I first learned about the death of the "Libyan bomber" Ali Megrahi from a television screen. The sound was off, but I could see the closed captioning on CNN. Newspeople and guests were talking about the terrible thing Megrahi had done, and the closure or lack thereof from his passing. One man was noting that the perpetrator was a high official of Libyan intelligence, and that the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 had been ordered at the very top -- by Muammar Qaddafi. The deaths of 270 people, 189 of them Americans, it was implied, justified last year's removal of Qaddafi, and the dictator's own abrupt and horrible death.
But there's something wrong with that scenario.
How do I know? I read the New York Times. Especially the best part"...the fine print.
The Times Opens A Door...and Shuts It
Check out this article, from Robert McFadden, the Times' septuagenarian obit writer and rewrite man extraordinaire. Under the appropriately neutral headline, "Megrahi, Convicted in 1988 Lockerbie Bombing, Dies at 60," McFadden nailed the true import of Megrahi's death in the second paragraph:
"The death of Mr. Megrahi, who insisted that he was not guilty, foreclosed a fuller accounting of his role, and perhaps that of the Libyan government under Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, in the midair explosion of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270 people, including 189 Americans."
Most of the front half of the article lays out the conventional line on the plane that blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland. But anyone getting to the latter part will notice that it is dominated by evidence casting doubt on the official story.
Thus, if you read those second-half paragraphs carefully, you see what the reporter (and perhaps his bosses) may actually wonder: whether Libya was framed by some enemy, with hints on who that might be.
"The trial lasted 85 days. None of the witnesses connected the suspects directly to the bomb....The court called the case circumstantial, the evidence incomplete and some witnesses unreliable....Much of the evidence was later challenged....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....Hans Kochler, a United Nations observer, called the trial "a spectacular miscarriage of justice."... Many legal experts and investigative journalists challenged the evidence, calling Mr. Megrahi a scapegoat for a Libyan government long identified with terrorism. While denying involvement, Libya paid $2.7 billion to the victims' families in 2003 in a bid to end years of diplomatic isolation."
But the Times was not finished with the story. It would have more to say, though not pursuing the line developed by the desk-bound McFadden, a 1996 Pulitzer Prize winner. Someone apparently decided that "more reporting" was needed, this time from another Pulitzer Prize winner, the longtime war correspondent John Burns.
His article, headlined "Libyan's Death Brings Up Debate Over His Release," focuses in part on the fact that Megrahi was given early release from prison because he suffered from cancer. But it also expanded on McFadden's theme of doubts about Libya's involvement. It actually goes a bit further in that direction, raising the theory that Libya was not involved.
Then it suggests that the true sponsor is... Iran.
The Tmes' s John Burns focuses on one relative and his theory.
"In the aftermath of Mr. Megrahi's death, his defense was taken up anew by the most persistent -- and most controversial -- of Mr. Megrahi's defenders in Britain, Dr. Jim Swire, a 75-year-old retired family doctor whose 23-year-old daughter, Flora, died in the bombing. Years before Libya handed Mr. Megrahi and another man, Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, over for trial, Dr. Swire voiced strong doubts about the Scottish case, and he fainted in court when Mr. Megrahi was convicted and Mr. Fhimah acquitted.
"In the years since, he has been a vociferous advocate of a new independent inquiry into the bombing, saying that there was no reliable evidence that Mr. Megrahi was involved, and much that pointed to Iran, not Libya, as the culprit."
If Swire is so "controversial," why give his claims such attention?
By citing Swire, Burns, wittingly or not, pulls out one of the oldest tricks in the book. He seems to be himself advancing legitimate inquiry by proposing an alternative theory that is not alternative at all. Indeed, what he does is redirect criticism from a former enemy of the United States establishment to a current one. The "controversial" disclaimer is also an old trick. It insulates the Times from any accusations that it has fallen into its predictable role of advancing the agenda of the American establishment. (Remember The Times' former star reporter Judith Miller and all those Weapons of Mass Destruction that served as the Bush administration's justification for the Iraq invasion?)
Even better, Burns cites "broadcast interviews" in which Swire had just repeated his assertions. Thus, it's not The Times that is responsible for this. It is just "reporting on reporting." Of course, those who trust the Times for their understanding of the world will not likely focus on any of these implied disclaimers at all. What they will remember is this: it was either Libya...or it was Iran.