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The Lockerbie Bombing and Its Aftermath

On December 21, 1988, Pan American flight 103 flying from London Heathrow to JFK Airport in New York exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing a total of 270, including 11 people on the ground. Following a three-year investigation, murder warrants were issued in November 1991 for two Libyans. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi eventually handed them over for trial in 1999 after protracted negotiations and UN sanctions. In 2001 a Libyan intelligence officer was jailed for the bombing, but was released on compassionate grounds in August 2009, which sparked recriminations against the Scottish government. In 2003, Qaddafi finally accepted responsibility for the bombing and paid compensation to the families of the victims, although he maintained he never ordered the attack. Lockerbie remains the deadliest act of terrorism to occur in the United Kingdom.

Because of the criminal nature of the event, U.S. consular services had a negligible role in alerting next of kin and collecting the effects of the deceased. However, a major controversy erupted when it was discovered that some official Americans had supposedly been warned of a possible attack against a Pan Am flight and changed their plans. While this proved to be inaccurate, anger was focused on the Department, leading to numerous Congressional hearings and emotional outbursts from the victims’ families.  Ultimately, this tragic incident led to changes in procedure regarding American deaths overseas. Michael M. Mahoney worked as the senior consular officer on the issue, spearheading the investigation and aftermath of the bombing and helping implement changes to what he calls “the indefinable nature” of American Citizen Services. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in October 1995.

You can also read about the U.S. response to the 1996 hijacking by drunken Ethiopians of an Ethiopian Air flight over the Comoros islands and to the 1974 Pan Am crash in Bali.


The Bombing

MAHONEY: I came back to Washington, to run what was called the Citizens’ Emergency Center, in the Office of Overseas Citizens’ Services….The most, I would say, traumatic and difficult experience of my time in running this office was the bombing of Pan Am 103….

A Pan American plane, carrying 259 people, about 170 of whom were Americans, and many of those were university students returning home for the Christmas holidays, was blown out of the air by a bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland, on the 21st of December 1988. Everybody on that plane was killed, and the wreckage of the plane, as it fell, killed 11 people on the ground, for a total of 270 people killed.

This event…marked,…if not a watershed, at least a distillation of a number of trends that had been going forward in what I would think of as American Services activities, including…the whole question of training people for how they could notify people about the deaths of relatives, and the definition of the services required to be provided by the State Department, specifically by consular officers, when things like this happen.

The Lockerbie bombing led to an intense Congressional examination of State Department procedures in these cases; to a great deal of criticism by the relatives of the victims, criticizing the State Department; to the introduction of a number of new, and in some ways still very controversial, approaches to this sort of terrible disaster.

The disaster took place about three or four o’clock in the afternoon, Eastern Standard Time, about nine o’clock in the United Kingdom. It was not clear…in the first day or so…that what had happened was a bombing, only that the plane had somehow broken up in the air and everyone on board had been killed. The Citizens’ Emergency Center immediately relocated most of its personnel, as it had done in the case of other aircraft disasters in the past, to the Operations Center of the State Department, and a task force was convened to begin to see what we had to do and how we could do it.

“It appeared that the State Department’s role was going to be fairly negligible”

Initially, we ran into a major problem with the airlines, because Pan American refused to give us a passenger list….

The standard policy had been that when an American died abroad, a Foreign Service officer…had to undertake to notify next of kin that the death had occurred, and to advise the people of certain information that they needed pretty quickly, to work from. That is, what the local country’s rules were about burial and interment; what the rules were, if the relatives wished, about returning remains to the United States; how much this would cost; how quickly it could be done; what paperwork was necessary, and so forth….

In the Lockerbie bombing, the airlines themselves insisted on undertaking the role of notification of relatives. In fact, for the better part of a day, they withheld the passenger list from the State Department. By the time we got the list and began to call people ourselves, to try to confirm that they knew their relative had died, everyone that we called…knew that the relative had been killed.

