The New York Times on Libya-Pan Am 103

New York Times propaganda service has often been dramatically displayed
in connection with the shooting down of civilian airliners. The editors
were hysterical over the Soviet shoot down of Korean Air Lines flight 007
on August 31, 1983. There were 270 articles and 2,789 column inches during
September 1983 alone, along with an editorial designation of the incident
as “cold-blooded mass murder.” The paper took as truth the official party
line that the Soviets knew they were shooting down a civilian airliner.
Several years later the editors acknowledged that their assumption had
been wrong, but they blamed this on the government, not their own gullibility
(ed., “The Lie That Wasn’t Shot Down,” January 18, 1988). It had done no
investigative work on the case in the interim and the lie was shot down
based on information developed outside the media. 

In a markedly contrasting response, when Israel shot down a Libyan airliner
over the Sinai desert in February 1973, although in this case there was
no question but that the Israelis knew they were downing a civilian airliner,
the New York Times covered the incident much less intensively and without
expressing the slightest indignation, let alone using words like “cold-blooded”
or “murder.” 

Equally interesting, the paper recognized the political importance of their
treatment of each of these events: in the Soviet case, in a year-later
retrospective, Times reporter Bernard Gwertzman wrote that U.S. officials
“assert that worldwide criticism of the Soviet handling of the crisis has
strengthened the United States in its relations with Moscow.” With the
orchestrated intense and indignant coverage of this shootdown the Soviets
had suffered not only harsh criticism but boycotts for its action. By contrast,
Israel suffered not the slightest damage. The New York Times editorialized
that, “No useful purpose is served by an acrimonious debate over the assignment
of blame for the downing of a Libyan plane in the Sinai peninsula last
week” (ed., March 1, 1973). Within a week of the shootdown, the Israeli
Prime Minister was welcomed in Washington without incident or intrusive
questions. In short, blame and debate is a function of utility, which is
to say, political advantage. Where it helps, as in putting the Soviets
in a bad light, we support assigning blame, indignation, and debate; where
it would injure a client, “no useful purpose” would be served by such treatment.
And somehow the UN and “international community” react in ways that conform
to what the U.S. government and New York Times perceive as useful. 

In the case of Pan Am 103, the political aspect of assigning blame has
been clearly and, arguably, overwhelmingly important. The plane was blown
up over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21, 1988, with 270 plane casualties
(and 11 persons killed on the ground). This occurred five and a half months
after the U.S. navy’s shooting down of Iran Air flight 655 in July 1988,
killing 290, mainly Iranian pilgrims. The link between the two events was
quickly seen and the likelihood that the Pan Am 103 event was an act of
vengeance by Iran was a working hypothesis, supported further by an unproven
claim of Western security forces that Iran had offered a $10 million reward
for a retaliatory act. As the case developed it was soon a consensus of
investigators that the Pan Am action had been the work of the Popular Front
for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) under the leadership
of Ahmed Jibral, based in Syria, and responding to the Iranian offer. 

But then, as relations with Saddam Hussein deteriorated in 1989 and 1990,
and the United States sought better relations with Syria and Iran in the
run-up to the first Persian Gulf War, Western officials became quiet on
the Syria-Iran connection, followed by a fairly rapid shift from “definitive”
proof of PFLP-Syrian-Iranian involvement to “definitive” proof that it
was a Libyan act. As Paul Foot noted, “The evidence against the PFLP which
had been so carefully put together and was so immensely impressive was
quietly but firmly junked” (“Lockerbie: The Flight From Justice,” Private
, May/June 2001). Libya provided a suitable new culprit, as it was already
on the U.S.-UK hit list and had been subjected to a series of efforts at
“regime change,” a hostility based on its independence, support of the
Palestinians and other dissident forces (including the ANC and Mandela
in their resistance to the apartheid regime), as well as occasional support
of anti-Western terrorists. So Libya it was. 

