Pan Am Tip Was Hoax, FBI Asserts : Call in Helsinki Citing Bomb Threat Fully Discredited

Times Staff Writer

The FBI’s counterintelligence chief said Sunday that U.S. investigators are now convinced that a telephoned tip that a bomb would be planted on a Pan American jetliner was a hoax.

Oliver B. Revell III, executive assistant FBI director, said there is no connection between the threat, received earlier this month by the American Embassy in Finland, and the crash of Pan Am Flight 103 last Wednesday at Lockerbie, Scotland. All 258 passengers and crew aboard the flight were killed along with at least 15 people on the ground.

“That particular threat in Helsinki has been completely discredited,” Revell said on the CBS-TV program “Face the Nation.”

Breakup at 31,000 Feet

He said that British and American investigators have not yet determined what caused the Boeing 747 jumbo jet to break up while flying at an altitude of 31,000 feet and rain flaming wreckage and other debris on Lockerbie and the surrounding countryside, although a massive explosion caused by a bomb appears to be the most likely explanation.

And while most speculation about a bomb has centered on the probability of a terrorist attack, Revell said investigators also are checking the possibility that the plane was brought down by a criminal, motivated by revenge or possibly insurance money.


The anonymous telephone call to the embassy in Helsinki on Dec. 5 said that a Pan Am flight from Frankfurt would be bombed by Palestinian terrorists before Christmas. Flight 103 originated in Frankfurt, although passengers changed aircraft at London’s Heathrow Airport.

Heated Controversy

When information about the threat first surfaced last week, it caused a heated controversy because the U.S. government did not warn prospective passengers of possible danger. The information was passed along to U.S. diplomatic missions and to other governments and air carriers, and the American Embassy in Moscow told its employees about it with a notice posted on the bulletin board at the snack bar. Other U.S. installations did not inform their employees.

American officials, including President Reagan, have said that if all such threats were made public, they would have the effect of closing down international air travel, a result that terrorists presumably want. Revell added that such threats come in at a rate of “about three a day” and almost all of them turn out to be hoaxes.

Revell said that investigators are studying the passenger list to determine if there could have been a purely criminal motive for sabotaging the flight.

“It could be a criminal act,” Revell said. “We’ve had instances in the past where individuals, for either revenge or for profit, have placed bombs on aircraft to kill relatives” or others.

He said that checks of the passenger list have not yet turned up any likely suspects.

Revell contradicted Foreign Minister Moshe Arens of Israel, who said in Jerusalem that intelligence reports established that the plane was brought down by a terrorist.

“We know everything they know,” Revell said of Israeli intelligence. He said there was no conclusive information about the cause of the crash so far.

Authorities have mentioned as an alternative to the bomb theory the possibility that the doomed jet suffered a massive, midair structural failure. Top government and industry experts from both Britain and the United States continue to search the crash scene and inspect the wreckage for clues they predict will tell them what caused the plane to crash.

Later, in an interview with CBS Radio, Revell denied reports that the CIA’s station chief in Beirut had been among the passengers on Flight 103.

“We cannot comment on intelligence personnel, but I am authorized by to say that the station chief in Beirut was not on that aircraft,” Revell said.

Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that if it can be determined with certainty that a terrorist group was responsible for the crash, the United States should retaliate militarily.

Economic Retaliation

In the meantime, he called for increased counterterrorism efforts, including economic retaliation against friendly governments that do not share U.S. concerns about terrorism.

“There has been insufficient expressions of rage in the Western World,” Cohen said on the ABC-TV program “This Week with David Brinkley.”

For a start, Cohen urged a tourist boycott of Greece, which earlier this month rejected Italy’s request for extradition of a suspect in a Rome synagogue bombing.

Donald D. Engen, former head of the Federal Aviation Administration, said on ABC-TV that international air travel can never be completely safe from terrorist attacks but that there are ways to improve security. However, he said, the methods are expensive and would result in increased inconvenience to the traveling public.

$1 Million Devices

For instance, he said, there is a device that can detect plastic explosives that are virtually impossible to locate with other equipment. But, he said, the devices cost about $1 million each, an expense that would surely have to be passed along to passengers in the form of higher fares.

He also said airlines could conduct the sort of painstaking baggage searches that have been commonplace for years on flights in and out of Israel. Such measures require passengers to arrive at air terminals at least two hours before flight departure time.

“If the traveling public will accept it, that’s one solution,” Engen said.

Back Terrorism Theory

Two non-government experts in terrorism, Robert Kupperman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and former Pentagon official Noel Koch said they are convinced that the plane was downed by a terrorist bomb.

Koch said that the government of Syria is “the most likely suspect.” He supplied no direct evidence to support the assertion, although he said that Syria was almost surely behind an unsuccessful attempt to smuggle a bomb aboard a flight of the Israeli airline El Al as it was loading passengers in London more than two years ago.

Kupperman, interviewed by Koch on the ABC program, said there are plenty of possible suspects including several renegade Palestinian organizations that oppose Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat’s recent renunciation of terrorism and his recognition of Israel’s right to exist.