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US Government Still on Ropes Over Lockerbie
By John Ashton
Originally Appeared in June 9, 1996 edition of The Mail on Sunday - London
There are two very different theories about Lockerbie, the first is black and white; the second is murky and gray. The black and white version presents the bombing as a victory of terrorist cunning over American innocence. The gray version suggests that Uncle Sam has as much blood on his hands as the bombers. Not surprisingly, it is the first version that the US and British governments came to believe.
The conflicting accounts are now the heart of an extraordinary battle to prevent a book from being published in the US Trail Of The Octopus by Donald Goddard and Lester Coleman first appeared in Britain in 1993, but no major American publisher would touch it. "If the book's allegations prove to be correct," says Dr. Jim Swire, who lost his daughter Flora at Lockerbie, "it will make Watergate look like vicar's tea party."
Like Spycatcher, it is a sensational whistleblower's account of alleged excesses by the spooks. But whereas Spycatcher prompted a government to launch a clumsy legal attempt at censorship, Trail Of The Octopus is being resisted by a collection of private individuals. This has made the current battle much more low-key; but it is no less hard fought.
A firm of distributors has already pulled out of handling the book. "I've known nothing like it for 20 years," says Warren Hinckle, head of its own small publisher Argonaut Press. A veteran of many censorship battles, Hinckle is now planning to do up the stakes. In doing so, he intends to expose a seven year campaign by government agencies against those who have challenged the official version of Lockerbie. If he is successful the repercussions could be immense.
Some of the facts about Lockerbie are not disputed. The most obvious is that on December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was destroyed by a bomb built into Toshiba radio cassette player. All 259 people on board were killed, along with 11 residents of the Scottish town.
Then there is the Iranian connection. In July 1988 the US Navy battle cruiser Vincennes accidentally shot down an Iranian Airliner over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 people on board. Within days hard-liners within the Tehran government had commissioned a Syria based group, the Popular Front For The Liberation Of Palestine, General Command (PFLP-GC), to carry out a revenge attack. Led Ahmed Jibril, it had specialized in blowing up planes since 1970.
By mid-October 1988, Jibril had everything in place. His bomb-maker, Marwan Khrecat, had been dispatched to Germany and had assembled five bombs designed to detonate at altitude. However, the German police were watching Kreesat's moves. On October 26, he and 14 other PFLP-GC suspects were rounded up in an operation code named Autumn Leaves. One of the aircraft bombs was seized. It had been built into a Toshiba radio-cassette player.
It is at this point that the two versions begin to diverge. According to the first version, Autumn Leaves halted Jibril's plan and opened a window of opportunity for the Libyan leader Colonel Gadafy. Western intelligence sources maintain that he was desperate to avenge 1986 American raids on his country. It is claimed that the action suddenly shifted to Malta where two Libyan agents, working undercover for Libyan Arab Airlines, are alleged to have assembled a bomb in another Toshiba radio-cassette player. They then managed to smuggle it on board a flight to Frankfurt, in an unaccompanied suitcase labeled to New York. At Frankfurt it evaded Pan Am's security and, still unaccompanied, was loaded on a first leg of flight 103 to Heathrow, where it joined the ill fated jumbo jet. This version became official in November 1991, when the British and American government issued indictments against the two alleged agents: Abdel Basser Ali Al-Mergrahi and Lamen Khalifa Phimah.
According to alternative versions, Autumn Leaves were a mere hiccup in Jibril's plans. Four more airplane bombs were still at large, and, within days, most of the suspects, including Kreesat had been freed.
It is on the question of what happened over the next two months and, in particular, how the bomb got on the flight 103, that the alternative version becomes too controversial. Its supporters allege that Jibril used an unwitting dupe; a young Lebanese-born American Khalid Jafaar. The Jafaar clan was one of the major drug-producing dynasties in the Syrian occupied Bekaa valley. It is claimed that Jafaar walked aboard flight 103 believing himself to be carrying heroin, but that he had been double-crossed by Jibril's men. Having learned of the drug shipments through the treacherous world of the Bekaa, Jibril realized that they provided an ideal means for getting the bomb on the plane.
Under normal circumstances it might have been detected in a routine security check, but, so the story goes, this was drug-trafficking with a difference. It was part of a shady bargain struck between elements within the CIA and the Syrian overlords of Lebanese narco-terrorism. In return for the Syrian using their influence to free the remaining American hostages, the CIA helped them to safely transport their heroin on transatlantic flights. Jafaar had a foot in both camps; as well as bring a mule for the drug barons, he was secretly an asset of the CIA.