The Libyan connection lasted in pristine condition from 1990 into 2007,
during which time Libya was subjected to intensive vilification, costly
sanctions imposed by the Security Council, and a highly publicized trial
in Scotland that resulted in the conviction of a Libyan national for the
Lockerbie murders, with further bad publicity for Libya and Kaddafi, and
a payment of several billion dollars in victim compensation that Libya
felt compelled to provide (although still denying any involvement in the
shootdown). All this despite the fact that many experts and observers,
including some victim family members, felt that the trial was a political
event and a judicial farce that yielded an unwarranted and unjust conviction. 

This belief in the injustice of the court decision was greatly strengthened
in June 2007 when a Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission issued a
decision that found the 2001 trial and decision flawed and opened the way
for a fresh appeal for the convicted Libyan (another Libyan on trial had
been acquitted). If this decision is validated, the world will be left
without a party responsible for the Pan Am 103 bombing, but with the strong
likelihood that attention will be refocused on the PFLP and its sponsors,
Syria and Iran. Is it not an amazing coincidence that this second turnaround
occurs as Libya becomes more acceptable to the United States and its allies
and these Western powers are now retargeting Syria and Iran? 

We should note one other set of facts in this controversy that bears on
the quality of “international justice.” That is, the treatment by the United
States, the New York Times, and the international community of the shooting
down of Iran Air flight 655 by the U.S. warship Vincennes in July 1988
and the process of bringing justice to the families of the victims of that
act. It is true that this was not a planned destruction of an airliner,
but it was carried out by a U.S. naval commander noted for his “Rambo”
qualities and the civilian airliner destroyed was closely following its
assigned air space (in contrast with 007). A point rarely mentioned in
the U.S. media is that the U.S. naval vessel that shot the plane down was
on a mission in aid of Saddam Hussein in his war of aggression against

The Reagan administration did express “deep regret” at the incident, although
blaming Iran for hostile actions that provoked the U.S. action (which were
later shown to have been non-existent) and for failing to terminate its
war against Iraq. (As the United States was supporting Iraq, by definition
Iran was the aggressor.) It also paid some $132 million as compensation,
including $62 million for the families of the victims. This is, of course,
substantially less than Kaddafi felt obligated to pay the victims of Pan
Am 103, the ratio of payments to the respective victims being roughly 30
to 1. 

The New York Times, which had had an editorial entitled “Murder” in connection
with the 007 shootdown, asserted back in 1983 that, “There is no conceivable
excuse for any nation shooting down a harmless airliner,” but it predictably
found one for the 655 case: “The incident must still be seen not as a crime
[let alone “murder”] but as a blunder, and a tragedy.” Neither the UN Security
Council nor International Civil Aviation Organization condemned the United
States for this action, although both had done so as regards the Soviet
Union in the case of Korean flight 007, and of course the Security Council
would eventually take severe action against Libya in regard to Pan Am 103.
There was no punishment whatsoever meted out to Rambo Captain Will Rogers,
who got a “hero’s welcome” upon his return to San Diego five months after
the shoot-down (Robert Reinhold, “Crew of Cruiser That Downed Iranian Airliner
Gets a Warm Homecoming,” NYT, Oct. 25, 1988), and was subsequently awarded
a Legion of Merit for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance
of outstanding service.” The Iranians were naturally angry at this reception
and treatment of the man responsible for killing 290 mainly Iranian civilians,
and were possibly a bit resentful at the workings of the system of international
justice as it impacted them. 

Polls indicated that the warm greeting Rogers got in San Diego was not
an aberration—the public was pleased with his accomplishment. This reflected
the fact that media coverage of theIran Air flight 655 shootdown had focused
on official claims about the reason for the deadly act, not the plight
of the victims and the grief of their families—which was the heavy and
continuing focus of attention in both the KAL 007 and Pan Am 103 cases.
The alleged suffering of Rogers got more attention than that of the 290
victims and their families. We are back to the contrast between “worthy”
and “unworthy” victims, and the “useful purpose” of the focus of attention,
as seen by the U.S. establishment and media. 

