FOR PAN AM 103 VICTIMS, A BILL FROM THE IRS
By Jim Hoagland
Wednesday, December 21, 1994 ; Page A25
Officially the United States seeks to punish Libya for the bombing of
Pan Am Flight 103 just before Christmas six years ago. But in practice
U.S. officials have turned their responsibilities inside out: While diplomats
reassure Moammar Gadhafi's friends that Washington bears them no hard feelings
for supporting Libya, other bureaucrats harry families who lost relatives
in the Pan Am tragedy.
Ask John and Barbara Zwynenberg of Nyack, N.Y. Their son Mark,
29, was one of the 189 Americans killed by the powerful bomb that hurled
their jetliner from the sky over Scotland on Dec. 21, 1988. The terrorists
evidently struck an American civilian target to avenge the U.S. bombing
of Libya in 1986, after a Libyan attack on a Berlin discotheque in which
one U.S. serviceman was killed.
Last month the Internal Revenue Service mailed the Zwynenbergs
a deficiency notice of $6.4 million, due in 90 days, based on an IRS estimate
of what their son's estate may get some day from a still pending suit against
the now defunct airline and its insurer. That followed earlier IRS warnings
to the Zwynenberg family to agree to pay smaller amounts to settle the
Mistakes happen. Computers do dumb things. Surely the IRS isn't
Those were my first reactions, and those of the Zwynenbergs as
well. But their calls and my follow-up contacts elicited only stonewalling
from the Hartford, Conn., district office that mailed the retired couple
the estate tax liability notice dated Nov. 17. As far as the IRS is concerned,
the deficiency notice stands. Merry Christmas. And goodbye.
IRS Commissioner Margaret Milner Richardson should check into
what is being done in her name in this case. It is Kafkaesque.
As a group, the families of the victims of Pan Am 103 have repeatedly
spurned attempts by highly paid American lawyers working for Gadhafi and
Egyptian go-betweens to buy them off. The families want justice, not money.
They want the two Libyan agents identified as the bombers by history's
most extensive criminal investigation handed over for trial in Britain
or the United States, as United Nations resolutions demand.
The IRS falls to the level of the Libyans' hired legal guns by
reducing this tragedy to one more payday. The Zwynenberg case is a ludicrous
example of the bureaucracy's insensitivity to the large issues of morality,
justice and America's standing abroad that the unresolved bombing of Pan
Am 103 raises.
What solicitude the American government has shown in this case
is being lavished instead on the Egyptian government, which is upset over
articles in the American press calling attention to President Hosni Mubarak's
close ties to Gadhafi. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau was
quoted in a Dec. 4 Egyptian newspaper interview as having reassured Egypt
that the United States was not critical of the Mubarak government's ties
to Libya. The account, published in Cairo's most important daily, Al Ahram,
has not been officially challenged by the State Department.
Pelletreau will have an opportunity to spell out what he said.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has taken a consistent interest in Pan Am 103 and
has written asking Pelletreau to explain the department's view of Egypt's
links to Libya.
The unnecessary stroking of Mubarak for the Egyptian public smacks
of the kind of clientitis -- the patronizing explaining away of a client's
vulnerability -- that has led the United States into disasters in Iran,
Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
It reinforces my sense of a letting down at the State Department
in the official campaign against Libya, despite Secretary of State Warren
Christopher's personal commitment to "maintain the rigor of sanctions and
increase them" soon. The Near East bureau seems to have bought the Egyptian
line that Gadhafi represents "a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism"
-- a lesser evil.
The vigorous protests that Algeria has recently made over Gadhafi's
support for fundamentalist revolutionaries there puts the lie to that view.
Nor has he abandoned his support for terrorism, as Cairo claims.
When the French recently arrested and then quickly released Ali
Omar Mansour, a key Libyan intelligence agent, without letting the United
States question him about Pan Am 103, the head of the State Department's
counterterrorism unit blandly assured me that he had no idea who Mansour
was and expressed no concern about the French action.
Maybe that is business as usual for counterterrorist heads, just
as dunning a bereaved family is for the IRS and stroking clients is for
assistant secretaries of state. Taken together, they are the acts of a
government that has lost sight of the meaning of the terrorist crime of
the century -- not just for the families but for America's sense of itself
and its national honor.
Articles appear as they were originally printed in The Washington
Post and may not include subsequent corrections.