Thursday, June 28, 2007

Paul Foot & John Ashton's 1995 investigation into Lockerbie

The Guardian (London)

July 29, 1995

INSIDE STORY: BODY OF EVIDENCE;
More than six years on from the Lockerbie disaster, no one appears any wiser about how and why the bombing happened. The authorities always claimed there was no warning of an attack on a Pan-Am flight. New information proves that this is untrue

BYLINE: Paul Foot & John Ashton

SECTION: THE GUARDIAN WEEKEND PAGE; Pg. T22

LENGTH: 11960 words

WHO planted the bomb which blew Pan Am 103 out of the sky over Scotland, killing all 259 people on board? Six-and-a-half years after the Lockerbie disaster, none of the bereaved families or friends of the dead knows the answer. A bewildering array of different suspects has been paraded before them. Even the identity of the airport where the bomb was planted is unclear.

From their governments on both sides of the Atlantic the families have had to put up with paralysis, duplicity and, finally, silence. The current suspects, they are told, are two Libyan airline officials who put the bomb on a flight from Malta. The officials vehemently deny the charge. They refuse to go to court in Britain or the US. Until they stand trial in either of those countries, say the governments and the United Nations, no questions about the disaster will be answered. The whole issue is gridlocked. All further inquiry is officially discouraged.


'The official version,' says Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter died at Lockerbie, 'is no longer credible.' This article follows the Lockerbie story from the point of view of the bemused British relatives and friends of the victims. Drawing on hitherto unpublished documents, it casts doubt on the central thesis of the official version - that the Lockerbie bomb first went on a plane at Malta. It provides new information, until now classified, that western intelligence knew perfectly well that a Pan Am airliner was in danger from terrorists. It exposes a co-ordinated campaign by the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic to smear and intimidate investigators who question the official version - and their witnesses and sources. And it calls for more investigation and more disclosure on both sides of the Atlantic.

THE FATAL NIGHT

The Strange Case Of Dr Fieldhouse Weird and inexplicable happenings haunted the Lockerbie disaster on the very night the plane went down - December 21, 1988. Dr David Fieldhouse, an experienced police surgeon from Bradford, Yorkshire, heard about it on News At Ten. He went straight to the telephone and phoned the police station at Lockerbie. If he could be of any use, he said, he could be at Lockerbie in less than an hour-and-a-half.

The Lockerbie police eagerly accepted his offer, and a few minutes later he was on the motorway to Scotland. He got there before midnight, reported to the police station, and was eventually sent out with a police officer to find bodies and certify them dead. All through the long, cold night the doctor and his companion slogged through the fields round Tundergarth church. Not stopping for sleep or food, he worked all through the following day as well. When he reported to the police station that evening, he had certified 59 bodies dead and labelled them accordingly. In the following weeks he gave up large chunks of his spare time travelling to Lockerbie and helping the police properly to identify the bodies and where they had been found.

For this selfless effort Dr Fieldhouse received, and expected to receive, no recognition. What was his reward? Nearly two years later, without any warning, he was unjustifiably tarnished by a police officer in official sworn evidence to the fatal accident inquiry into the Lockerbie disaster.

The officer was Sergeant David Johnston of the Strathclyde police. His evidence was 'led' by Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, the Scottish Lord Advocate. Fraser is a career politician in the ruling Conservative Party, who had served briefly in the House of Commons as a Tory MP for Aberdeen. Sgt Johnston started his evidence about Dr Fieldhouse as follows: 'On the evening of the disaster,' he said, 'and in the early hours of the following day, Dr Fieldhouse went out and examined a number of victims on his own, pronouncing life extinct, and attached on them his own form of identification. This was not known to us until some considerable time later.' In fact, Dr Fieldhouse was accompanied throughout by police officers, three of whom he has named. He kept in close touch with the police throughout. The sergeant was completely wrong, but Lord Fraser did not correct him. On the contrary, the Lord Advocate continued with a series of questions which rubbed salt in the doctor's wounds. After asking about the discovery of the body of US businessman Tom Ammerman, Fraser went on: Q. Would this be another example of Dr or Mr Fieldhouse carrying out a search on his own? A. It would, my Lord.

Q. And marking the body of a person who is dead without notifying the police? A. That is correct.

It was not correct at all. Mr Ammerman's body had been found by Dr Fieldhouse and an accompanying police officer. It was marked in the presence of and with the agreement of the police officer.

When Dr Fieldhouse appeared at the inquiry some weeks later - on January 22, 1991 - he quietly disposed of all the allegations which had been tossed about so freely in public. He was puzzled to hear that there were 58 bodies identified in the area he'd worked in - he had identified and tagged 59. He was amazed that all except two of his labels had all been thrown away and replaced with others.