One further note on international justice concerns the treatment of the
U.S. bombing of Libya on April 14, 1986. That attack followed by little
more than a week the bombing of a discotheque in Berlin that was quickly
blamed by the Reagan administration on Libya, though proof of this connection
was never forthcoming. The U.S. bombing attack targeted Kadaffi’s residence,
and, while failing to assassinate him, killed his young daughter along
with 40 or more Libyan civilians. This was an act of state terrorism and
a straightforward violation of the UN Charter, but here again a U.S. (along
with supportive British and French) veto prevented any UN Security Council
condemnation, let alone other action, in response to this terrorism. The
UN can act only when the United States wants it to act; it can never do
anything in response to U.S. or U.S. client state violence, no matter how
egregious. And the case of Libya and Pan Am 103 affords strong evidence
that when the United States wants the UN to act against a target, serious
penalties and other forms of damage can be inflicted that are based on
false charges and a corrupted legal process. 

We may note also that the New York Times editors were delighted with the
1986 terrorist attack on Libya. Their editorial on the subject stated that
“The smoke in Tripoli has barely cleared, yet on the basis of early information
even the most scrupulous citizen can only approve and applaud the American
attacks on Libya” (ed., “The Terrorist and His Sentence,” April 15, 1986).
The “early information” showed only that while the assassination attempt
had failed, scores of what the editors would call “innocent civilians”

in a reverse context were killed. Thus, once again, the editors exposed
their belief that international law does not apply to the United States,
and again demonstrated that civilians killed by the U.S. government are
“unworthy” victims whose deaths the editors can literally applaud. 

As in the case of the shoot down of KAL 007, on November 14, 1999 the New
York Times
had big headlines and lavished a great deal of attention and
indignation on the U.S.-British indictment of two Libyans alleged to have
been the bombers of Pan Am 103, and it provided similar headlines, attention,
and indignation when the Scottish court found one of the two Libyans guilty
on January 31, 2001. By contrast, the report that the Scottish Review Court
had found the trial of the Libyans badly flawed and that justice called
for a new trial was given no editorial attention and a single question-begging
article (Alan Cowell, “Lockerbie Ruling Raises Questions On Libyan’s Guilt,”

June 29, 2007). 

At no time did any of the 15 Times editorials on the Pan Am 103 shootdown
and Libya connection express the slightest reservation about the process
or substance of the charges against the Libyans. As regards the politics
of the case, with the seemingly strong case involving the PLP, Syria, and
Iran abandoned just when the United States was briefly cozying up to Syria
and Iran, shifting to the continuing target Libya, the editors did refer
to “cynics” who thought the Administration “finds it convenient to downplay
Syria’s dreadful record now that Damascus has joined Middle East peace
negotiations” (ed., “Seeking the Truth About Libya,” March 30, 1992), but
the editors refused to accept this cynical notion and, most important,
it didn’t cause them to examine the evidence against Libya more closely.
This was their government, Libya was a villain, and patriotism and built-in
bias kept their blinders firmly in place. 

As regards legal process, following the U.S.-Scottish charges against the
two Libyans, Libya immediately arrested the two suspects and started a
judicial investigation, which followed precisely the requirements of the
1971 Montreal Convention dealing with acts of violence involving civil
aviation. Libya promised to try the two men if evidence was supplied, and
offered to allow observers and requested international assistance in gathering
evidence. The United States and Britain rejected this on the grounds that
Libya would never convict its own, although if the trial was flawed they
could have demanded action from the World Court. An exceptional Times op-ed
column by Marc Weller argued that what Libya did was in accord with international
law and that the U.S.-UK action was not only illegal, but also abused and
politicized the Security Council (“Libyan Terrorism, American Vigilantism,”
February 15, 1992). 

