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Image: Scottish rescue workers carry a body away from the crash site
Greg Bos  /  Reuters file
Scottish rescue workers carry a body away from the crash site of Pan Am flight 103 in a farmer's field east of Lockerbie Scotland in this Dec. 23, 1988 file photo. A former top CIA official who helped oversee the agency’s investigation into the bombing tells NBC News there is "no doubt" that Moammar Gadhafi personally approved the bombing.
By Michael Isikoff National investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/7/2011 11:32:51 AM ET 2011-03-07T16:32:51

A former top CIA official who helped oversee the agency’s investigation into the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, tells NBC News there is "no doubt" that Moammar Gadhafi personally approved the bombing.

"There are two things that you can take to the bank," said Frank Anderson, who served as the agency's Near East affairs chief between 1991 and his retirement in 1995. "The first one is, Pan Am 103 was perpetrated by agents of the Libyan government. And the second thing is, that could not have happened without Moammar Gadhafi's knowledge and consent.

"There is no question in my mind that Moammar Gadhafi authorized the bombing of Pan Am 103." 

Read more reporting by Michael Isikoff in 'The Isikoff Files'

The statement by Anderson — and other comments to NBC by a top FBI agent on the case —could give fresh momentum for a reopening of the Lockerbie investigation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week that she intended to push for such a probe in light of new claims by Libya's ex-justice minister, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, that he had "proof" that Gadhafi ordered the bombing, which killed 270 people, including 190 Americans.

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Those calls have been welcomed by some of the family members of the victims of Pan Am 103, who have always insisted that the Libyan dictator was involved.

"He needs to stand trial — everybody around him needs to stand trial," said Rabbi Stephanie Bernstein, whose late husband, Michael Bernstein, a Justice Department lawyer, was killed in the bombing.

No direct evidence
Anderson acknowledged that the CIA never had direct evidence tying Gadhafi to the bombing. But during Anderson's tenure as chief of the CIA's Near East affairs division U.S. and British officials were able to wrap up an investigation that uncovered forensic and other evidence linking the planting of the bomb to Abdelbasset al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer.

While there have long been suspicions of Gadhafi's involvement, Anderson has particular credibility on the issue. As one of the CIA's top experts on Libya — he had served as a case officer in Tripoli in the early 1970s after Gadhafi first came to power — Anderson dismissed the possibility that Megrahi could have been acting as a "rogue" agent without the knowledge of the regime's top leader. By the time of the bombing, he said, Gadhafi had so consolidated his hold over the regime that there was "absolutely no way" for Libyan intelligence officials to have carried out the bombing without the dictator's authorization.

Geopolitical and other realities led U.S. officials to handle the matter as a criminal case, resulting in a federal indictment of Megrahi and an alleged co-conspirator, rather than with military force, noted Anderson, who now serves as the president of the Middle East Policy Council, a Washington-based think tank. President Ronald Reagan ordered a bombing of Libya in 1986 after U.S. officials linked Libya's intelligence service to an earlier terrorism bombing in Berlin that killed two U.S. servicemen.

In a separate interview, Richard Marquise, who was the chief FBI agent on the Lockerbie case, said he and other bureau officials always assumed that senior Libyan officials were complicit in blowing up the aircraft, but never had enough evidence to build a case against them.

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When Megrahi and an alleged co-conspirator, Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, were indicted by a federal grand jury in 1991, FBI officials were eager to convict them in a U.S. court – and then get them to finger the higher level officials who gave them their orders, said Marquise. Some evidence against higher level Libyan intelligence officials had surfaced in the course of the probe, said Marquise. He even considered seeking "material witness" warrants that would authorize FBI agents to apprehend the suspects and force them to testify.

"We always hoped that had we gotten (access to Megrahi and Fhimah) they would start to roll," said Marquise. "There was always an expectation that we would get further up the chain."

But much to the frustration of U.S. officials, that never happened. As part of a deal to get the Libyans to turn over Megrahi and Fhimah, the U.S. agreed to allow them to be tried in Scotland — and Scottish officials agreed to restrict the case only to them, preventing the disclosure of any evidence that might point to higher-ups.

(In another case of alleged Libyan terrorism less than a year later, however — the 1989 bombing of UTA Flight 772, which killed 170 people, including the wife of the U.S. ambassador to Chad — a French court convicted six Libyans in absentia — including Abdullah Sanussi, a deputy chief of Libyan intelligence and Gadhafi's brother-in-law.)