And the people who were making the calls reported to the supervisors, including me, that they were getting very negative reactions from people, saying, “Why are you calling us? We already know this.”

It was felt that this was…counterproductive, that the airline had…undertaken to do this notification, and that the airline had said that they would see to the return of all the remains to the United States at no cost to the victims. Also, they had undertaken, immediately, to fly families from the United States to Scotland, to assist and to be present as bodies were recovered and identified.

It appeared initially that the State Department’s consular role in this matter was going to be fairly negligible, because the notifications had occurred and the remains were going to be returned to the United States. The State Department was certainly prepared and had people ready and on the scene in Lockerbie to prepare death certificates.

The third major issue that was raised on our side that was not initially thought of by the families was the disposition of the effects of the people who had been killed. Normally, with a death abroad, there were a couple of possibilities. If a person died abroad and there were no relatives on the scene, the consular officer became what was called the provisional conservator of the estate of the possessions of a person. Normally, a tourist might have his wallet and some clothing and credit cards and that sort of thing. You would be immediately in touch with the relatives, the spouse or the next of kin, and they would tell you what to do with these things. And you would mail them to them or something else like this.

What happened in this case was that because the plane blew up, the effects of people were scattered all over perhaps 100 square miles of countryside. About two days after the bombing, it became clear that this was in fact a bombing and not simply an aircraft accident. The fact that it was a bombing meant that it was therefore going to be dealt with by authorities in England as a criminal case.

Therefore, at least initially, all of the effects of the decedents, in fact anything that was collected from the plane, was going to be held onto by the authorities, because it might have particular implications as they tried to reconstruct the nature of the blast that apparently had destroyed the plane: Where did the blast take place? Was it explosives in a suitcase? Whose suitcase was it?…

As soon as this became clear, we sent officers from the United States to Scotland, and we undertook a very close collaboration with the British authorities on the question of what would become of these effects, because we felt that although the victims’ families were essentially stunned by the whole event and had not raised the issue particularly, this would become a very intense issue with them later on.

But apart from that question, we did not see that we had any particular distinctive further role to play, given what we had done in the past in a number of aircraft disasters that we felt we had managed quite well. That is, the British authorities, in conjunction with the families, were undertaking the identification of the remains, and Pan American was going to fly them back to the United States….We undertook to communicate to the relatives in the United States what we understood on the particular subject of the disposition of property. Many of the relatives were in the United Kingdom and received this briefing, in any case, from British and American officials who were there. Beyond that, essentially, we did nothing.

Controversy and Anger Over a Warning About a Possible Attack

About six weeks went by after the bombing. And then we began to hear that the relatives of the victims were extremely unhappy with the United States government. A couple of things had come up in the meantime.

The first was that the Federal Aviation Administration…had put out a notice, early in December, supposedly only for people who worked in counterterrorism and airline security matters, that they had received word that there was a rumor going around about the possible plan to bomb a Pan American flight sometime during the Christmas holidays. This was not unprecedented; the FAA received, in the course of a year, dozens, if not hundreds, of rumors about planned terrorist actions against American aircraft, usually by various people with a Middle Eastern agenda, but not always.

This particular alert was sent by an unclassified cable to a number of European posts, and essentially was supposed to go only to the local FAA representative, who would then pass it on to local police, who would take whatever security precautions they deemed to be appropriate.

The source of this particular rumor, as it was discovered later, was considered to be a person who was known to be a crank and who often called up and made these sorts of threats. This particular cable, with this warning in it, for reasons that are still not clear to me, got posted on a public embassy bulletin board at the embassy in Moscow, about two weeks before the bombing of Pan Am 103.

Within about a week after the bombing, the relatives of the victims began to become aware that this warning had been posted in a public place, or at least a place available to the employees of the American Embassy in Moscow.

And rumors began to circulate that a significant number of official Americans who were traveling back to the United States for the Christmas holidays had had reservations on various Pan Am flights coming from Europe, and had changed those reservations as the result of having seen this warning. This became transmuted by the families of the victims into a notion that the bureaucrats managed to get themselves off these planes, and their kids were killed on one because they were not given this warning and given the opportunity to remove their children from this plane.