Sheriff Mowat, who was in charge of the inquiry, concluded: 'I would record my thanks to Dr Fieldhouse and my apologies for the undeserved criticism of his activities.' Nearly two years later, in December 1993, Dr Fieldhouse gave an interview for a film about Lockerbie. A few days after the interview, Fieldhouse was summoned to a meeting with two senior West Yorkshire police officers at Wakefield and sacked as police surgeon. He was given three month's notice - but no credible explanation.

FARMER WILSON'S SUITCASE

The treatment of Dr Fieldhouse is not the only story from the tragic windswept night round Lockerbie which still puzzles relatives of the dead. What is the truth, they wonder, about Farmer Jim Wilson, of Tundergarth Mains Farm near Lockerbie, whose fields were littered with the debris of bodies and baggage after the crash? He told one of the relatives who visited him soon after the disaster that he had been puzzled by the police response to a suitcase he had found in one his fields.

The case, he said, was full of cellophane packets of a white powder, which he thought were drugs. He told the police about it, but they did not react. He had to ring them a second time before they came to take it away. Farmer Wilson, who now understandably refuses to answer questions on the subject, gave evidence at the fatal accident inquiry. To his surprise, he was not asked about the suitcase or the drugs he assumed were in it. The authorities on both sides of the Atlantic continued to insist that no drugs, save a small quantity of cannabis, were found on Pan Am 103.

Some of the relatives carried out further inquiries. They discovered that the name Farmer Wilson had seen on the suitcase did not correspond with any of the names on the Pan Am 103 passenger list.

THE INVASION OF INVESTIGATORS

A senior official at Carlisle airport was astonished at the numbers of officials who arrived by plane from London that night and the following day. At least two coach-loads of people arrived before midnight on a Boeing 727. Around 20 of them were Pan Am employees, but there were many other Americans with no obvious affiliation. Another 727 arrived in the early afternoon of December 22, this time bringing people from the US. In it were yet more men in plain clothes. Among their baggage was a single coffin. When they realised that they were being filmed by a cameraman from the local Border TV, they became agitated and demanded that he stop.

Since permission had been granted by the local police, the airport official allowed the cameraman to continue and the pictures were broadcast that night. No explanation has been given about the coffin.

THE STRANGE OFFER TO DAVID JOHNSTON

David Johnston, a young reporter from Radio Forth in Edinburgh, with excellent contacts with the Scottish police, was one of the first journalists on the scene of the disaster. In a news bulletin on February 2, 1989, he reported a claim that the bomb had been planted on a crack team of US intelligence agents who were travelling on flight 103 on their way back from Beirut.

Within an hour of the programme being broadcast Johnston was visited in his office by senior Edinburgh police who demanded to know the source of the story. When he refused to disclose it, he was threatened with prosecution and, simultaneously, made a bizarre offer: to reveal his source to the Prime Minister in Downing Street. He turned that down as well.

THE STRANGE CASE OF THE RED TARPAULIN

On the night of the disaster, and for weeks afterwards, teams of rescue volunteers searched the area. One volunteer was Ron Smith of Castle Douglas in Galloway. Earlier this year he revealed that fellow rescue workers had come across a large object under a red tarpaulin. As they approached it, they were warned off by gunmen in the doorway of a hovering helicopter. One of these volunteers has spoken to us. He confirms that the incident took place just north of the road from Lockerbie to Langholm Road, at Map reference 294 818. Farmer Innes Graham was also warned by Americans to stay away from a small wooded area on top of the hill to the west of his family's farm near Waterbeck, a few miles east of Lockerbie. These strange experiences on that first night worried many of the bereaved relatives. Their worries soon turned into anger.

HOW MUCH DID THE AUTHORITIES KNOW BEFOREHAND?

Was Botha Warned? Almost at once, there was a strong suspicion that the authorities knew the airliner was in danger, and passe d the information on to selected passengers. The most dramatic example of this which was published in the German paper Die Zeit, on the first anniversary of the disaster. The paper suggested that the South African Foreign Secretary, Pik Botha, and his retinue intended to fly on 103 but had been warned off. Botha eventually flew on the earlier flight, Pan Am 101, which, unlike flight 103, had special security checks at Heathrow.

Botha and the South African foreign office have denied that he was warned off 103, and no one in South Africa or Britain has been able finally to confirm or refute the Die Zeit story. But there were two other crucial pieces of evidence - one of them never before published - that Pan Am 103 was known to be in danger before it took off.

THE HELSINKI WARNING

On December 5 1988, 16 days before the disaster, a man rang the American Embassy in Helsinki, Finland, with a message that within the next two weeks a Finnish woman would carry a bomb aboard a Pan Am aircraft flying from Frankfurt to the US. The caller spoke with a Middle Eastern accent and said that the people behind the bomb attempt had links to the notorious terrorist Abu Nidal. The Embassy sent a classified cable to the state department, which was copied to the American consulate in Frankfurt and other embassies. The US President's Commission's report on aviation security and terrorism, which reported in May 1990, reckoned that 'thousands of US government employees saw the Helsinki threat'.