Megrahi released on 'compassionate' grounds
In January 2001, Megrahi was convicted of planting the bomb aboard Pan Am 103, while Fhimah was acquitted. But Megrahi never admitted his guilt – or fingered higher level officials. In a move that enraged family members of the victims and U.S. officials, Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill released Megrahi in August, 2009 on "compassionate" grounds because he was supposedly dying of prostate cancer and had only three months to live. He received a hero's welcome upon his return to Libya and, at last report, was still alive.

After Secretary Clinton said last week that she would ask Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller to reopen the Lockerbie probe, the Justice Department released a brief statement saying that the indictments of Megrahi and Fhima by a federal grand jury in Washington "remains pending" and the investigation "remains open." A knowledgeable source, speaking on condition of anonymity said that Justice and FBI officials were discussing possible ways to obtain new evidence from figures like Jalil, Libya's ex-justice minister, but that there were numerous logistical and political difficulties given the turmoil in Libya at the moment.

In the meantime, another potential witness has stepped forward to suggest the trail does indeed go higher than Megrahi. Atef Abu Bakr, the former second in command to Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal, told the Arabic newspaper Al Hayat last week that the Lockerbie bombing was the result of a collaboration between Nidal's group and the Libyan intelligence services that was authorized by Gadhafi.

According to Bakr's account, Gadhafi approved the operation to retaliate for the U.S. bombing raid on Tripoli and Benghazi two years earlier, in which the Libyan leader's daughter had died. Abu Nidal's bomb-makers in southern Lebanon built the bomb and then sent it to Tripoli —where it was then transported to Malta and planted by Megrahi in a suitcase destined for Pan Am 103, Bakr said. On the night before his extradition to Scotland, Megrahi promised to keep silent about Gadhafi's involvement but later "threatened to expose the whole process unless the Libyan authorities made efforts to secure his release," he told the newspaper.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Gadhafi connections anger many Americans

  1. Closed captioning of: Gadhafi connections anger many Americans

    >>> as moammar gadhafi fights to remain in power, we are learning new details about his alleged ties to the 1988 bombing of pan am flight 103 , the dictator is accused by victims' families and former libyan government officials of being the mastermind behind the plot and many are angry the u.s. lifted economic sanctions on libya , opening the doors for companies to do business with the regime linked to terrorism. nbc news national investigative correspondent michael isikoff reports.

    >> reporter: the message from secretary clinton was clear.

    >> colonel gadhafi 's brutal attacks on his own people are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

    >> reporter: that was last week but less than two years ago, a different tone with the libyan dictator's son.

    >> i am very pleased to welcome minister gadhafi here to the state department . we deeply value the relationship between the united states and libya .

    >> reporter: and less than three months later, president obama shook gadhafi 's hand at the g-8 summit in italy. those images unfuhr yate rabbi stephanie bernstein .

    >> makes me sick to think that my government has been complicit in cooping gadhafi in power.

    >> reporter: bernstein 's late husband, michael, was one of 270 people killed in the bombing of pan am 103 over lockerbie, scotland a libyan intelligence officer, abdel megrahi was convicted in ate tack and u.s. announced claims that gadhafi himself ordered the bombing. that is something that frank anderson is who oversaw the agency's investigation, never doubted. there is no question in my mind that moammar gadhafi authorized the bombing of pan am 103 .

    >> reporter: which is why bernstein says she is appalled by the eight-year effort by the west to make peace with libya , a policy driven by gadhafi 's 2003 pledge to give up nuclear and chemical weapons . economic sanctions against libya were lifted in 2004 . that led to new business opportunities in the oil- rich country and some government officials later benefited. david welch was the senior u.s. diplomat working to restore relations with libya and then went to work for the construction giant bechtel.among his duties, developing relations with libya . later, a consultant worked for bt on as 900 million deal in libya . al help and bp declined comment. bechtel says the business in libya has always been in accordance with u.s. laws and regulations and their work there began after the sanctions were lifted and before mr. welch joined the company. both firms recently suspended their operations in libya .

    >> is absolutely disgusting and i and other pan am family members have said many times that doing business with terrorists is not only the wrong thing to do it's bad business .

    >> reporter: bernstein 's late husband investigated nazi war criminals for the justice department . she says he kept a small sign in his office.