Now there were extensive investigations into this in subsequent years by Members of Congress and other people who were not disposed to be sympathetic to the State Department in this matter. They were unable to find any indication of anyone who had changed a booking from a Pan Am flight back to the United States. That…did not mitigate the anguish of the families of the victims, who felt that in fact they had been entitled to this word and didn’t get it. Also, there were 30 employees of the United States government, including military people and some State Department employees, who were on the Pan Am 103 flight and…were…killed.

But this sequence of events — the fact that this was murder of 270 people, that no one was arrested for this murder or even initially identified as being the perpetrator, the view that there had been a warning about this that was not given to the American public, but was given to employees of the State Department, to the bureaucracy — began to generate…a feeling of intense anger and alienation on the part of the families of these victims, particularly those who had had college-age children on this flight. This tremendous ground swell of anger began to be directed at the American government, and most particularly at the State Department.

For about six weeks after the bombing, we received no feedback of any type, no Congressional inquiries, no suggestions that the service that we were providing was inappropriate or incorrect or wrong or was not what people wanted. Then we began to hear that there was intense unhappiness on the part of the families with their treatment by the Department, and that they were then making their feelings known to Members of Congress, and that a series of Congressional hearings was going to loom on this entire subject.

The only specific request that I can remember in this entire period, from the relatives of the victims, was that we make available to them a list of all the other family members, so that they could form up in a group to exchange their reactions to the disaster. After some consultation about freedom of information issues, we sent a mailing to all of the relatives, saying, “A number of relatives are interested in forming a group. If you would like your name to be given to them, please let us know, or if not, not.” Almost everybody agreed that their names could be given out. And so an organization came into being…called The Families of the Victims of Pan Am 103. This organization then began to seek ways to make its feelings felt.

“I went through the most painful experience that I’ve had in the State Department”

For about the next year, starting from probably about March or April of 1989 until I left this job in the summer of 1990, I went through what I thought was probably the most painful experience that I’ve had in the State Department.

What happened was that a number of Congressional hearings were convened, by the Foreign Affairs committees of the House and Senate, by the Transportation Committee, because it was an aircraft, and a number of other committees, at which relatives of the victims appeared and excoriated the State Department for what they considered to be insensitivity, lack of helpful service, a whole series of things. What happened was that, I would say, perhaps 10 or 12 experiences became entered into a form of almost legendary anecdotal material.

I’ll give you some examples.

Traditionally, it had been the case that when people died, their passports were returned to their relatives. And someplace on the passport a canceled stamp was placed, to indicate that the passport was no longer valid. Some of the relatives received these passports, and the canceled stamp, as was not unusual, was across the face of the person in the passport photograph.

In retrospect, this was not a very sensitive thing to do, but it had gone on for many, many years. The relatives felt that this was an enormously insulting thing as if life of their son or daughter had been canceled by the State Department. I think they made a valid point. And the procedure for indicating that the passports were no longer valid was changed. A punch system is now used to punch four holes at the back, or the corners are snipped off with scissors. But the word “canceled” is not used.

In one case, a woman said that she had called the State Department and kept asking people what was the precise moment that her son died. No one could give her an answer to this question, because the plane had blown up in the air, and it was impossible to tell. But she felt that people were not sympathetic to her. There were a number of instances of this type.

In one case, someone was talking to an officer in the Citizens’ Emergency Center, and the officer said, “Well, I know it’s very difficult, but life has to continue, and you need to think about getting on with your life.” This was considered to be an extremely insensitive statement, and people screamed this out at the Congressional hearings.

In another case, a woman wanted the wedding ring of her husband to be returned to her immediately. All property and artifacts of the victims were held by the British authorities as part of the criminal investigation for several months. And so we had to tell this woman that the wedding ring could not be immediately returned. She began to scream about this. I can still see her in the Congressional hearings, screaming that the State Department would not give her back her husband’s wedding ring.

