A former top CIA official who helped oversee the agency’s investigation into the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, tells NBC News there is "no doubt" that Moammar Gadhafi personally approved the bombing.
"There are two things that you can take to the bank," said Frank Anderson, who served as the agency's Near East affairs chief between 1991 and his retirement in 1995. "The first one is, Pan Am 103 was perpetrated by agents of the Libyan government. And the second thing is, that could not have happened without Moammar Gadhafi's knowledge and consent.
"There is no question in my mind that Moammar Gadhafi authorized the bombing of Pan Am 103."
The statement by Anderson — and other comments to NBC by a top FBI agent on the case —could give fresh momentum for a reopening of the Lockerbie investigation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week that she intended to push for such a probe in light of new claims by Libya's ex-justice minister, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, that he had "proof" that Gadhafi ordered the bombing, which killed 270 people, including 190 Americans.
Those calls have been welcomed by some of the family members of the victims of Pan Am 103, who have always insisted that the Libyan dictator was involved.
"He needs to stand trial — everybody around him needs to stand trial," said Rabbi Stephanie Bernstein, whose late husband, Michael Bernstein, a Justice Department lawyer, was killed in the bombing.
No direct evidence
Anderson acknowledged that the CIA never had direct evidence tying Gadhafi to the bombing. But during Anderson's tenure as chief of the CIA's Near East affairs division U.S. and British officials were able to wrap up an investigation that uncovered forensic and other evidence linking the planting of the bomb to Abdelbasset al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer.
While there have long been suspicions of Gadhafi's involvement, Anderson has particular credibility on the issue. As one of the CIA's top experts on Libya — he had served as a case officer in Tripoli in the early 1970s after Gadhafi first came to power — Anderson dismissed the possibility that Megrahi could have been acting as a "rogue" agent without the knowledge of the regime's top leader. By the time of the bombing, he said, Gadhafi had so consolidated his hold over the regime that there was "absolutely no way" for Libyan intelligence officials to have carried out the bombing without the dictator's authorization.
Geopolitical and other realities led U.S. officials to handle the matter as a criminal case, resulting in a federal indictment of Megrahi and an alleged co-conspirator, rather than with military force, noted Anderson, who now serves as the president of the Middle East Policy Council, a Washington-based think tank. President Ronald Reagan ordered a bombing of Libya in 1986 after U.S. officials linked Libya's intelligence service to an earlier terrorism bombing in Berlin that killed two U.S. servicemen.
In a separate interview, Richard Marquise, who was the chief FBI agent on the Lockerbie case, said he and other bureau officials always assumed that senior Libyan officials were complicit in blowing up the aircraft, but never had enough evidence to build a case against them.
When Megrahi and an alleged co-conspirator, Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, were indicted by a federal grand jury in 1991, FBI officials were eager to convict them in a U.S. court – and then get them to finger the higher level officials who gave them their orders, said Marquise. Some evidence against higher level Libyan intelligence officials had surfaced in the course of the probe, said Marquise. He even considered seeking "material witness" warrants that would authorize FBI agents to apprehend the suspects and force them to testify.
"We always hoped that had we gotten (access to Megrahi and Fhimah) they would start to roll," said Marquise. "There was always an expectation that we would get further up the chain."
But much to the frustration of U.S. officials, that never happened. As part of a deal to get the Libyans to turn over Megrahi and Fhimah, the U.S. agreed to allow them to be tried in Scotland — and Scottish officials agreed to restrict the case only to them, preventing the disclosure of any evidence that might point to higher-ups.
(In another case of alleged Libyan terrorism less than a year later, however — the 1989 bombing of UTA Flight 772, which killed 170 people, including the wife of the U.S. ambassador to Chad — a French court convicted six Libyans in absentia — including Abdullah Sanussi, a deputy chief of Libyan intelligence and Gadhafi's brother-in-law.)
Megrahi released on 'compassionate' grounds
In January 2001, Megrahi was convicted of planting the bomb aboard Pan Am 103, while Fhimah was acquitted. But Megrahi never admitted his guilt – or fingered higher level officials. In a move that enraged family members of the victims and U.S. officials, Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill released Megrahi in August, 2009 on "compassionate" grounds because he was supposedly dying of prostate cancer and had only three months to live. He received a hero's welcome upon his return to Libya and, at last report, was still alive.
After Secretary Clinton said last week that she would ask Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller to reopen the Lockerbie probe, the Justice Department released a brief statement saying that the indictments of Megrahi and Fhima by a federal grand jury in Washington "remains pending" and the investigation "remains open." A knowledgeable source, speaking on condition of anonymity said that Justice and FBI officials were discussing possible ways to obtain new evidence from figures like Jalil, Libya's ex-justice minister, but that there were numerous logistical and political difficulties given the turmoil in Libya at the moment.
In the meantime, another potential witness has stepped forward to suggest the trail does indeed go higher than Megrahi. Atef Abu Bakr, the former second in command to Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal, told the Arabic newspaper Al Hayat last week that the Lockerbie bombing was the result of a collaboration between Nidal's group and the Libyan intelligence services that was authorized by Gadhafi.
According to Bakr's account, Gadhafi approved the operation to retaliate for the U.S. bombing raid on Tripoli and Benghazi two years earlier, in which the Libyan leader's daughter had died. Abu Nidal's bomb-makers in southern Lebanon built the bomb and then sent it to Tripoli —where it was then transported to Malta and planted by Megrahi in a suitcase destined for Pan Am 103, Bakr said. On the night before his extradition to Scotland, Megrahi promised to keep silent about Gadhafi's involvement but later "threatened to expose the whole process unless the Libyan authorities made efforts to secure his release," he told the newspaper.