Pan Am Flight 103

Four days before Christmas 1988, a Pan Am 747 was ripped from the sky by a powerful wad of plastic explosives. Perhaps it was happenstance that five CIA agents were among the 259 human beings who died in the crash. Perhaps it meant nothing that another squad of CIA agents showed up in Lockerbie, Scotland, a few hours after the aircraft splattered the country village with gruesome debris.

That the CIA agents on the crash scene, some posing as Pan Am employees, walked away with a mysterious briefcase seems somewhat more significant. It belonged to one of their downed men. By confiscating the case, they interrupted the sacrosanct "chain of evidence," imperiling prospective prosecutions. The half-million dollars found by two Scottish farmboys seems noteworthy as well. Detectives surmised that the cash also belonged to the deceased CIA team.

The ill-fated spies had traveled from Beirut. Their mission, investigators believe, was to locate American hostages held there by Islamic fundamentalist kidnappers. Pan Am flight 103, had it followed the bombers' schedule, would have exploded over the Atlantic Ocean, but the bomb went off too soon. Wreckage, bodies, and passengers' personal effects all landed on the ground and meticulous Scottish investigators recovered everything except the briefcase. Among the fallout were two cryptic documents, both property of the CIA.

One was an intricate drawing of the interior of a Beirut building. Two crosses marked the map. The CIA agents had located two hostages. They may have intended to negotiate for the hostages' release, using the $500,000 to purchase information. Or, it is possible, the team headed by Charles McKee, and army major, was doing advance work for a rescue raid.

The other document was a Christmas card with a message either in intelligence can't or some kind of code. Investigators deduced the meaning of the message. It was addressed to one of the CIA agents and said that whatever they were planning would happen on March 11, 1989.

The bomb cost not only 270 lives (including the eleven Lockerbie dwellers who perished on the ground), but may have cost at least some of the hostages their immediate freedom. It undoubtedly impeded U.S. intelligence efforts in the Middle East. Recall that earlier, Beirut CIA station chief William Buckley had been grabbed, sent to Iran, and tortured to death in interrogation. Iran was the first suspect in the bombing of 103.

The CIA presence was publicly reported, though not widely known. A March 1990 New York Times Magazine excerpt from the book The Fall of Pan Am 103 failed to mention the CIA officers, though the book itself goes into detail about who they were and why they were there. The Times version blamed the disaster on "bungling" German police.

Most media reports on the Pan Am 103 bombing endorsed the stereotype of irrational terrorists motivated by revenge. That there may have been a strategic and, by the warped logic of clandestine warfare, "rational" reason to bomb the pane - beyond retaliation for the shootdown of an Iranian airbus or the bombing of Tripoli (depending on who's getting blamed that day, the Iranians or the Libyans) - is not generally discussed. Admitting a motive (other than inscrutable fanaticism) for such a monstrous crime implies that the target of the crime, the United States, was involved in skullduggery of its own.

Far more incendiary were the conclusions of a private investigator, self-described former Israeli intelligence agent Juval Aviv. His New York firm, Interfor, conducted an investigation for Pan Am's insurance company. The Interfor report contains the grimmest conspiracy allegations in the Lockerbie case.

For two years the Interfor report circulated hand to hand in fax/Xerox form on the conspiracy circuit. The report went largely ignored by major news organizations. Then Time magazine suddenly discovered it and set off a bitter and highly personal internecine journalistic confrontation - all ignited by the following tale of intrigue, as told by Interfor:

A separate CIA team, stationed in Frankfurt and referred to as CIA-1 by Interfor, was also trying to free the hostages, Aviv reported. Because CIA-1 was an unauthorized "off the shelf" covert operation controlled from Washington, not from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, it was at cross-purposed with the McKee team. The unnamed operative hooked up with Monzar Al-Kassar, a Syrian arms and drug merchant, brother-in-law to Syria's intelligence chief (Syrian intelligence is a major terrorism sponsor) and paramour of Syrian fascist despot Hafez Al-Assad's niece. Not Surprisingly, Al-Kassar was also deeply into terrorism, the politically correct thing to do for Syrian arms runners.

Al-Kassar, according to Interfor, assisted the French government in freeing French hostages. If he'd do the same for them, CIA-1 offered Al-Kassar, they'd protect his drug-smuggling route, which they had had under surveillance for some time.

"Al-Kassar agreed to the deal," says Aviv's report, "but continued his terrorism activities and told his cohorts that their smuggling through Pan Am/Frankfurt at least was not protected and safe to the U.S."

At the same time, Al-Kassar, who'd once been hired by Iran-Contra conspirators Richard Secord and Albert Hakim to ship weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras, helped the Frankfurt-based CIA group by shipping weapons to Iran. The Americans hoped, once again tragicomically, to trade arms for hostages. According to Interfor, the drug-and-gun runner kept arms flowing to the Contras as well. In an effort to keep his American patrons happy, he even financed some of the Contra shipments with his own drug profits. "CIA-1 gave Al-Kassar a free hand," wrote Aviv.

Because CIA-1 was an unofficial operation run out of Washington, dealing arms for hostages and striking bargains with drug smugglers, comparisons to the Iran-Contra "enterprise" managed by Oliver North are inevitable. CIA-1 operated in 1988, when North was long since fired and CIA Director William Casey, the father of Iran-Contra, was dead from a brain tumor. Neither, then, could have been CIA-1's "control."

So who was? Much of Iran-Contra was coordinated, it now appears, from Vice President George Bush's office. Could former CIA chief Bush of his underlings be the "control" for CIA-1? Interfor doesn't touch that subject.

While CIA-1 was messing around with terrorists and heroin merchants, the official CIA and the State Department, blissfully unaware of its off-the-shelf counterpart's activities, sent the McKee team to Beirut. According to Aviv, their mission was, in fact, reconnaissance for a rescue mission. They found and photographed building where the hostages were incarcerated.

