Bush Administration's Involvement in Bombing Pan Am 103

by Joel Bainerman
(May/June 1997 issue)

If the entire story behind the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in December l988 is ever fully exposed, most people just simply wouldnít believe it. Not only were various agencies of the U.S. Government at least partially responsible for the terrorist attack, the Bush Administration tried to cover up their involvement; and, as vice president, Bush is reported to have made as many as four secret trips to Damascus offering arms to Syria in return for the hostages held in Lebanon.

If the true story behind Pan Am 103 ever finally does come out, Yuval Aviv can take much of the credit.

I met a lot of strange characters during the research for my book The Crimes of a President (SPI Books, 1992), but Yuval Aviv was by far the most intriguing. I met Aviv for the first time in October l991. After a three-hour meeting, I walked out of his Madison Avenue office with my head spinning. Aviv had a certain charm about him that made him very likable, even if you didnít quite trust his information or understand his motives. He claims to be a former Mossad official who immigrated to the U.S. in l978. Shortly thereafter, he opened his own investigating firm called Interfor.

Aviv told me a lot of stories, some of which I had already checked out and found to be false. Some were verified by other sources. Like most sources investigative journalists come across, some of Avivís information was good, some wasnít. Where Aviv does come through with flying colors though is in his version of what happened to Pan Am 103, the plane that blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland on 21 December l988.

Avivís firm was hired by Pan Amís insurer in the Spring of l989 to investigate the crash. Of all the journalists and intelligence sources I met who knew Aviv, all of them agreed that his report on Pan Am 103 is the closest thing yet to the truth. The only problem is that what he has to say about the incident isnít what the Bush Administration wants to hear. In September l989, Interforís report was made public. In it, Aviv claimed that a CIA team headquartered in Western Germany is largely responsible for the bombing.

Thatís not what the U.S. Administration claims. For the first two years after the crash, all the evidence pointed to Syria and Iran as the culprits. It was believed that Iran bankrolled the operation in retaliation for the 3 July l988 shooting down of a scheduled Iranian airbus in the Persian Gulf by the USS Vincennes, killing 290 people. Previously, U.S. investigators had traced a wire transfer of several million dollars from Teheran to a bank account in Vienna controlled by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command under the leadership of Ahmed Jibril (US News & World Report, 25 November l99l).

The outbreak of the Gulf War changed all that. When Saddamís troops rolled into Kuwait, the Administration needed to bring Syria into the coalition effort. The following Summer, Bush sat down with Syrian President Hafez Assad in Geneva and ushered in a new era in Syrian-American relations. As a result, focus had to be deflected away from Syrian-sponsored Ahmed Jibrilís terrorist group.

Lo and behold, in November l99l, U.S. prosecutors announced that their three-year investigation produced no evidence that either Iran or Syria were involved. Instead, they believed two Libyan intelligence officials and the Tripoli Government were responsible for the bombing (New York Times, 15 November l99l). President Bush would publicly remark: "The Syrians took a bum rap on this" (Time, 27 April l992).

The U.S. Government based its case on a tiny piece of plastic embedded in a shirt that had come from the suitcase that held the bomb. Miraculously, it survived two harsh Scottish winters. A British forensic expert matched the fragment of the bomb timer used to destroy a French DC-10 jet that exploded over Africa nine months after the Lockerbie tragedy and found them to be identical. Based on this evidence, indictments were issued for Libyan intelligence officials. (It seems the Justice Department would have looked a little silly asking Mummar Gaddafi to turn himself in to the American authorities.)

American and British investigators speculate that Iran and Libya were plotting simultaneously to blow up an American jet, but the Libyans succeeded first. Gaddafi, it was claimed, wanted revenge for the l986 bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi by U.S. warplanes. (Why did he wait more than two-and-a-half years to get it?) They say the bomb was first loaded as unaccompanied baggage on an Air Malta flight which departed Lauq Airport in Malta and connected with the Pan Am flight in Frankfurt. Why a terrorist would take such an indirect route and risk detection was left unexplained.

The official U.S. Governmentís version of events is quite different from that of the former Israeli intelligence official. Aviv explains that his investigation revealed that the origin of the terrorist attack was actually a rogue CIA group protecting a Syrian drug operation which transported drugs from the Middle East to the United States via Frankfurt. Aviv says the CIA did nothing to break up the drug operation because the traffickers were also helping them send weapons to Iran and to the Nicaraguan Contras.