In another instance, a struggle developed between the parents of one of the victims and the wife of the victim over certain effects of the victim. At the Congressional hearing, again we were excoriated by the wife for not returning the effects of the victim.

And so there were a number of things that frankly seemed to me to be either very minor in themselves or simply not our responsibility. This was not a case of someone saying, ‘My relative wasn’t found; my relative wasn’t identified; the remains were not returned to the United States; the death certificate was improperly prepared.’

I think that because of the factors I’ve identified…a huge upsurge of anger occurred. For a year, we went from Congressional hearing to Congressional hearing and were told by senior people in the State Department, by Congressional staff, and so forth that there was no use or point in arguing or attempting in any way to rebut the specific complaints that were made about the State Department, that we could not, in a public forum, appear to be disputing their version of many of these incidents that they recounted. That would only make us appear to be more heartless and insensitive.

We finally were put in the position, a completely new phenomenon in my experience, where we had to call the relatives of the victims at least once a week, call every one of these 189 families, every week, and ask them if there was anything that they needed from us and anything that we could do for them.

They were not asking us for services; we were calling them, because they had said that we didn’t pay enough attention to them. This, in turn, generated a tremendous amount of tension and pressure and stress on the consular officers working in the State Department, because…when they called these people, [they] would scream at them,…yell at them,…call them murderers, all kinds of terrible things, and would bring up the business about the cable that had appeared on the wall in the embassy. Many of the consular officers who had to work on this asked to be released from the duty to be transferred to other offices.

Ongoing Changes in the “Indefinable Nature” of American Citizen Services

This led…to a great analysis of how consular officers could begin to better manage stress, to extensive training programs that now go on, with psychiatrists and others in the State Department, about how to deal with bereaved families, about how to try to handle what appear to be…really unreasonable and often inappropriate demands.

For example, one man had a brother who lived in England and was working for an American bank there and was killed on the plane. The brother had purchased, six or eight months before, a brand new and very expensive Mercedes Benz, with European specifications. This man, one day when someone called him, as we had to do every week,…said that he wanted us to arrange for the return of his brother’s Mercedes to the United States.

He said that he had initially inquired about it and was told that it could not be done without extensive modifications, because it didn’t meet the requirements about emissions from the Environmental Protection Agency. And he wished the State Department to take care of this problem for him with the Environmental Protection Agency.…We made representations to the Environmental Protection Agency and got a waiver for the return of the car, because no one wished to confront this person, perhaps understandably, about the law concerning the importation of such vehicles to the United States.

Another man said to us that he felt that there should be a monument erected on the Mall in Washington to the victims of terrorism. This launched an elaborate inquiry into whether or not this could be done. Others felt that because these victims had been singled out and murdered as Americans, these civilians deserved to be awarded the same honors that were awarded to fallen military overseas. That is, their flag-draped coffins should be greeted by military bands and honor guards and so forth at the airport when they returned….

Arrangements were finally made with the National Guard around the country that in future terrorist incidents, this would be done. So that a seemingly endless vista…opened up of what were and were not appropriate things to be done under the heading of American Services, particularly in disaster and potential death situations. I think the Consular Bureau, and particularly the American Services side of it, is still trying to find its way in the wake of this.

Enormous changes have taken place,…many of them for the better. There has not been a disaster of the Pan Am 103 type since then, either terrorist or otherwise, but all kinds of mechanisms are now in place…to deal with that sort of situation. And extensive training has gone on. All new Foreign Service officers are now trained, with psychiatrists and other mental health people, in how to deal with bereaved relatives. But I worry that…this is an open-ended thing, and that it reflects, not only in disaster situations, but overall, the indefinable nature of overseas American Services. There is no definition of what our job is overseas.

The job, in essence, is to deal with whatever problem an American brings to us, as best we can. In other words, unlike a Social Security agent, who can say, “My job is Social Security, but if somebody has kidnapped your dog, that is not my job,” or the IRS agent, who can say, “My job is income taxes, but if someone has cheated you out of your airline ticket, that is not my job.”