Among the lucky ones were the Americans who worked in the US Embassy in Moscow. On December 13, a week and a day before Pan Am 103 went down, an 'administrative notice to all employees' was posted on the board of the Embassy, warning of the threat.

At least one civilian in Moscow changed his flight as a result of the posted warning, and another employee changed the booking she had made for a US journalist. Not a single Russian embassy worker took flight Pan Am 103 from Frankfurt on December 21, a standard and popular route home for Christmas.

The US President's Commission on Lockerbie reported that by December 10 the Finnish Police had concluded that the warning was 'not a credible one'. Similarly, the British Department of Transport told Pan Am in December that the British intelligence community had concluded that the threat was 'not real'.

Yet the notice went up on the board in Moscow three days after the conclusion of the Finnish police that the notice was not credible. Moreover, the US Federal Aviation Authority did not give an 'all clear' to the aviation authorities. Neither did Pan Am dismiss the warning. Their officials started special screening of Finnish women passengers.

The news of the Helsinki warning broke soon after the disaster and engulfed many relatives in rage and despair. The British Secretary of State for Transport, Paul Channon, reluctantly disclosed that there had been only 16 bomb warnings about aircraft relevant to Britain in 1988, none of them as specific as the one in Helsinki.

Channon and his successors insisted that the Helsinki warning was 'a hoax'. Martin and Rita Cadman were dubious. Their beloved son Bill, 32, a brilliant sound designer, was on the fatal plane. Three -and-half years after the disaster, in July 1992, they read in the Independent that a man called Stephen Docherty had been sent to prison for four years for making a hoax call to police about a bomb at Victoria station. Martin Cadman wrote at once to the Finnish embassy in London asking who had been prosecuted for the hoax call about the Pan Am airliner and what punishment they received. The answer came back on November 17, 1992. 'The identity of the caller cannot be disclosed, as sufficient evidence has not been assembled to convict the chief suspect, a foreigner who obtained Finnish citizenship.' Martin and Rita Cadman were vindicated. If the hoaxer could not be identified, who could say for sure that the call was a hoax? They fired off a letter to the Earl of Caithness, junior Minister for Transport, asking for a further inquiry into the Helsinki warning. Caithness replied that he had 'nothing to add, and had not got the authority to release the name of the hoax caller'.

When the Cadmans pointed out that no hoaxer had yet been identified, they received a couple of testy letters from the director and coordinator of transport security at the Department of Transport, Mr Harry Ditmas. 'This warning was a hoax,' echoed by Mr Ditmas, without proof or explanation. The Cadmans' irritation at the duplicity of the authorities increased when the 'Helsinki hoaxer' had been named two years before they were told he could not be identified. He was a Palestinian resident in Finland called Samra Mahayoun.

THE STATE DEPARTMENT WARNING

Today we can reveal another warning, issued by an intelligence source to the US State Department's Office of Diplomatic Security. This warning was issued three days before the phone call in Helsinki. It has recently been released - but not yet published - under the Freedom of Information Act. The name of the informant is blacked out, and the message reads: 'Team of Palestinians not assoc with Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) intends to atk US tgts in Europe. Time frame is present. Tgts specified are Pan Am airlines and US mil bases.' This is the clearest proof that the US government had direct intelligence information threatening Pan Am. The comment attached to it read as follows: 'We cannot refute or confirm this'.

OPERATION AUTUMN LEAVES

Astonishingly, five weeks before this warning was received, a 'team of Palestinians not associated with the PLO' had been arrested in Germany in possession of a bomb in a Toshiba cassette recorder strikingly similar to the bomb which destroyed Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie.

In the months before the bombing the German police had mounted an anti -terrorist operation under the code-name Autumn Leaves. The operation had led to the arrest of a gang associated with a splinter group of the Palestinian movement, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC). The leader of this splinter was Ahmed Jibril, who enjoyed the confidence and protection of the government of Syria and its dictator Hafez al -Assad. Jibril had masterminded several terrorist attacks in recent years, and had, so the intelligence agents reported, taken on an assignment to revenge the shooting down the previous summer of an Iranian airbus by a US warship.

All 290 people on the airbus had been killed. Outrage in Iran was intense and there were widespread demands for revenge. Tehran radio declared that the incident would be avenged 'in blood-spattered skies'. Moreover, the intelligence reports revealed, the leader of Jibril's terrorist gang, Hafez Dalkamoni, had been arrested outside a flat in Neuss, Germany, not two hours drive from Frankfurt, from whose airport Pan Am 103's feeder flight had originated. A bomb with a barometric pressure switch, packed inside a Toshiba radio cassette recorder, was found in his car.

