Pan Am 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 TVs 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-Gaddafi. The White House was issuing statements about al-Gaddafi’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 Gaddafi. Others should take a lesson from him.”

(Today is the anniversary of the downing of Pan Am flight 103)

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 the case against Libya, and Gaddafi in particular, was not very strong for 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 Gaddafi 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 Gaddafi. 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? Some say no:

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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