The Fall of Pan Am 103

Among the nightmare images permanently imprinted on our minds, the destruction of a Pan Am 747 jumbo jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, four days before Christmas 1988 is one of the most harrowing. Two hundred fifty-nine passengers of 31 nationalities, innocent holiday travelers almost every one, died in the most terrible manner — plunging six miles to earth from an exploded airliner. Not to mention the 11 killed in a farming village more appropriate to adorn Yuletide greeting cards than to serve as a memorial to the murderous political derangements of the age. Even the local priest who was to say Christmas Mass in Lockerbie found himself unable to go on.

Almost equally distressing to the victims’ families were the revelations that began to appear within days of the disaster, as Steven Emerson and Brian Duffy show in The Fall of Pan Am 103. Everybody knew that an anti-American terrorist strike had been likely since the equally horrifying shooting down of an Iranian jetliner over the Persian Gulf by the U.S. Navy in July 1988 — an apparent accident in which 290 civilians lost their lives. But no sooner had a group called the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution taken credit for the Lockerbie atrocity than disquieting information began to surface.

Not only had the attack been predictable in a general way but U.S. officials in Helsinki had gotten a specific warning just two weeks earlier that a Pan Am flight originating in Frankfurt would e bombed before Christmas. The American embassy in Moscow posted a warning, and many State Department employees elsewhere knew about it too. Why had greater precautions not been taken? Why had the public not been told? Despite the warning, four passengers on the doomed flight turned out to be covert U.S. intelligence operatives stationed in Beirut. Had the travelers known this and known about the warnings too, how many of them might have chosen to alter or cancel their holiday plans? Their shattered families, Emerson and Duffy make clear, still want to know.

They won’t find the answers in this book. Though intermittently fascinating in its Tom Clancy-like account of what may have been the most comprehensive criminal investigation in history, The Fall of Pan Am 103 relies far too ! heavily on such familiar figures as ”knowledgeable U.S. officials” and ”Israeli and Western intelligence officials” to carry much weight with skeptical readers. Especially in the clinches. Their notion that the Helsinki call was no morr than a ”ghoulish coincidence” is so limply narrated that even the authors seem unpersuaded. Nor does it much improve one’s opinion of Emerson and Duffy’s evenhandedness to read that the doomed Persian Gulf flight was ”filled with Iraniaith Irania off to spend wads of hoarded money on fancy electronics in Dubai’s well-stocked department stores.”

Quite properly, Emerson and Duffy praise the effort, skill, and dedication of the hundreds of investigators who combed more than 300 miles of British countryside for the evidence. When it comes to bringing the psychopaths who commit such acts of terrorism to justice, they point out that ”nuts-and-bolts detective work results in successful investigations more often than do spy games, high-tech trickery or anything else.” Recovering 16,000 pieces of property, roughly 85 percent of the aircraft itself, and taking 14,181 statements from witnesses, the FBI and Scotland Yard seem to have constructed a strong circumstantial case against several members of a particularly loony cabal of anti-Israeli fanatics.

As for questions both larger and smaller — such as who put them up to the job and exactly how did the bomb get smuggled aboard flight 103 — the evidence appears to be much less conclusive. Emerson and Duffy do themselves little credit and are likely to persuade almost nobody by constructing a veritable pyramid of speculation on both counts — not to mention the oft-insinuated but wholly unsubstantiated charge that West Germany may have been willing to wink at terrorists based there as long as they ”did not target people and property inside the Federal Republic.” The most crucial kinds of evidence all too often hang upon phrases like ”one theory,” ”an even stronger possibility,” ”might have provided,” and ”CIA officials believe. . .” As in many books of this kind, the authors portray U.S. intelligence in two ways: as socialites playing at spy who have misread every turn in Middle Eastern politics since Suez or as intrepid geniuses who mark the fall of every sparrow from Teheran to Tripoli. They can’t have it both ways. B

The Fall of Pan Am 103
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