What Did The Germans Know?

The Scots-German War Over Airport Security, part 2 of 2
June 23 2010

last edits 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.

Vehement Vengeance
Part one explained the unfounded British decisions to rule out London origin for the bomb while repeatedly insisting it must have come in from Frankfurt. “Smarting from the accusation that sloppy West German security had allowed this terrible act of terrorism,” Emerson and Duffy explain, “Germany would begin to strike at the British with a vengeance.” [E+D161] It was the first of January 1989, the day after the inflammatory Times story (Disaster Bomb placed on Jumbo in Frankfurt), that the first response was heard. As the book explains:
“West German Interior Ministry spokesman Michael Andreas Butz was convening a news conferencet to respond to the Times account of the day before. “There is no indication,” Butz declared stiffly, “that the explosives could have been put on board at Frankfurt airport.” In fact, he added ominously, “there is evidence which is contradictory.”

What did the Germans know that the Americans and the Scots didn’t?”

Butz went on to assert, with some vehemence, that German agents had determined that the “Disaster Bomb” had been smuggled aboard the 103 in London. The German agents had proof of it, Butz said."
Five days later, it seems the Germans were ready to show what they knew or didn't know. Reuters in London, citing “West German security sources,” reported on January 6 that “an airport worker at Heathrow had planted the bomb in the forward luggage hold of the 103.” A bizarre explanation followed:
"According to the sources quoted by Reuters, investigators had arrived at the Heathrow link because of the “fact” that the bomb that had blow up the 103 weighed “at least sixty-six pounds.” Luggage restrictions limited carry-on bags to seventy pounds, but the sources cited in the Reuters account said that the bomb was loaded aboard by an airport worker. What the sources evidently didn’t say is why the airport worker couldn’t have been in Frankfurt instead of London." [E+D165-66]
That explanation fails to make sense in numerous ways (the bomb likely weighed less that 66 ounces, for one), and doesn’t sound like what any thinking German would really say. But this wasn’t their only counter-charge passed on in The Fall of Pan Am 103:
“In a matter of days, news stories began to leak from Bonn and Frankfurt that security at Heathrow was far worse than at Frankfurt. British authorities were outraged. For days and weeks, as the families of those killed on the 103 watched this ugly game of diplomatic Ping-Pong, Britain and Germany fought a nasty proxy war through their TV networks and newspapers. Clearly, the feud was based on more than a technical dispute among forensic specialists. Some went so far as to assert that the bitterness of the dispute showed the extent to which the age-old cultural animosities between the two nations had still not abated after two world wars.” [E+D 161]
The authors Emerson, Duffy, and Leppard have the Germans trying to deny both a Khreesat bomb (their botched police work) and the German bomb infiltration (their airport security failure), often confusing and conflating the two drives. On the other side, it’s clear that the Scots and Americans tried at every juncture to put all failures in Germany. David Leppard writes “the bitter argument […] persisted throughout the long hot summer of 1989” [135] and “the German BKA were to spend more than a year publicly claiming that the bomb must have been put aboard at London.” [60]

So Just What Did They know?
Such persistent denial could be motivated, as the Brits and Americans charged, by German fear of accepting the horrible truth about their epic shortcomings. But to be fair, the Germans in fact knew some actual evidence supporting their claims, and should have been given more credit.

Emerson and Duffy’s telling shows hardly a hint of this, with its cited argument that a 66-pound bomb somehow implies Heathrow origin. But the West Germans had to have noticed the lucky bag placement within the container, that could only have been more than luck if it was placed in London. They probably did not know of John Bedford’s story of suitcases matching the IED style seen at about that spot of that container - well before the 727 arrived from Frankfurt. Had they known, they likely would have said so.

The break-in at Heathrow’s Terminal Three the morning before the bombing was surely concealed from German ears as it was from the whole world up to and including the Zeist trial in 2000. On top of the generally lax security at Heathrow, this additional bit of information could only have added to the German resistance against the first script changes.

It was enough at first to know that both alleged German failures - a Khreesat bomb and Frankfurt ingestion - could not be true at the same time as the Yanks and Brits insisted. At least, not without a fair amount of speculation.

The German BKA actually did some work along these lines to help their colleagues understand, as David Leppard shares in some detail. They knew the Khreesat altimeter bomb better than anyone, having overseen the raid that caught only one of five, having had another one later kill one of their bomb technicians, just before they destroyed yet another in revenge. Leppard rails along with the Scots at these scientific losses and such fatal sloppiness. But he also misrepresents the number of samples they once held (it was four, not three), and the readable remains they had at the end of the explosions (three partial and two complete samples, not one). These were, however, studied as far as possible.
“In May the Germans decided to prepare a detailed scientific rebuttal of RARDE’s theory that the bomb had been made by Khreesat […] and put aboard at Frankfurt. The BKA asked its forensic section, ST33, to prepare a report on the three Khreesat bombs so far recovered.” [L142]
They shortly issued a final report called "Comment on the ignition Devices,” which said their remit was “to test and report if [Khreesat bombs] were suitable for surviving the flight from Frankfurt to London […] and exploding 38 minutes after take-off in London.” [L142] The answer, delivered with “bland Teutonic logic,” was No. Rather, they realized and explained one of the best London-origin clues. 
“The rundown of the functioning on the ignition devices … can be brought into line very well with the circumstances during take-off and pahse 1 of flight PA103 London to New York.
Presupposing that an explosive device of the same construction was used in the attack, then it must have been taken board for the first time in London, or at least made acute [armed -ed] by insertion of the master switch.”
Leppard dismisses the report as "a compendium of fudge and obfuscation." They had “only one [sic] fully functioning example of Khreesat's bombs,” Leppard complained, “but this did not prevent them concluding all three bombs had a time delay of between 30 and 45 minutes." The reality is in fact a little more complex it seems than the BKA’s report lets on, but the noted similarity of the timing style is still completely valid. The 38-minute detonation after leaving there really does look a lot like a Khreesat device loaded there.

