Monday 3 December 2018

Ministers must end the Lockerbie secrecy

[This is the headline over an article by Magnus Linklater in today's edition of The Times. It reads in part:]

Secrecy is the enemy of truth. It suggests the real facts are being withheld, encouraging suspicion, conspiracy theories and fake news. In the case of the Lockerbie bombing, it plays into the hands of those who believe that we have been hoodwinked about the evidence. They are adamant that prosecutors got the wrong man. The latest disclosures make the search for truth more complicated. (...)

It is 30 years since a PanAm plane crashed on to the town, and in that time the idea has grown that governments colluded in pointing the finger at Libya and away from the real perpetrators. According to this, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the only man convicted, was innocent and the real plotters were Palestinians backed by Iran.

Why else, goes the theory, would British intelligence have been tapping phones and monitoring calls? As Marc Horne revealed in The Times last week, relatives of those who died are convinced that, in the aftermath of the atrocity, their conversations were recorded. They would hear “clinks and clunks” on the line; files disappeared from computers; odd people pretending to be journalists turned up to interview them. [RB: Marc Horne's articles can be read here and here.]

Papers released by the UK government from the national archives show that Lynda Chalker, a Foreign Office minister, wrote to the late Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, then Lord Advocate and in overall charge of the investigation, to express concern about victims’ groups on both sides of the Atlantic. They “will need careful watching”, she wrote.

Not surprisingly, the surviving relatives, or at least those who believe there has been a miscarriage of justice, smell a rat. They think ministers were worried lest they stumble on an inconvenient truth: that intelligence agencies were busy doctoring facts to implicate Libya.

The latest revelations seem to bolster that view. It is not just the sketchy evidence that has been revealed, but the dozens of documents that are being retained, and will not be released for another five years at least. They include, bizarrely, reports brought back from Libya by the late Labour MP Bernie Grant who travelled several times to Tripoli to interview members of Gaddafi’s regime and left his papers to a London college. They have been closed to members of the public by the government until 2025.

If you wanted to encourage the idea that there has been a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, you could hardly do better than that. As Aamer Anwar, the Megrahi family’s lawyer, who hopes to run another appeal, says: “It comes as no surprise that the security services were instructed to spy on those British relatives who to date have never given up in their pursuit of the truth.”

On closer examination, the revelations do little more than muddy the waters. It is intriguing to note, for instance, that the period in 1989 when phones were allegedly being tapped, long precedes the implication of the Libyans. The main suspect was a Palestinian group known as the PFLP-GC, allegedly backed by the Iranian government, seeking revenge for the sabotage of one of its planes. Briefings from Lord Fraser’s office pointed in that direction. Why officials should have wanted to tap the phones of relatives is far from clear.

In May 1989, a fragment of a bomb timer was found in the charred collar of a shirt packed in the suitcase that had held the bomb. The significance of its discovery was not immediately apparent but from it would stem an investigation that eventually pointed to Megrahi and the Libyans.

According to campaigners such as Jim Swire, who lost his daughter in the attack, and Robert Black, QC, architect of the Lockerbie trial, that evidence was manufactured, probably by the CIA, because neither UK nor US governments wanted a confrontation with Iran at the time. Libya was a more convenient target, and Megrahi a disposable suspect. They believed their communications continued to be monitored.

Many thousands of words have been published to sustain the case. That does not mean it is true. For all the painstaking work done to cast doubt on the course of the trial and conviction of Megrahi, it takes a massive suspension of disbelief to accept that a decision was made at the highest level to suppress evidence, substitute false information and tilt the Scottish justice system in the direction of a miscarriage of justice. It would have involved hundreds of intelligence agents, criminal investigators and government officials, to say nothing of Scottish lawyers and judges.

Maybe that is what happened, but maybe is not enough. To allow the allegation to hover in the air is to undermine natural justice. It is unfair to the relatives, it casts doubt on the integrity of police and politicians, it clouds understanding of history.

Withholding evidence that might cast light on this matter is no way to resolve it. Many relatives have gone to the grave with uncertainty hanging over them. By 2025, when some or most of the papers are due to be released, others will have followed. There may be an appeal but, in the meantime, the government should come clean over its knowledge on Lockerbie and the investigation. It is hard to believe national security is still at risk 30 years on. Ministers have a responsibility to the dead and to the living. Justice suppressed, they should remember, is justice denied.

[RB: Mr Linklater once again contends that we Lockerbie dissentients are positing a grand conspiracy involving "hundreds of intelligence agents, criminal investigators and government officials, to say nothing of Scottish lawyers and judges". This is just nonsense. Here is what John Ashton wrote on a previous occasion when Mr Linklater made the same allegation:]

According to Mr Linklater's Times column of 13 August 2012, we allege a huge plot to shift the blame from Iran and the PFLP-GC to Libya, which involved: 'the planting or suppression of forensic evidence, the control of witnesses by intelligence services, the approval of senior politicians, the complicity of police officers, a prosecution team prepared to bend every rule to secure a conviction, and a set of senior Scottish judges willing to go along with that'. [RB: Responses to that article can be read here.]

The last sentence is key. It suggests that we claim that everyone from the police to the judges plotted with government and intelligence services to protect the likely bombers and convict those whom they knew to be innocent. The trouble is neither I, nor the great majority of Megrahi's supporters, have ever made such a claim.

To be clear, I believe that two different things happened: firstly, the US government ensured that blame was from Iran and the PFLP-GC to Libya; secondly, the Scottish criminal justice system screwed up massively. The first I consider likely, but unproven, the second I consider a cert. Both are based upon a rational evaluation of the available facts. I do not believe that the second occurred because the Americans told the Scots to exonerate the real culprits and frame innocents, indeed I find such suggestions fanciful.

In an email to me, Mr Linklater wrote: 'I've been in the [journalism] business for more than 40 years, and have learned over that time a simple principle of reporting: that good investigation requires sound proof'. Yet he has failed to produce any evidence that the majority of Megrahi's supporters have posited a grand conspiracy. The Justice for Megrahi campaign committee has formally alleged that some of the failures might have involved criminal conduct by certain Crown servants. They do not, however, claim that it happened at the behest of governments and intelligence services.

The US government was motivated to exonerate Iran, I believe, because the Iranians knew where the Iran-Contra skeletons lay and also held sway over the US hostages held in Lebanon – whose safe return was an obsession of the Reagan-Bush White House. Another obsession was Libya. As Watergate journalist Bob Woodward revealed, CIA director William Casey launched one of the biggest covert programmes in the agency's history, with the clear aim of toppling Gaddafi. Disinformation – that is, lying and fakery – was at its core.

The Lockerbie investigation was supposedly driven by old-fashioned detective work, but, as we have learned over the years, behind the scenes the CIA played a key role. We now know that the timer fragment was not from one of the 20 timers to Libya. Is it really far-fetched to suggest that the CIA planted it in order to conclusively link Libya to the bombing?

I have done many months of my own old-fashioned detective work among the hundreds of people who searched the crash site. They witnessed American officials in Lockerbie within two hours of the crash, CIA agents searching the site without police supervision, and substantial drug and cash finds – all things that have been officially denied. There may well be innocent explanations for these events, in which case the authorities should reveal them. And, instead of writing me off as a conspiracy theorist, perhaps Mr Linklater should do some door knocking of his own.

1 comment:

  1. Actually, Mr Linklater, it's not the secrecy that the government has employed in this situation that is the problem. It's the poor quality of the evidence led at the trial and the conclusions drawn by their lordships.