Investigators were in no doubt that the bomb was specifically designed to blow up aircraft. Pieces of a similar model of recorder had been found in the wreckage at Lockerbie. The conclusion seemed inescapable. Pan Am 103 had been blown up by a Palestinian gang, protected by Syria and paid for by Iran. The German police knew the name of the bomb-maker they had arrested - Marwan Khreesat. Mysteriously, Khreesat was released soon after he had been arrested with Dalkamoni. The official reason was that there was not enough evidence against him. In April 1989, further police raids in Neuss produced two more bombs designed by Khreesat specifically to blow up aircraft. By then no one was in any doubt that Khreesat had made the bomb which found its way on to Pan Am 103A before it left Frankfurt for Heathrow.

LUNCH AT THE GARRICK

One man utterly confident of this conclusion was Paul Channon, British Secretary of State for Transport. On March 16 1989, less than three months after Lockerbie, Channon lunched in London's exclusive Garrick Club with five of Britain's top journalists.

Channon beamed at the journalists over the excellent food and wine. The 'brilliant detective work of the smallest police force in the country' - Dumfries and Galloway - had, he revealed, uncovered the guilty bombers. Arrests, Channon told his wide-eyed hosts, were imminent. Such conversations, especially at the Garrick Club, are 'on lobby terms': that is, not for attribution.

But the size of the scoop they had been offered was too much for at least one of the journalists. Next morning's papers carried the sensational news that a cabinet minister had revealed that the Lockerbie killers had been identified and would soon be arrested.

OPERATION 'LOW-KEY'

Almost at the exact moment as Channon was exciting the journalists over that Garrick lunch, George Bush, the US President, telephoned the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Lockerbie was the subject of their conversation. No doubt Bush too had heard of the success of the Scottish police. His advice to Mrs Thatcher however was to 'low-key' any excitement over Lockerbie.

The news of this telephone conversation was reported on January 11 1989 in the Washington Post by Jack Anderson and Dale Van Atta. The conversation was denied by both the White House and 10 Downing Street, but Anderson and Van Atta stuck to their story. Whatever was said that March morning, the subject of Lockerbie suddenly slipped from the ecstatic high sung by Channon to a very low key indeed.

The bereaved families, who had assumed after all the publicity for the Garrick lunch that the suspects for the bombing would soon be brought to trial, noticed to their horror that the whole affair seemed to slip suddenly from the public gaze. They stepped up their demand for a proper inquiry. In September 1989, six months after the Garrick lunch, the newly-formed UK Families Flight 103 met Paul Channon's successor as Transport Secretary, Cecil Parkinson. Parkinson promised the families a full judicial inquiry. To his horror, the Cabinet, and especially Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Parkinson's close friend and ally, slapped him down. He came whimpering back to the relatives to tell them he had failed.

'Low key' were the words allegedly used by President Bush in that denied telephone conversation with Thatcher in March. In September, the relatives came to know what 'low key' meant - the refusal of a proper investigation and its replacement by an impotent fatal accident inquiry with no subpoena powers which refused to investigate how the bomb got on the plane for fear of interfering with the police inquiries.

Years later, in 1994, Parkinson took part in a television programme about another disaster - the sinking of the pleasure craft Marchioness on the Thames. He confirmed that Thatcher had blocked the Lockerbie inquiry. 'I was discussing with the Lockerbie relatives,' Parkinson explained, 'whether we couldn't have some form of public inquiry which would have meant, because the security services were involved, inevitably a certain amount of suspicion - and I wondered whether I could get a High Court judge to look into the security aspects privately and report to me. If I could get the relatives to agree with that, if I got that done, that would satisfy them. Because when you get into the Lockerbie business - how did we find out certain information, how did we know this, how did we know that? - you would have had to recall not only our own intelligence sources but information we were receiving from overseas. Therefore, that had to be a closed area. . .' This came as close as it could to identifying the real block to a proper inquiry: 'our own intelligence sources'. It was not clear to the relatives then, or now, why the intelligence services on either side of the Atlantic should oppose an inquiry. A month after the Parkinson fiasco, one remarkable answer emerged.

THE LEBANESE CONNECTION

On November 2, 1989, the news leaked of a report on the Lockerbie bombing by Interfor, a New York corporate investigative company hired by Pan Am and its insurers. The report suggested that the Dalkamoni gang had got the bomb on the airliner at Frankfurt by exploiting a security loophole. In their desperate bid to free American hostages in Beirut, American intelligence agents had, reported Interfor, struck a deal with Syrian narco -terrorists.

In exchange for information about the hostages, the agents agreed to facilitate a route for drugs from the Lebanon into the United States. The luggage with the drugs was protected by American intelligence. Normal security restrictions on baggage at the relevant airports was removed and the drugs allowed to sail through. The terrorist gang, with the help of allies at Frankfurt airport, had exploited this security loophole by exchanging a bag with a bomb for one with drugs. The report named a young passenger on the doomed plane, a Lebanese American called Khaled Jafaar as the 'mule' whose bag of drugs was switched. Jafaar's name had already been mentioned in dramatic circumstances. On New Year's Eve 1988, 10 days after the Lockerbie disaster, the Daily Express devoted its front page to exposing Jafaar as, 'THE BOMB CARRIER'. The Express named its sources as 'the FBI and Scotland Yard'.

