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Defense / NATIONAL SECURITY

Lockerbie Case Wide Open

The Department of Justice is still looking at Qaddafi. But he may be safe from civil damages.

The Justice Department never shut down its probe into the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103. Justice also never shelved the indictment of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, former officials with Libyan Arab Airlines who were believed to be connected to Libyan intelligence.(LETKEY/AFP/Getty Images)

photo of Michael Hirsh
March 2, 2011

Perhaps there was a moment, a few years ago, when Muammar el-Qaddafi actually thought he’d gotten away with it all—the decades of terrorism, the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, the murder, and the skullduggery. In recent years the Libyan dictator had managed to fob the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing off on subordinates, surrendered his nuclear program in exchange for removal from the list of terror-supporting states, and rid himself of most official sanctions. 

But the machinery of U.S. justice, so long silent, is stirring to life again, and Qaddafi may yet find himself ground up in it if he manages to escape his predicament in besieged Libya. Contrary to widespread belief, the Justice Department never shut down its probe into the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103. Justice also never shelved the indictment of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, former officials with Libyan Arab Airlines who were believed to be connected to Libyan intelligence and were tried by a Scottish court in 2001 (Megrahi was convicted and given life imprisonment but released early; Fhimah was found not guilty).

The U.S. indictment of Megrahi and Fhimah “remains pending in federal court in the District of Columbia, and the investigation into the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 remains open," a Justice Department official told National Journal. Nor has the FBI disbanded its task force or liaison office with Scotland, and U.S. officials have always maintained that Megrahi and Fhimah did not act alone. Simultaneous U.S. and Scottish indictments were returned against the two men under mutual agreement between the U.S. and the United Kingdom, where officials have also expressed interest in reopening the case.

 

Some of the lawyers connected with civil lawsuits on behalf of families of the 270 victims aboard Pan Am 103 are also taking a new look at the case, even though each of the plaintiffs ultimately signed releases that granted immunity to Libyan officials when they settled. “It’s very hard to fit this into any usual legal framework,” said attorney James Kreindler of New York, who says he’s been e-mailing with his colleagues about how to resurrect the case. As part of the $2.7 billion settlement, all the plaintiffs had to sign a release that covers “every Libyan under the sun,” Kreindler conceded. He added that whether or not Qaddafi is indicted “would have no bearing on the legal effect of the release signed in civil litigation as a matter of law.

Even so, Kreindler added, he and his colleagues were trying to figure out a way back into the case, given press reports of billions more dollars socked away by Qaddafi and his regime.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in response to questions from members of Congress, said she would ask Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller to look into the Pan Am 103 case again, “because there have been statements made in the last days by what are now former members of the Libyan government fingering Qaddafi, making it clear that the order came from the very top." Libya’s former justice minister, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, was quoted telling a Swedish newspaper that he has "proof that Qaddafi gave the order about Lockerbie."

Jalil has yet to offer up any proof, and some observers think it’s unlikely. “He can’t really prove it, because there is nothing written on it,” said Vince Cannistraro, who served as CIA counterterrorism director at the time of the Pan Am 103 bombing. “You’re not going to get anything, any order with a name on it.” Still, Cannistraro said, Qaddafi “paid a lot of people a lot of money” to keep quiet about Pan Am 103, and “you’ll probably be able to find Scottish doctors were bribed” to deliver a fake diagnosis that Megrahi was dying of cancer.

The exposure of new evidence could be embarrassing for U.S. officials as well. Other senior Libyan officials, including Foreign Minister Musa Kusa, were also connected with Pan Am 103 and other cases, Cannistraro said. “He was enmeshed in some pretty nasty stuff. The Brits probably have some stuff on him.” Kusa, who is currently acting as a liaison with Washington during the turmoil, was believed to be head of Libyan intelligence for a time. In his memoir, former CIA Director George Tenet spoke of the “surreal” experience of starting up relations “with the man who, by some accounts, was the mastermind behind the Pan Am 103 bombing."

 

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