The Bomb on Flight 103: New Controversy on Alerts
Airline and regulatory officials on both sides of the Atlantic had much more warning than previously known about the threat of a bomb like the one that blew a Pan Am jumbo jet out of the skies over Scotland last December, it was revealed here Thursday.
But whether through bad luck, as the regulators imply, or incompetence--as charged by relatives of the victims--no one put the disparate omens together until it was too late for all 259 persons aboard Flight 103 as well as 11 residents of the small Scottish village where the fiery wreckage fell to earth.
A bitter controversy over how much was known about the danger before the Pan Am bombing, and by whom, was renewed here Thursday thanks to what later turned out to be little more than a curious sidelight to the main developments.
Local press reports revealed that two days before the Dec. 21 tragedy, the country’s Transport Ministry had sent warnings and a photograph of an unusual type of bomb to U.S. and British airlines as well as South African Airways, Air-India and Israel’s El Al.
The bomb, concealed inside a radio-cassette player, was the same type as is suspected of having brought down the Pan American World Airways Boeing 747. But because the warning was mailed, some recipients, including Pan Am, did not receive it until mid-January.
While confirming the Dec. 19 advisory, however, Transport Minister Paul Channon dismissed it Thursday as “of no importance whatsoever,” because virtually the same warning had been telexed to all British airlines on Nov. 22, nearly a month before Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Charles Redman said that “in late October of 1988, West German authorities (in Frankfurt) arrested 14 suspected members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine--General Command. In November, we learned that among the evidence seized during those arrests was a bomb hidden in a Toshiba radio and which included a barometric pressure triggering device. (The detonator, which would trigger the bomb at a predetermined altitude, made it clear the bomb was meant to be smuggled on board an aircraft.)
“As a result of the unusual number of suspected PFLP--GC members arrested and the discovery of such a bomb, the FAA issued, on Nov. 18, an Aviation Security Bulletin Number 88-19 to U.S. carriers to warn them about the presence of PFLP-GC members in Europe, the existence of this bomb, its characteristics, and to advise that increased security measures should be introduced to counter this threat. This bulletin remains in effect today.”
Pan Am spokeswoman Pamela Hanlon confirmed that the company received the bulletin and said “appropriate action was taken.”
There is no evidence that the German discovery is linked to the Pan Am attack, but critics contend that combined with a second bit of intelligence, it should have triggered an alert which might have prevented the Lockerbie disaster.
The second warning, previously disclosed, was telephoned anonymously to the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki last Dec. 5. The caller said radical Palestinians planned to smuggle a bomb onto a Pan Am flight originating in Frankfurt within the following two weeks.
Flight 103 originated in Frankfurt on a smaller plane before stopping in London to pick up additional passengers and change to the jumbo jet for the rest of its scheduled journey to New York.
The FAA alerted American carriers and friendly governments to the Helsinki warning on Dec. 9, but the British authorities decided not to pass it on. American carriers serving London were already on a high state of alert, officials explained, and the anonymous call itself was given little credibility.
Channon repeated Thursday his contention that the Helsinki alert was “probably a hoax” and has “no relevance whatsoever” to the Pan Am disaster.
The Labor Party opposition, meanwhile, mounted a strong attack on Channon and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who defended her transport secretary. It may have been coincidence, opposition officials argued, but the various warnings described the threat to Pan Am Flight 103 very precisely. Yet the disaster was not prevented. Labor called for a special investigation to find out why.
Channon rejected that idea.
Meanwhile, the Times of London reported today that police know the bomber’s identity and present location. The Times said Channon will disclose details next week, but a spokeswoman for Channon said she knew of no plans for any announcement.
Times staff writer David Savage, in Washington, contributed to this article.