US Senate and Kenny MacAskill: what about the relationship between Iran Air 655 and Pan Am 103?

Olympic Airlines Airbus A300. Author, Arpingstone, public domainF-14 A Tomcat fighter, US Navy. Public Domain.

Kenny MacAskill has tonight (22nd July 2010) rightly refused an impertinent invitation from the American Senate to attend its hearing to give evidence into his release from Greeenock Jail, on compassionate grounds, of ‘the Lockerbie bomber’, Ali Al Megrahi.

Why is the UK in such a paddy about the American Senate’s pompous investigation of the deal in the desert?

Why is it not reflecting the light of scrutiny back on to America’s own actions – which are unlikely to bear much investigation and which may even have been directly responsible for the devastating bombing of Pan Am 103?

The deal in the desert

This saw Tony Blair reach agreement with Colonel Gaddafi on a Prisoner Transfer Agreement, opening up the possibility of the return to Libya of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the convicted bomber of Pan Am Flight 103 which blew up so catastrophically in the skies over Locherbie.

Al Megrahi was, of course Britain’s only Libyan prisoner so the focus of the deal could not have been more transparent. The trouble was that Al Megrahi was inconveniently held in a Scottish jail, under Scottish law over which the deal struck had no purview.

But the agreement nevertheless cleared the way to a lucrative oil rights deal for BP, in a context where that company has admitted that, for its own commercial benefit, it lobbied the UK Government for Al Magrahi’s release.

Interestingly – and which has not been picked up – in making this recent admission, BP said it had lobbied the UK government because it had become anxious at the slow pace of proceeding of the discussions between the UK and Libya on the matter.

This means that it had been involved in discussions on the matter with the British government – prior to the lobbying it has admitted to (else what would it have had to be anxious about?) and was acquainted wth the ‘prisoner transfer’ dodge to be enacted.

The deal done then left the Scottish Government on the hot plate, faced with a terminally ill prisoner whose conviction itself has always been suspect, even in the eyes of some of those arguably most needy of seeing a conviction – like Dr Jim Swire, father of 23 year-old Flora, who died in the  explosion of Pan Am 103.

We hold unequivocally to the view we took at the time, that Scotland’s Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, acted with statesmanship and spiritual largeness.  He released Ali Al Megrahi on compassionate grounds, in line with Scots law, to return to Libya to be with his family for what time he has left.

Part of the self-righteous complaint of American and other critics of this decision has been that this release was made on the grounds of medical opinion that the man had only three months to live – yet, back home, he is still alive.

Recent research shows that cancer is a disease accelerated by stress. It is entirely reasonable to assume that had Al Megrahi continued to be held in Greenock prison he would be dead by now. He is clearly a very ill man.

It is fully gothic to measure the rightness of MacAskill’s decision by the length of life Al Megrahi ekes out, supported by his close family in his own place.

The shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655

IR655 was a civilian aircraft – an Airbus A300B2, en route from Iran to Dubai on 3 July 1988 (near the end of the Iran-Iraq war), when it was shot down over the Strait of Hormuz by the USS Vincennes, an American guided missile cruiser.

All 290 on board, crew and passengers including 66 children, perished in the attack. This is the 7th worst ever air fatality.

The Vincennes was in Iranian waters at the time – in the Strait of Hormuz and when it was shot down, the aircraft was in Iranian airspace.

The US government’s defence of the incident was that the crew had misidentified the Airbus as an attacking F-14 Tomcat fighter. The photographs above of the two aircraft severely test the credibility of this explanation. The Tomcat is a delta wing and would not have an air profile remotely resembling that of the Airbus A300.

Reasonably enough, the Iranian government maintained that the Vincennes shot down the civilian aircraft knowingly. In the resulting and continuing controversy, some analysts have held that US military commanders and the captain of the Vincennes behaved with nervy automatic aggression in a tense situation.

In 1996, at the International Court of Justice, the USA and Iran agreed  ‘a full and final settlement of all disputes, differences, claims, counterclaims’ over the incident, with the USA paying $61.8 million compensation to the families of the Iranian victims – without -then or since – admitting any responsibility for what had happened.

While conspiracy theories inevitably attend all particularly indefensible actions – like the downing of the World Trade Centre towers on 11th September 2001 – a specific rumour has persisted, linking the destruction of Iran Air Flight 655 to that of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie.

It is that the action against the Iran Air flight would have – with certainty – provoked counter-attacks from Iranian terrorist groups and that, to avoid indiscriminate multiple revenge attacks fuelled by the rhetoric of Ayatollah Khomeini, a secret deal was struck by which the USA agreed to sacrifice, like-for-like, one American civilian aircraft for the Iranian one destroyed by the American Navy ship.

Pan Am Flight 103 was detonated above Lockerbie on 21st December 1988. Iran Air Flight 655 had been shot down by the USS Vincennes on 3rd July 1988, just over five months earlier.

A second proposition, which also persists,  may be a more plausible – and certainly a more domestically acceptable possibility than that Pan Am 103 was seen as a necessary political sacrifice.