"After some time, the special team (McKee) learned of Al-Kassar and started investigating him," Aviv reported. "They also realized some CIA unit was protecting his drug smuggling into the U.S. via Frankfurt airport…. They had reported back to Langley the facts and names, and reported their film of the hostage locations. CIA did nothing. No reply."

While under surveillance, Al-Kassar and his associates in Syrian intelligence were surveilling the McKee team right back. When McKee and his cohorts became "frustrated and angry and made plans to return to the U.S.," Al-Kassar was watching. He knew that the agents booked themselves a connecting flight in London: Pan Am flight 103, originating in Frankfurt. A week before that plane went down, Al-Kassar told CIA-1 of his problem, ratting out the McKee team, travel schedule and all.

All during this period, for political reasons of their own, Al-Kassar's terrorist overlords were plotting to bomb an American plane. They'd originally selected American Airlines as the victim. The target soon changed.

Warnings flowed in from every direction. German intelligence, the Mossad, and CIA-1 got word of a bomb attack in the making. No one did anything about it. The McKee team was in the dark and way out in the cold. Al-Kassar's associates slipped a compact "Semtex" device onto Pan Am 103, under cover of Al-Kassar's CIA-secured drug route. A German agent assigned to watch the route noticed that the drug suitcase was of a different make than usual. This agent heard the warnings. He knew right away that he wasn't eyeing dope, but a bomb.

The agent alerted CIA-1 to the bomb. CIA-1 called its Washington control. Control's reply: "Don't worry about it, don't stop it, let it go."

After its stopover in London, where it picked up a group of Syracuse University students returning home from a semester abroad, various American tourists, and the five CIA agents who knew where the hostages were held, the 747, nicknamed Maid of the Seas, exploded in mid-air.

The Interfor report first surfaced courtesy of James Traficant, an eccentric Ohio congressman with a populist's nose for conspiracies. He reportedly got it from Victor Marcherri, former aide to longtime CIA director Richard Helms. Marchetti, though his whisteblowing book The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence is now a classic, works for the ultra-right-wing Liberty Lobby these days and therefore has credibility problems.

Maybe, then, the Interfor report received scant publicity due to the questionable leaning of its leakers. More likely, the scandalous nature of its allegations are to blame. Much of the report gibes with public reality: the ignored warning, for instance, and the botched raid by German police on a bomb-making enclave in October 1988. If properly carried out, that raid might have preempted the bombing.

The CIA-complicity charges erupted in April 1992. Time ran a rather lurid cover story, "Why Did They Die?" which conflated the Interfor allegations with additional details apparently from a dubious source named Lester Coleman. The story had a number of faults. The most flaring was its misidentification of a Christian Broadcasting Network cameraman (white photo!) as the traitorous CIA agent who sold out the McKee team.

Predictably, the story drew a torrent of attacks, particularly from Christopher Byron who wrote two major debunking pieces for New York magazine and from CNN correspondent Steven Emerson (in the Washington Journalism Review), co-author of his own book on Pan Am 103.

In his book, The Fall of Pan Am 103, Emerson dismisses the Interfor report as a "spitball," a hodgepodge of fact and unfounded speculation worthless as intelligence. The report had been echoed briefly on network news long before the Time story. On the day before Halloween 1990, NBC News reported that terrorists had infiltrated a Drug Enforcement Administration undercover operation to plant the Pan Am 103 bomb. Substitute CIA for DEA and the story mirrored the Interfor account. (Interfor did not that CIA-1 was working with the DEA.) the story was picked up by major dailies, including the New York Times, then quickly "investigated" and denied by the DEA.

In his attack on the Time piece - which followed Byron's closely - Emerson charged that Time "ignored evidence that contradicted its story." Both Emerson and Byron found some sizable holes in the Time story - though both spent an inordinate amount of ink on ad hominem attacks against Aviv and Coleman. They also made much of the fact that Time's story appeared one week before a lawsuit against Pan Am was scheduled to go to trial.

Part of the problem was that Time's story - perhaps thanks the overzealous "hoaxster" Coleman - fleshed out the Interfor report with some questionable assertions that its critics were quick to seize upon.

Conspicuous by its absence from both Byron's and Emerson's articles was any mention of Monzar Al-Kassar. The omission was especially glaring because a key point of both attacks was the supposed mystery of how the bombers knew which flight the McKee team would take. According to the Interfor report, the information came from Al-Kassar.

Right about the time when Bush was recruiting Syria into the "allied coalition" against Iraq, the CIA shifted blame for the bombing form Syria to Libya, obviating more than two years of work by a multitude of investigators, from the Scottish police to ABC news, all of whom pointed to Ahmed Jibril and his patrons, Syria nd Iran. Absolving Syria, of course, negates the Interfore scenario.

Late in 1991, the U.S. government indicted two Libyan intelligence agents for the bombing, and briefly, newspapers brimmed with bluster about the dire consequences to Libya if the pair weren't handed over. The legal tussle had not been resolved as of early 1994.

On the fifth anniversary of the bombing, in December 1993, the BBC aired a documentary, Silence over Lockerbie. The BBC debunked the CIA's Libya-damning evidence and, white not ruling out Libyan involvement, the documentary shifted blame back to the original suspects, Syria and Iran.

There are other conspiratorial tales to explain the mass murder aboard Pan Am flight 103. One, which briefly surfaced in the Italian press, puts the infamous, neofascist, quasi-Masonic P2 Lodge at the center of the conspiracy. But none are as detailed and internally consistent as the Interfor report. That doesn't mean Aviv got it right. It means only that the real story lies buried somewhere in the graveyard of geopolitics.