Part of Avivís assertions were backed up by NBC News a year later when it reported, on 30 October l990, that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was investigating a Middle East-based heroin operation to determine whether it was used by the terrorists to place a bomb on Pan Am 103. NBC said Pan Am flights out of Frankfurt had been used by the DEA to fly informants and heroin into Detroit as part of its sting operation. It claimed the terrorists might have discovered what the DEA was doing and switched one of their bags with one containing the bomb.

The DEA denied any connection to the undercover operation (Barron's, 17 December l990). Aviv explains that the method of drug smuggling was quite simple. One person would check a piece of luggage onto the plane and an accomplice working in the baggage department would switch it with an identical piece containing the narcotics. He says that on that fatal night, a Syrian terrorist organization knew how the drug operation worked and slipped a bomb inside a suitcase on the plane.

Aviv asserts that Monzer Al-Kassar, a Syrian drug and arms smuggler, set the drug smuggling operation up through Frankfurt in l987. The CIA, the DEA and the West German secret police, the BKA, observed its activities, but didnít interfere so as to acquire information. Al-Kassar is well connected. The head of Syrian intelligence, Ali Issa Duba, is his brother-in-law, and his wife is related to Assad.

This was the same Monzer Al-Kassar who helped Oliver North supply Polish-made weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras in l985 and l986. Along with his three brothers, Al-Kassar had built a multi-million-dollar empire on military deals in Eastern and Western Europe. Administration officials who discussed these deals said Al-Kassar had clear business links with the Abu Nidal terrorist organization (Los Angeles Times, 17 July l987).

The officials said that Al-Kassar maintained offices in Warsaw and was a major broker of the Polish-owned weapons company, Cenzin. The first arms purchase by North from Al-Kassar totaling $1 million was sent by boat to an unidentified Caribbean port in the Fall of l985 and was later distributed to the Contra fighters. In April of that year, a second shipment of Polish arms was sold to the CIA as part of this transaction (Los Angeles Times, 17 July l987). In another part of the deal, more than $42 million was laundered through BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce International) accounts in the Cayman Islands. Al-Kassar earned more than $1 million (Private Eye, 25 October l99l).

Aviv wrote in his report that a special hostage rescue team was on the doomed aircraft, led by Army Major Charles McKee, who had discovered that a rogue CIA team in Frankfurt, called COREA, was protecting the drug route. According to a special report in Time (27 April 1992), COREA used front companies for its overseas operations: Sevens Mantra Corp., AMA Industries, Wilderwood Video and Condor Television Ltd. The report revealed that Condor did its banking through the First American Bank, a subsidiary of BCCI.

After explaining what he had learned to CIA headquarters in the U.S. and receiving no response, McKee decided to take his men home without the required permission. He planned to bring back to the U.S. proof of the rogue intelligence teamís connection to Al-Kassar. If the government tried to cover it up, he would release it. Al-Kassar discovered this and reported McKeeís attempt to make their own "travel arrangements" back to the U.S. through the rogue CIA team in Frankfurt (Covert Action Information Bulletin Number 34, Summer l990).

Although neglected in the American press, there were at least four, and possibly as many as eight, CIA and other U.S. intelligence agency operatives from Beirut aboard Pan Am 103 (ibid.). Could they have been the target? In his book, Lockerbie: The Tragedy of Flight 103, David Johnson disclosed that CIA investigators removed a suitcase from the crash site that belonged to McKee. It was returned a few days later, and "found" empty.

The PBS investigative program Frontline reported in January l990 that the bomb was put on the plane at Londonís Heathrow Airport where a baggage handler switched suitcases belonging to CIA officer Matthew Gannon. According to the Frontline investigation, the only piece of luggage not accounted for from the flight belonged to Gannon.

Frontline claims the intelligence officials were a "strong secondary target." A May l989 report in the Arabic newspaper Al-Dustur revealed that McKeeís teamsí movements were being monitored by David Lovejoy, "an American agent" whom Aviv claims was passing information to the Iranian embassy in Beirut which told the Iranian charge díaffaires of the teamís travel plans (Time, 27 April l992).