War’s End
Upon seeing that insolent ST33 report, SIO John Orr “was furious,” writes Leppard.
“As the Kamboj episode showed, there had always been the outside chance that a bag had been smuggled into the container at Heathrow. That possibility aside, Orr had effectively ruled out Heathrow within three weeks of the bombing. Much to the relief of British security chiefs, the Met’s Special Branch had long since stopped investigating the Heathrow theory. Now the Germans were suggesting they were all wrong.” [L145]
They launched back in June with a rebuttal. “Harry Bell was tasked with getting RARDE to research a reply” to this ST33 report, writes Leppard. “It took five weeks to come up with a convincing response.” Finished before June was out, it mostly poked holes the uncertainties of the report, like using “only one working device” to decide the time delay. It offered no solid alternative, quibbled over climb rates, postulated a simple electrical error, and closed condescendingly:
“In conclusion the ST33 report deals with presumptions and presuppositions and it is respectfully pointed out that only factual evidence will be acceptable in the furtherance of the inquiry to bring to justice the bombers of Flight PA103.” [L146-48]
The Scots and Americans, on the other hand, were never able to shake the fact that London was always the far better fit for just the bomb style that everyone first suspected. And they could show no support for what they insisted on: a Khreesat bomb loaded and triggered in Germany but with a speculated two-hour timer to carry it just past London.

In short the authorities and investigators of the West German Federal Republic knew some of the same clues their counterparts across the channel did. They could see the general logic of London introduction, the detonation timing, and the expected British ass-covering. After all, as Leppard put it:
“Certainly, if Heathrow had been to blame, the ramifications would have been severe […] Fortunately for the British, no such evidence was ever uncovered. All the political embarrassment would fall on the Germans.” [p 60]
The embarrassment would then somehow shift off of them onto Malta and thence Libya, in a fascinating leapfrog action. But early on, we can see the Germans had circumstantial clues - if only half as many as the Brits held - that the bomb actually started in London. They could be called jumpy or defensive to leap to the conclusions they did so fervently based on such limited information. But now, with more information, we can see that they were probably right all along.


baz said...

I suggest the claim that "according to statements of baggage handlers in London, the Samsonite with the bomb in it was amongst the last loaded in Frankfurt and among he first of the Frankfurt bags stowed in 14L" was untrue. This was a deduction made by the Police - baggage handlers in london would not know in what supposed order baggage was loaded onto PA103A.

Luggage had been loaded loose onto PA103A and the Police deduced that luggage Interlined and Onlined at Frankfurt was loaded last (a dubious assertion) and therefore was unloaded first from PA103A.

This was the basis for the submission to the Fatal Accident Inquiry by Andrew Hardie QC the Lord Advocate's Deputy and Successor that while the primary suitcase arrived at Heathrow on flight PA103A (in my view another dubious assertion) that did not mean it began it's journey there. The Fatal Accident Inquiry was used to set the scene for the revelation of the "Malta connection".

Caustic Logic said...

Excellent point, Baz. It seems to me more political reasoning than pure logic. From deducing the position so near but not on the floor, they imagined it was possible to be certain the bag came only through London, and specifically from Frankfurt, and further yet only passing through there from somewhere else they hadn't decided just yet. That's not a reasonable certainty by any measure.

Perhaps the interline luggage was loaded to 103A first and unloaded/reloaded to 103 roughly so it would come out the lowest new bags in 4041. But as we're learning, they had no basis to be sure it came from Frankfurt at all. Luggage can be slightly rearranged.

baz said...

While I am sure Interior Ministry spokesman "Seymour" Butz speaks excellent English I am not sure his statement that the "evidence was contradictory" is correct. Perhaps he meant the evidence was to the contrary.

Caustic Logic said...

Good catch, Baz. Contradictory is not the best word for what we presume he meant to say.

Another name I've wondered about is "Inspector Fuhl." Isn't that pronounced "Fool?" How can a nation's investigation fail to fail at impressing the English-speakers putting men name fool and butts out front?

Not a serious critique, just an odd thought.

But the German's knew something, and I'd like to see the report Emerson and Duffy cited where this contrary info was revealed as that nonsense about a too-heavy bag supporting London intro. That just sounds fishy, as in made up.