Coming as it did on the heels of Irangate (which also involved shady deals over hostages), the CIA was desperate to keep the operation secret. For this reason, it is claimed, it sought cover behind the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). At this point the Trail Of The Octopus comes in.
The book tells the story of its co-author Lesier Coleman. Originally a journalist, in the mid-Eighties he began to work as a contract consultant for the DEA's Cyprus office. At that time Cyprus was the nerve center of efforts to monitor drug production in Lebanon. It was no ordinary assignment because Coleman was simultaneously employed by the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the ultra-secretive military spooks. According to Coleman, the DEA was desperate for information about Lebanon, but it also wanted to keep a discreet eye on the DEA and CIA, both of which it viewed with suspicion.
By the time Coleman arrived in Cyprus, the flow of drugs out of Lebanon was so great that the best the DEA could hope for was to monitor where it was going to in the US to catch the dealers there. In order to do this, he claims, he relied on a technique called controlled delivery. This involves an agent, or informant, carrying a specially marked bag containing drugs. The shipment is monitored by the DEA and, through cooperation with other countries, is allowed to pass through security and customs unhindered.
Trail Of The Octopus claims that the controlled deliveries provided the CIA with its fig leaf. Not only that, but the DEA allowed its network of informants to double as the CIA's eyes and ears in Lebanon. It was this mixing of roles, Coleman asserts, that proved fatal. The informants were not trained agents; worse still, he believes, some of them were reporting back to the Syrian backed terrorists. Security, thus, was a sham. Coleman insists that he tried to raise the issue with the head of the DEA Cyprus, Michael Hurley, but was ignored. Tension between the two men grow and Coleman eventually left the island in May 1988. Before departing, he claims to have warned Hurley, in a taped telephone conversation that the security situation was a disaster waiting to happen. Hurley has accused Coleman of editing in the phrase, and says that Coleman was sacked by the DEA for unsatisfactory behavior.
Despite his avowed prophecy, Coleman says that it was not until months after Lockerbie that he realised the disaster might be connected to drug-trafficking. He claims the realization was triggered by the discovery that Khalid Jafaar was among the victims. "The kid was one of those I saw coming through the office in Cyprus," he says, "I knew from the conversations around me in 1988 that he was involved in controlled deliveries --- there's no doubt in my mind about that at all." The DEA denies any connection with Jafaar.
Coleman was not the first to hint at the alternative version. In the days after the disaster rumors were rife that Jafaar had been duped into carrying the bomb. The rumors were fueled by the fact that large quantities of heroin were found among the debris. These finds were later denied by the British and American authorities.
In 1990 the ceiling fell in on Coleman's world. He was arrested by the FBI and charged with passport fraud. Although he admitted applying for a passport under the name Thomas Leavy, he maintains that he was acting under orders from the DIA, which he says, had just reactivated him for an undercover assignment. When he tried to call his DIA contact numbers, he says, the numbers were dead. Then the anonymous death treats started. Rather then waiting around for a trial, he decided to flee to Sweden. On arrival, he became the first American citizen to apply for political asylum since the Vietnam war.
Coleman presents himself as a latter-day version of the man who knew to much, but to his detractors the passport charges show that he is a trickster and a con man. They point out that he has yet to produce the hard evidence to prove his claims. Chief among his enemies, predictably, is old DEA boss Michael Hurley. In May 1994 Hurley issued a libel writ against the book's British publisher, Bloomsbury. The case has still to come to court.
Coleman counters his critics by pointing out that they too have yet to make public proof of their allegations. He is adamant that he could proof his case in an instant, if the US Government allowed him access to documents relating to him and to the DEA's controlled delivery operations. In 1990 he requested under the US Freedom of Information Act. The application was refused on the grounds of "National Security'; a curious response from a government which claims it has nothing to hide.
What Coleman does have, in spades, is evidence that the American authors have played dirty. In 1992 the FBI applied to the Swedish government to have him extradited. Among the papers it submitted was an "investigative summary" concerning the passport case. It claimed the FBI had been alerted to the fraud by the public records office in the town of New London, Connecticut. Suspicions had been raised, the report stated, when someone identifying himself as Thomas Leavy had requested a copy of his birth certificate. He listed his date of birth as July 4, 1948. According to the FBI, when the records office ran a computer check, they discovered "that the real Thomas Leavy had died in New London, Connecticut, two days after his 1948 birth." The impostor, the FBI suggested, was Coleman.
