December 21, 2007

Was Libya Framed For Pan Am 103?

Nineteen years ago, a Pan Am flight took off from London to bring 259 people to New York, 179 of them Americans. It never made it past Scotland, where the plane exploded, killing all aboard. A trial in Scotland placed blame on Libya, and found a man guilty, despite mounting evidence that the trial had at least gotten the conspiracy wrong -- and did so under pressure from the American government. Jeff Stein at CQ Politics lays out the fascinating story:

Back in 1988, Iran was immediately suspected of authoring the mass murder, in retaliation for the accidental downing of one of its own airliners by a U.S. Navy warship in the Persian Gulf a few months earlier.

U.S. intelligence agencies, in overdrive to find the culprits, quickly compiled evidence that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, or PFLP-GC, had carried out the plot on behalf of Iran and Syria. (The PFLP-GC was formed to opposed PLO leader Yassir Arafat’s movement toward detente with Israel.)

Nevertheless, on Jan. 31, 1991, a panel of three Scottish judges found Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, officially the head of security for Libyan Airlines, guilty of carrying out the plot and sentenced him to life in jail. A Libyan co-defendant was set free.

Libya always denied any guilt in the crime, but agreed to compensate relatives of the dead to open the door for normal relations with the United States. It also agreed to compensate victims of the 1986 bombing of the LaBelle discotheque in West Berlin, a gathering place for U.S. soldiers. Libya also denied complicity in that attack, which killed three and wounded scores more, but likewise agreed on compensation payments.

Why did Scotland find the Libyan guilty instead of uncovering the Iran-Syria link? Stein argues that the US needed Syria for its upcoming invasion of Iraq, and indeed Syria remained in the first President Bush's coalition for Desert Storm. Everyone originally assumed that Iran had taken revenge for the loss of its own commercial airliner at the hands of the US Navy, but Libya made a good suspect as well, with its own record of terrorism aimed at the US.

The tale includes some wheels within wheels. While a growing number of sources have gone on the record to talk to Stein about the alleged frame of Libya for the crime, some have also claimed that this story has now arisen to assist the second President Bush to make a case for war against Iran. That seems a stretch; after all, Bush would have a much clearer case for war over the nuclear program, even with it weakened with the latest NIE -- and he hasn't pressed for war with Iran anyway. Also, with the provocation being nineteen years in the past and a retaliation for an American action, intentional or not, it seems very unlikely to be a propaganda move.

Another theory may hit closer to the mark. The Bush administration and the West in general wants to engage Libya economically. The French want to sell nuclear power, a strange notion for a nation that just surrendered a nuclear-weapons program. Americans want to gain licenses for Libyan oil fields. Freeing Libya of the stigma of Pan Am 103 might help keep down the protests over opening diplomatic and economic ties with Moammar Ghaddafi.

However, one cannot help but think that Iran made a more likely suspect all along. Libya had conducted its terrorism against our military; the disco that they bombed was frequented by our soldiers in Germany. Iran had a motive to target a commercial airliner and a need to show that they could hold their own against the US. One does not have to exonerate Ghaddafi from being a terrorist to think that this case may have been manipulated for political reasons.


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