Administration officials expect that it will take several more weeks and perhaps months before they will be able to identify the terrorist group or country responsible for the hijacking two weeks ago of a Pan American jumbo jet in Karachi, Pakistan.
Three of the four hijackers who opened fire on passengers inside the cabin of the Boeing 747 have told conflicting stories to their Pakistani interrogators, and U.S. officials have concluded that they are "street kids" who knew little about who was behind their terrorist action.
A State Department official familiar with the investigation said the hijackers were probably hired through the use of "cutouts" to prevent them from knowing exactly whom they were working for. Cutouts are middlemen with no obvious allegiance who are used by intelligence organizations and other clandestine groups.
The fourth hijacker, ringleader Gomer Hussein, is still too seriously wounded to be questioned. Hussein, 24, suffered two bullet wounds in the chest when Pakistani troops and police officers entered the aircraft. Nineteen people died in the incident.
An Administration official insisted that the United States has a "high level of confidence" in the Pakistani military, which is conducting the investigation, but that the longer it takes to get to the source, the more difficult it will be to apprehend the guilty parties.
"The Pakistanis are convinced there had to be other accomplices because of the sophistication of the operation," the official said.
He predicted that, as the investigation widens, a variety of leads will emerge that point to several countries or groups, including Libya, Syria, Iran and the Palestine Liberation Organization. These simultaneous links are "deliberately designed to be misleading" and reflect the determination of the perpetrators to muddy their tracks, he said.
"There's no reason to believe the Pakistanis will not get to the bottom of it," he said, "but it will take time to sort it out so we make sure we don't pursue the wrong trail."
Unlike the terrorist attack on a West Berlin discotheque last spring in which U.S. intelligence sources had immediate and direct evidence--an intercepted cable--linking Libya to the incident, the Karachi hijacking is "a slower cooker," this official said.
"I know of no reason to suggest things are going to be any faster," he said. "We would need either an amazing breakthrough or a hijacker who knows a hell of a lot about his patrons and sings like a songbird." The initial assessment of the Karachi hijackers is that they are members of "a lunatic fringe who wanted to do an operation and didn't question it," the official said.
This official, speaking on the condition that he not be identified, denied the suggestion that the United States or Pakistan is dragging its feet in the investigation out of concern about where it might lead. He said both countries are committed to a resolution "the sooner, the better," but that they recognize the pitfalls in prematurely jumping on a lead that could turn out to be false.
The fact that Palestinian terrorists chose Karachi as the site is politically awkward for Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq, who has long considered himself a friend of the Palestinian cause. "Why Pakistan, why here?" he lamented at a recent press conference.
Zia is particularly sensitive on Palestinian issues because of his service as military adviser to the Jordanian army from 1969 to 1971, when King Hussein drove out Palestinian guerrillas and many were killed. Since then, Zia has been stridently pro-Palestinian, observing at the press conference, "Pakistan behaves and acts holier than the Pope" on Palestinian issues.
The Reagan Administration could face some embarrassment as well if, for example, the investigation points to Syrian involvement. While Reagan has ordered military action against Libya, he has been unwilling to retaliate against Syria, an important power broker in the region, for any terrorist involvement.
While Reagan was vacationing at his Santa Barbara ranch last month, Administration officials warned of a new round of terrorism being hatched by Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi. They said the Administration was prepared to "nip it in the bud" and respond militarily if necessary.
Times staff writer Rone Tempest in New Delhi contributed to this story.