But it is the job, apparently, in the mind of Americans, for the consular officer. It is something that one can work with and manage, but, still, one should have what is called a psychological contract. I think this is really what happened with the families of the victims of Pan Am 103. They had no idea of what our job was or had traditionally been, and therefore they did not know what we were supposed to provide or not provide.

Therefore, their conclusion was that…we should provide everything that they could think of as a service. And the fact that we had not provided this in the beginning, even before they asked us for the service, was something for which we were to blame….That simply led to further charges of insensitivity and so forth. It became impossible.

“We did not expect this tidal wave of emotion to come down on us the way it did”

We had meetings at the State Department, extraordinarily painful meetings, with relatives of victims, in which we asked them time and again to please list any service that they had ever asked for that they felt that they hadn’t received; secondly, to list for us what they thought the appropriate services should be.

And I remember a specific person, a brother of one of the victims, who promised us that his group would give us a written summary, one, of all the things that they were unhappy with, and, two, of all the things that they thought we should do in the future. No such summary was ever produced. And his only answer to us in the end was, “You have to do whatever people ask you to do.”

He gave this example. He said that one of the relatives who went over to Scotland was a smoker of French cigarettes, Gauloise or some brand, and not long after he arrived, he found he couldn’t obtain any, so he asked the consular officer to obtain for him some Gauloise cigarettes. He said that any request of that type should immediately be met, as a way of showing the relatives of victims that we were in sympathy with them and were anxious to do whatever it was that they needed to relieve their suffering. You can debate the particular request, but the implications of it seem to me to be very complex indeed. But that was the answer that this man gave to us.

One thing that quite fascinated me was that on the night of the bombing of Pan Am 103, when the task force was set up in the Operations Center, the European Bureau (because the incident occurred in Europe) was put in charge of the task force. But when the families came around to express their unhappiness, no one from the European Bureau could ever be found to testify on the issue on the Hill. They simply said it wasn’t their issue.

The only other people from the State Department who ever testified were from the Office of Counterterrorism, who argued that their role had nothing to do with working with the families of victims and people in the Consular Bureau. The Federal Aviation Administration had to testify, because there was a long, drawn out theological discussion about the nature of these warnings that went out. And a whole new system was put in to deal with that.

But the only agency that was seen as having to work with the families of victims was the State Department. No other domestic American agency wished to involve itself in this matter, neither Health and Human Services nor anyone else like that. We approached them, and they simply refused to become involved. So, yes, there was an extensive attempt to shift the focus of this unhappiness around the bureaucracy, and around within the State Department…too.

At no point did any senior manager in the State Department ever come forward and say that basically they thought the consular officers had done their best.…To the contrary, people from the Counterterrorism Office, in public statements, said things along the lines of, ‘Well, we just didn’t have our best people on the scene at that time, and those who were there didn’t do well enough.’ Those were their public comments.

Joan Clark was the Assistant Secretary [of Consular Affairs]. The senior deputy was a fellow named Bob Ryan, an economic officer who had been put in and really didn’t know anything about consular work. And the Deputy Assistant Secretary for American Services was a man named Thomas Tharp, called Tad Tharp, a 30-year-old political appointee who had worked in the White House, and who also knew nothing about the business.

And so, in effect, the senior person on the consular side who had to work on this issue was me…In terms of making people available to work on the subject and so forth, I thought they were quite good. In terms of going to hearings, Miss Clark went and took the heat and the pressure and really did very well. I admired her. Mr. Tharp was never called to testify and never did testify. Shortly after the 1988 election, he left, and there was nobody in his job for several months. I thought, on the consular side, we got reasonable support.

What’s important to understand is that in the sequence of events, it was not clear, for two or three months afterwards, that there was any unhappiness at all on the part of people. And therefore we did not expect that this sort of tidal wave of emotion was going to come down on us the way that it did.