World

The Truth About the Lockerbie Bombing—And the Censored Film That Dared to Reveal It

A documentary that never aired in the U.S. theorizes that the Pan Am 103 bombing was an Iranian revenge hit.

The final documentary produced by the American filmmaker Allan Francovich, The Maltese Double Cross: Lockerbie was buried by the American press upon its release in 1994. It was dismissed and attacked for including testimony from terrorists, convicted felons, turncoat spooks, and others of dubious character. But mostly it was ignored. Unlike Francovich's previous films about the U.S. intelligence world, no art house theater screened it; no public television station aired it.

As the 26th anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing approaches, Francovich has been vindicated. The basic elements of his film’s alternative theory — that the bombing of Pan Am 103 was an Iranian hit in revenge of the U.S. downing of Iran Air 655, contracted out to a Syrian-backed, Beirut-based splinter group of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — are sturdier than ever. The official story of a lone Libyan in Malta, meanwhile, has never looked so pathetic or full of holes, especially in Scotland, scene of the crime, where polls show a majority still wants an independent investigation. This past March, the publication of a three-year Al Jazeera investigation added more ballast corroborating the basics of Double Cross.

The Maltese Double Cross was never screened or aired in the United States. Because of legal threats and official pressure, it almost never aired or screened in the UK, where the bombing killed 270 people on Dec. 21, 1988. The doc’s controversial Glasgow debut followed a series of sudden cancellations, including a high-profile, last-minute erasure from the schedule of the 1994 London Film Festival. Double Cross finally opened under the defiant banner of the Scotsman newspaper, whose editors, supported by victims’ families, risked consequences to bring the film to the public. One of those editors, Lesley Riddoch, remembers thinking as the curtains parted, “Would the Scotsman, as one prominent journalist had warned, find itself frozen out of Crown Office briefings for a decade? Would we be sued, contradicted, even disappeared?”

The film and its many advocates, it turned out, weren’t easily suppressed. In 1994, nearly six years after the bombing, the British public had not forgotten the government’s sudden messaging shifts about the likely culprit, which seemed to follow a U.S. lead, or its refusal to allow an independent investigation. Double Cross, for all of its problems, presented plausible explanations for both, often from the mouths of high U.S. officials. Following the Glasgow open, Double Cross won Best Documentary at the Edinburgh Film Festival; that spring, a truncated version of the sprawling 155-minute film aired on the UK’s Channel 4 and on Australian television.

When I first watched Double Cross in the pre-streaming year of 1995, it felt a little like watching a banned movie. A college buddy had returned from a semester at St. Andrews with a choppy VHS bootleg of the Channel 4 broadcast in his suitcase. Everyone we showed it to had the same question: How was it possible this film wasn’t being shown anywhere in the U.S.? It’s easy to forget how big a deal Lockerbie was into the mid-‘90s. The Christmas bombing of the Pan Am jumbo jet, last century’s symbol of U.S. civilian air power, killed 189 Americans, making it the country’s deadliest act of international terrorism prior to 9/11. But after a brief flurry of skeptical reporting following the bombing, questions about Lockerbie dropped off in the U.S., where legal threats against broadcasters and theaters kept Double Cross off screens. The full-length version of the film is now available on YouTube.

Even the abbreviated version of Double Cross required an open notebook and heavy use of the pause and rewind buttons. Francovich, who produced several documentaries about the CIA for PBS and the BBC, was not afraid to make audiences work. He believed in letting his subjects tell the story. They talk at length, sometimes at cross-purposes, often in a domino-row of interviews without connecting tissue or explanatory bone-tosses to the viewer. But for all of its editing failures, substantive errors and questionable sources, the film deserves praise and revisiting, both as investigatory feat and intelligence-world rabbit-hole for the ages.

Few have chased rabbits home with as much energy as Francovich. Critics sometimes dismissed him as a conspiracy theorist, but he didn’t care. He dug as hard as anyone in the business, and his films were in no way analog antecedents to the investigative amateur-hours that animate the 911 Truth movement. His BBC2 investigation into Operation Gladio — a network of clandestine paramilitary “stay-behind” cells scattered throughout NATO countries that trained for post-apocalypse guerilla war — explored one of the juiciest Cold War veins ever tapped. His PBS dive into the CIA, On Company Business, won best documentary at the 1980 Berlin Film Festival.

For Double Cross, Francovich and his main researcher, the Scottish journalist John Ashton, interviewed hundreds of subjects up and down the chain before arriving at an elaborate theory, strong in some areas, weaker in others. Like Gary Webb’s investigation, it relied on much that was already public record. But he put it all together for the first time, and worked through every implication to advance the story.

Double Cross posits that after a U.S. warship in the Strait of Hormuz mistakenly shot down an Iran Air flight in July 1988, the Iranian regime put up $10 million to finance a revenge attack. The exiled former Iranian president Abulhassan Bani Sadr tells Francovich, “All Iranians viewed the U.S. act as a crime [requiring justice]… Iran ordered the attack and Ahmed Jabril carried it out.”

Jabril was the Beirut-based leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a group known for its sophisticated bomb expertise. Jabril sent some of his best bomb makers to Frankfurt, where they caught the attention of German intelligence. In October 1988, German police arrested 17 members of the group (some with ties to Syrian intelligence) and confiscated caches of weapons and bomb material, including a primed Toshiba cassette player of the exact type used to bring down Pan Am 103. But the sweep did not put the entire cell behind bars, or stop the bombing. In early 1989, months after the downing of 103, German police conducted another raid on a PFLP safehouse in Neuss, northeast of Frankfurt, where they discovered more electrical-device bombs. Some of these bombs had altitude triggers used to bring down planes. All of this pointed clearly in the direction of Iran and Syria.

