Flight 103 from Frankfurt

Scene: Berkeley, California, April 1986. A bar. Five conference attendees, myself included, grabbing a hamburger and a beer in a fern-bar on or near Telegraph.

All eyes are on the TV’s mounted over the bar, where we watch footage of an air strike against Libya. This is the retribution by Ronald Reagan against Insane African Leader Muammar al-Kadafi. The White House was issuing statements about al-Kadafi’s involvement in bombings in Europe, the OPEC oil ministry kidnapping, linkage to the infamous Jackal, and so on. Nikki, a friend and colleague, said something, and I remember asking her to repeat it. Nikki is a low-talkier. You’ve got to lean in really close. So I leaned in and heard her say, “Lybia is the only country in Africa where the people get to share in the national wealth. They love Kadafi. Others should take a lesson from him.”

Saturday is Reposted Essay Day!

This statement made me think, and to question the Reagan anti-Libya doctrine. I’ve kept up on it a bit, read a few things, and I’m pretty much convinced that Libya, and Kadafi in particular, had nothing or little to do with most of the things of which he was accused around that time by Reagan.

It turns out, in fact, that there had been an earlier mis-information campaign run by the CIA to implicate Kadafi in a number of schemes. Why? To provide cover for someone else … it is not entirely clear who. But this disinformation campaign became the official policy of the Reagan White House. The misinformation became what people in the administration believed to be true, instead of the alternate, actual, reality. Apparently this happens sometimes.

I doubt the main players involved (The President, Secretary of State, CIA Chief, etc.) actually thought that the disinformation was the truth … but the campaign was so broad and deep that NOT blaming Libya for certain wrongs (some of which were actually, by the way, carried out by a young upstart military officer in Iraq known as Sadam Hussein… ) would have unraveled and revealed too much. In any event, there was no great loss in blaming Kadafi. He was not essential as a friend to the US, or so the policy went.

Scene: The Frankfurt Airport. Late December, 1988.

There was a very large passenger transfer area, crowded with thousands of people waiting for their connections. My flight was delayed, but not by much. There were so many people waiting for the plane I was to board that there really was not room to sit by the intended gate, so I was perched across the transfer area, on an open bench, but with a view of the gate. I watched the people, watched the gate, watched the airline employees.

I began to doze.

At one particular moment, a realization dawned on me: The gate area had emptied out, and many of the people I had noticed waiting for the same plane as me were lining up at a different gate. I had been listening to the announcements … given in three or four languages … of boarding, gate changes, etc. and had not heard anything about a change in plans. So I went over to the gate I thought my flight was leaving from, and inquired.

“Is this flight boarding at a different gate?”

“Yes,” the woman behind the gate said. “Over there, at that gate.” (pointing) “They are boarding the plane now.”

“Thanks. I never heard the announcement of a gate change,” I said.

“Oh, … ah… that’s because we never announce gate changes on the intercom, sir.”

“But … but … I’ve heard several such announcements, but did not hear an announcement for this Pan Am flight…”

“You better get to your gate, sir, the plane is boarding now…”

Flashback: Kenya. A second floor room in a cheap but clean hotel, on the phone with a ticketing agent for Pan Am.

“We have two open flights that you may choose from,” she was saying. “You can leave on Tuesday or on Thursday, both to Frankfurt, where you would pick up Pan Am to London, then Pan Am 103 to New York City.”

Thinking … I’d been in Nairobi for a week after eight months in the Congo. I did not want to go back home. I wanted to go back to the Congo. But Nairobi …. well, after you spend a week or so there, you’ve pretty much done everything twice. Tuesday. I’ll go back Tuesday, and take a little extra time in New York before heading back to Boston.

“Tuesday, please.”

“Certainly, sir.”

Back in Frankfurt, hurrying across the waiting area, joining the end of the line to get on this flight. Thinking: I wonder why the Pan Am agent lied to me? Of course they announce gate changes, and they also announce boarding! Why didn’t I ask why they didn’t announce the boarding of the flight?

Putting it aside, I boarded the plane. There was the scheduled stop in London, then from there on to New York.

Where I hung around with the in-laws for a couple of days. Then on Thursday I heard the news.

Pan Am 103 … the Thursday flight, the one I did not get on essentially because of a coin flip … had gone down over Scotland.

Wow. Close call.

Subsequently, as you all know, Libya was blamed for Pan Am 103. There are a lot of theories out there, and most of them are the usual senseless conspiracy theories. Here is what is really true: The plane was bombed. It was a bomb in the luggage compartment, and it was almost certainly a bomb in a normal looking radio device.

Who did it? I’m not sure. Was it the Libyans? Probably not:

LONDON, June 28 — A Scottish judicial review body ruled Thursday that a former Libyan intelligence official jailed for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing might have been wrongfully convicted and was entitled to appeal the verdict against him.

After an investigation lasting nearly four years, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission delivered an 800-page report — much of it still secret — that identified several areas where “a miscarriage of justice may have occurred.”

The commission cast doubt on the testimony of a witness, who changed his story several times and had been shown a photograph of the Libyan official days before picking him out of a lineup. It also challenged evidence presented at the trial that the official had purchased the clothes found in the suitcase that held the bomb….

Evidence shows that this particular Scottish appeals court usually gets it right. Read the story at the New York Times.

