Friday, 15 May 2015

"The destruction of Flight 103 may well have been preventable"

[On this date in 1990, the Presidential Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism (PCAST) presented its report to President George H W Bush. The full report can be read here. A report in The Washington Post the following day reads in part:]

A presidential commission yesterday placed much of the blame for the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 on a "seriously flawed" aviation security system, beginning with inept and confused Pan Am security at Frankfurt and London and compounded by the Federal Aviation Administration's failure to enforce its rules.

"The destruction of Flight 103 may well have been preventable," the commission said. (...)

The commission found fault throughout the government, from the FAA to the State Department, which it blamed for failing to adequately aid and inform the families of the victims. Only the US intelligence system, including the CIA, did its job adequately, the commission said. (...)

The commission said that for many months before and after the crash, Pan Am failed to follow written federal security guidelines, employed poorly trained security personnel and generally ran a lax security apparatus in Frankfurt and London. It said that despite $630,000 in fines, problems were not cleared up until 10 months after the crash when [Federal Aviation Authority administrator James B] Busey had a face-to-face meeting with Pan Am's new chief executive officer.

"It is astonishing . . . that Pan Am permitted those problems and others to continue at that level month upon month after the disaster," the report said.

The report said the commission could not determine exactly how the bomb got onto the plane, although it said there is ample evidence that an "extra" unaccompanied bag was placed on the plane at Frankfurt. A container of luggage was also left unguarded on the tarmac at Heathrow Airport in London for about 30 minutes.

The commission called the extra unaccompanied bag "the 13th bag," because an X-ray operator's list of parcels delivered from other airlines totaled 13, while other records could trace only 12 of them to passengers.

The report also did not identify any individual or country responsible for the bomb, apparently Semtex explosive hidden in a small Toshiba radio. A criminal investigation continues, and no charges have been filed.

However, [Commission chair, former Secretary of Labor Ann] McLaughlin indicated the commission may know more than it is making public. She said the panel delivered a private letter to President Bush yesterday morning with his copy of the report. She said the letter contained more specifics about dealing with terrorism but refused to elaborate.

[RB: The current president of US relatives’ organisation Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 Inc, Frank Duggan, was on the staff of the Commission, in charge of family liaison.]


  1. The report said [....] there is ample evidence that an "extra" unaccompanied bag was placed on the plane at Frankfurt. [....] The commission called the extra unaccompanied bag "the 13th bag," because an X-ray operator's list of parcels delivered from other airlines totaled 13, while other records could trace only 12 of them to passengers.

    That is a fascinating observation and worthy of an essay all to itself.

    It appears that this conclusion was reached without benefit of Bogomira Erac's souvenir printout. The initial reasoning was carried out by the FAA in January 1989, before Bogomira came forward with the printout, and I've never seen any sign that it was subsequently factored in. The deduction was made by comparing the incoming passenger records to Kurt Maier's x-ray log. The x-ray log recorded 13 items of interline luggage, but the FAA investigators could identify only 12 legitimate items attributable to interline passengers.

    In contrast Jurgen Fuhl's analysis of the printout only belatedly looked at the incoming passenger records, and he seemed to be fairly baffled by the anomalies this exercise threw up. He never attempted to reconcile these data with Maier's 13-item list as far as I know. Fuhl, of course, came up short by two items, not one. He could only identify 11 recorded interline items. But the FAA found 12. How come?

    The FAA appears to have had a good understanding of the identities of the interline passengers from a very early stage. The part of the report that's often quoted is wrong in its specifics, but pretty close in general terms.

    This list shows that 13 parcels (including two garment bags and a box appearing to contain six wine bottles) passed through the machine on the way to the flight. Other records, however, account for only 12 parcels (11 checked by passengers who boarded the flight and one so called ‘rush’ bag of a passenger who had left on an earlier flight of another carrier).

    In fact the "passenger who had left on an earlier flight of another carrier" was Adolf Weinacker and he had two suitcases, not one. These weren't "rush tag" cases, because when they were coded for the flight Mr. Weinacker was actually booked to fly on PA103. There was one rush tag case, but it belonged to Susan Costa and was transferred from an Alitalia flight. It may be these two separate instances (amounting to three items in total) were conflated somehow in the press reports.

    Jurgen Fuhl only identified eight items of accompanied interline luggage - three each for Thomas Walker and Karen Noonan, and two for Patricia Coyle. Add these to the three legitimate unaccompanied items, and you get eleven. Two short of the 13 x-rayed.