Even more fantastically, the Interfor report surmised that Major Charles McKee, the head of the US Intelligence team on the plane, was shocked by the deal struck with the narco-terrorists, and was returning on Pan Am 103 to blow the whistle on his colleagues. The inference was obvious, and the report made it plain. Pan Am 103 was sacrificed by the intelligence community in part at least to get rid of the whistleblower.

The Interfor report was greeted with widespread scepticism. Commentators pointed out that Pan Am was being sued by the families for negligence, and stood to duck all responsibility for the disaster if the blame could be shifted to a bizarre intelligence plot. Scepticism about the Interfor report was compounded by new speculation about Lockerbie which switched attention from Beirut and Frankfurt to the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta.

THE MALTESE CONNECTION

As the first anniversary of the crash grew closer, a long series of articles in the Sunday Times, which relied heavily on leaks from the Scottish police, reported that the 'net was closing' on the Lockerbie suspects. These articles - by David Leppard - stated as irrefutable fact that the bombing had been carried out by the PFLP-GC under orders from Ahmed Jibril. The gang was led by Dalkamoni, the bomb was made by Marwan Khreesat.

Leppard's articles added a new twist. The bomb, they reported, had first been put on a plane not in London, where Pan Am 103 had taken off, nor in Frankfurt, where its 'feeder', Pan Am 103A, had started, but in Malta. The Maltese connection had been detected, the articles argued, because some clothes made in Malta had been found in the suitcase in which, police believed, the bomb had been planted.

The finger of suspicion was pointed directly at another alleged member of the Dalkamoni gang: Abu Talb, a 35-year-old Palestinian who was in prison in Sweden awaiting trial for terrorist offences there. Talb, reported the Sunday Times on December 17, 1989, had visited Malta and had been identified by a Maltese boutique owner as the man who bought the clothes in the bomb suitcase, including a Babygro. 'The trail to Talb was so strong,' wrote reporter David Leppard, that Scottish police had gone to Sweden to interview him. He was, the paper reported, due any moment to be extradited to stand trial for the Lockerbie bombing. The bomb, these articles insisted, had been put on a flight from Malta to Frankfurt for transfer there to Pan Am 103A which linked with Pan Am 103 at Heathrow. Thus the theory had the bomb surviving two airport switches - at Frankfurt and at Heathrow - before exploding over Lockerbie.

For this remarkable theory the Sunday Times (and their informants, the Scottish police) relied on two documents which had not been made available to them until several months after the bombing. These were a computerised list of all the transactions in Frankfurt airport's automated baggage system which related to Pan Am 103, and a hand-written worksheet from one of the several stations where baggage came into the system.

A bag which ended up on Pan Am 103 could be traced to a station where one of the baggage handlers had, in a hurried scrawl, identified it as coming from an Air Malta flight. Yet there were no passengers on the Air Malta flight transferring to Pan Am 103A. It followed, the newspaper argued, that an unaccompanied bag from Malta carried the bomb which blew up Pan Am 103! Together with the Babygro from the boutique, these documents proved the Maltese connection - and the Maltese connection proved the guilt of Dalkamoni and Talb.

Almost all the information which led to these exciting scenarios came through the intelligence agencies. Journalists on their own in such inquiries have very little hope of discovering any information. They go cap in hand to intelligence sources and sift what they are given. In 1989, and most of 1990, the intelligence-based charges against the Jibril gang fitted snugly with American and British foreign policy in the Middle East. Both countries had broken off relations with Syria because of that country's known and persistent support for international terrorism. The long war between Iraq and Iran had ended in the summer of 1988, with the governments of both countries ranged firmly on the side of Iraq. The old hostility to Iran - which dated back to the 1979 revolution there and the seizure of US hostages - lingered on. Though the whole Lockerbie issue had been declared 'low key', both governments were quite 'comfortable' with what seemed at the time the obvious central truth about Lockerbie: that the Jibril gang and the regimes in Syria and Iran were responsible.

This official version was staged again in November 1990 in a long documentary programme by Granada Television to mark the second anniversary of the bombing. Special attention was given to the Maltese connection. A sinister looking Arab was seen to check in his bag at Malta airport and then to slide surreptitiously away to watch the plane take off with the bag in it.

The beauty of 'intelligence journalism' is that it can hardly ever be tested. Granada Television, however, was unlucky. Immediately after the programme, Air Malta sued Granada for libel. A long, powerful and hitherto unpublished document from their lawyers, top city solicitors Norton Rose, demonstrated that there were 39 passengers and 55 pieces of baggage on the Air Malta flight; that all the bags had been checked in by the passengers which flew; that there were no bags on the flight interlined for Pan Am 103 or 103A. So the scenario outlined in the film was, the document insists, quite impossible.

