[On this date in 1994 the London Review of Books published a review by Paul Foot of Donald Goddard and Lester Coleman’s Trail of the Octopus: From Beirut to Lockerbie. It reads in part:]
The American investigative columnist Jack Anderson has had some scoops in his time but none more significant than his revelation – in January 1990 – that in mid-March 1989, three months after Lockerbie, George Bush rang Margaret Thatcher to warn her to ‘cool it’ on the subject. On what seems to have been the very same day, perhaps a few hours earlier, Thatcher’s Secretary of State for Transport, Paul Channon, was the guest of five prominent political correspondents at a lunch at the Garrick Club. It was agreed that anything said at the lunch was ‘on strict lobby terms’ – that is, for the journalists only, not their readers. Channon then announced that the Dumfries and Galloway Police – the smallest police force in Britain – had concluded a brilliant criminal investigation into the Lockerbie crash. They had found who was responsible and arrests were expected before long. The Minister could not conceal his delight at the speed and efficiency of the PC McPlods from Dumfries, and was unstinting in his praise of the European intelligence.
So sensational was the revelation that at least one of the five journalists broke ranks; and the news that the Lockerbie villains would soon he behind bars in Scotland was divulged to the public. Channon, still playing the lobby game, promptly denied that he was the source of the story. Denounced by the Daily Mirror’s front page as a ‘liar’, he did not sue or complain. A few months later he was quietly sacked. Thatcher, of course, could not blame her loyal minister for his indiscretion, which coincided so unluckily with her instructions from the White House.
Channon had been right, however, about the confidence of the Dumfries and Galloway Police. They did reckon they knew who had done the bombing. Indeed, they had discovered almost at once that a terrorist bombing of an American airliner, probably owned by Pan-Am, had been widely signalled and even expected by the authorities in different European countries. The point was, as German police and intelligence rather shamefacedly admitted, that a gang of suspected terrorists had been rumbled in Germany in the months before the bombing. They were members of a faction of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by Ahmed Jibril. The aim of the gang was to bomb an American airliner in revenge for the shooting down by an American warship of an Iranian civil airliner in the Gulf earlier in the year. On 26 October 1988, less than two months before the bombing, two of the suspects – Hafez Dalkomini and Marwan Abdel Khreesat – were arrested in their car outside a flat at Neuss near Frankfurt. In the car was a bomb, moulded into the workings of a black Toshiba cassette recorder. In the ensuing weeks other raids were carried out on alleged terrorist hideaways in Germany, and 16 suspects arrested. One of them was Mohammad Abu Talb, another member of the PFLP, who was almost instantly released. Even more curious was the equally prompt release of Khreesat, who was suspected of making the bomb found in Dalkomini’s car.
The finding of the bomb led to a flurry of intelligence activity. It was discovered that the bomb had been specifically made to blow up an aircraft; and that the gang had made at least five bombs, four of which had not been found. At once, a warning went out on the European intelligence network to watch out for bombs masked in radio cassette recorders, especially at airports. There were more specific warnings. On 5 December 1988 the US Embassy in Helsinki got a telephone warning that 'within the next few weeks' an attempt would be made to bomb a Pan-Am flight from Frankfurt to New York. On 8 December, Israeli forces attacked a PFLP base in the Lebanon and found papers about a planned attack on a Pan-Am flight from Frankfurt. This information, too, was passed on. On 18 December the German police got another warning about a bomb plot against a Pan-American flight. This message was passed to American embassies, including the embassy in Moscow, and as a result of it 80 per cent of the Americans in Moscow who had booked to fly home for Christmas on Pan-Am flights canceled their reservations. (...)
Though the German police dragged their feet and were singularly reluctant to disclose any documents, the facts about the Jibril gang were known to the Scottish police by March 1989. All the ingredients of a solution were in place. The motive was clear: revenge for a similar atrocity. The Lockerbie bomb, forensic experts discovered, had been concealed in a black Toshiba cassette recorder exactly like the one found in Dalkomini's car two months earlier. The German connection was impossible to ignore: the flight had started in Frankfurt. The identity of the bombers seemed certain, and surely it was only a matter of time before they could be charged. But, like Channon, the police were unaware of the telephone conversation between Bush and Thatcher. When Thatcher sacked Channon a few decent months later, she appointed Cecil Parkinson in his place. Shaken by the grief of the Lockerbie victims' families, Parkinson promised them a full public inquiry. Alas, when he put the idea to the Prime Minister she slapped him down at once. There was no judicial or public inquiry with full powers—just a very limited fatal accident inquiry, which found that the disaster could have been prevented by security precautions which are still not in place.
All through the rest of 1989 the Scottish police beavered away. In May they found more clues. A group of Palestinian terrorists were arrested in Sweden, among them Abu Talb. Talb's German flat was raided. It was full of clothing bought in Malta. The forensic evidence showed that the Lockerbie cassette-bomb had been wrapped, inside its suitcase, in clothes with Maltese tags. Talb was known to have visited Malta some weeks before the bombing. Off flew the Scottish police to: Malta, where a boutique-owner remembered selling a suspicious-looking man some clothes—similar to those found in the fatal suitcase. Closely questioned by FBI video-fit (or identikit) experts, the boutique-owner's answers produced a picture which looked very like Abu Talb. When a computer print-out of baggage on the fatal airliner appeared to show an unaccompanied suitcase transferred to PanAm 103 from a flight from Malta, the jigsaw seemed complete. Jibril had agreed to bomb an airliner, probably in exchange for a huge reward from the Iranian Government. The task was taken on by a PFLP team in Germany, led by Dalkomini. It was joined by Khreesat, who made several bombs, only three of which were ever discovered. One of the other two found its way, probably via Talb, to the hold of the airliner. The culprits were obvious. But the authorities still dragged their feet. The initial determination to identify the conspirators and bring them to justice seemed to have waned. The Scottish police were exasperated. They made more and more of the information available. Much of it appeared in the Sunday Times in a series of articles leading up to the first anniversary of the bombing. No one who read them could doubt that the bombers were Syrians and Palestinians. The series, mainly written by David Leppard, who worked closely with the Scottish police team, ended with a scoop: white plastic residue found at Lockerbie was traced back to alarm clocks bought by the Dalkomini gang. There seemed no more room for argument. 'The Sunday Times understands,' Leppard wrote, 'that officers heading the investigation — despite a cautious attitude in public — have told their counterparts abroad that under Scottish law "charges are now possible against certain persons."'
There were no charges, however — not for a long time.
[RB: And when they came, the charges were -- surprise, surprise! -- against two Libyans.]