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What the NYT Doesn’t Say About the Lockerbie Bombing

Pan Am Flight 103, bound for New York, exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988.  A total of 270 people were killed, including 189 Americans. Credit: Martin Cleaver/Associated Press

Robert McFadden’s article “Megrahi, Convicted in 1988 Lockerbie Bombing, Dies at 60” appears in today’s New York Times print edition and reports on the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in which two-hundred and seventy people were killed in the terrorist attack. And while McFadden offers a lot of information on the incident and the controversial case of the suspected bomber, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the article stops short of an alternative explanation.

McFadden writes that Al-Megrahi was “the only person convicted in the 1988 bombing of an American jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.” This much is true.

It is also true that al-Megrahi “insisted that he was not guilty,” as well as that he was a “former Libyan intelligence officer.”

And it is true that “after doctors said he was likely to die within three months, he was freed in 2009 under a Scottish law providing for compassionate release of prisoners with terminal illnesses.”

And of course it is true that,

Cheering crowds greeted his return to Libya, escorted by Colonel Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam in a grim propaganda coup. His release infuriated many families of the bombing victims, touched off angry protests in Britain and the United States and was condemned by President Obama and other Western leaders.

But compare the incident with what happened five months before the Lockerbie bombing when the U.S.S. Vincennes—which was patrolling the area in service to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in his war of aggression with Iran—shot Iranian Air Flight 655 out of the sky, killing all of its 290 civilian passengers.

The captain of the U.S.S. Vincennes, a Mr. Will Rogers, was not only greeted by cheering crowds following his indisputable act of terrorism (as opposed to the dispute surrounding al-Megrahi), but was rewarded for it. That is, according to the New York Times article in late 1988: “Crew of Cruiser That Downed Iranian Airliner Gets a Warm Homecoming.”

Not only is the differential treatment revealing, but the incident itself will have some bearing on the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.  

Which brings us to when things begin to unravel in the case against al-Megrahi.

The enigmatic Mr. Megrahi had been the central figure of the case for decades, reviled as a terrorist but defended by many Libyans, and even some world leaders, as a victim of injustice whose trial, 12 years after the bombing, had been riddled with political overtones, memory gaps and flawed evidence.

Following years of Libya refusing to turn-over al-Megrahi, he finally agrees to turn himself over for a trial, which lasted just under 90 days. On the trial McFadden writes that, “None of the witnesses connected the suspects directly to the bomb.”

And even though McFadden reports that “Tony Gauci, the Maltese shopkeeper who sold the clothing that forensic experts had linked to the bomb, identified Mr. Megrahi as the buyer,” it is noted that “Mr. Gauci seemed doubtful and had picked others in photo displays,” and that,

It emerged that Mr. Gauci had repeatedly failed to identify Mr. Megrahi before the trial and had selected him only after seeing his photograph in a magazine and being shown the same photo in court. The date of the clothing sale was also in doubt.

McFadden then goes on to briefly explore how other witnesses were found to be “untruthful and unreliable,” and that one witness “admitted that he had lied at the trial” and that “the fragment [of a piece of evidence] he identified was never tested for residue of explosives, although it was the only evidence of possible Libyan involvement.”

The problems of the trial are compounded when McFadden reports how “Hans Köchler, a United Nations observer, called the trial ‘a spectacular miscarriage of justice,’ words echoed by Mr. [Nelson] Mandela.”

It is true that, as McFadden writes, “Critics charged that Mr. Megrahi’s release had been a part of Libyan oil and gas deals with Britain.” But what McFadden doesn’t report on is the pecuilar arrangement surrounding the release. Part of the deal was that al-Megrahi had to promise to drop an ongoing appeal. This is significant because in June of 2007 the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) noted a hand-full of incidences in the trial that validated Köchler’s declaration of a “miscarriage of justice.”

The most McFadden gives to this is the brief comment was that al-Megrahi “dropped a second [appeal] to clear his repatriation.” No explanation or details provided.

In other words, more than 1,500 words is dedicated to the trial and conviction of a man where the evidence of his guilt is non-existent, and the only trial that succeeded in finding him guilty was a declared “miscarriage of justice.”

Worse, the victim of this injustice had to promise to drop his appeal—which would prove embarassing to those who “reviled” him—just to be able to go home and die in peace, after struggling with terminal cancer.

By ignoring the U.S. bombing of an Iranian air liner, the more probable alternative explanation for who was behind the Lockerbie bombing is also ignored.

The alternative has some merit. Prior to the focus being put on al-Megrahi the U.S. government had built up their case against the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC) leader, Ahmad Jabril. A U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency memo from 1989 says the PFLP-GC were contracted by Iranian authorities for $1 million to carry out the bombing.

And while McFadden reports that, “The court’s inference that the bomb had been transferred from the Frankfurt feeder flight was also cast into doubt when a Heathrow security guard revealed that Pan Am’s baggage area had been broken into 17 hours before the bombing, a circumstance never explored,” McFadden doesn’t explore the incident further, or provide relevant context.

It was a German investigation that found that the PFLP-GC were familiar with the components of the Lockerbie bombing, as they had used them before, and that the PFLP-GC had cased out the Frankfurt airport.

All signs pointed to Iran as the culprit for revenge for the Flight 655 bombing, but as the U.S. entered in slightly improved relationships with both Syria and Iran in 1990, the focus mysteriously changed to what McFadden calls the “enigmatic Mr. Megrahi” whom “little is known about.”