This is that the plane was indeed blown up by Iranian terrorists in revenge for the shooting down of IR655 but was an action coincidentally enabled by a covert sanction for heroin to be smuggled into the USA by militant groups in exchange for information on terrorist activity around the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Hezbollah.

Both of these propositions, which could conceivably be a single narrative,  have arisen from and gathered to themselves a spectrum of odd events. For instance, amongst these it is alleged that some key American personnel, due to take Pan Am Flight 103,were mysteriously withdrawn from it at the last minute.

The point of this is that, one way or another, it is inconceivable that there is no link between the downing of the two aircraft.

There is then at least as much reason for the USA to examine its own dark corners on matters associated with the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie as there is to focus on dodgy deals that, on form, Tony Blair is very likely to have done.

A man who, arguably for personal benefit and vanity, can take a nation into an illegal war on a slender and knowingly unsound premise is hardly going to cavil at agreeing to release Al Megrahi in exchange for lucrative opportunities in Libyan oil for BP, whose then CEO was close to the government.

However, the notion of motes and beams is germane in interrogating the American Senate’s current self-righteous shrillness in manoevering Britain into the dock on the matter.

Never forget Union Carbide

On the subject of BP and the catastrophic pollution it has brought about in the Gulf of Mexico, America is in no position to be self-righteous and judgmental.

It has never acted as it should in the matter of the American company, Union Carbide, the deaths of thousands of people its actions caused in India and the destruction of the health of very many more.

In the world’s deadliest industrial accident – a gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in the Indian city of Bhopal, several thousand people were killed and the incident caused cancer, blindness and birth defects in thousands more.

The Indian Government has said in evidence that about 3,500 people died in the three days after the accidental release of 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas into the air in the early hours of 3rd December 1984. The enduring effects are officially estimated to have lifted the death toll to around 15,000 over the following few years.

Activists, however, say that the leak killed at least 25,000 and damaged the health of up to 500,000 more.

The Indian government initially tried to sue Union Carbide in the USA for $3.3 billion in damages but, in an out-of-court settlement in 1989, agreed to accept $470 million in compensation.

Dow Chemical, another American company, then bought Union Carbide in 2001, holding that the legal case had been resolved, that it had no inherited responsibility for the Bhopal incident and that responsibility for the site lay with local government in Bhopal.

India’s Central Bureau of Investigation nevertheless carried on with a case against the American head of Union Carbide at the time of the fatal gas leak, Warren Anderson and eight managers of the Indian subsidiary.

India arrested Mr Anderson, who is now 89, after the accident but released him on bail and allowed him to leave the country. He then resisted all of India’s attempts to have him extradited and the USA made no move to support Indian government efforts in this respect.

Yet the USA will persist in extraditing the hacker Gary MacKinnon, whose crime in penetrating US defence sites on the Internet was enabled by their slack online security measures and does not in any case, equate to the magnitude of the human cost of Union Carbide’s rapacious and barely managed operation in Bhopal.

The economic consequences of Union Carbide’s actions in Bhopal neither affected the American economy nor the company with the utterly inappropriate level of compensation it paid to the Indian government.

Conversely, the impact of BP’s actions in the Gulf of Mexico will – rightly – be borne largely by that company, which may well not survive the incident, threatening the British economy and pension funds at a level of real profundity.

The UK needs to be seen to hit the bowling hard in the summer heat of this misplaced political game around the Al Megrahi release and the BP disaster. It needs to get the other side in to bat against some hard investigation of its own very relevant actions.

And lay off Scotland

Neither the USA nor the UK has any room to be critical of Scotland in any of this.

Scotland has been a pawn in other people’s games in every aspect of the Lockerbie saga. Scottish lives were lost. Scottish territory was violated. A Scottish village was devastated physically and emotionally. Scottish justice came under fire with a flawed prosecution case against Al Magrahi.

And, in a context mired in the revelation of Blair’s deal in the desert,  Scotland was left alone to make a decision on whether to leave a terminally ill man – whose guilt is questionable – to die alone in a jail in a foreign land or to spend what time he has left with his family in his own very different culture.

Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, made and made known his decision with intellectual acuity, grace and dignity. Scotland should be proud of that and others should consider their own political and military conduct before attempting to use this country as a decoy.

Useful links:
•   Inconvenient truths
•    Bhopal Chronology

The images used at the top of this article – of the Airbus A300 and the F-14 Tomcat fighter – are both in the public domain.

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8 Responses to US Senate and Kenny MacAskill: what about the relationship between Iran Air 655 and Pan Am 103?

  1. You forgot the attack on Wounded Knee, the Palmer raids and Slavery.

    Or you could just stick to the point, which is that MaCaskill freed a man who murdered almost 200 Americans. I would mention the murdered Brits to, but hay, if you do not give a damn why should anyone else?

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    • For Andy fr DC: But we love the Boston Tea Party.

      Listen Andy, we’re saying that American needs to examine its own actions first because the country’s spooks may have been involved quite closely with the downing of the Pan Am flight. And there is a high degree of doubt that Megrahi was actually responsible.

