What Did The British Know?

The Scots-German War Over Airport Security, part 1 of 2
June 20 2010

last update 21 November

The following is part essay, part compilation of long quotes. Two early books are drawn from throughout:
[E+D] Emerson, Steven and Brian Duffy “The Fall of Pan Am 103: Inside the Lockerbie Investigation” New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons. April 1990. 283 pages.
[L] Leppard, David.On the Trail of Terror: The Inside Story of the Lockerbie Investigation. London, Jonathan Cape. May 1991. 221 pages.
The views expressed by those writers are not necessarily shared by this blogger – the exercise is to gather facts and attitudes, the zeitgeist, of this minor 1989 struggle of wills between two erstwhile allies in a major investigation.
The point of origin for the bomb – where it first left the ground - was of prime importance in the first weeks after the explosion of Pan Am 103 on 21 December 1988. Fresh in investigator’ memories, a cell of Iranian-commissioned "Palestinian" terrorists had been busted in West Germany with multiple altimeter bombs, just six weeks before the bombing. That one of these had struck was obviously a prominent suspicion.

The plane that was destroyed, a 747 named Clipper Maid of the Seas, was loaded from empty at Heathrow, taking on luggage that originated from the surface there, as well as bags that had come in from several other airports. A bomb like those found in Germany could only have worked, the conventional wisdom ran, if it had been introduced at London. If any other flight had taken it up first, that flight would have been killed, rather than 103. Steve Emerson and Brian Duffy explained, in their early 1990 book:
“If a barometer had triggered the bomb, as some investigators suspected, Heathrow was the likely place to try to get it aboard. “If it were a barometric device,” one official said, “it would have to trigger only once.” Placing a bomb on the 103 anywhere else, if it was barometric triggered, meant it would have to trigger more than once. “Much too complicated,” said a U.S. official briefed on the AAIB findings.” [E+D 156]
And the fear of discovering London origin was real. As David Leppard wrote in 1991, “if Heathrow had been to blame, the ramifications would have been severe: it would have meant that the bomb had probably been constructed in England by a new terrorist cell whose activities were unknown to the British security authorities,” and would have slipped through their air security system. [L 60] It would be heartening then to see the headline on the December 31 edition of the Times of London:


This was the opening shot of what could be called a war of words between British and German forces that would mar 1989. But their supporting evidence for such a bold claim was scant at first. Emerson and Duffy note that investigators first concluded the bomb “must have been placed on the right side of the plane," after finding luggage in the right inboard engine but none in the left two engines. It seems doubtful there enough of the engines left to tell this, but without further explanation, the book asserts that this finding "meant the bomb had almost certainly been sneaked aboard at Heathrow.” [E+D 156]

There is no "Heathrow luggage on the right side of the plane" rule, but it was this alone that the authors cite as leading to the initial “Frankfurt connection” British and American investigators decided by the end of December. The FBI had concluded, as a December 31 internal memo stated, that the bomb had “entered the Pan Am system at Frankfurt.” [E+D 160] They had hoped to keep it out of the news to prevent the terrorists knowing what they knew. “Like John Boyd, Judge Sessions and Buck Revell wanted to keep a close hold on the Frankfurt connection.” [E+D 160] It was therefore a minor disaster when the Times ran its New Year’s headline, we're told.

The reasoning did get slightly better than left-side-equals-not London, or at least it reads better in David Leppard’s book from 1991:
“Sir Peter Imberth, commissioner of the Metropolitan police, was naturally concerned about the possibility that the bomb had slipped through security at Heathrow […] It was therefore a great relief when it was proved within the first weeks that the bomb had been inside a pallet containing luggage which had passed through Heathrow from other airports.” [L 60]
For example, John Bedford's story, elicited in the first half of January 1989, has the matching suitcases of the presumed IED style appearing at the interline shed. While a Mr. Kamboj was in charge, he says, two hard-shell Samsonite-style cases, one or both of them brown, were laid on the container’s floor. Normally all bags coming in there are from another connecting flight, not from the surface. And it was accepted that the container was then filled with luggage from the 727 arriving from Frankfurt, leaving no room, officially, for first-time-up luggage.

But they had already said the bomb was in the Frankfurt luggage, which was all transferred to the container after its time at interline, about an hour after Bedford saw those bags - the only two reported that were so similar to the bomb-bag style. So these too had to be eliminated, and it was the damage assessment of the container – plus strained logic – that made the hit.

The British AAIB and Mr. Claiden had assessed the container’s remains early on and found the approximate blast center – lower outboard corner, not in direct contact with the floor but only one flat-laid case beneath it, and against the sloping floor panel. The closest spot to the airplane’s fuselage and thus the deadliest possible. The bags Kamboj vouched for were both flat on the floor, when Bedford saw them.

David Leppard cites joint British-American forensics tests carried out in April 1989 at Indian Head, MD as the main thing that helped the investigation “narrow down estimates by [the AAIB] about the exact centre of the explosion.” Overseen by RARDE’s Allen Feraday and FBI’s Tom Thurman, they confirmed the findings in general, but more importantly, “the tests also meant that the mysterious brown Samsonite reported by [Bedford] could be ruled out; it was not the bomb bag. Kamboj was in the clear.” [L 141]

But of course, well before these tests, the mood music was building up that Frankfurt would be it. The Germans sought to keep their own airport from being named, but got little support. British Transport Minister Paul Channon was one of the few willing to grant them any leeway. Regarding a conference in Montreal on 16 February 1989, Emerson and Duffy wrote:
“In the prepared text, Channon’s original statement read thus: “The reconstruction of the baggage container suggests that the explosive device may have been among the baggage from the Frankfurt flight.” In another, larger typeface, two lines had been inserted before that sentence: “it has not yet been firmly established where the bag which contained the device was originally loaded, but…” The night before Channon’s statement, Bonn’s minister of transport, Jurgen Warnke, had asked that there be no reference made to Frankfurt. The most he had been able to get from Channon was the hasty two-line insert.” [E+D 156-57]
Interestingly, Channon would be sacked shortly for failing to stick to the script regarding Lockerbie.

The same peculiar mix of repeated wishful thinking tinged with hints of the actual uncertainty are reflected in a talk by Senior Investigating Officer John Orr at the Lockerbie Incident Control Center (LICC) on March 28:
“To date 14 pieces of explosive-damaged baggage have been recovered and enquiries to date suggest that on the balance of probabilities the explosive device is likely to be amongst the Frankfurt baggage items. Of all the currently identified explosion-damaged luggage all but one item originated from Frankfurt.” [L 100, italics in LICC original]
As will become clear later in the essay, these are all flimsy supports that don’t add up to what was claimed – solid reason to be sure of Frankfurt origin. The evidence claimed now, the Frankfurt printout, didn’t fully surface until August 1989. The desperate flailing for proof before this might seem strange at first blush, but the reasons above were not likely the real ones for the decision made. A whole other set of knowledge seems to be at work in dismissing Heathrow, and it’s the very abundance of London origin clues.
Next: Part 2: What did the Germans Know?

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