    >> the law sometimes sleeps but it never dies.

    >> reporter: a credo that she hopes will ultimately cold hold true for gadhafi . michael isikoff , nbc news, washington.

Photos: Moammar Gadhafi

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  1. Col. Moammar Gadhafi is seen in Tripoli on Sept. 27, 1969, after leading a military coup that toppled King Idris. Gadhafi has maintained his rule over Libya for more than four decades since the coup. Gadhafi was killed in Sirte on Oct. 20 as revolutionary forces took the last bastion of his supporters. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Gadhafi, left, and Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, right, arrive in Rabat, Morocco, in December 1969 for the Arab Summit Conference. (Benghabit / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Col. Gadhafi, left, jokes with a group of British hippies in Tripoli in July 1973. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Gadhafi was purportedly a major financier of the Black September movement, a band of Palestinian militants. Its members perpetrated the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. One of the Black September guerrillas who broke into the Olympic Village is seen in this picture. (Keystone via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Gadhafi during the summit of the Organization of African Unity on Aug. 4, 1975, in Kampala, Uganda. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Flowers are laid at the memorial to Yvonne Fletcher, a British police constable who was shot dead by terrorists in April 1984 while on duty during a protest outside the Libyan embassy in London. Fletcher's death led to an 11-day police siege of the embassy and a breakdown of diplomatic relations between Libya and the United Kingdom. (Fox Photos via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Gadhafi and his second wife Safiya wave to the crowd upon their arrival in Dakar, Senegal, for a three-day official visit on Dec. 3, 1985. Gadhafi has eight biological children, six by Safiya. (Joel Robine / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. U.S. Ambassador to West Germany Richard Burt, fourth from left, and West Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen, fifth from left, inspect the damage following an April 5, 1986, bombing at a Berlin discotheque frequented by American serveicemen. Libya was blamed for the blast, which killed three and injured more than 200. Then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan retaliated by ordering airstrikes against the Libyan capital of Tripoli and city of Benghazi. (Wolfgang Mrotzkowski / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. French policemen and army soldiers unload crates of arms and ammunition seized aboard the Panamian merchant ship Eksund on Nov. 3, 1987 at Brest military port in France. A huge supply of arms and explosives purportedly supplied by Libya and destined for the Irish Republican Army was found aboard the vessel. (Andre Durand / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. This Dec. 22, 1988, photo shows the wreckage of the Pan Am airliner that exploded and crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people - most of them Americans. Gadhafi has accepted Libya's responsibility for the bombing and paid compensation to the victims' families. Libya's ex-justice minister was recently quoted as telling a Swedish newspaper that Gadhafi personally ordered the bombing. (Letkey / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, right, welcomes Gadhafi upon his arrival at Tunis airport on Jan. 10, 1990. (Frederic Neema / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi is escorted by security officers in Tripoli on Feb. 18, 1992. Al-Megrahi was granted a compassionate release from a Scottish prison in August 2009 on the grounds that he was suffering from prostate cancer and would die soon. (Manoocher Deghati / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, left, accompanies Gadhafi on a tour at the pyramids of Giza on Jan. 19, 1993. (Aladin Abdel Naby / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An Egyptian border policeman counts passports belonging to Palestinians waiting at the post in Salloum for transit to the Gaza Strip on Sept. 12, 1995. Families were stranded at the border with Libya after Gadhafi decided to expel 30.000 Palestinians, reportedly in order to call attention to the political situation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. (Amr Nabil / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Libyan women bodyguards provide security for VIPs during a military parade in Green Square on Sept. 1, 2003, to mark the 34th anniversary of Gadhafi's acension to power. (Mike Nelson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Family members of people killed in the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, read documents on Sept. 12, 2003, as the U.N. Security Council votes to lift sanctions against Libya for the 1988 bombing. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, left, flew to Libya in 2004 to hold talks with Gadhafi inside a Bedouin tent. Here, Blair and and Gadhafi stroll to a separate tent in Tripoli for lunch during a break in their talks. Blair's role was particularly vital in Gadhafi's international rehabilitation. He praised the leader for ending Libya's nuclear and chemical weapons program and stressed the need for new security alliances in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. (Stefan Rousseau / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. U.S. President George W. Bush looks at material and equipment surrendered by Libya, during a tour of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee on July 12, 2004. Bush officially lifted the U.S. trade embargo against Libya on Sept. 20, 2004. