last edits March 11
The article's context
Michael Isikoff is Newsweek’s renowned U.S. national security journalist, and the NBC and MSNBC networks’ “national investigative correspondent.” From this lofty perch, he recently decided to write up a new article about the Lockerbie bombing, which wound up being titled 'No question' Gadhafi ordered Pan Am bombing, ex-CIA official says. The current protest-turned civil war in Libya has hopes rising that colonel Muammar Gaddafi will soon be overthrown after more than four decades in power. Riding this giddy onrush of opening possibilities, it's clearly time to revisit the issue from a different angle.
Mr. Isikoff drew on two recent statements from foreigners – a Gaddafi regime defector and an Abu Nidal terrorist - that the bombing of Flight 103 was a Libyan plot, that the convicted “Lockerbie bomber” Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was involved but only in a small way (not the central one he was convicted for), and that the reviled and (perhaps) tottering Gaddafi ordered the whole thing.
The terrorist, named Abu Bakr, has told this same convoluted story years ago, and it’s been widely panned and dismissed already. The defector, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, was until a month ago Gaddafi’s justice minister. He seems to be both distancing himself from the regime and appointing himself head of the new order, and his un-explained “revelation” plays to both ambitions. But it’s being taken as both self-serving and likely true in Washington; as Mr. Isikoff noted, “in light of” this bargaining chip, Secretary of State Clinton has said she would push for the bombing case to be re-opened after nearly 20 years.
The US Justice Department seems favorable, given recent statements, to building a renewed and widened investigation. It should here be noted that the Scottish police also threatened the same thing following Megrahi’s release from Scotland in 2009, also with the idea of pushing the scope further upwards towards Col. Gaddafi. This hasn’t yet materialized, but their case, like the FBI's remains open – with exactly one officer staffing it, last anyone checked.
What some investigation would reveal
If NBC’s “national investigative correspondent” had done his job, and looked into the Lockerbie case prior to these developments, he’d have noticed where the last investigation has gone. Megrahi and a co-conspirator, Lamin Fhimah, were indicted in 1991, with the former convicted in 2001, as the article notes. Unnoted however is the serious challenge to that conviction from an official legal review board. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC), established to root out bad cases that judges didn’t catch the first two times around, announced in 2007 that in at least six ways the conviction of al-Megrahi might have been a miscarriage of justice. They approved another appeal to be heard in court again, but it never was.
If Mr. Isikoff combed a bit wider, he’d see that a small handful of UK family of the victims, a large number of legal experts in Scotland and beyond, intelligence and airline security professionals, political and religious leaders, investigative journalists (the kind that investigate), and many others of general credibility agree with the SCCRC that the trial might’ve been – or was - grossly wrong in its conclusions. (a decent listing of about 100 can be seen here.) For example, one of Scotland’s most respected lawyers, Ian Hamilton QC, who has now joined the swelling Justice for Megrahi (JFM) campaign has said "I don't think there's a lawyer in Scotland who now believes Mr Megrahi was justly convicted.” What happened instead, he and others feel, was that the Americans “hoodwinked our courts."
Anyone who investigates a bit will find that these people cite serious questions looming precariously over the whole situation. For example, a key witness, Abdul Majid Giaka, whose tales brought together the 1991 indictments, was utterly dismissed at trial. He’d find that following from that, Megrahi’s “alleged co-conspirator” Fhimah was found specifically not guilty and sent home. An accomplice was necessary for the plot alleged, placing the bomb case onto Air Malta flight 180, and none is accepted.
He might even learn that there is no direct evidence of that unaccompanied suitcase from Malta transferring onto Flight 103. There is only an inference drawn from an unverifiable computer printout that’s flatly contradicted by other, and much better, evidence.
And the centerpiece of Megrahi’s own proven connection to the bombing, purchasing the clothes inside the bomb suitcase, cannot be factually supported. The Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci supposedly identified Megrahi (among others), but his own evidence, investigated fairly, rules out the Libyan in several specific and incontrovertible ways.
One way or another, investigators seem to have gotten it entirely wrong.
Or, you could ...
Stepping into this complex milieu, Mr. Isikoff chose the investigative tack of citing the new Libyan defector and the talkative terrorist, and by talking to the men who may well have gotten it wrong in the first place. Not surprisingly, along this guided tour, not a single question over Megrahi’s conviction or the case it affirmed is to be seen.