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10 thoughts on “Flight 103 from Frankfurt

  1. Private Eye (a two-weekly UK mag) has a commentary/analysis. Unfortunately it’s £5.00 for non-subscribers.
    Excerpt from “Report on and evaluation of the Lockerbie Trial conducted by the special Scottish Court in the Netherlands at Kamp van Zeist”

    A general pattern of the trial consisted in the fact
    that virtually all people presented by the prosecution
    as key witnesses were proven to lack credibility to a
    very high extent, in certain cases even having openly
    lied to the Court. Particularly as regards Mr. Bollier
    and Mr. Giaka, there were so many inconsistencies in
    their statements and open contradictions to statements
    of other witnesses that the resulting confusion was
    much greater than any clarification that may have
    been obtained from parts of their statements. Their
    credibility as such was shaken. It seems highly
    arbitrary and irrational to choose only parts of their
    statements for the formulation of a verdict that
    requires certainty â??beyond any reasonable doubt.â?

    (by Dr. Hans Köchler, University Professor, international observer of the
    International Progress Organization nominated by United Nations)

    There’s a whole load more – the whole thing’s over 30 pages PDF

    I don’t feel able to give you much more in an open blog – with being a subscriber and all. Email me.

  2. Nikki’s comment resonates with comment I read somewhere to the effect that the appeal of Ahmedinejad in Iran is that he has provided services to regional centres otherwise excluded by the power elites in Tehran. Similarly, there was comment before the elections to the effect that one could believe that Hamas probably won the last election in Palestine because they were providing services for more people than Fatah.
    It is really ironical that sometimes US policy is so afraid of popular movements that they misjudge them for terrorist groups; that the obsessive pursuit of a particular model of democracy, or of particular outcomes of democratic processes, lead to the misidentification of how governments can achieve the objectives of democracy.
    I am glad you survived.

  3. April 1986… All eyes are on the TVâ??s mounted over the bar, where we watch footage of an air strike against Lybia.

    Interestingly enough, I was in Honduras as a military policeman assigned security to U.S. military VIPs who were flown to the border of Nicaragua to inspect the bodies and gear of the Sandinistas that were killed chasing Contras back across the border into Honduras from Nicaragua. One estimate of the number of Sandinistas killed that I heard was 200. To put it bluntly, neither the Honduran military nor the Contras had the capability to do that kind of damage. Only one military in the region had that kind of fire-power.

    I’m not saying the bombing of Libya was an intended distraction, but it certainly was convenient at a time when the U.S. was getting a lot of heat from its involvement in trying to upset the Sandinista government.

  4. Congratulations. You have now joined the large group of goofy conspiracy mavens shilling for Libya. They are not to be believed, but at least they can spell the name of the country. Do you not have Spell Check?
    Frank Duggan

  5. Frank Duggan, you are an idiot.

    You claim to represent the families of those who lost people in Pan Am 103. If you don’t like what I say here, or if you don’t like what other people say on their sites (including news sites), why do you merely show up and dump crap all over the place? Do you have a rational argument? Do you have something useful or important to say? Or are you just a troll?

    As indicated in the post, I almost got on that fucking plane. That does not place me in a position at all similar to those who DID get on the plane, but it does give me an extra sharp sense of wanting to know what happened. Is that irrelevant to you?

    If I was one of the members of Families of 103, I’d ask you to step down and be replaced with someone who actually has something useful to say. (or has that already happened?) I am perfectly willing to entertain ideas different from those stated in this post. But I am not interested in having you walk into my blog and pee on the carpet.

    You’re choice. Your next comment will be polite even if it strongly disagrees strongly with my post, or you are not welcome to use my blog as a platform.

  6. The “Libya did it” line lacked credibility from the outset.
    Years later it has even less.

    Still, giving the terrorism-sponsoring state of Libya a well-deserved pounding wasn’t the worst thing the US government did that decade, not by a long mile, considering it was also the decade when the USA was found guilty of terrorist activity in an international court in relation to its despicable actions in Nicaragua.

  7. Iaim, Hesbollah and Hamas are terrorist organizations. They engage in terrorist activities. They do also provide social services to people who would otherwise go unserved. They are probably some of the best reminders that the world is truly far more complicated than most people are willing to admit.

    Greg, if you haven’t already read it, you’d probably enjoy Confessions of an Economic Hitman.

  8. Itzac, there are a lot of organizations in Gaza, many of whom are more radical than Hamas. Hamas itself is not a clone of Hizbollah (completely different branches of Islam, different allies in the Arab world) nor is it a monolithic movement.
    As for the terrorism label it is controversial; while there are groups in Gaza that have done bona fide terrorst attacks (that is, deliberately aimed at civilian targets) the only accusation against Hamas that may stick is the launching of unguided rockets (which actually killed some arabs working in Israel) but to my knowledge “friendly fire” by Israeli forces have killed more israelis than the rockets.
    The blockade against Gaza is putatively amined at undermining Hamas, but in reality it has strenghtened those groups in Gaza who regard Hamas as an “Uncle Tom”.

    Going back to the 1980s bombings, there is still speculation that the attack in Germany was the work of Syria, but since Syria had state-of-the-art anti-aircraft missiles going after Syrian targets would have been too risky.

  9. Sorry, labeling Hamas a terrorist organization isn’t ‘controversial’. They proudly staged a large number of suicide bombing attacks that purposefully targeting civilians and innovated the use of poison withint suicide bomb shrapnel to increase fatalities and complicate medical response.
    As for the rocket attacks, Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called this attacks war crimes and terrorist acts purposefully aimed at civilians. Hamas and other related and similar organizations admit that they try to time the rocket and mortar attacks with when Israeli children are travelling to and from school. They also admit that they purposefully fire from residential neighborhoods, mosques, and schools so that counter-attacks are more likely to harm Palestinian civilians to harm Israel’s image abroad.
    Lastly, Adbel Aziz Rantisi, a leader of Hamas, has repeatedly referred to the tactics of Hamas as ‘terrorism’.

  10. Interesting. I had done a report on Qaddafi in 11th grade. Never could really get a good answer as to why he would want to blow up a plane over Scotland. It just never added up to me.

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