Flight 103 from Frankfurt

Apropos recent news events, a repost

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, “Libya 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.”

This statement made me think, and to question the Reagan anti-Lybia doctrine. I’ve kept up on it a bit, read a few things, and I’m pretty much convinced that Lybia, 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 Lybia 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, Lybia 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 Lybians? 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.


  1. #1 Monado, FCD
    August 20, 2009

    Wow. Lucky for you.

  2. #2 Mike H
    August 20, 2009

    Libya 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. This statement made me think

    Did you ever think that the reason they “love” Kadafi is because anyone who doesn’t publicly express their undying love for Kadafi is sent to prison or an unmarked grave in the desert?

    I guess that since Kadafi “shares the wealth” he must be a decent guy in your book.

    I should look at the bright side, at least you don’t teach history or political science. I am beginning to think its more of a coincidence that Greg Laden sounds so much like Bin Laden.

  3. #3 Gwenny
    August 20, 2009

    @Mike H Apparently you are unfamiliar with the concept of “thinking”. Just because someone says something that makes you “think” doesn’t mean you necessarily come to agree with them.

    And your last statement has to be one of the most moronic things I’ve read in weeks. I suppose it does get your blog the odd hit.

  4. #4 MadScientist
    August 20, 2009

    I never believed the “Libya did it” schtik from Ronnie Reagan. The accusations were specifically that Khadafi sponsored this terrorism but no evidence was ever shown – no, that was all secret – yeah, right. Dubbyah replayed the nonsense with his “weapons of mass destruction” and also his “Iraq sponsors Al-Qaida”. 20 years later Libya decides to try to normalize diplomatic relations and pays a ransom for a crime it may have had nothing to do with. The one obvious effect of bombing Libya was that Khadafi kept his mouth shut and didn’t rant as much in public after suffering a personal tragedy from the attack.

    By the way, we’re doing just great in Iraq, aren’t we? We dashed in and marched out so quick no one knows what’s going on; “a matter of weeks, not months”. Don’t forget Afghanistan either – that’s going even better than Iraq – if you’re Taliban.

  5. #5 José
    August 20, 2009

    @Mike H
    I guess that since Kadafi “shares the wealth” he must be a decent guy in your book.

    You’re dead on with this one. I mean who in their right mind would write a sentence like, “This is the retribution by Ronald Reagan against all around good guy Muammar al-Kadafi.” Oh wait. That’s not what he wrote.

  6. #6 Vince Whirlwind
    August 20, 2009

    I remember winter/spring 1986 in Europe very well indeed.

    Gaddafi was no saint (he let off a few ballistic missiles aimed at Italy to go along with some phenomenally retarded and ugly rhetoric) and he may well have had some involvement in the Pan Am bombing, however the blatant and transparent misinformation emitted by the US authorities at the time and in subsequent years were enough to convince me that whatever Libya’s involvement was, the bigger story was the US government’s involvement. Their manic cover-up and lies told me they had someting very embarrassing to hide.

  7. #7 Troublesome Frog
    August 20, 2009

    I am beginning to think its more of a coincidence that Greg Laden sounds so much like Bin Laden.

    Hmmm. I always thought that I just didn’t agree with you on lots of stuff. It actually turns out that you’re just kind of a dick.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    August 21, 2009

    I should say that I’m not particularly a big fan of Mouammar Kadafi, and I’ve always thought he was a bit of a nutbag. But, I do not necessarily subscribe to the western ideology/cultural practice of judging every individual as “all bad” or “just fine.” The conversation I had with that friend in Berkeley was a matter of thinking more like Africans think of a guy in Africa.