Evidence Reconsidered: The Timer Fragment

last edits 13 November 2010 

The Basics and Prosecution’s Case
One of the key forensic clues that pointed to Libyan orchestration in the Lockerbie investigation was a small piece of circuit board from a specific model of timer called MST-13, a very special product of Swiss firm Mebo. The remnant was recorded as being first discovered by RARDE scientist Dr. Thomas Hayes in May 1989, within a previously logged, explosion-damaged piece of cloth. This "fragment of green circuit board" was deemed to be from within the bomb-radio that ruptured the plane (radio case and user's manual debris was also found in the same piece of cloth).

It took another year from that point for American FBI special agent James "Tom" Thuman to match it up with a CIA-held sample of a MST-13 confiscated from Libyan agents.From there the manufacturer, Mebo ltd. of Zurich Switzerland, was decided and contacted. Sure enough, they sold 20 of these units - the only 20 ever made - to Libyan intelligence JSO in the mid-1980s. Mebo founders Meister and Bollier became prime prosecution witnesses as "JSO agent" Megrahi, who had separate connections to Mebo, by the way, was decided to have held a bomb containing one of these, and sent it off to PA103 on December 21 1988.

Problems with the Evidence
The problems with this fragment are absolutely epic.

1) discovery discrepancies
First there are controversies with the discovery and labeling of damaged shirt collar PI/995, most notably "Cloth (charred) being written over with "Debris (charred)." This may or may not be a clue, but is covered in the post PI/995 Label Issues
Dr. Hayes' notebook page 51: On this apparently backdated page, Hayes tells how the various radio materials were separated out and "raised" as PT/35, "assorted materials recovered from damaged clothing PI/995," with the timer fragment raised as (b) of that set.
See: PT/35(b) Papers, Photos, details

2) Handling of evidence
Various reasons have been given for the lack of explosive residue testing carried out on the fragment. Its small size, the relative cost and effort involved, the obvious explosion involvement (it was found inside bomb damaged clothes) have all been cited. Having skimmed Alan Feraday's testimony in 2000, it seems a nexus of all three convinced him not to bother.

The fragment's movements to Germany (forensic cutting), and US (comparison to a CIA model, done by agent Thurman), were not properly documented. This seems to me a fairly minor point, but to some others, it's seemed a big deal, so perhaps it is.

(more forthcoming in this section)

3) Illogical timing for a timer
A fairly obvious tactical problem arises with the Anglo-American answer. The Libyans were thought to be hiding their role, not broadcasting it, yet the clues like the timer were found in the hills of Scotland. If a flexible timer was used to target PA103, and its schedule would be known, and they had a several hour window over the Atlantic, why not bury the evidence at sea and prevent such finds?

The delayed-flight theory so widely cited simply doesn't cut it. PA103 was off only about 15 minutes behind schedule, depending how one defines it. It was at least that far short of the coastline (probably more like 30 min, by planned flight path) at detonation. This would meaning the alleged planners had deliberately set the timer for just short of the coastline. Even if they meant to aim right at the shore or a bit past, considering further possible delays at London or anywhere, prevailing easterly winds in the area, and that the best  bomb evidence would scatter first and farthest, this would not count as an attempt at burial at sea. Setting the timer for 7:03 PM instead of, say, midnight, was an a major blunder. They either failed to realize any evidence would survive, or they wanted to get caught.


4) Risky for Libyans
The MST-13 had been encountered at least twice by the CIA, both times in Africa, and it had been classified as coming from Libyan intelligence. (another post I've been meaning to do for months). The Libyan authorities likely knew this, or at least that some of their hardware was unaccounted for. There were supposedly only 20 of these things on the planet, highly specialized and incredibly traceable back to them.  So they decided to use one in this bombing they've planned over Scotland. Indeed, knowing their own technology was likely known, with a world of other options, they used the MST-13 and set it so early that any surviving fragment would fall to rare earth rather than anywhere on the enormous Atlantic Ocean.


5) Unlikely to Exist if Genuine
The first and foremost point this blog supports about PT/35(b) is that, given the official explosion of at least 450 grams of Semtex-H set less than two inches from the timer, a piece so big (1cm sq) is highly unlikely to have survived. Simple common sense was recently backed up by repeated tests by explosives expert Dr. John Wyatt. (see IED fragment survivability tests and this follow-up with more detail)

The fact that it turned up itself indicates PT/35(b) was planted outright. If the bomb had put it there, it'd be in unreadable slivers or dust. This conclusion is obviously controversial within the skeptic community, but I see no reason to dispute what Dr. Wyatt says he's found.

The investigators say nothing on the issue except, implicitly, that they do believe it's from the bombing. Obviously. If it's a statistical miracle, well, they'll claim that as their natural right. There are many other "miracles" in this case.

Or, if it's not a miracle...

6) Most Recognizable Part of the MST-13
That the miraculous surviving bit would also be just the corner of the board with a meaningful symbol (the number one, and double-underlined at that), sttill readable and making it astonishingly recognizable, must rank as a further bizarre coincidence.


7) Mebo, the board's makers
After providing useful evidence against the accused, while asking for money, Mebo co-founder Edwin Bollier has turned over a new leaf and is now pushing his own implausible version of a frame-up of Megrahi. His most qualified area, the alleged MST-13 fragment, he disputes with charges of substitution of one planted MST-13 fragment with a nearly exact duplicate, apparently based in part on being color-blind. Naturally, this hasn't gone much of anywhere, despite the ridiculous affidavit his subordinate swore to that effect (see link). 

Back-Up Arguments Addressed

Other sources besides Libya
Some have argued that Mebo had also supplied MST-13 boards to the East German Stasi. And the Stasi sometimes supplied terrorists, like maybe the PFLP-GC, who seem to have been involved in Lockerbie.  That's quite a stretch for a few reasons. One, the allegation of a Stasi MST-13 link is based on things said by Bollier, who's not reliable. Second, even that only has two handmade prototypes delivered, on brown board. For the green machine-milled one we see, the Stasi would have to have made their own copies first. Third, the issues of timing relative to the ocean, as addressed above, apply to anyone using a flexible timer like this. And the question of fragment survivability is the same. 

It says Libya and that's it
Don't be stupid. Review the above. It's bad evidence. It's key to the case. That's a bad case.

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