeckeleer is currently engaged on his PT35B blog in a meticulous exploration of all the evidence about the identification of this fragment.]