Bill Barr Needs to Answer Some Questions

With just six weeks left for the Trump administration, speculation is swirling that Attorney General William Barr may step down before the official presidential transition on January 20. Barr has fallen out of favor with the White House since his admission last week that the Department of Justice’s investigation of our November 3 election has uncovered no significant voting fraud, contrary to the loud claims of President Donald Trump and his enraged surrogates. A longtime liberal bugbear, Barr suddenly became the Oval Office’s new whipping boy instead, and the attorney general is reportedly tired of the public presidential abuse.

That would be the second time that Barr steps down as the attorney general, a job he first held in the latter half of the George H. W. Bush presidency nearly three decades ago. While many Democrats want Barr to answer questions about his decisions as Trump’s attorney general – particularly regarding DoJ interaction with Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his inquiry into Team Trump and the Kremlin in 2016 – let’s approach this chronologically. Before we get to his decisions as Trump’s attorney general, we should first ask Bill Barr about what happened the last time he headed the Justice Department.

Above all, why did Attorney General Barr back in mid-November 1991 decide to indict two Libyan spies for the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21, 1988, a terrible crime that killed 270 innocent people. Barr’s announcement stunned our Intelligence Community, which had investigated that terrorist atrocity for nearly three years in voluminous detail, yet never suspected that Libya stood behind the attack.

Three decades ago, the Lockerbie tragedy loomed large in American news. A bomb inside a suitcase stowed in the Boeing 747’s forward left luggage container tore the airliner apart as it cruised at 31,000 feet, headed for New York. All 243 passengers and 16 crew on the Pan Am jumbo jet died, as did 11 people in the town of Lockerbie, which was showered by the flaming wreckage of the shattered 747. One hundred and ninety of the dead were Americans, including 35 Syracuse University students headed home for Christmas after a European semester abroad.

It didn’t take long for diligent British investigators to find the remnants of the Samsonite suitcase which contained less than a pound of Semtex plastic explosive manufactured in Czechoslovakia and hidden in a Toshiba radio cassette recorder. That trail quickly led to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, a radical Arab terrorist group that was headed by Ahmed Jibril, a former Syrian army officer. In the eyes of Western intelligence, the PFLP-GC was little more than an extension of Syria’s security services.

Intriguingly, less than two months before the Lockerbie attack, West German police rolled up a PFLP-GC bomb-making cell around Frankfurt, seizing four bombs made of Semtex hidden in Toshiba radios. Since Pan Am 103 originated in Frankfurt and that was the exact same kind of bomb which took down the doomed airliner, none of this seemed coincidental. Western intelligence circles heard chatter in the autumn of 1988 that the PFLP-GC, whose fifth Frankfurt bomb was never found by police, was planning to blow up U.S. airliners. Plus, one of the men taken into custody was Marwan Khreesat, a veteran bomb-maker who was believed to be behind the downing of a Swissair jetliner back in 1970, a terrorist attack which killed 47 people.

Before long, American intelligence believed that Iran was really behind the downing of Flight 103, given known close connections between Syrian intelligence and Iranian spy agencies. Neither was Tehran’s motive difficult to ascertain. A few months before, on July 3, 1988, the cruiser U.S.S. Vincennes, on station in the Persian Gulf, mistakenly shot down an Iran Air Airbus, a terrible accident which killed all 290 people aboard, including 66 children. Iran’s revolutionary regime promised revenge, and the Intelligence Community assessed that they got it over Scotland. As I explained on the thirtieth anniversary of the Lockerbie horror, that Iran stood behind the attack

Was the conclusion of U.S. intelligence, particularly when the National Security Agency provided top-secret electronic intercepts which demonstrated that Tehran had commissioned the PFLP-GC to down Pan Am 103, reportedly for a $10 million fee. One veteran NSA analyst told me years later that his counterterrorism team “had no doubt” of Iranian culpability. Bob Baer, the veteran CIA officer, has stated that his agency believed just as unanimously that Tehran was behind the bombing. Within a year of the attack, our Intelligence Community assessed confidently that Lockerbie was an Iranian operation executed by Syrian cut-outs, and that take was shared by several allies with solid Middle Eastern insights, including Israeli intelligence.

The IC was therefore taken aback on November 14, 1991, when Attorney General Barr announced the indictment of two Libyan spies, Abdelbaset el-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, for the downing of Pan Am 103. Libya denied the accusations, as did the two Libyan intelligence officers, and it took Britain almost a decade to bring the men to trial. In a unique arrangement, the trial was held in the Netherlands under Scottish law. In the end, the court did not convict Fhimah but did find Megrahi guilty of 270 counts of murder in early 2001. Megrahi maintained he was framed and, suffering from cancer, he was released on compassionate grounds in 2009. He returned to Libya and succumbed to cancer there in May 2012, protesting his innocence to the end.

