Gwynne Dyer: Pan Am Flight 103 and the framing of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi

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      They lied, they’re still lying, and they’ll go on lying until Libya calms down enough to allow a thorough search of its archives. That’s what intelligence agencies do, and being angry at them for lying is like being angry at a scorpion for stinging. But we now know that they lied about the Libyans planting the bomb on Pan Am Flight 103 in December 1988.

      Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a Libyan airline official who was convicted of placing the bomb aboard the plane and sentenced to 27 years in prison by a special international court in 2001, was freed from jail in 2009 and sent home, allegedly dying from cancer and with only three months to live. He eventually did die three years later, but it was a very peculiar thing for the Scottish government to do.

      Megrahi was in a Scottish jail because Pan Am Flight 103, en route from London to Detroit, had blown up over the Scottish village of Lockerbie, killing all 259 people aboard and 11 in the village below. But he clearly wasn’t dying when he was freed, and he had served less than a third of his sentence.  

      And there was something even more disturbing about the case. As a condition of his release, Megrahi was required to drop an appeal against his conviction that had been granted by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission in 2007.

      The SCCRC listed no fewer than six grounds for serious concern about Megrahi’s conviction, including the fact that the U.S. Justice Department made an undisclosed payment of $3 million to two Maltese citizens whose evidence had linked Megrahi with the suitcase that contained the bomb. If the appeal had gone ahead, Megrahi’s conviction would probably have been quashed.

      That would have been deeply embarrassing for the Scottish authorities, especially since the evidence suggested there had been a deliberate attempt to frame the Libyan. But they did have the power to delay the hearing of his appeal for a very long time, and al-Megrahi was not a well man. So one can imagine a bargain being struck: his freedom for his silence.

      Megrahi never stopped protesting his innocence, but he did withdraw his appeal, so the new evidence was never heard in court, his conviction was never cancelled, and nobody was embarrassed. But why did the intelligence agencies pick on him in the first place?

      Because they had to abandon their first working hypothesis, which was that Pan Am Flight 103 was destroyed in late 1988 as tit-for-tat Iranian revenge for the accidental shooting down of an Iran Air plane with 290 people aboard by the U.S. warship Vincennes earlier that year.

      Since the Iranians didn’t have people in the right places with the right skills to do this job, U.S. intelligence calculated, they paid some Palestinian terrorists to do it. The U.S. even fingered the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command, headed by Ahmed Jibril, as the ones who took the contract.

      But the investigation moved slowly, and 20 months after Pan Am Flight 103 went down, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. The U.S. was mobilizing a coalition of Western and Arab armies to liberate Kuwait, and it wanted Syria to be part of it. But Syria was Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world, so this was not the right time to get into a confrontation with Iran.

      Nevertheless, somebody had to be punished or the intelligence services would look incompetent. The people who carried out the bombing for Iran had made some rudimentary attempts to put the blame on Libya, and the security services now started using that evidence to frame Megrahi. The evidence was full of holes, but the Libyan’s defence team did a poor job of exposing them, and he was convicted anyway.

      The reason his defence team did so badly may have been that the Libyan dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, had made a deal: in order to be released from a crippling trade embargo, he would admit the blame for the Pan Am bombing and pay compensation to the families of the victims. For that deal to stand, Megrahi had to go down. A few threats to his family back in Libya would have persuaded him to sabotage his own defence.

      But with the appeal that would have exposed the truth smothered, all this remained mere conjecture until last week, when the al-Jazeera network broadcast an interview with Abolghassem Mesbahi, a former Iranian intelligence officer. Mesbahi, who once reported directly to the Iranian president, said it quite plainly: Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, gave direct orders for the destruction of an American airliner after the Vincennes incident in 1988.

      So the original hypothesis was correct, and the Western security services probably always knew it was correct. They don’t care; the case is closed, and with Megrahi’s appeal cancelled it will never be re-opened. But it is worth noting that he was an innocent man, not a mass murderer, and that his life was cynically destroyed by the same people who brought us the invasion of Iraq, mass surveillance, and so much more.



      boris moris

      Mar 17, 2014 at 11:44am

      Why not take your conclusions a step further, Dyer, and state the fact that the USA is largely responsible for making the world a dangerous and toxic place? They have a history, going back centuries, of mounting false flag operations in order to go to war and ultimately control countries and resources that do not belong to them. It's past due time that Canadians became aware of the fact that many CF soldiers are suffering psychologically because they know they have been poisoned by toxic US weaponry (depleted uranium) exploded in Afghanistan and will likely die from this exposure but will get no help from media or government because this issue has been buried/blacked out because if it was publicized everybody would know the US has committed one of the worst genocides in world history, Google "depleted uranium" and read what Dr. Helen Caldicott has to say on this subject.