The Times’ editors ignored the Weller argument: as always, for the editors,
international law doesn’t apply to the United States. Also, it was clear
to them that Libya could not be trusted to try its own—just as it never
occurred to them that a trial of Libyans in the West could be anything
but justice in action, even though the advance publicity by Western officials,
once again demonizing the alleged villains and alleging “irrefutable evidence,”
put great pressure on judges and juries and made a fair trial problematic.

A standard form of propagandistic journalism is to provide “balance” by
citing on the “other side” the villains and their sponsors rather than
independent critics. In past years the New York Times regularly cited Soviet
officials for balance, rather than dissident U.S. citizens who would have
had more credibility with U.S. audiences. In the Libya-Pan Am 103 case,
the Times regularly cited Kaddaffi (“ranting”) and other Libyans as charging
political bias in the proceedings, while neglecting Westerners with more
authority. Most notorious, the Times has yet to cite Dr. Hans Kochler,
a German legal scholar who was Kofi Annan’s appointed observer at the trial
of the two Libyans in the Netherlands (Camp Zeist) under Scottish law.
Kochler produced a powerful “Report and Evaluation of the Lockerbie Trial”

in February 2001 that was widely reported and featured in Scottish and
other European media, but was never once mentioned by the Times in its
news or editorials. The other expert almost entirely ignored by the Times
was Professor Robert Black, a Scottish legal authority who was an important
contributor to the arrangements for the trial at Zeist, who followed it
closely and was immensely knowledgeable of both the trial and Scottish
law. Black was mentioned briefly twice in Times news articles, but never
in an editorial. It can hardly be a coincidence that the ignoring of Kochler
and marginalizing of Black paralleled their finding the trial a travesty,
badly politicized (Kochler) and with a judicial decision unsupported by
credible evidence (Black [“a fraud”] and Kochler). 

The Times has repeatedly claimed that the case against the Libyans resulted
from a model police effort—they used the phrase “meticulous British and
American police work” more than once—and it was allegedly supported by
“hundreds of witnesses” and “thousands of bits of evidence.” Thus, while
the trial never yielded a smoking gun, it provided compelling “circumstantial
evidence.” At no point does the paper acknowledge any possible mismanagement
or corruption in the collection and processing of evidence. Among the points
never mentioned are that: 

Not only “police” but the CIA and other U.S. personnel were on the crash
scene on December 21, 1988 within two hours of the disaster, moving about
freely, removing and possibly altering evidence in violation of the rules
of dealing with crash-scene evidence, and overriding the supposed authority
of the Scottish police (for details, John Ashton and Ian Ferguson, Cover-Up
of Convenience
). Presumably, for the Times, just as international law doesn’t
apply to the United States, neither do the rules of proper assembling of

The key piece of evidence, a fragment from a timer, was first marked “cloth,
charred,” but was later overwritten with the word “debris,” a change never
adequately explained. Some months later, upon examination by UK forensic
expert Thomas Hayes, a note about this fragment was written by him, but
the page numbers were subsequently overwritten and renumbered, again without
explanation. Months later, marks on the timer were allegedly identified
with MEBO, a Swiss firm that manufactured timers, and one that did business
with Libya. This was “conclusive evidence,” although MEBO also sold the
timers to East Germany, or Libya might have provided the timer to others;
MEBO had also reported several break-ins at its factory to the Swiss police
between October 1988 and February 1989. Furthermore, when finally shown
the fragment, MEBO’s owner said it was a different color from his own,
and it turned out that the CIA had this very timer in its possession. 

All three forensic scientists who worked intensively on this case, one
for the FBI (Tom Thurman) and two for a branch of the UK Ministry of Defense
(Allen Fereday and Thomas Hayes), had run into trouble in the past: for
concealment of evidence (Hayes); wrong conclusions and, in one case, false
testimony on an explosive timer (Fereday); and fabrication of evidence
(Thurman; see Foot, “The Three Forensic Geniuses”). 

