In digging through some of my old files recently, I came across this:
It’s an administrative notice, dated December 13, 1988, that was posted at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. I was living on the embassy compound at the time, but had forgotten completely about this particular notice.
Here is the full text:
To: All Embassy Employees
Subject: Threat to Civil Aviation
Post has been notified by the Federal Aviation Administration that on December 5, 1988, an unidentified individual telephoned a U.S. diplomatic facility in Europe and stated that sometime within the next two weeks there would be a bombing attempt against a Pan American aircraft flying from Frankfurt to the United States.
The FAA reports that the reliability of the information cannot be assessed a this point, but the appropriate police authorities have been notified and are pursuing the matter. Pan Am has also been notified.
In view of the lack of confirmation of this information, post leaves to the discretion of individual travelers any decisions on altering personal travel plans or changing to another American carrier. This does not absolve the traveler from flying an American carrier.
Eight days later, on December 21, 1988, a Pan Am flight that originated in Frankfurt, then passed through Heathrow en route to New York’s JFK airport, exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew. The flight was bombed by Libyan nationals.
What’s remarkable about this in retrospect is that the U.S. State Department chose to alert its employees in Moscow and Helsinki, but the FAA issued no broader alert to the public about this very specific threat. The existence of this memo is not a secret – it’s covered here, with some disconcerting additional details – so I’m not adding some new conspiracy-theory wrinkle to the story by posting it here.
I clearly must have held on to the memo because of the Lockerbie crash, but I don’t recall feeling outraged at the time that there had been no broader alert. And even today, I honestly wonder how much the government would, or should, reveal about such warnings. Alerting people to avoid a particular carrier’s flights could result in severe economic consequences for that airline – but should that matter if lives are at stake? Is the only humane response to send out widespread alerts, even if they create consternation and fear? Or would that be succumbing to the very “terror” that terrorists intend to foment?