The FBI was lying through its teeth. In January 1995 Coleman's lawyers obtained a sworn statement from the registrar of public records in New London. It stated that "after a diligent search of the records...neither a birth record on or about July 6, 1948, nor a death record, on or about July 6, 1948, of one Thomas Leavy was recorded.'
On September 21, 1993, the US government issued another indictment against Coleman this time for perjury. The alleged offenses were contained in an affidavit he had sworn for Pan Am's lawyers in 1991. To those wondering why the government would wait two years before acting, Coleman points out that the charges came just days before Trail Of The Octopus was published in Britain. "It was a blatant spoiling operation," says his co-author Donald Goddard. "They even announced the charges in a press release." The indictment once again showed the government to have been careless. Its first count alleges that Coleman lied about his ability to speak Arabic. In fact, he speaks three dialects of the language quite competently. "If the American government is prepared to lie about Coleman," says Jim Swire, spokesman for the British Lockerbie relatives, "then who is to say the official version of Lockerbie is not also a lie?'
In 1993 I began to investigate Lockerbie for a TV documentary called, "The Maltese Double Cross", made by an internationally renowned film-maker, Allan Francovich. The project attracted controversy because it was initially funded by Lonrho plc, which had business ties with the Libyan government, and later by the company's former chief executive, Tiny Rowland. Francovich, only agreed to be involved on condition that there was no interference from Rowland or Libya. The condition was met.
Before long we came across alarming evidence that Coleman was not the only one whom the authorities had tried to silence. I made it a priority to find policemen and volunteers who had the grim task of scouring the Scottish hillsides for debris. Five years on, it was hard to get people to talk. Most reticent were those who had searched the area around Tundergarth, where the nose section of the plane had landed, and the heroin was found.
The day after the crash, the area was swarming with plan-clothed Americans, Searchers told me, off the record, that the agents seemed desperate to find something. Although the search effort was supposed to follow the strict rules of evidence gathering, they seemed to have been given carte blanche to do their own thing. In the meantime junior police officers and volunteers were warned that, under the Official Secrets Act, they must never reveal what they had seen.
The film eventually concluded that the alternative version of Lockerbie was correct. Despite all the new evidence we uncovered, we were never approached by the Scottish police, or FBI, to help with their inquires. It was due to be premiered at the 1994 London Film Festival, but, for the first time in its 38 year history, the festival pulled out at the last minute owing to fears of legal action. Following the decision, a number of screenings were organized by an anti-censorship center in Birmingham called the Angle Gallery. The day after the first screening both the gallery and the home of the organizer were burgled. Nothing of value was taken, but office files had been rifled. A few weeks later, the gallery organized a further screening. This time it suffered an arson attack.
Channel 4 eventually agreed to show the film on May 11 last year. The day before the broadcast the British and American governments launched an extraordinary assault. Simultaneously, the Scottish Crown Office and the US Embassy in London sent every national and Scottish newspaper a press pack. It consisted of a series of unsubstantiated smears against four of the film's interviewers. Among them, inevitably, was Lester Coleman. Great play was made of the fact that he was a fugitive from justice but the FBI's blatant lies were ignored.
Also targeted was a New York based investigator called Juval Aviv. In 1989, at the recommendation of a number of prestigious law firms, he was hired to investigate the bombing by Pan Am. After three months he delivered a report based on anonymous intelligence sources, which was the first detailed incarnation of the alternative version. A few weeks later it was leaked to the media. Some of the lawyers representing the Lockerbie relatives played hell, accusing Aviv and Pan Am of cooking up a story that would exonerate the airline's faulty security.
Ever since that time, Aviv claims, he has been a marked man. He alleges a series of break-ins at his Madison Avenue offices. "They rarely took anything, but they left signs of their presence. It was like they were saying, "Don't step out of line again,"" he says. He also claims his clients have been approached by FBI agents and advised to sever contact with him. This may sound like the stuff of paranoid fantasy, but he points to the fact that, since the report was leaked, all his contacts with government agencies have dried up.