Quite a few people who looked at the evidence believed that Megrahi really may have been innocent, including some relatives of Pan Am 103 victims. Many in intelligence circles had doubts too, particularly because the prosecution’s star witness, Abdul Majid Giaka, was another Libyan intelligence officer who became a CIA asset. Giaka claimed to have witnessed Megrahi and Fhimah’s preparations in Malta to take down Pan Am 103 with a bomb made by Libyan intelligence. The Scottish court found Giaka less than credible, yet his claims against Megrahi stood up adequately to produce a conviction.

CIA made Giaka available to the court as the star witness, while obscuring some of their clandestine relationship with the Libyan spy. Langley offered several of its own officers to the court as well, something CIA recounted with pride in its official telling of their support to the Lockerbie trial, but the agency was careful to only produce officials who endorsed the Libya-did-it hypothesis.

There was the rub. Some CIA officers who were close to Giaka did not find his claims about Pan Am 103 and his own intelligence service’s involvement to be credible; in fact, they considered their “star” to be an unreliable fabricator. However, this secret – which raises fundamental questions about the U.S government’s official position on Lockerbie since late 1991 – was kept confined to spy circles for decades. Until now.

John Holt, a retired CIA officer who served as Giaka’s handler three decades ago, has broken his silence, granting a detailed interview to British media about his role in this sensational case. The 68-year-old Holt spoke out for the first time about what really happened behind the scenes with Giaka, whom he dismissed as an asset who was prone to “making up stories.” Giaka was far from a reliable source and the former American spy opined that CIA kept Holt away from the trial, since agency leaders knew that his account contradicted the official U.S. position on Lockerbie. As he explained:

I handled Abdul-Majid Giaka in 1989 for a whole year during which he never mentioned Libyan involvement in the bombing. My cables [back to CIA headquarters] showed he was a car mechanic who was placed by Libyan Intelligence as Malta Airport office manager with Libyan Arab Airlines and had very little information about anything to do with bombs – or Lockerbie. He felt humiliated by Megrahi, who was an official with the Libyan Intelligence Service. “I was treated,” he said, “like a dog when Megrahi came to the office.” That's all reported in my cables, so CIA knew Giaka had a grudge against Megrahi.

This was a personal vendetta, in other words, one that was driven by Giaka’s needs and his changing memory, as Holt elaborated:

Every time I met Giaka, which was each month or two, I would also ask him if he had any information at all about the Pan-Am bombing. All of us CIA and FBI field officers were asked by the CIA to keep pressing our assets for any answers or clues.  His answer was always: No.

I expressed my opinion to the FBI that Giaka was nothing more than a wannabe who was not a real Intel Officer for the Libyans. He had no information [about] Lockerbie, and I told the CIA all this in comments I made in my cables. He went back to Libya at the end of 1989 and I moved on to another assignment.  

In 1991, Giaka told the CIA that he had been exposed and the Libyans would kill him. When he was told he was useless to our intelligence services, he began making up stories. It was only when he needed desperately to get some financial and logistical support from the US to flee Libya in 1991 that he started telling the CIA things relevant to the Pan Am 103 bombing.

This fix was in, however, and Holt found his first-hand view of the case sidelined by his own agency. His cables which illuminated Giaka’s unreliability as a source were not shared by CIA with the Scottish court, while Langley declined to let Holt provide evidence at the trial. “We now all need to admit we got the wrong man, and focus on the real culprits,” Holt explained, pointing a finger at Bill Barr:

I have reason to believe there was a concerted effort, for unexplained reasons, to switch the original investigations away from Iran and its bomb-making Palestinian extremist ally the PFLP—General Command. Now we should focus a new investigation on the Iranians and their links with the bomber…I would start by asking the current attorney general, William Barr, why he suddenly switched focus in 1991, when he was also attorney general, from where clear evidence was leading, toward a much less likely scenario involving Libyans.

In May of this year, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission ordered a fresh look into Abdelbaset el-Megrahi’s conviction. So far, this review has revealed claims that the prosecution presented a distorted version of the late Megrahi’s alleged role based on “cherrypicked” evidence in order to obtain a conviction. Bill Barr won’t be attorney general for much longer and he ought to avail himself of the opportunity to explain why credible information from veteran intelligence officers like John Holt was ignored to make a case against Megrahi, who may not be guilty of his supposed role in the murder of 270 innocent people.

Nearly a year ago, Attorney General Barr delivered remarks about the Pan Am 103 tragedy at a memorial service held at Arlington National Cemetery. He commemorated the dead of Lockerbie: “The Americans who died that day were attacked because they were Americans. They died for their country. They deserve to be honored by our nation.” Barr added that the case remains far from over for him: “In 1991, I made a pledge to you on behalf of the American law-enforcement community: ‘We will not rest until all those responsible are brought to justice.’ That is still our pledge. For me personally, this is still very much unfinished business.” The thirty-second anniversary of the Lockerbie attack is two weeks from today. If Barr meant what he said about resolving that tragedy’s unfinished business, John Holt’s testimony is an excellent place to commence the search for the full truth about what happened to Pan Am 103.