The CIA had a major role in creating the case, their primary witness being
the Libyan defector Majid Giaka. The CIA offered him to the prosecution
even though years ago they had decided that he was a liar and con man.
Giaka had said nothing about any Libyan connection to the Pan Am bombing
for months after it took place, and he came through only when threatened
with a funds cutoff. Paul Foot asks, “Why was such an obviously corrupt
and desperate liar produced by the prosecution at all?” It is also testimony
to the quality of the legal process that for a while the CIA refused to
produce cables and email messages regarding Giaka, arguing that they were
irrelevant. When finally reluctantly produced, they were not irrelevant,
but showed the CIA’s own low opinion of Giaka. The Times did have a news
article or two that described Giaka’s poor record and mal-performance on
the stand, but none of the 15 editorials mentioned him or allowed this
phase of the proceeding to limit their admiration for police and prosecution. 

Neither the U.S. nor UK governments, nor the Zeist court, was willing
to explore alternative models, several of which were more plausible than
the one involving Libya. The one already mentioned, featuring the PFLP-
Syria-Iran connection, was compelling: PFLP’s German members were found
in possession of radio cassettes and workable timers; they had already
used these in bombing attacks; they were known to have cased the Frankfurt
airport just before the bombing; one of their operatives had visited Malta
and the shopkeeper who sold the clothes found in the Pan Am 103 debris
first identified this individual (Abu Talb) as the purchaser; and there
was evidence of this group’s link to Iran and claims of a paid contract,
among other points. 

In a related scenario, the bomb was introduced by the PFLP into the suitcase
of Khalid Jaafar, an agent in a drug-running operation, protected by the
CIA as part of its hostage-release program. The CIA involvement in this
drug-running operation may have been one reason for the hasty and aggressive
CIA takeover of the search at the crash site; and it, and the closely related
desire to avoid disturbing negotiations with Syrian and Iranian terrorists
holding Western hostages, may also help explain why President Bush and
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher apparently agreed in March 1989 to prevent
any uncontrolled investigation of the bombing. 

Not only were these governments unwilling to look at alternatives, they
actually blocked other inquiries and pursued and tried to damage individuals
who did so (see Ashton and Ferguson, Cover-Up). The Zeist court conformed
to this program, with the result that actors for whom the “circumstantial
evidence” was far more compelling than in the case of the Libyans were
excluded from consideration. 

The Times found the original U.S.-British charges and the Scottish court’s
decision satisfying, although based only on “circumstantial evidence.”

They provided no serious analysis of this evidence, and both Robert Black
and Hans Kochler, among many others, found the evidence completely inadequate
to sustain a conviction except in a court where a conviction was a political
necessity. Consider the following: 

Although the case was built on the argument that the two Libyans carried
out the operation together as a team, only one was convicted. As Kochler
said: “This is totally incomprehensible for any rational observer when
one considers that the indictment in its very essence was based on the
joint action of the two accused in Malta.” This result can best be explained
by the need to have somebody found guilty. 

There is no evidence that the convicted Libyan, Abdel Basset Ali Al-Megrahi,
put a suitcase on the connecting flight from Malta to Frankfurt, where
it was supposedly transferred to Pan Am 103. Air Malta is notable for its
close checking of baggage, and when UK’s Granada Television claimed that
the death bag had gone through it to Pan Am 103, Air Malta sued. Its evidence
that only 55 bags with ascribed passengers—none of whom went on to London—were
on that flight was so compelling that Granada settled out-of-court, paying
damages and costs. This of course never made it into the New York Times,
and had little effect on the Zeist court, which eventually said that how
the unaccompanied bag was put on the plane “is a major difficulty for the
Crown case,” but it didn’t interfere with the finding of guilt. 