Then, on a dime, during the runup to the Gulf War, the official story told by American and British officials shifted to Libya. Jack Anderson, the muckraking syndicated columnist, reported in a January 1990 column that intelligence sources had told him that George H.W. Bush and Margaret Thatcher agreed to downplay the evidence pointing to Jabril, Syria and Iran. (Anderson suggests the need to keep Syria on board for the Gulf War coalition as a factor.) Forty minutes into Double Cross, Howard Teicher, senior director of Reagan’s NSC from 1985 to 1988, says he finds it unlikely the leaders of the free world would choose to frame Libya because so much corroborated intelligence “clearly links the bombing to [Iran and Syria].”

And yet, in November 1991, U.S. and UK authorities indicted two Libyans who worked for Libyan Airlines at the Malta airport, Abdel al-Megrahi and Lamen Fhimah. The key witness against al-Megrahi, the only one ultimately convicted, was a Malta shopkeeper named Tony Gauci, a witness as unreliable as anyone Francovich interviewed for his movie. Gauci picked al-Megrahi out of a suspect book after coaching from the FBI, and said he recognized him from media reports. During the trial, he said he “resembled a lot” the man who bought the clothes found at the crash site in Lockerbie, but couldn’t place his age and height in the right ballpark. He was given a $2 million reward.

The new focus on Libya timed to the arrival of Vincent Cannistraro to run the CIA’s Lockerbie investigation. During the 1980s, Cannistraro (interviewed extensively in Double Cross) and Col. Oliver North ran a covert effort to undermine and destroy the Qadafi regime. In his front-page story about the program, Bob Woodward wrote that “deception and disinformation” were at the program’s heart.

The above is an extremely compressed version of roughly the first half of The Maltese Double Cross. The whole theory is much weedier and weirder. In the second half, Francovich tries to piece together fragments of evidence relating to a covert drug operation involving U.S. intelligence, brown heroin from the Bekaa Valley and the secret team tasked with rescuing American hostages in Lebanon. Sources tell Francovich the bomb was carried aboard the plane by an unwitting drug mule, whom the U.S. may have allowed to move heroin into the U.S. in exchange for leverage with Lebanese militant groups. Or maybe it was part of a sting — it’s not really clear.

In any event, it’s known that the passengers aboard 103 included Khalid Jaafar, a Lebanese drug mule, and Maj. Chuck Mckee, a defense attaché with U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, who was a key figure in hostage rescue strategy. Double Cross lets it hang whether Jabril targeted Pan Am 103 for this reason. But the theory does have its proponents, including Mckee’s late mother. “For years, I've had a feeling that if Chuck hadn't been on that plane, it wouldn't have been bombed,” she told Roy Rowan in a Time magazine investigation published in June 2001. 

Just as curious as the people who died on 103 are those who did not. Among those who changed their travel plans at the last minute was the son of Oliver Revell, head of the FBI’s Lockerbie investigation. The close call, Revell tells Francovich, helped him “empathize” with the victims’ families. Another person who canceled his reservation shortly before takeoff was DEA chief Stephen Green. There were also reports at the time, explored by Reuters among others, that former South African prime minister Pik Botha decided against boarding 103 at the last minute.

These cancellations form one of the most disturbing and lingering subtexts of Double Cross: that there was a sense of resignation among intelligence agencies about the inevitability of the Iranians extracting their blood debt, so better to at least know when it’s coming, and allow VIPs to stay clear. In the film’s final scene, a Scottish victim’s father says, “There seems to be some organization that classifies people as either important or unimportant, and [my daughter] Flora was just as important as any diplomat or politician.”

Subsequent reporting has vindicated Francovich’s core thesis that the Libyans were framed, and that the bombing was a tit-for-tat case of blowback caused by a trigger-happy U.S. Naval commander. In 2012, Al Jazeera acquired classified Defense Intelligence cables stating, “The execution of the operation was contracted [by Iran] to Ahmad Jabril, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC) leader. Money was given to Jabril upfront in Damascus for initial expense. The mission was to blow up a Pam-Am flight.”

The network also attained a copy of the Scottish police report showing dismay over the holes in the case against al-Megrahi. Had the Libyan been allowed an appeal, the report claims, he would have easily won. But appeal was denied following his non-jury trial in Holland in 2001. (At the time, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook hailed the use of a third-country court as “an historic innovation in international legal practice.” Robert Black, meanwhile, the Scottish legal scholar known as the “architect” of the trial, has emerged as a leading critic of the proceedings and the official story generally.)

At the end of all this, the big question, why? Why would the U.S. and Britain let the real culprits off the hook? Among the people interviewed in the recent Al Jazeera report is former CIA official Robert Baer, who worked on the Lockerbie investigation. “As far as I can tell,” he says, “someone said, look, Libya's vulnerable to prosecution, small country, Gaddafi's hated, let’s go for it. It was an executive decision, and then once that happened everybody lined up.” This accords with much earlier reporting and many of the interviews in The Maltese Double Cross.

Although mostly Americans died on Pan Am 103, conversation about Lockerbie in this country today revolves around the subject of victim pain. In October, NPR broadcast a segment about a “poignant letter” that emerged from the tragedy. The Smithsonian Channel produced a maudlin hour-long documentary last year that exploits the harrowing screams of a mother getting the news at JFK, but never touches the questions around the official story. As for Allan Francovich, he died in 1997 at the age of 56, a few years after the Glasgow premier of Double Cross. He suffered a heart attack in in the customs section of Houston’s George H.W. Bush International, the only airport named after a CIA chief, shortly after being detained by officials on his arrival from London.

Alexander Zaitchik is a journalist living in New Orleans.

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