    Matching that to the printout (which is more than Fuhl himself really managed to do), it's clear that the two anomalous entries are 8849, which appeared to relate to KM180 from Malta, and 5620, which appeared to relate to LH1071 from Warsaw. The inability to explain the latter entry, and the absolute failure of the Lockerbie investigators to have followed up the possibility that the bomb might have come from Warsaw, should have killed the entire printout reasoning, if only Bill Taylor had argued the point coherently.

    However, the FAA's analysis (which neither Fuhl nor the Scottish investigators ever show any awareness of) doesn't have this problem. The FAA didn't consider the printout, so they didn't know anything about Malta (or Warsaw come to that). They were however very clear that their tally came up short by only one, and therefore they believed this item was highly likely to be the bomb.

  2. So, how come?

    The rather disorganised collection of original documentation I have relating to the transfer baggage evidence contains several random pages that seem to originate from the US side of the investigation. In these pages, and these pages only, Francis Boyer, passenger from Toulouse, is listed as having interlined his luggage. Fuhl, in contrast, treats him as one of the transfer passengers who collected his luggage at the carousel in Frankfurt and re-checked it. As Fuhl merely states that the Frankfurt check-in luggage all seemed to tally, without going into any detail, it's impossible to see whether his assumption about Mr. Boyer is backed up by that side of the calculation.

    I can find no documentary records to show whether the Boyer suitcase was interlined or not. Surely Toulouse would have retained a record of that? But it's not in the files, nor is there any evidence of anyone having tried to get hold of it. So we don't know.

    Could it have been either of the two anomalous printout entries? It couldn't have been 8849 (Malta), because the Toulouse flight didn't arrive until after 8849 was coded. The possibility that it could have been 5620 can't be ruled out.

    Talk about the left hand not knowing what the right was doing! The FAA didn't have the printout, or any idea about Malta. They did know about the Weinacker luggage though, and they had a rigorous analysis of the incoming baggage records almost a year before it dawned on Fuhl that this was something that might be useful.

    If these two separate investigations had talked to each other in February 1989, if someone with two neurones to rub together had looked at the entire dataset forensically at that stage, the entire conundrum might have been unravelled. It never was. It might still have led a fruitless dance to Malta, but at least there would have been some rationality to the whole exercise.

    This is just one more example of the utter dearth of intellectual rigour in the condict of the Lockerbie investigation, to go with the appalling failure to analyse the relative positions of the recovered suitcase fragments (and more). It's impossible to see this as malicious. No ulterior motive or hidden agenda is so stick-stone two-short-planks stupid.

    It's stuff like this that makes me believe the entire dog's breakfast of evidence, claim and counter-claim will eventually resolve to an explanation showing nothing more sinister than galactic-class incompetence.

    And then there's the other stuff.

  3. It's weird, really. If it were really possible to pin tray 5620 (the one coded with the Warsaw flight) to Francis Boyer's suitcase, it would have strengthened the Crown case. No sign of any attempt to do that.

    It's tempting to imagine there was a sensible reason for this. It's arguable. If the Crown had presented a detailed breakdown of the entire printout, and shown the likely reconciliation for 24 of the 25 items of transfer luggage rather than just the clear-cut uncontentious ones, there would have been a very serious risk that the entire exercise would have been shown up for the tenuous guess-work effort it actually was. In particular, the reasoning required to reconcile 5620 (coded at 15.44 at HM3, apparently with luggage from Warsaw) to a suitcase that came off a flight from Toulouse that landed at 14.57 and was coded at 15.03-15.05 at HM2, introduces the obvious rejoinder that surely exactly the same reasoning could be used to maintain that 8849 might be amenable to a similar explanation that can't be teased out because of the missing baggage records.

    Nevertheless, the overwhelming impression is that there was no such rational strategy. Nobody outside the FFA seems to have been aware of any possibility that the Boyer case might have been interlined. Jurgen Fuhl was the only person to make a serious attempt at figuring out the more arcane details of the printout, and he simply gave up on 5620. And a few of the other trays, come to that.

    They brought this thing to court with a completely half-assed analysis of the printout that missed several very important points. They never had anything close to proof that an unaccompanied case had been transferred from KM180, let alone that it was the bomb suitcase. They simply saw KM180 - Malta - Yorkie trousers - BINGO!

    A competent advocate could and should have shot that down in flames. But Bill Taylor seemed to have an even shakier grasp of the analysis than the Crown had, and frittered his chance away in tendentious nit-picking and even downright dishonest arguing. Pathetic, given that the freedom of two men was at stake.

    I still don't know what 8849 was. It's a bigger anomaly than PT/35b, quite honestly. It gives me a headache.

    The bomb was in the case Bedford saw, there's no getting round that. But how to explain the trail of sweeties pointing to Malta? It's really quite striking. All coincidence?