The Norton Rose document proceeds in specific and irrefutable detail to challenge the entire theory that a bomb was put on the flight at Malta. The lawyers carefully investigated the documents - the print-out and the work-sheets from Frankfurt Airport - which had persuaded the Sunday Times and the Scottish police that the bomb bag had come from Malta. They concluded, first, that these documents were not designed to identify the flight from which baggage had come; second, that their accuracy depended on the dubious memory of harassed baggage handlers, and third, that even if they were accurate, they did not preclude the possibility that the suspect bomb-bag had been planted in the complex of Frankfurt airport.

This comprehensive demolition job on the Maltese connection was never heard in open court. Shortly before the case was due to come on early in 1993, Granada, which prides itself on openly defending libel actions, threw in the towel, and paid pounds 15,005 into court. Air Malta accepted the money, and, in a statement allowed by the judge, insisted that they had cleared their name. The statement was studiously ignored by the entire British media.

By that time, the whole political situation in the Middle East had been turned upside down. In August 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, threatened to control 8 per cent of US oil supplies and to topple the sheikdoms of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia on which Western stability in the Middle East depended. 'A new world order' was called for, with different alliances. If there was to be a western war with Iraq, Iran had to be seduced into neutrality. More importantly, the Assad dictatorship in Syria had to be courted. If Iran was neutralised and Syria lined up against her old enemy Saddam, Iraq could be defeated without too much upset in the Arab world.

In November 1990, Britain restored diplomatic relations with Syria. Ahmed Jibril, whom everyone assumed was responsible for Lockerbie, was still living there. The same dictator, Assad, was still in charge, presiding over the same terrorism, the same torture in his prisons and the same denial of human rights to dissenters. But now he was an ally of the West. In January and February 1991 Syrian troops joined the western allies in an assault on occupied Kuwait. Saddam's forces were instantly repulsed. Cheap oil flowed freely again to the US, whose government was eternally grateful to its new allies. Opponents of the dictator Assad were still being locked up and tortured, but President Bush (like President Clinton after him) and Prime Minister John Major covered him with bouquets.

THE LIBYAN CONNECTION

As the political allegiances in the region changed, so, at first imperceptibly but with gathering speed, did the official investigations into the Lockerbie disaster. The centre of operations was effectively shifted from the quaint police headquarters in the Scottish Borders to the more sumptuous surroundings of Langley, the base of the CIA. The man in day-to-day charge of the Lockerbie investigation there was Vincent Cannistraro. Cannistraro had worked with Oliver North in President Reagan's National Security Council. He had been a leading figure in the movement to support the Contras in Nicaragua and UNITA in Angola. He had specialised in the US vendetta against Libya. He had helped mastermind a secret programme to destabilise the Libyan regime which culminated in the bombing of Libya in 1986 - an act of international piracy which, for the first time in the history of Muammar Gadaffi's turbulent and dictatorial rule, united the entire Libyan people behind him.

Cannistraro retired from the CIA in September 1990 but by then had helped lay the foundations for a completely new approach to the Lockerbie investigation. This time the chief culprit country was not Iran or Syria - but Libya.

On November 14, 1991, in a blaze of publicity, the American and British governments announced that two Libyan airline officials - Abdel Basset Ali Al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah - were charged with planting the bomb which brought down Pan Am 103. The official story had completely changed. Gone was any reference to Jibril, Dalkamoni, Talb, Khreesat, Syria, Iran or Palestine. President Bush went out of his way to exculpate Syria which, he announced in a characteristically elegant phrase, had taken 'a bum rap' on Lockerbie.

Simultaneously, like an obedient sheep dog, British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd barked in the British House of Commons that Libyans alone were suspected. Other countries, he said, were not implicated. By amazing coincidence, the only culprits could now be found in the only Arab country besides Iraq to which the US and Britain were openly hostile. Pam Dix, secretary of the UK Families Flight 103, whose brother Peter died at Lockerbie, still remembers her sense of shock on hearing of the indictment against the Libyans. 'In all the three years since the disaster,' she said, 'none of us ever had an inkling that Libyans were responsible. One question I asked myself at once was: why did the American authorities not wait until their suspects left Libya for a country from which they could be extradited? Why did they rush out the announcement when they knew their suspects would not be released for trial?' To assist confused relatives and anyone else who had followed the story, the US State Department issued a special notice. The 'dominant hypothesis of the early stages of the Pan Am 103 investigation', it conceded, had 'focused' on Iran and Jibril. 'Over time however fresh evidence undermined the initial theory linking the PFLP-GC to the bomb.' Four reasons were given: 1. The radio with the bomb found in Dalkamoni's car 'differed markedly' from the radio bomb in the plane.

2. The Maltese clothes in the suitcase indicated the bomb went on at Malta.

3. The bomb in the plane had been set off by a 'sophisticated electronic timer' while the PFLP-GC bomb discovered in Germany had 'relatively crude timers'. Furthermore, such sophisticated timers had been delivered from Switzerland to Libya.

