The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Related Items
  • Latest Story
  • Time Line


    Laxity by Pan Am, FAA Blamed in Jet Bombing

    By Don Phillips and George Lardner Jr.
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, May 16, 1990; Page A01

    A presidential commission yesterday placed much of the blame for the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 on a "seriously flawed" aviation security system, beginning with inept and confused Pan Am security at Frankfurt and London and compounded by the Federal Aviation Administration's failure to enforce its rules.

    "The destruction of Flight 103 may well have been preventable," the commission said.

    The seven-member Presidential Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism also called for an official policy of "zero tolerance" for terrorism, including preparation for "preemptive or retaliatory military strikes against terrorist enclaves in nations that harbor them."

    The 182-page report recommended a top-to-bottom revamping of the government's airline security apparatus, said threats to civil aviation should be made public if they are deemed sufficiently credible, and called for a thorough assessment of the security threat at domestic airports.

    The commission also recommended that the FAA defer its "unwise" decision to force airlines to buy 150 thermal neutron analysis machines at a cost of $175 million.

    The commission said the plastic bomb aboard Pam Am 103 would have to have been twice as heavy to be detected by the machines at the settings the FAA has presribed.

    The company that makes the TNA machines, however, said they can be set to detect smaller amounts.

    Reacting to organized pressure from the families of the victims, Bush reluctantly formed the commission on Aug. 4, 1989, more than seven months after the Pan Am Boeing 747 exploded at 31,000 feet over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259 people on the plane and 11 on the ground.

    The commission found fault throughout the government, from the FAA to the State Department, which it blamed for failing to adequately aid and inform the families of the victims. Only the U.S. intelligence system, including the CIA, did its job adequately, the commission said.

    "We found a lot wrong," said commission Chairman Ann Dore McLaughlin, a former labor secretary.

    Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner and FAA Administrator James B. Busey issued statements calling the commission report useful and pointing out that numerous changes have already been made in federal security procedures, a point acknowledged by some commission members.

    The commission recommended that a new assistant secretary of transportation for security and intelligence be created to oversee aviation safety, and that the FAA's security division be elevated to report directly to Busey. It also recommended that a federal security manager be created at each major airport.

    "The sad truth," McLaughlin said, "is that the aviation security system administered by the FAA has not provided the level of protection the traveling public demands and deserves. The system is seriously flawed and must be changed."

    Six days before the report's release, Busey reassigned the FAA's security chief, who had been strongly criticized by families of victims. Raymond A. Salazar has become head of the FAA's Center for Management Development in Palm Coast, Fla.

    Busey, who joined the FAA after the Pan Am bombing, acknowledged that "the system was flawed; mistakes were made." He announced that members of his staff, Skinner's staff and the commission staff will form a working group to analyze the recommendations and suggest actions.

    Busey also indicated he would reconsider whether to continue the TNA program, but defended the system as the only one available to detect plastic explosives and said he will push ahead with plans to deploy the six machines already purchased by the FAA.

    Hadi Bozorgmanesh, corporate vice president for the California company that makes the TNA machines, Science Applications International Corp., echoed Busey's theme, and said the commission's report was "full of technical errors and wrong conclusions."

    Pan Am Chairman Thomas Plaskett told the Associated Press he disagreed with some of the commission's criticisms, and said that although the report strongly criticized Pan Am for security flaws, it also acknowledged that the airline's operations are now satisfactory.

    The commission said that for many months before and after the crash, Pan Am failed to follow written federal security guidelines, employed poorly trained security personnel and generally ran a lax security apparatus in Frankfurt and London. It said that despite $630,000 in fines, problems were not cleared up until 10 months after the crash when Busey had a face-to-face meeting with Pan Am's new chief executive officer.

    "It is astonishing . . . that Pan Am permitted those problems and others to continue at that level month upon month after the disaster," the report said.

    The report said the commission could not determine exactly how the bomb got onto the plane, although it said there is ample evidence that an "extra" unaccompanied bag was placed on the plane at Frankfurt. A container of luggage was also left unguarded on the tarmac at Heathrow Airport in London for about 30 minutes.

    The commission called the extra unaccompanied bag "the 13th bag," because an X-ray operator's list of parcels delivered from other airlines totaled 13, while other records could trace only 12 of them to passengers.

    The report also did not identify any individual or country responsible for the bomb, apparently Semtex explosive hidden in a small Toshiba radio. A criminal investigation continues, and no charges have been filed.

    However, McLaughlin indicated the commission may know more than it is making public. She said the panel delivered a private letter to President Bush yesterday morning with his copy of the report. She said the letter contained more specifics about dealing with terrorism but refused to elaborate.

    Many of the report's conclusions were expected. But the section on retaliation for terrorism came as a surprise.

    "Pursuing terrorists and responding swiftly and proportionately to their acts against humanity must become U.S. policy in deed as well as in word," the commission said. "What is required is effective action, not simply strong rhetoric."

    Members of the panel said the United States needs "a more vigorous" policy that "not only pursues and punishes terrorists, but also makes state sponsors of terrorism pay a price for their actions."

    Challenged at a news conference to say whether they were recommending military action against Iran, whose officials are widely believed to have ordered the attack on Pan Am 103, commission members avoided a direct answer by saying their mandate was to investigate "how" the tragedy took place, not "who" did it.

    © Copyright 1990 The Washington Post Company

    Back to the top

    Navigation Bar
    Navigation Bar