      Whatever nation we belong to, we have to accept that our own country does not have clean hands.

      Your nation and ours have colluded in ‘extraordinary rendition’ and torture – so you and we share a sense of guilt by association. The British military conducted covert assassinations in Northern Ireland as a means of directing, in their own interests, the focus of the various sectarian terrorist organisations. We have had a Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who, although your country uncritically idolises him to his great financial benefit, has shamed and demeaned our country in very many ways and left us exposed to terrorism which had not previously been focused on the UK. We are now investigating many of that government’s actions, as America needs to interrogate the background to the bombing of the Pan Am plane.

      America’s own hands may well not be clean in this matter and, for as long as this is a possibility, it is a much more necessary investigation than is hounding Scotland and its Justice Secretary – both have acted honourably, both after the event. What America may have done may have led to the event. There is a serious difference in degree of responsibility here.

      For reasons of internal politics, the American government cannot allow the light of internal investigation into this affair. But Scotland does not deserve to be made a decoy duck. This country has a very real affinity for America and for Americans – but it maintains its integrity. Kenny MacAskill knew how his decision would be received by the bereaved families in America. He would not have taken that decision if he had not been certain that, morally, it was the right one.

      There is real, widespread and enduring sympathy here – fellow feeling – for the families of the 270 Americans including young children and 48 students from various American universities – principally Syracuse, who died over Lockerbie.

      The shock felt here at the time was multiplied by the reverberations from the 281 deaths this dreadful sabotage brought about in the air and on the ground.

      We must both understand that this experience was fully shared by the families of the 290 innocent civilian passengers and crew on Iran Air Flight 655, downed by a known action from an American warship.

      These are muddy waters and those of us who were victims in various ways should insist together on an investigation of root cause rather than allowing our focus to be deflected into peripheral, and essentially minor disputes.

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  2. Whoa there! Take a step back andyfr DC and just consider that this story is hugely more complicated than you appear to realise and that the “send in the cavalry” approach will simply not work.

    Kenny MacAskill took a difficult decision, a decision that was both brave and principled -the easy decision would have been to do nothing -because he believed it to be the correct one and he took it based on principles that are enshrined in Scots law-justice should at all times be tempered with mercy and compassion. MacAskill has stated, and perhaps as Justice secretary he has to believe , that in his opinion Megrahi is guilty as tried. Many of us are far more doubtful about the safety of the verdict, and this includes relatives of victims like the saintly Jim Swire who has spent the years since Dec 21st 1988 in trying to discover the truth behind the investigations and the trial at Camp Zeist about the exposion that killed his daughter and a total of 259 passengers on PanAm Flight 103 along with 11 inhabitants of the town of Lockerbie. Many are unconvinced about the safety of that verdict and are concerned that much vital information was witheld from the trial and is still witheld by both the US authorities and the UK government. What are they trying to hide?
    Many Scots I know are proud of the fact that many principles from this old grey country were taken across the Atlantic and were used by the founding fathers when they drew up the Declaration of Independence. Some of us would like to repatriate those high ideals. Meanwhile we are distressed when we see how truth can be manipulated by the likes of Cameron and Blair for political point scoring. We understand that your senators are approaching mid term elections but bewildered that you find it so difficult to comprehend that the decision to release a dying man was taken without thought of finacial gain, taken in fact in our Year of Homecoming when the motives could be willfully misunderstood.
    I believe that there is a concensus of support for that action in corporate Scotland. The Church of Scotland, The Roman Catholic Church in Scotland have rallied in support. Nelson who knows more about compassion than most came out in support. Shortly after the decision was announced BBC Scotland invited “the silent majority ” to phone in their condemnation of the Justice Secretary’s decision but perversely the vast bulk of their telephone calls were supportive.
    Brian Wilson’s stomach was reported to have “churned” but that surprised few of us and some of us even dared to hope that it would continue to give him acute discomfort!
    When will the truth eventually emerge? Who knows but eventually truth will out. Meanwhile I am told that American passport holders are not officially welcome in Libya but that the Libyan Oil industry is now largely run by US personnel and, where cash transactions are involved in the new Libya, the preferred currency is the mighty $

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  3. Or as Kenny MacAskill put it “in a eye for eye culture everyone ends up blind”. The dirt here lies with Westminster and BP, lets pray Kenny does not end up as the fall guy.

    Ali Al Megrahi is not at home partying guys, guilty or not guilty, the guy is still on the planet due to a cocktail of heavy duty drugs and not moving a lot. Anyone who has lost a loved one to cancer will testify this is not life, it is a drawn out existence of suffering which I would thought Andy fr DC would have taken comfort from. In similar circumstances I would pray for a quicker release for myself.

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  4. Pingback: Calling Scotland to account – The Guardian

  5. Pingback: Argyll News: Senator Menendez calls for whistleblowers over background to Megrahi release :Argyll,Senator Menendez,Lockerbie bombing,Al Megrahi release, | For Argyll

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