Within days of The Maltese Double Cross being broadcast, Aviv was indicted on fraud charges. The alleged offense had occurred---you've guessed it---years earlier. He is adamant that it was trumped up to help the governments spoiling operation against the film (indeed it was trailed in the press pack). His lawyer, Gerald Shargel, applied for the case to be dismissed on the grounds of selective prosecution. In an affidavit submitted last September, he wrote; "In all my (25) years of practice, I have never seen the resources of the FBI and the US Attorney's Office devoted to such an insignificant, inconsequential, isolated, four-year-old matter." The judge turned down the application last month, but not before condemning some of the prosecution's arguments "pathetic" and "dishonest'.
Despite the legal set back, there is now dramatic evidence of the government's vendetta against Aviv. It is contained in a report produced by Martin Kenney, a New York based international lawyer who specializes in serious financial crime. Earlier this year he, Aviv, and one other partner, set up an asset search and recovery company in Bermuda called Interclaim Ltd. The plan was to utilize Kenney's legal skills and Aviv's investigative know-how.
They lined up a handful of distinguished legal and commercial figures from Britain and the US to become both investors and members of the company's board of directors. The also approached an investment banking firm from the City of London and three major accountancy firms. All were enthusiastic about Interclaim. Aviv was completely open with Kenney about the outstanding charges. Kenney conducted his own investigation into the allegations and into Aviv's background. He concluded, "I found the incongruity between the fact of the indictment, and the quality and content of Mr. Aviv's professional background, standing and professional and client references to be remarkable.'
Suddenly, last month, Kenney regretfully asked Aviv to step down from the company. According to Kenney's report, the bankers, accountants, and at least one of the directors, had suddenly got cold feet and there was a danger that they would abandon the venture. The reason, Kenney claims, is that most of them had been warned by unnamed US government officials that Aviv was a man not to be touched.
The US government's dirty tricks may just be about to unravel. The catalyst could be the remarkable battle currently being waged over Trail Of The Octopus. Warren Hinckle agreed to publish it last year and by February of this year it was at the printers. Then the barrage began. His distributor, Publishers Group West Inc.(PGW), was bombarded by faxes demanding the company pull out of the deal.
They were mostly from Michael Hurley, who warned that the book "is highly defamatory of myself and many other US citizens and is currently the subject of libel proceedings in the UK'. Legal threats were also made by Ron Martz, a journalist on the Atlanta Constitution newspaper, who was referred to in the book.
Joining in the assault were Daniel and Susan Cohen from New Jersey, who lost their daughter Theodora on flight 103. Their fax warned: "If this book appears in the US we can assure you that we will not sit by quietly. We will energetically denounce not only the book and its scum-bag author, but all those who seek to make money on our daughter's death."
This is not the first time the Cohen's had used such tactics. When Channel 4 first showed interest in The Maltese Double Cross, it was besieged by faxes and phone calls from them, which variously accused us of being "scum', "bastards" and of "whoring for Gadafy'. Jim Swire used to be on friendly terms with the couple, but they have ostracized him ever since he announced he was keeping an open mind about the book and the film. "In effect they wanted to impose censorship," he says. "To my mind that's wrong because the public should have a chance to see and read for themselves, and make their minds up on the bases of that.'
Another opponent of the film to become embroiled in the current controversy is ex-CIA officer Vincent Cannistraro.
As the head of CIA's Lockerbie investigation until October 1990, Cannistraro had helped provide the intelligence that pointed the finger away from drug-running and towards Libya. Previously he had worked alongside Colonel Oliver North in a secret program designed to destabilize the Gadafy, regime.
Nevertheless, the campaign to halt the publication of Trail Of The Octopus appeared to be working. On March 11, PGW told Hinckle that it would not be distributing the book. The company had published many controversial books in the past, but it had never faced such an onslaught. A few days later, British publisher Bloomsbury attempted to revoke its license agreement with Hinckle.
If the book's opponents think they have won the battle, they should think again, they have chosen to tangle with the wrong man. As editor of the investigative magazine Ramparts in the Sixties, Hinckle was frequently involved in similar scrapes. Now he's taking the gloves off again. He intends to press ahead with publication come what may. The counter-offensive is being taken to Washington. Two constitutional rights groups have shown an interest in the legal action and the renowned American lawyer Alan Dershowitz is reported to be looking into the case. With their help, Hinckle hopes to use the case to investigate whether the campaign against the book has been encouraged in any way by the government.