One of the two men he spoke with was Frank Anderson, CIA Near East affairs chief between 1991-1995, and now president of the Middle East Policy Council think tank, "your source for unbiased assessments of who’s too evil to be left in charge of Libya." The other interviewee is Richard Marquise, the man who headed up the FBI’s investigation in its crucial second half, and who still disputes the findings of the last court, at the very least over their dismissal of Giaka. The entirety of the SCOTBOM probe Marquise oversaw, in conjunction with the Scottish police, is summed up thusly by Isikoff:
… U.S. and British officials were able to wrap up an investigation that uncovered forensic and other evidence linking the planting of the bomb to Abdelbasset al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer.“Uncovered” might not be the right word there, but such clues did come to be in the evidence chain and some did point right to Libya and/or Megrahi.
For example, there were three whole important witnesses against Megrahi. One, Giaka, was dismissed at trial, and another, Edwin Bollier, is a known fabricator and spinner of bizarre tales mostly dismissed at trial. The third, Tony Gauci, was an idiot coached by his brother, who never really identified Megrahi but did rule him out, and who changed his story to fit Megrahi a little better, which version was somehow accepted at trial. At least two of these three seem to have been paid in excess of $2 million for their bogus testimony, according to Scotish police and other documents uncovered by the SCCRC. That’s not how one “uncovers” any kind of valid “evidence,” and as we can see, none was so obtained.
There also exist serious anomalies around every crucial piece of physical evidence, leading tactics, circular and suspect reasoning, and really just a shocking string of egregious malpractice down the line. (Consider the supposed reasoning that brought Scots detective Harry Bell to first decide on Megrahi, for another telling example).
If anyone had direct access to the full scope of this systematic abuse of truth, it would be Isikoff's other source, Richard Marquise, who just firmly loads the weight of world affairs on his sure and square shoulders. "We always hoped that had we gotten (access to Megrahi and Fhimah) they would start to roll,” he told Isikoff. That is, they might reveal who told them to carry out this bizarre and evidence-free plot. "There was always an expectation that we would get further up the chain."
Don't bounce this check, folks
Unlike Mr. Marquise, the other official interviewed, Frank Anderson, likely had no role in or direct knowledge of the investigation. For whatever reason, however, his statement was the headline, distilled from his summation:
"There are two things that you can take to the bank. The first one is, Pan Am 103 was perpetrated by agents of the Libyan government. And the second thing is, that could not have happened without Moammar Gadhafi's knowledge and consent. There is no question in my mind that Moammar Gadhafi authorized the bombing of Pan Am 103."Telling people they can take those to the bank is counterfeiting. But it’s the same culture – secrecy and appeal to authority slathered on to lubricate the insertion of politically useful fiction into the real-world evidence slot - that has underpinned this whole case so far.
Mr. Anderson has perhaps just been duped, and isn’t aware how deceptive his affirmation is. His relevant expertise is on Libya and its troublesome regime, not the investigation and trial. And his conclusion that Gaddafi had to have ordered the attack is not even rocket surgery to guess in the affirmative. The whole motive is supposed to have been the early 1986 U.S. air raids on both Tripoli and Benghazi (ah, how times are changing), which killed the colonel’s baby daughter. It took almost three years to exact the overblown revenge so eerily similar to what the Iranians were suspected of plotting just then. But clearly, if it happened as Marquise et al. found (it didn't, not that it matters), it would probably run up to Gaddafi himself.
But people are playing dumb all of a sudden and pretending to need proof of an order from on high, when Libya was sanctioned to the tune of tens of billions lost and thousands dead, in order to punish or destabilize the whole regime, just on the presumption. This punishment only ended with Gaddafi surrendering his indicted agents for trial, losing one to prison, paying a hefty $2.7 billion settlement, foreswearing all terrorist (“revolutionary”) activities, foregoing a nuclear deterrent, sealing trade deals too sweet to refuse, and so on.
And again, by the best evidence read fairly, he may well have done this all without once ordering the bombing of Pan Am 103.
This patient re-building from the epic abuses of the past was tolerated until about now, and it’s to be all yanked away by this bizarre US-supported protest/war. Ideally for some, the proceeds of Gaddafi's work will be handed to Mr. Abdel-Jalil, who will in trade find some “proof” to hang his old boss with and close the old chapter for good. Gaddafi delenda est. He must be dust. It has been demanded.
Along the way we’ll accept in stasis the original case with Megrahi, until the guilty verdict for his boss re-convinces us that was correct all along, as if there were some reason to doubt it.
How in a supposedly free media articles like this happen, over and over, with no widely-seen counter-balance, I cannot say. Noam Chomsky (another Justice for Megrahi signatory) has some theories, but all I know is however it’s happening, our investigative correspondents like Isikoff aren’t investigating, just corresponding with the approved investigators to write the news for them. Please turn sideways and watch your head squeezing into this ever-smaller echo chamber, folks.
And hopefully, this model of news-writing will be exported to Libya soon, along with a hell of a lot of other things.