It is curious how McFadden and the New York Times can ignore the U.S. bombing of Flight 655 and the considerable evidence against Iran. Because in February 1989, in the aritlce “Palestinian Group and Iran Tied to Pan Am Bomb,” the Times noted that, “Evidence in the investigation of who planted the bomb that destroyed a Pan Am jumbo jet over Scotland in December increasingly points to a Palestinian terrorist group working in concert with hard-line elements within the Iranian Government, United States officials say.” A U.S. official is even quoted as saying that, ”There is no question that there is some organizational connection between the P.F.L.P. – G.C. and factions of the Iranian Government.”

When the U.S. went to war with Saddam in early 1991, they clearly wanted the support, or at leat the non-intereference of Syria and Iran. In a September 1990 article by Thomas Friedman, “CONFRONTATION IN THE GULF; Assad Assures Baker of Support in Gulf,” we are told that former Secretary of State James Baker met with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, and that “their meeting was the first between a senior American official and the Syrian President since the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which United States intelligence agencies widely believe was carried out by a Syrian-sponsored Palestinian organization”—the PFLP-GC.

Following this there was no more talk about the PFLP-GC, and Iran. The “evidence” that was “increasingly” pointing in one direction, and which had officials saying “there is no question” that it points this way, all of a sudden is disposed down the memory hole. Now it is Libya and al-Megrahi, and the New York Times didn’t miss a beat.

This is all a testament to the service provided by the propaganda system, which the NYT is a part of. It speaks volumes about the quality and integrity of the “paper of record” when it’s focus depends more on who Uncle Sam is eyeing as the perpetrator—which is clearly centered around politics—and less the available facts. We have seen this switch in countless other examples. At one time Saddam Hussein was a good guy. At one time it was Iran who was accused of the chemical warfare attack in Halabja, Iraq. And just as the U.S. government will change its tune to reflect the political environment of the time, the New York Times will follow suit. This latest article attests to that.

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Pro-democratic Uprisings in the NYT Propaganda System

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) shakes hand with Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa in Washington on May 9, 2012.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shakes hand with Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa in Washington on May 9, 2012


Usually when it comes to matters of the American Empire the New York Times cannot help but rely on the U.S. government as a source of information. In their classic work on propaganda, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, writers Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman show that sourcing is one of the primary filters in propaganda systems—along with ownership, advertising, ideology and flak. Chomsky and Herman call this use of “official sources” a “symbiotic relationship.” There is a world of information out there, but what determines what is “all the news that’s fit to print” is that which conforms to those five filters. Having a central source works for the media outlet, since they can’t be everywhere all the time, and it works for the government too, since having outlets to spread their propaganda helps dominate the narrative and reach a broader audience.

But in Kareem Fahim’s and David Kirkpatricks latest article, “Saudi Arabia Seeks Union of Monarchies in Region,” which appears on page 5 of today’s New York Times, there is not one mention of Uncle Sam. No comment from a White House official, or lackey (though there is a comment from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which is known for its strong ties to the U.S. government).

And that’s not really surprising, considering the subject matter of the article. Beyond the Cold War that the Saudi kingdom is having with Iran, Fahim and Kirkpatrick tell readers that,

Saudi Arabia pushed ahead Monday with efforts to forge a single federation with its five Persian Gulf neighbors as the conservative monarchy seeks to build a new bulwark against the waves of change sweeping the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia isn’t wanting it to limit it to just the monarchial governments of Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. According to the article:

Saudi Arabia has already made moves to try to stretch the Gulf Cooperation Council far beyond its original regional mission to try to turn it into an alliance of monarchies that might band together against the democratic trend. Its diplomats have made overtures to include the kingdoms of Morocco and Jordan.

And that gets to the heart of the problem for the Times, and why they chose to be silent on the U.S. It does the Empire no service to point out that a hand-full of U.S.-backed dictatorships are banding “together against the democratic trend,” especially since droning on and on about democracy and human rights is a central feature in the Empire’s repertoire. Just last month the U.S. government blocked Cuba fom the Summit of the America’s on the grounds of the islands democratic deficit (despite Honduras’ attendance).

One has to be careful when reading the Times. Because, even while reporting on attempts by monarchies to create an axis of tyranny, it is not so much what they do say, but what they don’t say. Once you’ve become accustomed to how propaganda works it’s astonishing to witness it.

For example, it’s not fitting to point out that the monarchies are important regional allies to the U.S. government, or to inquire as to whether the Empire backs this move. Since the “paper of record” is an important component of the Western establishment, and looking into the role of the U.S. to undermine pro-democracy movements would be uncouth, it doesn’t happen. For those familiar with the work of NYTimes eXaminer this is not new.

There is another angle to this story that also demonstrates the propaganda value of the mass media, which is not only missing from Fahim’s and Kirkpatricks article, but from the entire New York Times establishment (and beyond). Namely, the recent revelation through FOIA requests that the White House and Democrats conspired with local and state law officials across the country to put down the Occupy protests. As far as I can tell there is not one mention of these documents in the Times, which is why the story is published at Counterpunch—an independent leftist media source.

Apparently it’s not just that the NYT is silent on the role of the U.S. in anti-democracy activities in the Middle East, but here at home too.