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. View of the remains of Gadhafi's bombed-out headquarters, now turned into a living memento, inside his compound in Tripoli on Oct. 15, 2004. The sculpture in the center represents a golden fist grabbing a U.S. jet fighter. U.S. jets bombed Tripoli, killing Gadhafi's adopted 4-year-old daughter, in April 1986 in retaliation for the Berlin discotheque bombing. (John Macdougall / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is welcomed by Gadhafi in Tripoli on July 25, 2007. Sarkozy arrived for a meeting with the Libyan leader a day after the release of six foreign medics from a Libyan prison. (Patrick Kovarik / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Gadhafi's son Saif, center, attends a ceremony in the southern Libyan city of Ghiryan on Aug. 18, 2007, to mark the arrival of water from the Great Manmade River, a project to pipe water from desert wells to coastal communities. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Gadhafi looks at a Russian-language edition of his book "The Green Book" during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 17, 2008, in Tripoli. Putin was in Libya for a two-day visit to rebuild Russian-Libyan relations. (Artyom Korotayev / Epsilon via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Gadhafi and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pose for a picture after signing an agreement in the eastern city of Benghazi on Libya's Mediterranean coast on Aug. 30, 2008. Berlusconi apologized to Libya for damage inflicted by Italy during the colonial era and signed a $5 billion investment deal by way of compensation. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Gadhafi poses with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prior to a meeting in Tripoli on Sept. 5, 2008. Rice arrived in Libya on the first such visit in more than half a century, marking a new chapter in Washington's reconciliation with the former enemy state. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Gadhafi attends the closing session of the Arab League summit in Doha, Qatar, on March 30, 2009. (Marwan Naamani / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Gadhafi waves after delivering a speech during a meeting with 700 women from the business, political and cultural spheres on June 12, 2009, in Rome. The Libyan strongman drew cheers and jeers when he criticized Islam's treatment of women but then suggested it should be up to male relatives to decide if a woman can drive. (Christophe Simon / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. U.S .President Barack Obama shakes hands with Gadhafi during the G-8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, on July 9, 2009. (Michael Gottschalk / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Libyan Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who was found guilty of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, top left, is accompanied by Seif al-Islam el-Gadhafi, son of the Libyan leader, upon his arrival at the airport in Tripoli on Aug. 20, 2009. Scotland freed the terminally ill Lockerbie bomber on compassionate grounds, allowing him to die at home in Libya despite American protests that he should be shown no mercy. (Amr Nabil / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. The president of the U.N. General Assembly, Ali Abdussalam Treki, top center, listens in apparent misery as Gadhafi speaks on Sept. 23, 2009, at U.N. headquarters in New York. It was Gadhafi's first appearance before the U.N., and he emptied out much of the chamber with an exhaustive 95-minute speech in which he criticized the decision-making structure of the world body and called for investigations of all the wars and assassinations that have taken place since the U.N.'s founding. (Stan Honda / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Gadhafi greets Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during the plenary session at the Africa-South America Summit on Margarita Island on Sept. 27, 2009. Chavez and Gadhafi urged African and South American leaders to strive for a new world order countering Western economic dominance. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Gadhafi and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during a group picture of Arab and African leaders ahead of the opening of the second Arab-African summit in the coastal town of Sirte, Libya, on Oct. 10, 2010. Ben Ali and Mubarak were driven out of power by popular revolts in 2011. (Sabri Elmehedwi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Gadhafi is followed by members of the press in Tripoli before making a speech hoping to defuse tensions on March 2. Gadhafi blamed al-Qaida for creating turmoil and told applauding supporters there was a conspiracy to control Libya and its oil. (Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Libyan rebels step on a picture of Gadhafi at a checkpoint in Tripoli's Qarqarsh district on Aug. 22. Libyan government tanks and snipers put up a scattered, last-ditch effort in Tripoli on Monday after rebels swept into the heart of the capital, cheered on by crowds hailing the end of Gadhafi's 42 years in power. (Bob Strong / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. A man in Tripoli holds a photo said to be of Moammar Gadhafi after the announcement of the former leader's death, Oct. 20, 2011. Gadhafi was killed when revolutionary forces overwhelmed his hometown, Sirte, the last major bastion of resistance two months after the regime fell. (Abdel Magid Al-fergany / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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