- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2000

''The two persons will not be used to undermine the Libyan regime." Those 12 words in an official letter will live in the history of the United Nations and Western diplomacy. The persons are two men, Libyan intelligence agents now standing trial before an international court on charges of blowing up PanAm 103 on Dec. 21, 1998.

In their seats, or falling to Earth over Scotland, died 189 Americans returning home for the Christmas holidays. On the ground, 11 citizens of Scotland were killed by chunks of the falling plane.

The letter was written on Feb. 17, 1999, by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to Col. Moammar Gadhafi, urging him to let the two out of Libya to stand trial in the international court in the Netherlands. The letter with the startling sentence was kept secret, despite printed stories of its existence, including a couple by this writer.

Bureaucrats and their masters used every national and international legal device to keep it secret U.N. bureaucrats and also American and British diplomats whose governments knew the sentence was in the letter. They knew that, if published, it would be seen for exactly what it was: a deal with the man President Reagan called the "mad dog" of the Middle East.

The letter would be taken, appropriately, as guaranteeing that whatever happened at the trial would not be allowed to pin the responsibility on where it so obviously was on the Libyan ruler. If the two men are guilty, only Col. Gadhafi who personally directed the intelligence agency that employed them, could have approved the operation. Libyan agents do not traipse abroad to destroy a U.S. airliner without the colonel knowing, approving and being part of the planning.

Later he let it be known he was willing to let his two lackeys stand trial, with their families hostage in Libya, in exchange for lifting U.N. oil sanctions but the chance he would serve life in prison himself, never.

So until a few days ago, the U.S., Britain and the U.N. bureaucracy passed the foul potato among them. Washington officials said first they knew nothing, then that it was not theirs to release, then that they could not exactly find it, then stamped it classified. The secretary general said he never released letters he wrote to the nations never.

Then lawyers for the two men asked for the letter and it had to be made public. The U.N., of course, said of course that the sentence was just part of the arrangements for dealing with the men if Col. Gadhafi let them stand trial.

Sure in every trial the logical chief suspect gets a guarantee he won't be undermined. When will diplomats learn the public may look stupid but sometimes really is not.

Now only a simpleton would really believe that even with Col. Gadhafi's approval a couple of agents acting alone could buy explosives and detonation devices, assemble the bomb, get it on a plane in Frankfurt bound for New York and set everything off to explode when they were flying over water that would drown many clues.

For years, Western intelligence said the bombing was paid for by Iran, in revenge for the mistaken American attack on an Iranian civilian plane, that skilled terrorists from Syria set it up but handed it off to the Libyans when German police seemed to be getting close. Then Western governments decided to zero-in on Libya. I believe the first version.

For most of the time the letter was kept unpublished, I could not understand why the West and United Nations had kindly arranged to give Col. Gadhafi immunity from "undermining." But since, happily, not all American officials march to orders they detest, some explained it to me. British and American oil officials were furious at U.N. sanctions that cut them off from oil contracts with Iran, Iraq and Libya.

Plainly, and rather curtly, they told Washington that at least a deal could be worked out with Col. Gadhafi right away. He would hand over the two agents. The U.N. would suspend the oil embargo, immediately without waiting trial. European oil companies would carry out their presigned oil contracts. American oil companies, and their lobbyists, would campaign real real hard to end whatever U.S. embargo laws remain in force against Libyans.

Some of the U.S. lobbyists are former employees of the State Department and other government agencies. That stands to reason they have a lot of knowhow and U.S. contacts to offer. And after all, they want to earn some real money, not just pensions, when they leave the U.S. payroll.

Sometimes I wonder: What does it take to get somebody who had served a free government agree to work for a killer government involved in tearing your countrymen into pieces of flesh falling out of the sky? Ten million dollars maybe? A million? Or would a few bucks do, left for you on the table of the motel room?

A.M. Rosenthal, the former executive editor of the New York Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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