Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Terrorism Alert: A System Shows Gaps

March 21, 1989
New York Times
Craig R. Whitney

LONDON, March 20— The furor over whether the British authorities failed to pass along warnings about a new kind of terrorist bomb in time to prevent the destruction of a Pan Am jumbo jet has revealed a serious lack of coordination between governments and airlines on terrorism, diplomats and officials here say.

Among the questions that have been raised is whether Pan Am's Frankfurt office passed on a warning that it received from the West German authorities on Nov. 10 that terrorists had hidden bombs in portable radio cassette-recorders. Such a device blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, and all 259 people on board and 11 more on the ground died in the crash.

Another question is why the British Department of Transport waited until Nov. 22 to warn British airlines and airports, but no others, of the bomb threat. It prepared on Dec. 19 a more complete warning, with photographs, for American and other foreign carriers, but waited until after Lockerbie and after Christmas to send it out, by mail. That one did not reach Pan Am's London office until Jan. 17. Differing Warning

An official close to the investigation said tonight that the Nov. 22 warning was not identical to one sent by the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington to American airlines four days earlier, and that American officials were asking why the British had not sent theirs to the F.A.A.

Pan Am has acknowledged receiving the original warning from West Germany on Nov. 10, after the police there discovered a Palestinian bomb-making network using sophisticated explosives and Toshiba portable cassette players. The airline said it had stepped up its security in Frankfurt as a result.

Flight 103 originated in Frankfurt, and both the British investigators and the Federal Bureau of Investigation say they believe that the bomb was in a piece of baggage loaded into a hold container there. Pan Am will not say when or even whether its office in Frankfurt passed on the West German information to headquarters in New York or to Heathrow Airport in London. The Pan Am Boeing 747 left Heathrow on the final leg to New York an hour before the explosion blew it apart at 31,000 feet.

Even if employees in both places had been fully alert to the danger on Dec. 21, there is no guarantee they could have found the bomb in the baggage. A Department of Transport spokesman, Paul McKie, said today that the department could not confirm an ABC News report that the department had acknowledged, on Dec. 29, that baggage from the plane from Frankfurt had not been screened again at Heathrow before being loaded onto the 747, as required. Possible Misinformation

Both the British alerts on radio cassette bombs, on Nov. 22 and Dec. 19, stressed how difficult they would be to detect. Paul Channon, the Transport Minister, has acknowledged that ''maybe'' the Dec. 19 warning ''should have been sent out by telex,'' and the color photographs of the device that delayed the mailing sent out later.

A comparison of the full texts of the Nov. 22 message and the Dec. 19 bulletin shows that the later one gave security staff members some pointers on how to detect radio casette players concealing bombs.

First of all, it said, an altered set would not play when turned on. A jack plug for the aerial would arm the device. When X-rayed, it would show more wiring than normal. Additional batteries used to arm the explosive device would rattle around inside. ''Any item about which a searcher is unable to satisfy himself/herself must, if it is to be carried in the aircraft, be consigned to the aircraft hold,'' the bulletin said.

That is where the bomb that destroyed Flight 103 was. But Mr. Channon has excused both the delay and the possible misinformation by saying that since it almost certainly was loaded in Frankfurt, not Heathrow, ''the sad fact is that nothing my department did or could have done would have made the slightest difference.''

Mr. Channon is not in charge of the painstaking investigation into the crash, which has pieced together thousands of fragments of wreckage and has now identified the piece of baggage in which the tape recorder was contained, but not whose baggage it was or who put the bomb into it. 'A Lot to Be Desired'

But an American official close to the investigation said that the confusing statements from the Department of Transport had shaken confidence in Washington, where Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner dispatched aides to Britain and West Germany last week to review the state of international cooperation on terrorism. ''It's obvious that there is a lot of information out there, but a lot to be desired on the way it comes together so it can do some good,'' he said.

There have also been indications of discontent from officials in other countries with an interest in the investigation. Alexander Prechtel, a spokesman for the West German federal prosecution authority, said, ''If the British authorities know more than we do, then they are not fulfilling their pledges of keeping us closely informed.''

The investigation is being run not by Scotland Yard, though its anti-terrorism branch is involved, but by a detective chief superintendent of the Strathclyde police force, the largest in Britain outside London, from the town of Lockerbie, a village of about 3,500 people near the English border.

Over the weekend, the Transport Department advised airlines again to be on the alert for luggage and passengers carrying electronic devices aboard airplanes, citing a ''high and continuing risk'' that they could conceal explosives.

The department said it had originally issued the warning on Feb. 18, two days after the investigators determined what had brought down Pan Am 103. Until the weekend, it apparently had not been enforced, even at Heathrow.

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