Aviv believes that the CIA team in Frankfurt allowed Al-Kassar to continue to smuggle drugs into the U.S. in return for help in arranging the release of the American hostages. The drug operation, he says, went as far back as Spring of l987.

In the Fall of l988, Ahmed Jibril, leader of the Syrian-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, discovered the operation. So as not to interfere with Al-Kassarís activities, Jibril originally targeted an American Airlines plane, but the Mossad discovered this and tipped off the airline. When the plan changed and the target became a Pan Am airliner, once again a Mossad agent tipped off German secret police 24 hours before the flight. When a BKA surveillance agent keeping watch over the suitcase supposedly filled with drugs noticed that this time the luggage was a different color and size, he passed this information on to the CIA team, who relayed it to their superiors. They reportedly said, "Donít worry about it. Donít stop it ó let it go" (Barron's, 17 December l990).

Aviv says the BKA did just that.

A lengthy article on Avivís report in the financial weekly, Barron's, quotes one Mideast Intelligence specialist in the government as suggesting, "Do I think the CIA was involved? Of course they were involved. And they screwed up. Was the operation planned by the top? Probably not. I doubt they sanctioned heroin importation ó that came about at the more zealous lower levels. But they knew what was going on and didnít care." The expert went on to say that his agency has "things that support Avivís allegation, but we canít prove it. We have no smoking gun. And until the other agencies of the government open their doors, we will have no smoking gun."

These government agencies didnít open their doors. In September l989, Pan Am subpoenaed the FBI, CIA, FAA, DEA, National Security Council, National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department, requesting documents relating to the case. According to Pan Amís attorney, Gregory Buhler, "the government quashed the subpoenas on grounds of national security" (ibid.).

Further signs of a cover up were revealed by investigative columnist Jack Anderson, who claimed that President Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher held a transatlantic phone conversation after Bushís inauguration in which they agreed that the investigation into the case should be "limited" in order to avoid harming the two nationsí intelligence communities. Thatcher has acknowledged that the conversation took place, but denied she and Bush conspired to interfere with the investigation (Covert Action Information Bulletin Number 34, Summer l990).

In its investigative report, Time revealed that a former agent for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Lester Knox Coleman, III, has signed an affidavit which described the CIA-sanctioned operation. In l987, Coleman was transferred to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and was assigned to Cyprus, where he witnessed the growing trade in heroin originating in Lebanon. Colemanís DEA front in Nicosia was the Eurame Trading Co. Ltd., located near the U.S. Embassy. His job was to keep track of Al-Kassarís movements and report to the DEA attaché in Cyprus, Michael Hurley. Coleman says he was paid in checks drawn on the BCCI branch in Luxembourg (27 April l992). (Read Trail of the Octopus: Behind the Lockerbie Disaster, Donald Goddard with Lester K. Coleman, 1994 ó although this was only published in Great Britain and is a bit hard to get a copy of. ARH.)

A number of investigative journalists believe that Aviv stumbled onto just one piece of a larger puzzle. In August l991, Larry Cohler, a writer for the Washington Jewish Week, reported on a set of secret negotiations which took place between Syria and the United States Government over the release of the hostages and which led to a number of covert trips by Bush to Damascus.

Over an all-you-can-eat Indian lunch one afternoon, Larry told me an incredible story that compliments Avivís conclusions.

According to a confidential Pentagon memo that Cohler gained access to, for reasons still unknown, officials in the Reagan Administration failed to pursue a series of Syrian offers to free the American hostages held in Lebanon. The Syrian overtures began in l985 and continued through mid-l989.

A number of former government officials involved in the secret Syrian negotiations say they were never told why the Syrian offers were not acted upon, while others say the Syrian offers were not genuine. Still others claim there was too little preliminary action by the U.S. Government to determine for certain whether the initiatives were genuine or not (San Francisco Chronicle, 21 July l99l).