      So, there were the Iranians!!

      Mar 17, 2014 at 12:18pm

      So there were the Iranians!!

      Where is the world outrage??


      Mar 17, 2014 at 8:13pm

      @Boris Moris

      I suspect the reason Dyer does not point to the US as the source of all the world's ills is because it is not. It causes plenty of problems (Like the civil war in Iraq in the mid 2000s) and helps to solve plenty of others (the US provides 60% of the funding to the international campaign against landmines, even though it isn't part of the treaty). The US is a country, it has foreign policy objectives and a series of habits that guide its actions. It's not good or bad any more than Russia is, or Australia or Pakistan.

      There are no villains in world politics, and precious few heroes. People make mistakes, and sometimes commit crimes, and sometimes help solve them. Nobody really knows what the consequences of their actions will be, and most of the time countries look out for number one. Sometimes they don't, though, and any shred of altruistic behaviour should really be encouraged.

      I Chandler

      Mar 17, 2014 at 11:19pm

      " we now know that they lied about the Libyans planting the bomb"

      So the Justice Department bribed two Maltese citizens $3 million to frame Libya? No need to bomb them anymore...but Iran....

      "They Lied, They're still lying, and they’ll go on lying"

      The CIA paid for the first JFK conspiracy theory to reach public print , trying to implicate Castro.
      The DRE Received $51,000 a month from the CIA. a CIA officer named George Joannides , ran the DRE as part of a “psychological warfare” operation:

      In sworn court filings, the CIA said that the release of Joannides records — many of them more than 50 years old — would harm U.S. ”national security”.

      Despite evidence of previous conspiracies and cover-ups galore (from JFK to 911), the mainstream media is predictably shocked when someone suggests it is happening again:

      boris moris

      Mar 18, 2014 at 11:16am

      "There are no villains in world politics,,,"

      Really? Try telling that to the relatives of those slaughtered by blood and oil thirsty US foreign policy. Try telling that to the hundreds of millions in 1000km radius fallout zones of the depleted uranium exploded by US and British militaries in Iraq and Afghanistan. This toxic crap will go on killing indiscriminately for centuries to come. Try telling that to millions of Vietnamese killed and/or poisoned by Agent Orange and napalm and carpet bombing. Try telling that to the relatives of those tortured and disappeared by vicious thugs backed by the US in Central and South America.

      The country with the "biggest stick" always sets the tone for the rest of the planet. This is why China and Russia can and will do whatever they want because they know the US has zero moral authority to dictate anything to anyone. What could be more absurd than for a faux democracy like the US to criticize Russia for taking back something that actually belongs to them after the US propped up an anti democratic over throw of a legitimately elected Ukrainian PM?

      Uncle Sam's koolaid has always been a toxic brew of xian fundamentalism and warmongering in order to saddle the globe with an environment destroying dependence on a petroleum based economy.


      Mar 19, 2014 at 11:18am

      Boris, I really don't think you have the level of understanding of history and politics that you think you do. First of all, your first two points are exaggerated, and your second two are simply false; The US may not be the best democracy out there, but it is one. Also, the Ukranian revolution was almost entirely homegrown, whatever the Russians will tell you.

      Also, US foreign policy isn't about oil. That is stupid. If the US wants oil, it can go to Canada or Iraq or Saudi Arabia and write them a check. It's ALWAYS cheaper to buy oil than to steal it by force.

      But the biggest problem with your argument is that you assume I don't know that the US does bad things. Sure it does. So does everybody. The US also does good things. So does everybody. You CANNOT defend the thesis that the US is responsible for all or most of the world's problems. They're responsible for some, definitely, and their superior ability to project power means that their mistakes tend to hurt more people than other countries, but that's pretty much it.

      Russia and China have their own interests and objectives, and their own ways of achieving them. They don't look to the US for an example, because the US is not like them.

      The US barely even had a foreign policy before WWII, and after Iraq the US has been very unambitious, militarily. There was an era of US interventionism, but it was relatively short and it's pretty much ending, if not effectively over.


      Mar 19, 2014 at 12:05pm

      @ McResto

      It doesn't appear that you have a grasp of the realities.

      U.S. foreign policy is about control, oil forming one aspect of that control and not just to ensure that the oil is there to be used by Americans, but to ensure that it cannot be used by others when the U.S deems it necessary.

