Taking the blame
- Trail of the Octopus: From Beirut to Lockerbie – Inside the DIA by Donald Goddard and Lester Coleman
Bloomsbury, 325 pp, £16.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 7475 1562 X
- The Media and Disasters: Pan-Am 103 by Joan Deppa, Maria Russell, Dona Hayes and Elizabeth Lynne Flocke
Fulton, 346 pp, £14.99, October 1993, ISBN 1 85346 225 X
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.
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 Pan-Am 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. The President of the United States ordered a commission of inquiry, which reported (without mentioning Jibril, Palestinians or Syrians) in May 1990. By that time the politics of the Middle East were changing rapidly. In August, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The supply of cheap oil to the United States was suddenly threatened. War was necessary to clear the invading dictator out of Kuwait and restore to his throne the resident dictator, the Emir, who had always been much more appreciative of the United States’ dependence on cheap fuel. No war could be fought against Saddam, however, which might antagonise other Arab rulers. The main problem was Syria. How would the dictator of Damascus, Hafez Assad, react to what he might see as an imperialist war against his fellow Arab dictator in Baghdad?
Very well indeed, as it turned out. Assad became an enthusiastic ally of the US in the Gulf War. He sent front-line troops to fight in the phoney war, and seemed happy to support the most ludicrous claims coming from the White House. In other words, as Donald Goddard puts it, from the moment of Saddam’s invasion ‘nothing more was heard from official sources on either side of the Atlantic about Syrian complicity in the Flight 103 bombing.’ From now on the official view of the disaster was that Syria had, in Bush’s typically elegant phrase, ‘taken a bum rap on this’; and that the people responsible for Lockerbie came from the one Arab state which had denounced the US role in the Gulf War: Libya. Others have noticed this astonishing somersault, but nowhere else has it been more carefully documented. Goddard shows how the whole finely-woven case against Jibril and the Syrians was half-twisted, half-forgotten until it came to seem ‘logical’ to accuse quite different suspects. For example, the identikit picture of Abu Talb drawn up by the Maltese boutique-owner now apparently identifies a Libyan airline official. And it is this official, together with a colleague, who is now ‘wanted’ for the bombing. Libya faces international economic sanctions if the two are not delivered to the authorities in Edinburgh. Goddard takes the view that the Jibril gang probably was responsible for the bombing and that the bomb probably was put on the plane at Frankfurt.
If this were the only purpose of Goddard’s book, it would be a fascinating exposé of cover-up and hypocrisy. But it still wouldn’t answer the outstanding questions: why did the cover-up start so early? Why, in March 1989, long before the invasion of Kuwait, when both the British and the American Governments regarded Saddam as an ally, and were arming the Iraqi dictator to the hilt, did Bush and Thatcher decide to ‘cool it’ on Lockerbie? Why for that matter were the warnings of a bomb on a Pan-Am plane not more widely broadcast? Why was there so much American intelligence activity on the ground at Lockerbie after the crash? Why was the courageous work of Dr David Fieldhouse, who drove from Bradford to Lockerbie as soon as he heard the news of the crash and spent the whole night inspecting and tagging the remains of bodies, ignored by the authorities, and the tagging done all over again? Why, for that matter, was Dr Field-house so shamefully accused of being a busy-body at the Scottish fatal accident inquiry – an insult for which the police and the Government had eventually to apologise? What happened to the suitcase, almost certainly full of heroin, which was swiped from a farmer’s field near Lockerbie and never seen again?
One answer to all these questions is to be found in the story of Lester Coleman, told in detail here for the first time. Coleman claims that he was recruited in 1984 by the Defence Intelligence Agency, the combined intelligence of the US Army, Navy and Air Force, which employs 57,000 people on a budget five times that of the CIA. One of his jobs was to spy on another US government agency, the Drugs Enforcement Administration, which had an important office in Nicosia. Coleman alleges that the DEA tolerated and supervised a regular drugs run from Lebanon to the United States. The drugs money was crucial to the Syrian-controlled part of Lebanon, and to the economy of Syria itself, while supervision of the trade ensured that the American intelligence agencies could keep tight hold of their agents in Beirut. Coleman’s story is that he was sent to Nicosia by the DIA, and while pretending to be a journalist and TV producer, at the same time worked for the DEA and ‘kept an eye’ on it for his real masters. His work in Nicosia brought him into contact with the drug-runners and smugglers who, he says, operated mainly through Frankfurt airport. A group of baggage-handlers there, Turkish-born and sympathetic to Islamic fundamentalism, regularly switched luggage so that the smugglers’ baggage was put on flights between Frankfurt and the US in place of bags which had already been checked in. A similar racket was operated at the US airports.
