Retaliation carries risks

Sandy Grady

November 19, 1991|By Sandy Grady

Washington LIKE big-city homicide cops celebrating the collar of a tough murder case, honchos at the U.S. Justice Department had a right to swagger.

For three years, they'd lived with the mysterious horror of Pan American Flight 103 that exploded at 31,000 feet over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 men, women and children.

After Scottish investigators crawled over 847 miles of countryside, they turned up three clues -- a piece of circuit board smaller than a fingernail, scraps of cloth, bits of a brown Samsonite suitcase.

Terrific detective work replayed the crime: Somebody had put the MST-13 bomber timer inside a Toshiba radio, hidden it in a Samsonite suitcase with stolen baggage tags, and set the explosion.

The somebodies, the Justice Department guys said with certainty, were two Libyans -- key players on Muammar Gadhafi's terror team.

"This investigation sends a powerful message," said acting Attorney General William Barr. "We have the resolve and ability to track down, no matter how long it takes, those responsible for terrorism against Americans."

You can understand the pride of American, British and Scottish gumshoes who claim they unraveled the Pan Am 103 crime. But they also opened a snake's nest of questions.

First, what about speculation that Syria and Iran were involved in the bombing, but the Bush administration looked the other way to coax Syria's cooperation during Desert Storm and Middle East peace talks?

Bitter relatives of Pan Am victims insist Bush let Syria off the hook. Edward Luttwak, an expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, buys the theory.

"There's Syrian involvement," Luttwak said in an interview on British TV. "They (the Syrians) are to be treated nicely so they don't sabotage the peace process."

Suspicion lingers that Iran, trying to avenge the 1988 shoot-down of an Iranian airliner by the U.S. cruiser Vincennes, hired Syrian hit men to do the Pan Am 103 bombing. But Justice Department officials bristled at suggestions that the Bush administration pressured them to cover Syria's role.

"Each of us has been to Lockerbie," flared assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Mueller. "We've lived with this in our minds. Not only was there no effort to influence this investigation, we wouldn't countenance it."

Second, if the United States is fingering two Libyans for the crime, did Gadhafi himself order Pan Am 103 blown up?

The American line is that Gadhafi's fingerprints are all over the Pan Am terrorism. Motive? Vengeance for Reagan's order to bomb Libya in 1986. The bombers missed Gadhafi but killed his daughter and wounded two young sons.

Third, if the United States is sure Gadhafi's the Pan Am plotter, what does George Bush do next? Well, he could lead a world oil embargo against Libya. But knocking Libya's 1.4 million barrels of oil a day out of the market would send oil prices whacko -- and drive America deeper into a recession.

Bush's easiest move would be to call another air strike to target Gadhafi. He's got a Stealth squadron in Saudi Arabia and the carrier Forrestal in the Mediterranean with 100 jets aboard.

But if Desert Storm's aerial high-tech couldn't hit Saddam, why assume it could pinpoint Gadhafi?

A better idea: Given time, money and expertise, why shouldn't Bush hope the CIA could grab the two Libyan hit guys who stowed the bomb aboard Pan Am 103? It wouldn't be the first time the United States paid for a foreign snatch job. Anyway, now that the Cold War's over, running a Libyan kidnap caper would keep the guys at Langley busy.

I can understand families who demand vengeance. But the Pan Am terrorism was spawned in earlier bombings and shoot-downs.

The president who's trying to get Middle East peace should think about the cycle of madness before he unleashes the F-117s. Why fall into the region's trap, violence begetting violence? Maybe it's time to act with tough, patient shrewdness instead of blasting cities and civilians to teach a villain a lesson.

One Desert Storm a year should be Bush's quota.

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