      The U.S. is not a democracy. Americans are only allowed to vote for one of two candidates, both of which are firmly controlled by corporate interests. The illusion of choice does not make a democracy.

      The U.S. may not be responsible for all of the miseries of the world, but they are certainly responsible for many of these miseries. And no, much of the misery they have caused has not been a "mistake" but a deliberate attempt to inflict misery. There were no mistakes being made when the U.S. reduced Iraq to a husk inflicting hundreds of thousands casualties along the way.

      The U.S. has always had a foreign policy, expressed so "delightfully" in their Manifest Destiny, and that is total control, now extended to the world. Military expenditures amounting to as much as all of the rest of the world combined, and hundreds of military bases around the world attest quite eloquently to their very ambitious military designs.


      Mar 19, 2014 at 1:51pm

      "A deliberate attempt to inflict misery"? That is ridiculous. In fact, I don't even know where to start. Iraq was the biggest mistake the US ever made, based on a string of false assumptions:
      1. America's allies would support the mission out of loyalty to the US (they didn't).
      2. America's superior military technology would allow them to control all of Iraq with only 35,000 men (it didn't).
      3. Iraq's people would welcome the Americans as liberators (some did, but changed their minds quickly)
      4. Occupying Iraq would strengthen the US strategic position in the middle east (it didn't, Iraq had been Iran's only regional competitor, and the US invasion made Iran the strongest country in the region).
      5. The private sector could be used to adequately run an occupation (the CPA was spectacularly incompetent).

      The US left Iraq with ~5000 of its troops dead, nothing to show for it, and with very few people in the US or internationally willing to trust US foreign policy again. Any profits arms manufacturers might have made were offset from the US government's perspective by the crippling debts racked up to the state during the war.

      The US did have a foreign policy pre-WWII, but it involved only North America and a few places in East Asia. It's foreign policy was far less ambitious than any of its European peers.

      Present-day America has the same military spending as the next 9 countries combined, yes, but when you factor in the size of the US economy and the amount of international commitments it has, the results are a bit less hyperbolic. This same budget has been in a downward trend ever since the end of the Cold War, with only a small flare-up during the beginning of the "War on Terror".

      If anyone else wants to throw a bunch of exaggerated, context-free factoids at me about how the US is somehow worse than any other country, or a villain, or any such similar thesis, *sigh* go ahead I guess.


      Mar 19, 2014 at 2:05pm

      Yes. The attempt to inflict misery on Iraq was deliberate. Otherwise, the U.S. military machine would not have destroyed hospitals, water infrastructure and sewer infrastructure, and would not have used DU ammunition and phosphorus munitions, all of which were completely unnecessary.

      Further, there was absolutely no reason for the U.S. to even attack Iraq as they had no involvement with 9/11 and no weapons of mass destruction, which were the lies that the Bush administration used to start the war in the first place.


      Mar 19, 2014 at 3:27pm

      You're making a bit of a mistake when you assume that the fact that the US justifications for the war were untrue means that the Americans didn't at least partially believe them.

      Of course, they doubtless had other motives that they didn't tell the press. Gwynne Dyer theorized in the early 2000s that it was part of a (spectacularly unsuccessful) attempt to demonstrate US independence from the International community, and the good that could be done by unilateral US action.

      If, even in defiance of its allies in Europe, the US could successfully invade Iraq, while simultaneously occupying Afghanistan, and turn Iraq into a prosperous, friendly democracy, then the US position in the middle east and the wider world would have been vastly improved. The war was illegal, of course, and they probably knew that, but a successful outcome in the face of international law would essentially show the world that the US way was the right way, etc. etc.

      Of course, the operation was poorly planned and poorly executed. The US military took over Iraq easily enough, but they did not understand the level of sectarian tension between Iraq's Shias and Sunnis, and had not brought enough troops to prevent the two groups from engaging in a brutal civil war. The Americans also fired all the Ba'ath party without realizing that the country's infrastructure was dependent on Ba'ath members to work, and fired the Iraqi army without first confiscating their weapons.

      The Coalition Provisional Authority, set up to manage the occupation, was expected to have an easy job, and so positions within the organization were given out as rewards to inexperienced government and private sector employees, who were completely unable to manage the situation on the ground, and ended up plundering Iraq instead of rebuilding it.

      DU munitions are probably more dangerous to their operators; at least from a radiation standpoint. Toxic waste is a concern, but it seems like a relatively minor point. The same goes for white phosphorus, which was used as smokescreen, not as an offensive munition. It's still bad, but I think you're reaching if you're using those to justify a thesis where the US is some sort of international villain.

      The Americans messed up really badly. It wasn't deliberate.