The center of the controversy was a memo dated 17 March l987, which described a meeting attended by Lawrence Ropka, Jr., a principal deputy of Assistant Secretary of Defense for National Security Affairs Richard Armitage. Written by Ropkaís military assistant, Lt. Andrew Gambara, it claimed that American businessmen and a former executive secretary to Richard Nixon, Robert D. Ladd, told Pentagon officials in December l985 that he had a contact with a Lebanese businessman who introduced him to Fasih Makhail Ashi, a judge in Syriaís inspector generalís office. The judge claimed he had information regarding the fate of the seven American hostages held in Lebanon. Ashi said: "the Syrians were prepared to assist in the release of the hostages if Reagan called Assad and requested his support" (San Francisco Chronicle, 21 July l99l).

Syriaís aims were simple enough: It wanted closer ties with the United States. The memo said that once Reagan called, "Syria would facilitate the release and transfer of the hostages without any quid pro quo from the U.S." It said further that Ladd had already brought this to the attention of Oliver North at the National Security Council (NSC) and that someone would follow it up. A former official in Armitageís office said the memo was sent to a special government agency, the Vice Presidentís Task Force on Terrorism, a group of high-ranking officials from the White House, State Department, NSC and the CIA.

Two of Armitageís aides acknowledged that the Syrian initiative was discussed during a number of interviews with Ladd and his attorney. Ladd said that, after hearing the Syrian offer, he arranged for Ashi to come to the United States; he was then questioned over a period of a number of days by the Task Force. Ashi asserts he spoke in the name of General Ghazi Kenaan, head of Syrian military intelligence, and even passed on details about the fate of kidnapped CIA chief in Beirut, William Buckley.

Ashi returned to Syria but received no reply. In February l987, he contacted Ladd and again said Syria would help the Americans release the hostages. Ladd tried unsuccessfully to persuade government officials to meet in Paris with Ashi. A longtime senior aid to Armitage claimed Ashi could not prove the offer was genuine. "It was my sense there was nothing there," he said (San Francisco Examiner, 21 July l991). "I was told there wasnít enough information from Ashi to run it upstairs."

However, a former official in Armitageís office said that he thought Ashiís overtures should at least be checked out, as the American Government could have sent someone from the Paris embassy to meet him. Ladd said that, only because of his persistence, U.S. intelligence officials eventually agreed to meet with Ashi. Then, in the early part of the Summer of l989 the CIA, without any explanation, canceled the meeting.

Despite the cancellation, Ashi called Ladd back saying that the hostages would be released if Ladd would come to Damascus for them. In August, Ladd was prepared to fly to Damascus when Ashi called back to take back the offer, saying that a tug of war over releasing the hostages had developed between Kenaan and other factions of the Syrian army.

The Congressional investigators did look into why the Administration didnít follow up on these initiatives and why, when Syria offered to help release the hostages, they were put on hold. They questioned a number of individuals, including a former Pentagon official, Peter Probst, who took part in some of the meetings; he told Cohler that it was one of several he and other officials had with Ladd on the Syrian overture. He said nothing further on the matter.

Could the Administration have been pursuing another path to free the hostages? Cohler learned from different sources that Bush made as many as four secret trips to Damascus in early l986, allegedly offering arms to Syria in return for the hostages. Congressional investigators were told by their sources that in the Spring of l988, in the middle of the presidential campaign, Bush made one final trip to Syria, telling the Syrians that the time was right to make a deal. Then, the Syrians stalled.

At that point, the Syrians might have grasped the leverage they actually had over Bush and wanted to up the ante (In These Times, 7 August l991). Itís also possible that Bush might have been attempting an "October Surprise" of his own by having the hostages delivered to a Republican White House just in time for the Presidential election in November l988.

Aviv says that when these overtures failed, Bush and the CIA turned to Al-Kassar as a middlemen. (A covert deal made with drug smugglers is less likely to be exposed than one with a government or head of state.) Al-Kassar had some experience in these types of operations and at least one victory under his belt: He was used by the French Government in March l988 to free its hostages held in captivity in Lebanon.

George Bush may have wanted the same deal. M

[Joel's book, The Crimes of a President: New Revelations on Conspiracy & Cover-Up in the Bush & Reagan Administrations, is (as its back cover says), "an important document of our times and necessary reading for all who want to know what really went on during the Bush-Reagan years." We highly recommend it.

Joel also publishes The Israel Technology Letter, P.O. Box 387, Zichron Yaacov, Israel 30900; Voice: 972-6-639-6673; Fax: 972-6-639-8880; E-mail: isratech@netvision.net.il]