[Pan Am 103 Series]
Adam Larson / Caustic Logic
November 6 2009
In a previous post I outlined the publicly available records and lack thereof for the crucial Frankfurt link in the (alleged) Malta-Lockerbie bomb route. Previously I'd missed a major resource, Lester Coleman and Daniel Goddard's's epic 1993 book Trail of the Octopus. It was just published for the first time in the US, apparently on shortened form, so that may differ from the previous online posting of the relevant chapter 7. In this, he starts with the investigative shift from the PFLPGC to Libya, in conjunction with the earlier decision that the bomb had probably come from Frankfurt.
The first requirement was to get the Germans to cooperate, and the only way to do that was to show that the bomb had gone aboard Flight 103 in Frankfurt due to circumstances beyond their control. A possible solution was to show that the bronze Samsonite suitcase containing the bomb had been fed into the system at some other airport, and that it was therefore a failure on Pan Am's part which had allowed it to go aboard Flight 103 in Frankfurt without an accompanying passenger. If this could be 'proved', then the German authorities would be no more to blame than the British at Heathrow, who had also allowed the bag to be transferred from one aircraft to another for the trans-Atlantic leg of the flight. [emph mine]
The German federal police (BKA) were taken to task for some slowness; "After Detective Chief Superintendent John Orr had taken them to task in March 1989, for dragging their feet, the BKA in April sent him the files on the PFLP-GC cell they had broken up some eight weeks before the disaster..." At that time, or so I've heard, the BKA were already sitting on something that would eventually cut the previous PFLP-GC line off at the knees. This is of course the Erac printout supposedly held in private hands until at least mid-January, then handed to the BKA who didn't hand it over to the Scottish police until sometime in August. The foot-dragging had only just started in March, and their first slow moves - failing to try and get the records themselves before the airport people brought them a copy, is of the most interest to me.
What was needed to divert attention away from Frankfurt into politically safer channels was some 'new' evidence, preferably linked to the hard forensic evidence that had already been established and which, by association, would lend credibility to it. And as the police officers engaged in the field investigation could not be counted upon to cooperate in a political fix, that evidence had to be 'found' in a plausible way, even at the cost of further inter-agency bickering.
On 17 August 1989, eight months after the disaster, Chief Detective Superintendent John Orr received from the BKA what was said to be a computer print-out of the baggage-loading list for Pan Am Flight 103A from Frankfurt to London on the afternoon of 21 December 1988. Attached to this were two internal reports, dated 2 February 1989, describing the inquiries that BKA officers had made about the baggage-handling system at the airport. Also provided were two worksheets, one typewritten, the other handwritten, that were said to have been prepared on 21 December by airport workers at key points on the conveyor-belt network.
In the margin of the computer print-out, a penciled cross drew particular attention to bag number B8849 - that is the 8849th bag to be logged into the computerized system at Terminal B that day. By reference to the worksheets, B8849 could be shown to have arrived in Frankfurt by a scheduled Air Malta flight from Luqa airport and to have been 'interlined' through to Flight 103. But neither the Air Malta nor the Pan Am passenger lists showed anybody who had booked a through flight from Luqa to New York that day. In other words, bag B8849 had arrived from Malta unaccompanied but tagged for New York and had been loaded aboard Flight 103 without being matched with a passenger. And as the job of matching bags with passengers is the responsibility of the airline, not of the airport authorities or of the host government, Pan Am had plainly been guilty of lax security amounting to 'wilful misconduct'.
This tied in nicely with the forensic evidence, which had already shown that the bomb had been hidden in a Samsonite suitcase filled with an assortment of clothing made in Malta, including a baby's blue romper suit. [...] Two weeks after the BKA released the Frankfurt baggage print-out, two of Detective Chief Superintendent John Orr's men returned to Malta and, with the help of the manufacturers, traced the clothing to a shop in Sliema.
And from Silema to the Gaucis' shop and from there to history. Fishing for data points, 17 August is the date of the police report about the Malta-pointing printout. Attached were "two internal reports, dated 2 February 1989, describing the inquiries that BKA officers had made about the baggage-handling system at the airport." These I'd love to read. The date seems to be after they had the printout handed over. Any records of any earlier efforts, fruitful or not, remain under wraps. This new development sparked investigations of the airport by FBI and Scots through September and October, pretty much just as their German counterparts did months earlier, and as neither apparently bothered to do before being rung up with the news.