4. There was no evidence of an altimeter switch in the Pan Am bomb.

None of this was persuasive. Marwan Khreesat made many bombs in many different radios. The 'marked difference' between the radio in Dalkamoni's car and the one in the plane was that the first had one speaker, the other had two. Both were Toshibas. The clothes from the boutique had been used to confirm official suspicion of the PFLP-GC/Jibril gang. The rather subtle distinction between the timers and the switches hardly seemed enough evidence to justify such a dramatic change in the course of the inquiry.

THE CASE OF THE UBIQUITOUS CIRCUIT BOARD

The central plank of the indictment was the alleged correlation between the timers - alleged to have been sold to Libyans - and the tiny fragment of circuit board found near Lockerbie. The timers, the indictment revealed, had been made by a firm in Switzerland. Their circuit boards matched a tiny fragment retrieved from the Lockerbie searches.

This coincidence between the circuit board and the timers has been plagued with questions from the moment it was first mooted. For instance, who found the circuit board and when? It depends what you read. In 1992, American journalist Mark Perry published a book called Eclipse - The Last Days Of The CIA. This declares that the fragment was found by an unnamed Scottish worker in a field outside Lockerbie 'on a misty morning in early April'.

British journalist Diarmuid Jeffreys, on the other hand, in his book The Bureau - Inside Today's FBI, says that the fragment was found 'sometime in 1990' in a 'piece of charred shirt' by the FBI's forensic expert Thomas Thurman. Another recent book on the FBI, by Ronald Kessler, quotes the assistant director of the FBI forensic laboratory saying that the British found the fragment a whole year before Thurman got it. And who identified the fragment as part of the timer? Jeffreys and Kessler give the credit to Thomas Thurman, Perry to a 'veteran CIA analyst' and David Leppard of the Sunday Times to a British military forensic scientist (and hero of the investigation which wrongly jailed the Maguire Seven) Dr Thomas Hayes. The four authors each have different dates for the establishing of the link. They offer a choice between June, August, October and November 1990. It is not hard to imagine the enthusiasm with which a top barrister would expose the history of this crucial 'evidence' linking the bombing to Libya.

And just how firm was the Libyan connection to the timers? To start with, the US State department claimed that all timers from the Swiss firm had been delivered to Libya. This theory was weakened in December 1993 when the BBC radio programme File On Four proved that the Swiss firm had provided the same model of timers to the East German secret police, the Stasi.

The bulk of the indictment asserted without proof that Libyan intelligence had planned the bomb attack, and carried it out through two of its agents. These assertions relied on the say-so of an intelligence team led by a man who once worked closely with Oliver North.

THE HIDDEN AGENDA

None of the active British relatives is convinced by the indictment. In the four years since the indictment was announced, the case against the Libyans has got weaker. The British families continue to be puzzled about the sudden and unexpected change in the Lockerbie suspects. It seems obvious to them that the Dalkamoni gang was responsible for the bombing. So why was the gang not pursued, and why was such a crude official blanket cast over the whole Lockerbie affair? Increasingly, the families hark back to the ghastly theories expounded in the Interfor report. Is there, they wonder, a hidden agenda to Lockerbie, a story within a story, which is the real reason for the 'low-key' approach of officialdom on both sides of the Atlantic? These suspicions were further aroused by the publication in September 1993 - in Britain alone - of Trail Of The Octopus by Donald Goddard, the story of former Defence Intelligence Agency agent Lester Coleman. Like the Interfor report, Coleman concludes there is a connection between the drugs run from Lebanon through Cyprus, where he was based, and Frankfurt airport which contributed to the Lockerbie disaster. Coleman's detractors accuse him of fleeing his country to avoid charges of falsely procuring a passport. New information published in the Scotsman in March this year, however, suggests that the passport charges were trumped up. The FBI claimed that Coleman had asked for a copy of a birth certificate of a dead person, Thomas Leavy, with which to forge a false passport. The relevant authority at New London, Connecticut, however, insists that no person of that name was born at the time claimed by the FBI.

The entire case was invented. But why would a charge of passport fraud be invented unless to intimidate Coleman, and why would the authorities want to do that? Four days before his book was published, Coleman was indicted on another charge: perjury. The first count alleges that he falsely claimed to speak Arabic - which he speaks fluently.

Lester Coleman is not the only sceptic about the official version of the Lockerbie story who has suffered at the hands of the authorities. Juval Aviv, the president of Interfor, who carried out the inquiry for Pan Am and arrived at such extraordinary conclusions, has recently been charged with mail fraud. John Brennan, the President of the insurers for the now defunct Pan Am, has been charged with fraud.

Like Lester Coleman, Aviv insists that charges against him have been trumped up. All three investigations were started by the same assistant US attorney in the Eastern District of New York Court - yet neither Brennan nor Aviv have their businesses located in that district, and none of their alleged offences was committed there. All these instances of alleged state harassment came within a few weeks of a 90-minute Channel 4 programme on Lockerbie entitled The Maltese Double Cross. Produced by the American film-maker Allan Francovich, it was broadcast on May 11. It featured an interview with a relative of a passenger on the fatal flight called Khalid Jafaar. The relative stated that the boy had been duped by terrorists into taking the bomb on the plane in a bag he believed was carrying drugs. Francovich's film was dogged by continuous official obstruction and resistance.