And that's not all. Hinckle plans to force a Congressional inquiry into government smear tactics against Coleman, Juval Aviv and others. He has already made a formal approach to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is supposed to monitor the spooks. He believes that, once the pattern of dirty tricks is made clear, members of Congress will go after the perpetrators with a vengeance. "Someone, somewhere in the dark recesses of government has been coordinating all of this," he says, "I intend to see these bastards forced onto the witness stand and made to sweat." Once the American public is treated to such a spectacle, its faith in the official version of Lockerbie may well crumble.
Hinckle plans to team up with yet another victim of the US government's underhand tactics. Until four years ago Dr. Bill Chasey was one of Washington DC's most successful political lobbyists. After 22 years in the game he had many influential contacts in government and his clients included some of America's largest corporations. A conservative Republican by instinct, he had earlier spent nine years as a US Marine Corps officer. In short, he was the ultimate Establishment figure.
In 1992 he took on what, for him, was a slightly unusual contract, with an American company called International Communications Management (ICM). It had been hired by the government of Libya to help normalize relations with the US, in the wake of the Lockerbie indictments and the resulting UN sanctions. When he was first approached about the assignment, Chasey felt uneasy, As a loyal citizen, he had no reason to doubt his government's account of the bombing. However, on reflection, he figured that the assignment was not necessarily unpatriotic. Normalizing relations need not involve acceptance of Libya's innocence. In any case, the US did business with plenty of the world's more unsavory regimes.
Chasey agreed, on condition that everything be played by the book. Under US law, anyone representing a foreign government in this way must register as a foreign agent. If the assignment was in breach of the UN sanctions, he assumed that the Department of Justice would deny his registration. It did not, and he became registered as Foreign Agent number 4221.
Over the coming weeks, Chasey met with representatives of the Libyan regime, who assured him that the US government had deliberately covered up the truth about Lockerbie. He didn't believe them but became convinced that they deserved a fair hearing on Capitol Hill. Before he was able to make any headway, his world fell apart.
On December 3, 1992, the US government's Office of Foreign Assets Control(OFAC) Issued him with a formal order to stop work on the contract. He was told it was in breach of UN sanctions and that he would be liable to criminal charges. Chasey was bemused; if the contract was illegal, why had he been allowed to register as a foreign agent? Nevertheless, he agreed to cooperate with OFAC and felt sure everything could be sorted out amicably.
Two weeks later as he was about to leave on a Christmas skiing vacation, his wife Virginia phoned, in panic, to tell him that their bank account had been frozen. He immediately called OFAC to find out what they were playing at. An agent explained that it was because he had breached sanctions by accepting Libyan money. Chasey again pointed out that the money had come from an American company, ICM, but to no avail. OFAC refused to budge and the account remains frozen today.
Chasey believes while all this unfolded, he was being closely monitored. "Whenever I arrived in Washington, the FBI would greet me at the airport. How could they have known my travel plans without monitoring my calls?" He also claims to have received anonymous phone calls, in which a man with an Arab accent warned him: "There are a lot of people who don't want this case reopened. If you want to stay alive, stay away from Pan Am 103.'
Eventually, in May 1994, OFAC fined him &50,000. He was never allowed a hearing to put his case. By that time his lobbying business had been badly hit. As with Juval Aviv, a number of clients were approached by the FBI and told that he was under investigation for fraud. Last year he finally wound down the company and got out of Washington. He lost his homes there and in California, and, at 55 years old, was forced to rebuild his life from scratch.
With hindsight, Chasey believes his story demonstrates that the Libyans were right all along. "They went after me because they were worried that I might stumble upon this almighty cover-up and tell my friends in congress about it." Four years ago he would have viewed someone like Warren Hinckle with distaste, but now the publisher is a valuable ally.
Like Lester Coleman, Chasey was moved to write a book about his experiences. Called Foreign Agent 4221: The Lockerbie Cover-Up, it was launched in Washington on April 22 last year. As he entered the city's airport to return home to California, there was another encounter with the FBI. An agent served him with a Grand Jury subpoena for all his business records dating back to 1989. He also questioned Chasey about the Oklahoma bombing three days earlier. He asked if Chasey had any contacts with the Libyans and warned that if he did not report any future contact with them, he would be prosecuted.
America took little notice of the book and it sold just a few thousand copies on the fringe conspiracy market. Now he's updated it and renamed it Pan Am 103: The Lockerbie Cover-Up. It is about to be published for the first time in the UK. It begins with a quote which sums up his experiences "I love my country, but I fear my government." The sentiment will be shared by all those who have probed the dark secrets of flight 103.
Look for The Trail of the Octopus to be featured soon in Deep Politics