On the two worksheets from December 21, the handwritten one would have to be the station 206 log, with KM180's coding signed for by Mr. Koca. The "typrewritten" one is new to me, and would be interesting to learn more about. It wouldn't be included unless it had some relevance to item 8849, and probably not typed unless it was part of the computer system. And on the numbering, it seems this was not a sequentially-generated number system, but permanent ID for physical trays scattered at random. It was simply tray no. 8849 that this bag was (allegedly) put in. But I'm really no expert.
Coleman followed closely both the Lockerbie investigation and the liability cases against Pan Am that led to its downfall, almost concurrent with the Libyan indictment in late-1991. Along the way, he got a good look at what records the airline did and didn't keep at Frankfurt, as well as raising questions about the umber of of insidious unaccompanied bags thereon:
More particularly, there were problems with the computer records and worksheets from Frankfurt. For one thing, they did not tally with Pan Am's own baggage records, which although questionable as to their accuracy, were at least compiled in good faith. To this day no one knows exactly how many pieces of luggage there were aboard the doomed flight or consequently whether they have all been recovered or accounted for. Nobody even knows exactly how many suitcases were in the luggage pallet that contained the one with the bomb -- it was 45 or 46 -- or how many of these were brought in by the feeder flight from Frankfurt. (The number was also thought to include not one but four unaccompanied bags.)
The BKA estimate that 'about' 135 bags were sent through to the baggage room below the departure gate of Flight 103A, …. There were no records of luggage sent directly to the departure gate, nor of interline luggage taken directly from one aircraft to another, nor of bags belonging to first-class passengers.
Of the 135 bags mentioned by the BKA, 111 had been logged on the Frankfurt computer and about 24 taken directly to the aircraft from three other connecting Pan Am flights. The list compiled by Pan Am at its check-in desks, however, showed not 111 but 117 items of luggage, and the discrepancy has not been convincingly cleared up to this day.
The book evidences exactly my own incredulity over this alleged episode:
If the new Malta/Libyan theory was to replace the established Iran/PFLP-GC scenario, it was necessary, first of all, to believe that no one thought to ask for the baggage-loading lists for Flight 103A as soon as terrorist action was suspected -- which was almost at once.
It was necessary to believe that no one in any of the British, German and American police, intelligence and accident inquiry agencies who had a hand in investigating the disaster, or anyone who was in any way involved with airport management or security at Frankfurt or London, thought to secure the baggage lists as the one indispensable tool that would be needed to unravel the mystery of how the bomb got aboard.
It was necessary to believe that the only person who considered the lists to be at all important was a lowly computer operator at Frankfurt airport.
I can't accept these premises. Either investigators never came for the crucial evidence before its normal deletion, or it was deleted too early. THAT is why the printout wound up being the only and much-delayed record of the movements of the key bag. I suspect the printout lost NO corroboration in this early deletion. How early? According to this last snippet I'll share, the BKA had eight days to act under normal circumstances. Should have taken one or less.
The Observer's chief reporter, John Merritt, described how this came about in a story published almost two years after the disaster.
He wrote, on 17 November 1991:
A major breakthrough in the hunt for the Lockerbie bombers came to light only because of the quick thinking of a conscientious computer operator at Frankfurt airport.
The vital computer evidence, proving conclusively that the bag from Malta, identified as Item B8849, was on board as the airliner was blasted apart on the last stage of its journey from Heathrow to New York would have been lost forever if the woman operator had not kept her own record.
Acting on her own initiative, the woman, an employee of the Frankfurt Airport Company, who for legal reasons cannot be named, was working at the computer system known as KIK on the day of the disaster. She knew records relating to baggage loaded on to flights were kept in the system for only a limited time [eight days] before being wiped. So when she returned to work the next day she made her own print-out of the information and placed it in her locker before going on holiday.
On her return, weeks later, she was surprised to learn that no one had shown any interest in the computer records. She passed the print-out to her baggage section leader who gave it to investigators from the West German Bundeskriminalamt. But it was not until mid-August, eight months after the bombing, that the German authorities turned over this information to Scottish police in charge of the investigation.
The woman employee's role became known only last week when lawyers for families of the American victims took evidence from her in Germany. She had kept her own copy of the print-out and still had it in her locker.
Most of the rest of the chapter is a lengthy analysis of Juval Aviv's Interfor report. Coleman seems perhaps too accepting of this every-little-detail expose on how the bomb went on there, and I just haven't the patience to sort that wheat from that chaff. This is more than enough fiber and food for now.