Monday, 30 November 2015

Lockerbie: The Story and the Lessons

[On this date in 2000, Rodney Wallis’s book Lockerbie: The Story and the Lessons was published. What follows is taken from the Amazon website:]

The explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, should never have happened. Wallis, who has extensive, direct, personal knowledge of aviation security matters gained from his position at the crossroads of security information and the industry's endeavors to combat aviation terrorism, had warned the industry one year before the bombing that the interline element of baggage represented the prime opportunity for terrorist activity and had urged the adoption of passenger and baggage matching, a system that he had helped to develop. Mandated by the FAA for use at high risk airports, it was the feature missing from Pan Am's activity at Frankfort, an omission so cruelly exploited by the bombers. Wallis argues that the priority given by governments to technological solutions to the continuing terrorist threat puts the flying public at unnecessary risk every day.

This volume brings together all of the facts surrounding the sabotage of Flight 103, including the investigation and the civil litigation in which so much of the story unfolded for the first time. It uncovers the fundamental weaknesses in Pan Am's communication and management policies. Wallis supports the policy that politics are politics and explores the possibility that U.S. and U.K. policy towards a neutral trial for the two Libyans indicted for the bombing, which may have been affected by the wider scenario of Middle East politics rather than simple justice for the victims of Lockerbie. Although the tragedy has led to improvements in defense technology for use against acts of aviation sabotage, these methods have yet to be applied universally.

About the Author
RODNEY WALLIS led the airline industry's efforts to combat terrorism aimed against civil aviation for 11 years, from 1980 to 1991. As Director of Security for the International Air Transport Association, he served on ICAO's Panel of Aviation Security Experts. He drafted the Guidelines used by the world's customs authorities and established the basis for the industry's work in combating international drug trafficking. He is currently an independent civil aviation consultant.
[A customer review on the Amazon website reads as follows:]

Rodney Wallis has written a detailed account of the Lockerbie Pan Am 103 disaster from a unique perspective. Wallis was Security Director for the IATA and ICAO in 1988 when the Lockerbie bombing occured. As he makes clear in establishing his credentials he and his associates had access to more and higher level security information in the months prior to the bombing than anybody outside government.
This book provides a solid background on the aircraft bombings prior to Lockerbie, and several chapters of very detailed account of the civil suit against Pan Am and its insurers. This is an excellent summary of those disparate sources. One striking problem with this book is the total absence of references.
Wallis scrupulously sidesteps any of the questions that point to the government, the intelligence services, or what more loosely would be called the "political" aspects. Nevertheless he says clearly several things of the utmost importance that points to some of those questions.
He says emphatically - as he did under oath in the Pan Am suit - that he does not believe that the Helsinki warning which the US State Department selective disseminated to its employees was a "hoax" - the line of US and UK government.
Wallis says that in the months before the Lockerbie bombing Iran had a debt to settle, that it called for "an eye for an eye" justice (p.20), that the pictures of the bombs designed for use on airlines that were captured by German police in October 1988 had been given to many officials. It was clear that in the months before Lockerbie to all of the relevant civil and government security experts that an attack was imminent. Wallis believes that the Helsinki warning was no hoax and was related to Lockerbie (p.24). Wallis confirms that nothing was done to act on those warning (p.25 "the intelligence ...failed to elicit an effective response"). He states that the US and UK governments have been disingenuous ever since then in regard to what they did know in regard to the warnings and the bombing (p.34). His interpretation of the evidence is ultimately pointing to Iran - "Iranians were in no doubt that they had a real motive for revenge" - p.32, "The decision to bomb a Pan Am aircraft was and still is seen by most observers to have originated with the shooting down of the Iran Air airbus" p.52.
Wallis does not speculate what produced the inactivity on the part of government officials. It should be noted that he is a career professional with the civil administration charged with aviation security. His concerns are with technology and procedures and he is unwilling to recognize that an attack on the US by foreign government is beyond the capacity his organizations. Perhaps defending American citizens against an attack by foreign government is the responsibility of our own defense and intelligence agencies. Given the reams of evidence of foreknowlege that Wallis describes the decision to leave these matters in the hands of Pan Am's private security seems like somebody’s tacit acquiescence.
Wallis ends on a rather lame note debunking two pathetic theories relating Lockerbie to a drug running operation or an attempt to assassinate of a group US intelligence agents. There is nothing to support the "drug running" canard and it seems likely the CIA agents were just unlucky leaving Cyprus they did not benifit from warnings that the rest of the US government employees received. .
Wallis dismisses these ridiculously implausible "conspiracies" because they require a callousness by intelligence agents that "stretches the imagination to a point beyond belief". This is unsatisfactory. But as Wallis has made abundantly clear a very large number of people knew with frightening specificity that the Pan Am bombing would take place, where it would take place and when - and that nothing was done. The alternative to an utterly implausable concatenation of unlikely events is that just the kind of decision that Wallis seems to find unbelievable were made - but certainly at a much higher level and for something much more important than a "drug sting". Wallis gives the reader many facts to ask the right question - but he keeps his opinions about what the answers might be, to himself.
In fact given the history of attempts to write on the Lockerbie disaster Wallis's discretion is essential. Books that did not toe the government line on Lockerbie have been suppressed by legal actions in the UK and the US. Others are tied up in legal vetting. Writers on the topic who have raised just some of these questions have been subject to legal actions by government officials or former officials involved in one way or the other with Lockerbie. The courts have been a very effective tool to dissuade any investigative journalist from looking into Lockerbie. In contrast to Wallis's comment that "whenever the names of these two [Iran and the United States] were linked, the name of Lockerbie was never far away"; in fact the Iranian role in Lockerbie, as it is recognized by Wallis, has been utterly expunged from the US press since the Bush administration announced its position in 1991. Senior writers and editors at major US papers have produced a long stream of articles that whitewash Iran and amount to a pro-Iran lobby. To have gotten this book into print at all is an accomplishment. Despite some important lacunae and the lamentable absence of notes and sources this remains far and away the best work yet published on the Lockerbie and the first book that even approaches being a serious treatment. To understand Lockerbie start here.


  1. Hmmm. I've got this book. To me, it's most memorable for its credulous swallowing of the entire Malta ingestion theory without so much as a critical comment, but maybe I should read it again.

  2. No one has yet explained to me how a "timer" can be programmed to remain inactive from Malta to Germany, then from Germany to Heathrow : with, perhaps another flight if there is a delay before the final fateful flight.

  3. The MST-13 timer can be set to wait up to 99 hours (or minutes - you have to select which) before it switches on whatever device it is connected to. So work out the difference, in hours, between the current time and the time at which you want the IED to explode, set the timer for that amount and turn it on. That much is straightforward. But why choose a time so soon after take-off, when you have a possible range of 0-99 hours?

  4. Easy enough. The IRA used a long-running timer (canibalised from a video recorder I think) to accomplish the Brighton bombing. They hid the bomb behind a bath panel, with a timer set to detonate it weeks ahead, when the delegates to the Conservative party conference would be occupying the hotel.

    The anomaly with PA103 is that any terrorist with a normal complement of marbles would have set that timer for between 11 pm and midnight, to allow for any delay in take-off, not 7 pm. If the plane had been delayed only three quarters of an hour, the bomb would have gone off harmlessly on the tarmac. If it had been that sort of timer, of course.

    With a barometric timer, which the Crown insist wasn't used, the calculations are of course entirely different. Such a timer would have had to have been loaded at Heathrow (absent major modifications) but would have exploded about 37 minutes into the flight, irrespective of the actual time of take-off.

    Go figure.