Coleman left the DEA in Cyprus in 1988 and was not engaged by the DIA again until 1990. He was not told what his new assignment was. He was ordered to apply for a passport in a bogus name – a name he had been given as a false identity many years before when working in a minor capacity for the CIA. In May 1990, as he prepared for his unknown job, he was arrested and charged with applying for a false passport. At first he felt there was some mistake which a phone call would clear up. No one would come to his assistance, however. Jailed and bailed, he trawled through journalistic contacts to find out why he was being victimised. One of these, Sheila Her-show, had just been fired as an investigator from the sub-committee looking into the Lockerbie disaster. Her sacking followed her demands for more US government information about security at Frankfurt airport. Hershaw sent Coleman a photo of a young man he immediately identified as one of the drug couriers from Nicosia. She told him the young man had died at Lockerbie. This information persuaded Coleman that he was being victimised because he might know too much about the prelude to the disaster. When his lawyers were told that documents from the CIA about his false identity and his instructions to apply for a false passport from the DIA were ‘classified’ and could not be obtained in any court, he realised that he was on a hiding to nothing.
He decided to come out in the open, and approached Pan-Am, who were fighting a losing battle against having to take full responsibility for the Lockerbie crash. He gave them a long statement in which he alleged that the drugs operation supervised by the DEA had been infiltrated by the terrorist gang who were out to bomb an airliner, and that the existing baggage-switch operation in Frankfurt could well have been used to plant the fatal bomb on Pan-Am 103. After telling his story Coleman went into hiding. A journalist, Danny Casorolo, tracked him down and tried to follow up his story. He sought out the man who recruited Coleman to the DIA. Nine days after his first phone call to Coleman, Casorolo was knifed to death in a hotel room in West Virginia. His body was embalmed before a post-mortem could be carried out.
Reading this story I was reminded of Colin Wallace, a former army information officer in Northern Ireland, who had the guts to stand up to and break with the more ludicrous conspiracies of his intelligence controllers. Wallace was sacked from the Army, and convicted on the slenderest, most contradictory evidence of killing his best friend. Wallace served six years for this crime which he passionately denies. He was then given a low-paid job in airport management, which he carried out perfectly honourably until he was contemptuously sacked by a new, government-supporting British Airports Authority management.
Through all his ordeal, Wallace has had to contend with cynical and servile media which peddle the Government’s story about him. Lester Coleman, apparently, has the same problem. His story is powerful enough to be taken extremely seriously. It explains many of the hypocrisies and cover-ups which have confused and infuriated the families of the victims of Pan-Am 103. The sensitive study of the media and the disaster by Joan Deppa and her colleagues from Syracuse University, 35 of whose students died at Lockerbie, shows how many of the families have changed ‘from victim to advocate’ and have come to expect that journalists will give them answers to the questions which are still ignored by governments. Lester Coleman has something crucial to say to all these families, and they have a right to expect his story to be sympathetically checked and analysed. Yet most of the media continue to dismiss him as a ‘Walter Mitty’ (a term used again and again about Colin Wallace) and a conman. He has been trashed in particular by the once-prestigious US current affairs TV show, Sixty Minutes, and by New York Magazine, whose reporter Christopher Byron accuses those who take Coleman seriously of ‘chipping away at America’s faith in her institutions’. David Leppard, who has never explained the contradictions between the articles he published in 1989 and his 1991 book on the subject, wrote recently in the Sunday Times attacking Bloomsbury for daring to publish this book when Coleman faces perjury charges for his sworn affidavit to Pan-Am. Any investigative Journalist should consider the perjury charges a reason to publish, not to keep quiet.
There is a lot wrong with Goddard’s book. Again and again he launches into assertions before he proves them. He ‘reports’ conversations verbatim, in direct speech, when neither he nor Coleman nor anyone else can have any proof of what was actually said. He makes far too much use of flashbacks. On balance, however, he wins the argument. And if he and Coleman are telling even half the truth, they have lifted the edge of the veil on one of the nastiest and most deceitful political corruptions of modern times.