Taking the blame

Paul Foot

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 cancelled their reservations. This was probably why there were relatively few passengers on Pan-Am 103 as it took off from Heathrow half an hour late on the evening of 21 December. No one has explained why a warning thought proper for US citizens in Moscow never reached the 259 people who boarded the plane without the slightest idea that there was any danger.

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