When it finally got on the air, the Scottish Crown Office and the US Embassy took the unusual step of issuing a strongly-worded press release vigorously attacking the programme and the people who appeared in it. For years the same Crown Office had insisted that it was not the job of government to comment on media speculation about Lockerbie.

THE 'SUB JUDICE' STALEMATE

In the aftermath of The Maltese Double Cross, the stalemate returns. As soon as the indictments were revealed, the British and American governments insisted that the two Libyan suspects should be brought to trial in Scotland or the US. The Libyan government refused to release them. Feeble economic sanctions, not including an oil embargo, were imposed on Libya by the UN in a supposed bid to force the suspects out. Predictably, they have not worked. The Libyan government has, however, agreed to release the men to stand trial in a neutral country, such as the Hague in Holland or Switzerland.

Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in Pan Am 103 and who has campaigned ever since to find out what happened, asks: 'What is wrong with a trial in a neutral country? Why shouldn't both sides be treated fairly in Holland or Switzerland? There is talk all the time of the need for international courts - to try Bosnian war criminals for example. We want these men to stand trial. I've written again and again to British and American governments to ask why the Libyans can't be tried in a neutral country, but haven't had a satisfactory reply. In fact the US government hasn't replied at all.' There are many precedents in English law for shifting the place of a trial to avoid local prejudice against the accused. Why can't the same argument prevail at international level? One crucial effect of the stalemate caused by the Libyan indictments has been the deflection of all independent investigation into the Lockerbie disaster. 'We have the suspects,' is the official answer to all inquiries. 'The case is sub judice. No comment.' Many British relatives suspect that this official silence suits both governments. Their suspicions have been confirmed by two recent incidents.

THE SNUBBING OF ALLAN STEWART

No one served the conservative government more faithfully than Allan Stewart MP. He became a junior Minister in the Scottish Office in 1981, and he was still there in 1995. He resigned his post after an incident on a contested motorway site, in which he allegedly brandished an axe-handle against the protestors. Out of office, he decided to respond to Muslim constituents who were worried about government sanctions against Libya. He went to Libya and secured the agreement of the Gadaffi government to release the two suspects for trial before a Scottish judge and jury and according to Scottish legal procedures in a neutral country. At last was hope of a compromise, a break in the deadlock. The Libyan government's concessions were substantial. What possible objection could there now be against holding the trial in a neutral country? Back in the House of Commons, Stewart proposed an amendment to the Scottish Criminal Justice Bill then going through the Scottish Grand Committee. His amendment permitted cases to be heard by a Scottish judge and jury outside Scotland. It was voted down by the Labour and Tory members of the Committee - only one backbencher, Tam Dalyell, Labour MP for Linlithgow, who for years has challenged the official version of the Lockerbie story, supported him.

THE US AUTHORITIES THROW IN THE TOWEL

Many families now suspect that the British and American authorities would be delighted if the Libyan suspects are never released, and there is never a trial. On June 8 a front page article in the Guardian quoted anonymous US officials saying that President Clinton had effectively given up on efforts to bring the two Libyans to trial.

Perhaps the most infuriating effect of the sub judice stalemate is the official silence. In the United States, attempts to get information about Lockerbie under the Freedom of Information Act have been constantly thwarted on grounds of national security. Only two important documents have been released, both after a delay of four years. In the prevailing silence, the relatives feel they are pawns being pushed around on the chess board of international power politics. The questions go on forever. Why did the police so recklessly tarnish Dr Fieldhouse? Why did Farmer Wilson's suitcase vanish? Why was there such a prompt official denunciation of the Helsinki warning as a hoax? Why was nothing done to respond to the clear warning issued to the American government about the terrorist danger to Pan Am? Why was the Jibril story, so convincing at the time, brusquely junked? What is there left of the Maltese connection? Why have the British and US governments refused a proper inquiry, and why will the Libyans not be brought to trial on neutral territory? Why, if its hands are clean on the matter, is the US government holding back information about the bombing of a civilian airliner? Ask all these questions together and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that someone in authority knows the answers, but won't disclose them. On February 16 1990, a group of British relatives, including Martin Cadman, went to the American Embassy in London for a meeting with the seven members of the President's Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism.

'After we'd had our say,'says Cadman, 'the meeting broke up, and we moved towards the door. As we got there, I found myself talking to two members of the Commission - I think they were Senators. One of them said: 'Your government and our government knows what happened at Lockerbie. But they are not going to tell you'.' It is hard to imagine a more serious charge, nor one which more requires the most urgent and relentless probing.

John Ashton was the chief researcher on Channel 4 documentary The Maltese Double Cross.

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