After nine months of intensive work, a seven-member commission investigating the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 that killed 270 people in December 1988 has come up with a report on that disaster, as well as recommendations to strengthen anti-terrorist measures. The results of the study are a mixed bag.
Families of people killed on Flight 103 may be disappointed with the report. Many of them had hoped for a strong indictment that said the bombing of the airliner was clearly preventable.Instead, the report was less dogmatic. It said the sabotage "may" have been preventable and criticized the airline for security lapses.
The bombing itself was carried out by a Palestinian terrorist group based in Iran and paid by Syria, the two nations recently praised by President Bush for their role in the release of two American hostages. If one commission proposal had been in force in 1988, Iran and Syria would have been bombed, not praised.
The proposal by the commission said that the United States should take retaliatory military action, either in aerial attacks or covert operations, against terrorist enclaves or the countries that support them - something on the order of Israeli punishment raids. Such a response may satisfy a desire for revenge but it has not been particularly effective is dissuading terrorist from attacking Israel.
In any case, attack and counter-attack have a way of compounding hatreds and making it more difficult to find peace. Somebody always "owes" somebody else a violent pay-back.
Security by U.S. airlines has been tightened considerably since the Pan Am disaster, especially in overseas operations, but the commission was not willing to let the issue go at that. It said the system is flawed and needs major reform.
One proposal sure to draw fire from the airlines is a suggestion to notify passengers whenever there is a "credible" bomb threat. But what qualifies as credible? Rumors and bomb threats are common. Making them public could effectively kill civil aviation without the need to ever blow up an aircraft.
A surprising suggestion is for the Federal Aviation Administration to abandon the installation of expensive devices to detect plastic explosives, saying the machines likely would not have detected the bomb that blew up Flight 103. The commission has a point. If the detectors are not reliable, why spend millions of dollars installing them?
Among other recommendations, the commission said the FAA should be restructured to provide more counter-intelligence information on terrorism. This seems like duplication of work already done by various intelligence agencies. What is needed is better sharing of information, not the setting up of a new intelligence-gathering group.
The panel also called for more government involvement in security, instead of leaving it up to airlines. This includes using the State Department to conduct negotiations with other governments about security standards at foreign airports instead of leaving it to the airlines. That makes sense.
But even if all the proposed reforms were adopted, commercial airliners would unavoidably remain vulnerable to determined terrorists. The best that can be hoped for is to make their madness harder to carry out.