Global Policy Forum

Loss of Face at Lockerbie


By Donald G. McNeill Jr.

New York Times
September 30, 2000

If anything suffered at the Lockerbie trial this week as much as the star witness who withered under cross-examination, it seemed to be the credibility of the American intelligence community.

Both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation appeared badly singed by the results of the first-ever release of C.I.A. cables in a foreign court, by a series of evasive answers from an F.B.I. investigator and by the poor showing by the witness, Abdul Majid Giaka, who spent three years on the C.I.A. payroll and nine in the federal witness protection program. The cables revealed that even his C.I.A. handlers had doubts about Mr. Abdul Majid.

By Thursday evening, a court official said the prosecution had canceled its plans to call Mr. Abdul Majid's two former C.I.A. handlers and probably would not call any more C.I.A. or F.B.I. agents.

There were hints that the frustration among those watching the trial was splitting along national lines over intelligence agency behavior.

Robert Black, a criminal law professor at the University of Edinburgh who has been following the trial closely, fumed at the C.I.A. and its handling of families of the 270 people killed when a bomb ripped apart Pan Am 103 over Scotland in December 1988. Many American relatives visit the trial at the expense of the Office of Victim Services of the United States Justice Department, which briefs them daily.

It's "a disgrace, the way the relatives have been led down the garden path," Mr. Black said. C.I.A. officials "go to these people and say `Aren't we doing wonderfully?' When this is over, I'll insist on an inquiry."

Professor Black is not considered an entirely neutral observer. Some families, particularly Scottish ones, are, like him, skeptical of the prosecution's Libya-did-it scenario. A few from that group have visited Libya's Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, and feel that the C.I.A. diverted Scottish prosecutors from other theories. One or two members even believe that some sort of cover-up is involved because two intelligence agents were killed in the crash.

Other families meanwhile — mostly Americans — charge that group is too gullible in accepting Libyan theories about the case.

Mr. Abdul Majid's testimony was undercut by years' worth of cables sent to Washington by his C.I.A. handlers. After hiring him in 1988 in the hope that he could penetrate Colonel Qaddafi's intelligence apparatus, they grew disillusioned, and began describing him as a liar, a shirker who arranged for sham surgery to avoid both military and intelligence service, a black marketeer and a con artist who was "milking any of his contacts" for money.

His frustrated handlers reported in July 1991 that they had told him they would pay him no more, and were "pegging the Department of Justice meeting as his only hope for his wife and baby" — in other words, if he found something to pitch to the F.B.I. Lockerbie investigators waiting to meet him on a U.S. Navy vessel, he might get on a different American payroll.

This, despite a 1989 C.I.A. cable that said: "It appears that Pan Am 103 may be a non-subject with his colleagues. He could not provide any additional information." His colleagues to whom Pan Am 103 was supposedly a "non-subject" included his boss, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, one of the accused.

The unedited versions of the cables were seen by the prosecution only in June — and at the time, prosecutors were proud to announce that it was the first time the C.I.A. had released cables to a foreign court. Only in August did the defense learn — from the prosecution, as Scottish law requires — that the blacked-out portions of their copies contained reams of information damning to Mr. Abdul Majid.

It was not explained in court why, after concealing them for 10 years and then arguing that the passages needed to be kept secret for national security reasons, the C.I.A. reversed itself. Scottish courts have no power to subpoena C.I.A. material.

Clare Connelly, leader of a University of Glasgow Law School team monitoring the trial, said she felt the agency's hands were tied. "Once the defense requested it, I don't think the C.I.A. had any option in terms of maintaining its credibility," she said. It could have refused, she pointed out, "but I don't think that would have been well received by the U.S. families."

One powerful aspect of American spying has not figured in the trial: whether the agency has any ability to eavesdrop on communications within the Libyan government on the Lockerbie case, including whether the two accused are guilty. No word of such intelligence has emerged here, either in court or in the discussion and gossip ringing this odd Scottish courthouse in the middle of Dutch dairy country.

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