The identification of al-Megrahi as the Malta purchaser of the clothing
whose remnants were found in the wreckage was a travesty of judicial procedure.
The selling storekeeper, Tony Gauci, originally said the buyer was 6 feet
tall and 50 or more years old—al-Megrahi is 5-8 and was 37 years old in
1988. Gauci then identified Talb as the man, but eventually latched on
to al-Megrahi after having seen his picture in the paper. There were many
other weaknesses in this identification, including the timing of the purchase,
so that like the disposition of the suitcase this also was another beyond-tenuous
“circumstantial” building block of the case. 

The logic of the official scenario also suffers from the fact that putting
a bomb-laden bag through from Malta, that had to go through a second inspection
and two stopovers in the delay-frequent Christmas season, would be poor
planning as it risked either apprehension or a badly timed explosion; and
including clothing that could be traced to Malta and with the alleged bomber
(al-Megrahi) making his purchase openly would be extremely unprofessional.
On the other hand, a timer frequently used by the PFLP was estimated by
a German expert to explode 38 minutes after takeoff, and Pan Am 103 exploded
38 minutes after takeoff. 

—As noted earlier, the timer with the MEBO insignia came forth belatedly.
It was gathered in a crash scene effort that violated all the rules and
was then worked over in questionable circumstances by people who had an
established record of creating and massaging evidence. These lags and problems
should have ruled out the acceptance of this evidence in a criminal trial
by a non-political court. But even taking it at face value, it fails to
prove Libyan involvement in the bombing attack as this timer was available
to others, and may have been stolen from the MEBO factory in the 1988-1989

The Times notes that “prosecutors credibly linked him [al-Megrahi] to bomb-making
materials and presented persuasive testimony that he worked for Libya’s
intelligence services.” Imagine how the Times would treat an accusation
against a CIA agent based on the fact that the accused had “access to weapons”

and was in fact a member of the CIA. The Times doesn’t ask for much in
the way of “evidence” when in the patriotic mode. 

In its low-keyed news article on the Scottish Review Commission’s repudiation
of the Zeist court’s decision (“Lockerbie Ruling Raises Questions on Libyan’s
Guilt,” June 29, 2007), Times reporter Alan Cowell does a creditable job
of protecting his paper for failing to question another “lie that wasn’t
shot down.” The Review Commission apparently leaned over backwards to avoid
charging the Zeist court with judicial malpractice, so Cowell latches on
to the fact that the Review stresses “new evidence that we have found and
new evidence that was not before the trial court,” as well as their denial
that there was proof of fabricated evidence. But much of that new evidence
was deliberately excluded by the trial court, and some of it was hidden
by the prosecution and its U.S. and UK political and intelligence sponsors.
While there is perhaps no hard proof of fabricated evidence, there is solid
documentation of its questionable handling and possible fabrication, which
should have precluded its acceptance by the trial court. 

Instead of citing Hans Kochler or Robert Black, Cowell quotes Dan Cohen,
whose daughter went down with Pan Am 103, who expresses regret that al-Megrahi
might go home a hero. Possibly more honorable would have been a Times apology
and expression of sympathy for the Libyan victim, who will have spent six
or seven years in prison on the basis of manipulated and laughable evidence
in another show trial, but which the Times repeatedly claimed was justice
in action. 

In her 1993 memoir, The Downing Street Years, former British Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher wrote that after the 1986 U.S. bombing of Libya, which
used British airbases and in which Kaddaffi’s two-year old daughter was
killed, “There were revenge killings of British hostages organized by Libya,
which I deeply regretted. But the much vaunted Libyan counter-attack did
not and could not take place.” Thatcher seems to have forgotten Pan Am
103, or could she have momentarily forgotten that Libya was supposed to
have been guilty of this act, and, writing honestly, but carelessly, for
the historical record, implicitly acknowledging here that this was a fraud
that she had helped perpetrate. This nugget was reported in South Korea’s
OhMyNews, but was somehow overlooked by the Paper of Record. 


Edward S. Herman is an economist and media and social critic. He is the
author of
Triumph of the Market (South End Press).